Scents and Sensibility

As the perfume designer for houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Prada and Viktor + Rolf, Carlos Benaïm has a nose for business


Born in Morocco with the cents of orange blossom, spices and citrus imprinted on his subconscious, Carlos Benaïm has created perfumes like Calvin Klein Eternity for Men, Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds, Boucheron Jaipur Bracelet and Viktor + Rolf’s new Spicebomb.

Watch! asked Benaïm, who trained as a chemical engineer before joining International Flavors & Fragrances, where he is now a senior perfumer, about having one of the most sensual  jobs on Earth.

Watch!: How does one learn to be a perfumer?
Carlos Benaïm: You start by studying your ingredients, which are your tools. You understand nature and how things are made, the composition of what makes a rose smell like a rose and a grapefruit smell like a grapefruit. Plus you have your own palettes of memories and associations with odors between the senses and your emotions, and then you start composing.

Watch!: Are you surrounded by only beautiful smells?
Carlos: Like everything else, sometimes my job is stinky. Just as when you cook sometimes you need garlic, sometimes scents you would consider “stinky” are needed to magnify something else. The end result is magnificent, but if you analyzed something like a grapefruit perfume, some of the ingredients aren’t necessarily pleasant on their own.

Watch!: What is the process from idea to creation?
Carlos: When you have a celebrity like Mariah Carey, you have to understand what that person is about so you can reflect her likes, dislikes and personality. You read all about her and listen to her music to get immersed in her creative mind. Then you translate that impression into a scent. With something like Spicebomb, the name was the starting point, with Viktor + Rolf expressing their interest in something with a lot of punch and addiction, where you want to smell it again and again. The process can take a year or two, because you have to shape the fragrance in a way that will be pleasing to the designers, pleasing to the consumer and pleasing to you.

Watch!: How different is it to create scents for men and women?
Carlos: There used to be a much more traditional sense that notes like woods and spices and leather were more appealing to men and flowers and fruits were more appealing to women, but that’s really evolved with things blurring. It’s much more interesting because you have more options.

Watch!: What’s the best way for someone to pick his or her signature scent?
Carlos: Ideally, you would smell only two or three things at a time, then select the one you want to try. Put it on the back of your hand since that’s easily accessible to your nose, walk around with it and, if you still like it after an hour, come back. It’s important to give it time since at the beginning there is always a blast of something, then there is a development and then you see the heart and back of the fragrance, which is always super interesting.

Watch!: Any tricks to wearing the proper amount of scent?
Carlos: I think the “proper” way is that nice gesture of spraying it all around you, your hair and your clothes. It gives you an aura of that fragrance. But you have to gauge yourself what is acceptable. If you are alone on the subway during rush hour, you are probably wearing too much.

Watch!: Do you wear a scent, or keep your nose clean?
Carlos: I use as little as possible to free my senses, since I can’t be overloaded. But I do use a deodorant with a fragrance I have made. It has a touch of woodsy, umbery musk and spice, but it’s a very light strength so it doesn’t disturb me.

Watch!: What inspires you?
Carlos: A new raw material, designer, country or product are all interesting to me. Inspiration can be found in anything. Once I was walking with a famous designer and I asked, “What prompts you to create your collections?” and she looked around, saw a pigeon walking by and said, “I could make a whole collection on the back of that pigeon.” Once you decide you are interested in the world, you get excited by so many things!


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