Francis Kurkdjian, creator of Baccarat Rouge 540: ‘People went crazy and it sold out immediately’

The French ‘nose’ is the creator of the most popular fragrance of 2022, and the most-copied: ‘A group of perfumers have come together to fight for intellectual property to be recognized in the perfume world’

Francis Kurkdjian, on the balcony of his office in Paris.
Francis Kurkdjian, on the balcony of his office in Paris.Léa Crespi

Some people believe that Francis Kurkdjian is, among those who are still alive and working in the industry, the best “nose” in the world. To find him, you have to go to an old building on Rue Étienne Marcel in Paris. The old elevator, locked with a giant padlock, advertises that the only available option is a dark wooden staircase, covered with a red carpet. No sophisticated scent marks the way, no code of classic luxury hints at the work carried out here. The door to the apartment where Kurkdjian has his office is small and made of old wood. Until someone from his team appears with a big smile, I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the right place. Once inside, in an office with three balconies and an orange tree is the creator of Baccarat Rouge 540, one of the best-selling (and most copied) fragrances produced in the past five years. Kurkdjian, of Armenian descent, is a shy version of what we might call a successful man. And he knows it. Today he has little desire to talk. It is 8am.

Not many perfume houses bear the name of their creator. The job of a nose has for centuries been carried out in the shadows. Kurkdjian himself, after more than a decade in the industry and having having been behind major bestsellers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, remained a perfect unknown when he met Marc Chaya, now co-founder of Maison Francis Kurkdjian, at a dinner party. Putting his name on a bottle and a brand was his idea. When they met in 2003, Chaya was surprised because despite all of Kurkdjian’s success, his name didn’t even ring a bell. It seemed to Chaya that the industry didn’t give perfumers their due.

Kurkdjian samples an essence.
Kurkdjian samples an essence. Léa Crespi

Kurkdjian says that in his family, historically, there was “no trace” of the craft. However, every morning his grandfather would put together several essences and create his own perfume. “I would look at him fascinated and with pride, but I could never figure out the formula.” He remembers his grandmother as affectionate, kissing him and enveloping him in her usual scent: Femme, by Rochas. “I have it engraved on my skin!” His mother, on the other hand, quickly tired of one perfume or another: “She went from fresh scents like First, by Van Cleef & Arpels, or Fidji, by Guy Laroche, to the forceful Mitsouko, by Guerlain. I think she was very modern for the time.” Kurkdjian’s father always smelled the same: Kouros by Yves Saint Laurent.

The world of fragrances did not interest the young Kurkdjian at all: he wanted to be a classical dancer. After a few classes with a ballet teacher at the Paris Opera and a brief foray in dance he became interested in couture and fashion, but that didn’t work out either. “I was 14 when I discovered in a magazine that designers were not the ones who created their fragrances, that there were people behind it and that was a job in itself. Even then it seemed to me that a perfume is haute couture, it’s even closer to the skin than any garment.” As such, he enrolled at the ISIPCA school of fragrance and cosmetics in Versailles.

A commemorative bottle celebrating 10 years of the first fragrance created for Kurkdjian's first maison, which makes scents on demand.
A commemorative bottle celebrating 10 years of the first fragrance created for Kurkdjian's first maison, which makes scents on demand. Léa Crespi

By the time he was 25 he had already created Le Male for Jean-Paul Gaultier, the first in a long list: For Her (Narciso Rodriguez), Green Tea (Elizabeth Arden), Le Parfum (Elie Saab), and up to 40 fragrances that have been among the world’s bestsellers for years. However, 12 years in the corporate world of large companies left him with a desire for independence. In 2009, he founded his eponymous brand with Chaya, engraving his own name on bottles and labels: Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

Kurkdjian, however, still does work for the big guys: as of 2021, he has been creative director of fragrances for Christian Dior, but now he is also one of them. His name is everywhere. The advertising for his latest fragrance, 724, inspired by the energy of the streets of Manhattan and, specifically, by a phrase by Simone de Beauvoir from the book America Day by Day – “There’s something in the New York air that makes sleep useless” – covers the canopies of downtown Paris and the Galeries Lafayette building, but also the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in New York itself. In 2017, the luxury emporium LVMH acquired a majority share of Maison Francis Kurkdjian to accelerate its international expansion, especially in Russia and China. As of the end of 2022 the maison, which still clings to its identity as an independent venture but rejects the label of niche brand, is present in 700 points of sale in 45 countries.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian fragrances. In the center, in red, Baccarat Rouge 540, the most popular perfume of 2022.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian fragrances. In the center, in red, Baccarat Rouge 540, the most popular perfume of 2022.Léa Crespi

“It’s still a challenge to create under someone else’s orders, but it’s no easier or harder than doing it for my own brand. When I work for large houses I have a deadline and a budget. Often my creation is tested in a market study. On the other hand, for my brand, I take care of everything, from the name of the fragrance to the packaging. I can’t hide and my inspiration is all I have. Marketing is at the service of a genuine artistic vision. That is unique in the industry,” says Kurkdjian.

The fragrance that generated the most conversation on social media in 2022 is Baccarat Rouge 540, one of Kurkdjian’s masterpieces. That’s the conclusion of an online survey by British deals site Hey Discount, which also analyzed annual data on Google searches (5,967,000), TikTok views (110,700,000) and Instagram hashtags (205,707). “Success is sometimes unpredictable. I think people have become obsessed with that scent because it has a unique olfactory imprint that we have achieved with a woody floral and ambery composition,” Kurkdjian says. The history of Baccarat Rouge 540 is a succession of coincidences. It was commissioned by Baccarat in 2014 to celebrate its 250th anniversary and only 250 numbered bottles were released. “But people went crazy and it sold out immediately,” recalls the perfumer. A few months later, it was relaunched as part of their permanent collection with the maison’s signature square, minimalist bottle. Baccarat Rouge 540 is also one of the most copied fragrances in the world. “It’s a shame, promoting the purchase of copies is against copyright. A group of perfumers have come together to fight for intellectual property to be recognized in the perfume world.”

In his office, Kurkdjian works next to his old mini-laboratory of aromas, a briefcase that holds all manner of fragrances. In small vials, some transparent and others amber, all kinds of essences are preserved. It is reminiscent of an alchemist’s selection of potions. Some of them smell frankly unpleasant. Only he would know how to create a great perfume out of them.

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