Francis Kurkdjian
Photographer: Michael Williams 
Editor & Writer: Leslie Oglesby

(Interview follows photo series)

The Art Of Transformation

In his personal life as well as his professional life, the idea of transformation has played a key role in the success of Master Perfumer, Francis Kurkdjian.

Imagista: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and the origin of your name?

FK: Kurkdjian – is a Persian/Armenian name which means fur dealer. My great grandfather was a fur dealer in the Mesopotamia area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, hence, the name.

Imagista: Is this where you grew up?

FK: I grew up in France–third generation. I consider myself Super French. I still speak the Armenian language but I consider myself 100% French.

Imagista: You are known as a Perfumer – is that what you call yourself?

FK: Yes – I call myself a perfumer.

Imagista: When did you decide that you wanted to be a Perfumer?

FK: I was 14 years old when I decided that is what I wanted to be.

Imagista: What inspired you at such an early age?

FK: During that time, perfumery was a very mysterious art form. It was unusual to find out how perfumes were made. However, I came across an article in a magazine about four perfumers. After reading this piece, I had a vision or more an envy as I felt this was the exact job for me because it was a mix of creativity on one side and rigor on the other. To me it captured exactly what I wanted to do – even more than ballet which was my original dream job.

Imagista: Since you knew when you were 14 that you wanted to become a Perfumer – how did you go about pursuing this vocation?

FK: It was simple and difficult. Simple because I knew what I wanted to do so I was able to build my education around this vocation. Difficult because pursuing this was not easy. I did everything possible to get into the Perfumery School in Versailles.

Imagista: Are there any other ideas or experiences that lead you to this?

FK: Looking back on this, for me perfumery captured the concept of transformation. The idea of these raw materials that are almost insignificant but when you put them together you can transform them into something beautiful.

Similar to words – words are somewhat meaningless by themselves but when they are mixed with other words – they can become ideas or stories. Creating perfume for me was a way to tell stories. To me each fragrance that I create is a story. This was a way for me to express myself.

Imagista: As you are talking about it – it sounds like music – like you are a composer?

FK: Music, painting and architecture are good examples of this sort of creation and thinking. Architecture is very inspiring for me, which is the reason I chose Lincoln Center as the site for the photos. Even the paintings by Chagall in Lincoln Center are an inspiration.

Imagsta: How do you go about creating a fragrance – can you tell us a little bit about your process?

FK: Whether it’s for my own house or brands, I work under commission and depending on which of these I am working on I start by creating a story for myself. Each time my process is the same and it’s about telling a story. I usually create a picture or storyboard and from that I start thinking and trying to build analogies with my craft and at some point if the story is relevant enough creating the scent trickles down by itself and it almost becomes effortless. If you get to that point, it means the story is good.

Imagista: How do you know when the Fragrance is finished?

FK: It’s finished when you meet the deadline! In a way it’s never finished and you have to accept that. At some point – you just have to let it go. You have to deliver.

Imagista: Can you share any thoughts on the current state of the fragrance business and the resurgence of Niche Fragrances?

FK: It’s very interesting because today and tomorrow the possibilities are very open. We have many new players, new brands and new adventures. 20 years ago this was not the case. That is the good part of this but the negative aspect is that every single person or personality can create their own fragrance so the market can be a bit overwhelming for the consumer.

However, as with movies and music, it’s always about the flow of newness so we have to give the consumer what they want.

Back in the 20’s there was a fragrance house called Grenouille that created over 11 fragrances in one year, which, was unheard of at the time but you have that sort of thing happening these days with a multitude of brands. The 1920’s was a turbulent time economically, similar to today. People were afraid of the increase of things and today we see this happening. But time will tell what will last the test of time.

Imagista: Can you tell me more about your history of dance and piano and how that has impacted your craft?

FK: It was important in my family to have a balance of artistic and athletic pursuits. For me those were piano and ballet. I also played rugby and track but ballet was something that really resonated with me.

I started ballet when I was 5 years old because my nanny used to take me to her ballet classes. I would sit in the corner and watch her and I guess it started to impress upon me. I really love it because it’s like you become a character. Perfumery was in some ways the same because you enter a world that is not yours. It’s like acting. You feel this transformation. You are able to stretch yourself, to push your boundaries and fears.

When you dance you have that irreplaceable physical dimension and this is something I translate in my fragrances. Physically you feel something unparalleled. When you dance a story with your body there is a deep emotional experience.

When I create a fragrance, I try and express what would be the emotional response to the scent. Once I have my pitch it’s not to jump into the raw materials it’s more a question of what would be the emotional response to that perfume. Once I have that physical and emotional feeling–my job is to turn that into a fragrance.

The paradox is that it is invisible. Yet it gives you that emotional feeling.

What I love about perfume is that it’s not something you can see. It’s something in the air that you feel and it gives you a visceral reaction. I think it’s the beauty and magic of my craft and it’s all about that invisible thing. When you can master it and create something that does not exist, I think it’s just wonderful.