The office of Delphine Jelk, Guerlain’s nose, is located on the penultimate floor of a historic building next to the La Samaritaine department store. Above, on the top floor, is her laboratory, a space with large windows overlooking the four cardinal points of Paris: Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur... Curiously, the workshop where Maison Guerlain’s fragrances are created has no particular smell. “My team and I don’t wear perfumes when we work, as they can interfere with our creative process. It is better to have no outside smells,” explains Jelk, one of France’s great perfumers, who in 2021 received the Order of Arts and Letters granted by the Ministry of Culture for “her extraordinary olfactory knowledge.”
Although using perfumes is forbidden here, Jelk makes an exception to let us try Néroli Plein Sud, her latest creation for L’Art et La Matière, Guerlain’s haute perfumery collection. In an instant, a vibrant burst of neroli — the essence of the orange blossom — sweeps through the laboratory. The fresh aroma of orange is shaken by the spicy heat of cinnamon, turmeric and ginger. Finally, the trail delivers the powerful, woody hints of vetiver. “It’s like traveling to the Sahara. That’s the magic of a perfume,” says Jelk, who always dreamed of being an alchemist: “As a child, I fantasized about creating magic potions.”
After finishing high school in Freiburg, she considered studying pharmacy, but finally opted for fashion design at the Higher School of Fashion Arts and Techniques in Paris, the same where designers like Olivier Rousteing and Simon Porte Jacquemus were trained. However, the world of fragrances never ceased to spark Jelk’s curiosity. For her graduation project, a men’s ready-to-wear line based on cashmere and linen, she created a multisensory show in which each garment was associated with a scent. Her proposal did not go unnoticed. After graduating, she received two job offers: one to design clothes at Martin Margiela’s atelier, and another to be a researcher of olfactory trends at Firmenich, the Swiss giant that dominates the perfume and flavor business. “I took the second one. Every morning, a senior perfumer had me smell raw materials. One day he gave me a bottle of triplal, a herbaceous, green leafy aroma, very similar to that of pine or freshly cut grass. It carried me... I don’t know where, but it carried me. That’s when I thought: ‘I want to dedicate myself to this, to creating fragrances that carry people.’”
She spent a year training at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, where they only accept seven students per course, surrounded by master perfumers and lavender fields. Philippe Romano, one of the most prominent figures in the sector, sponsored her, and a few years later she began to collaborate with Guerlain. Her first creation for the house was La Petite Robe Noire, which became a bestseller — and Jelk’s golden ticket to the maison.
Since then, the Swiss-born perfumer has been working with Thierry Wasser on the creation of new fragrances capable of linking the legacy and tradition of the Parisian house with modernity. Jelk considers her mission to be reinterpreting the style of the brand, founded in 1828. “I am always looking for inspiration in the archives. But I have a lot of freedom,” she explains. She also resorts to art and literature: she came up with the idea for her new perfume, Néroli Plein Sud, after reading Southern Mail, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1929 novel in which the aviator and writer recounts his epic first airmail deliveries to the southern hemisphere, passing through Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. “I wanted to recreate the experience of a Saint-Exupéry flight, flying over the Moroccan orange groves and the desert. It seemed like a nice tribute to Vol de Nuit, the perfume that Jacques Guerlain created 90 years ago, also inspired by the flights of Saint-Exupéry,” she explains.
It took Jelk eight months to create Néroli Plein Sud. The creative journey that began with a copy of Southern Mail continued in Khemisset, Morocco, where she toured the orange groves that Saint-Exupéry once flew over. A singularly powerful orange blossom grows there, bursting with sunlight and whipped by the winds of the Atlas Mountains. Grown organically and harvested by hand, it emits a vapor that produces a very valuable neroli essence. The perfumer keeps her travel journal in her office. It is full of doodles, notes and inspirations. On one page, the formula of her new perfume is written down. “I cannot show it; it is secret,” she excuses herself.
The Néroli Plein Sud Saint Exupéry Edition is a limited edition. There are only 1,000 bottles available worldwide and each one costs $590. The Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Youth Foundation, chaired by Olivier d’Agay, the aviator’s great-nephew, participated in the creative process. It was conceived as a travel diary: the case is decorated with original sketches by Saint-Exupéry, taken from personal documents and manuscripts, and the bottle is adorned with a collector’s plate. But this is not the most unique creation Jelk has been involved with: in her laboratory, custom-made perfumes are also designed and sold from €125,000 (around $136,000). “More and more people want to have their own personal olfactory signature, just for them,” she explains.
Each custom creation is delivered in a personalized trunk made by the Moynat house. Inside, there is a one-liter bottle decorated with the brand’s iconic honeycomb, hand-painted with fine gold. This legendary bottle, manufactured for 170 years by the Pochet du Courval glassworks, was designed in 1853 to contain the Impériale Eau de Cologne created for the Empress Eugenie. Six 100 milliliter spray bottles and four 30 milliliter travel spray bottles, all refillable, complete the luxurious set.
Each assignment is a new challenge for Jelk and Thierry Wasser. A few years ago, a wealthy client commissioned them to create a custom-made fragrance that not only she would like, but also her six daughters. “She wanted all her daughters to wear the same fragrance after her death,” recalls the perfumer. That is, for her, the essence of her job. “A perfume, unlike a piece of clothing, is not for a single season. Ideally, it is for life.”
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