Interview with Perfumer Sophia Grojsman
To say that Sophia Grojsman is responsible for a revolution in perfumery would not be an overstatement, because her unique vision ushered in a new style of fragrances that broke with the traditional classical forms formerly prevalent. Indeed, she is a Picasso of perfumery, with her fragrances unfolding into visions that were as progressive as they were breathtaking. Just like Cubism fragmented three-dimensional forms, intertwining the elements in such a way as to present multiple views of the same subject, Sophia Grojsman’s fragrances changed one’s perspective by allowing the base notes to be visible from the top. ...
At the time, when fragrances were created using several hundred components, she started composing scents, the main accord of which weaved only four to seven ingredients. And in those few masterfully selected strokes she was able to conjure images and sensations that were previously rarely experienced. From Yves Saint Laurent Paris to S-Perfume 100% Love, Sophia Grojsman’s creations are marked by a sensual silkiness recalling flower petals and a luscious softness that does not compromise the strong and confident character of her fragrances. After all, they are created by a woman whose strength and dedication to her work are not in conflict with her warmth and generosity.
I meet Sophia Grojsman at the International Flavors & Fragrances offices in Manhattan. Passing through the quiet, elegantly minimalist hallways featuring niches with recent IFF releases—Michael Kors Island, Prada Eau de Parfum, Calvin Klein Euphoria, I wonder what my first impression might be of the woman whose Lancôme Trésor became an indelible part of my teenage years. At first, I can hardly believe that the vivacious woman with large green eyes is Sophia Grojsman, because even though she proudly mentioned that she recently turned 60 over the phone, she looks much younger in person. She speaks with confidence and ease and her charisma is almost palpable. Not to be won over by her warmth is simply impossible. Five minutes into our conversation, and we are already laughing heartily.
When writing about Sophia Grojsman, one is tempted to draw contrasts between her background as a Soviet émigré and her current status as one of the most influential perfumers of IFF, which is among the leading fragrance companies. Yet, if asked what defines her and what gives her a creative impetus, she points to a large collage board in her cabinet covered in photos of the children of all of her numerous friends and associates. “I am a mother, and that is my inspiration.” During our conversation, people walk in and out of her office, whether it might be one of the younger perfumers, or an assistant dropping off samples. “I feel like a mother to all of these kids here,” she says, her face lighting up in a warm smile.
It is often said that the olfactory memories formed in childhood are among the strongest. Sophia Grojsman grew up in a small Belarussian town. It was just after the war and the flowers from the surrounding fields took the place of toys. Her sense of smell was always very acute and as a child Ms. Grojsman would go to the market with her mother to shop for food. “Since we did not have refrigeration, my mother would ask me to taste the butter, milk, and cottage cheese in order to determine their freshness. If I would make a face, she knew that the food would spoil within a day and she would never buy it.”
At the age of fifteen, she and her family left for Poland, where she studied inorganic analytic chemistry. Her work in perfumery did not start right away, and Ms. Grojsman started her career at IFF as a lab technician. She remembers, “I came in for an interview at IFF and I talked to the perfumer who worked on the functional products, such as depilatories. She told me that I was overqualified for a job as a lab technician; however, since I had no other way to make ends meet, I was ready to do anything. I stayed with her for 4 years. At the same time, I had to adjust to learn about organic chemistry. Fragrance chemistry was a completely different subject from what I studied. However, I was always very curious, and this quality helped me learn quickly.”
Indeed, the learning and the dedication required were significant, because Ms. Grojsman’s path towards becoming a perfumer was not straightforward. She credits Josephine Catapano for encouraging her. Catapano was one of the first renowned American perfumers working for IFF. Hers is a stunning Guy Laroche Fidji (1965), an intricate melody of green flowers reminiscent of tropical breezes. “She was a model for me. She was a simple woman, born into a family of Italian immigrants, and she had only a high school education. I could see that she created instinctively, and I was fascinated by it.” Catapano was the person who suggested that after being with the company for 4 years, Ms. Grojsman should take the olfactory test, which was given to 60 people outside the company. “Who would think that I might pass this test? The test entailed identifying 10-12 different ingredients. I passed the test with flying colours, but it did not mean anything, because I was an immigrant from Russia. Moreover, I was not French. How could I be a perfumer in the first place! I did not fit the bill. So, I thought that I would go to medical school. I would work in the morning and take college courses in the evening. A year went by and nothing happened, at which point Josephine went to the top management and made sure that they gave me an opportunity and put me in training.”
We speak about her early work. “You came with different experiences to perfumery…” I begin. She interrupts me, her eyes twinkling, “I had no experience! I smelled things in the lab, but I never knew how the perfume was made. My impression was that you collect the flowers, put them in alcohol and then you mix them. I learned in the midst of experimenting and studying.” She laughs as she dips a strip into a vial containing pale orange liquid. A cloud of roses touched by musky apricots rises forth, a vision of Trésor. “All of the skeleton of Trésor is in this accord. This is the soul of it. I would add other notes to this sketch and you would have Trésor, in full flesh.” However, as the scent blossoms, stronger and sharper than the finished composition, it is Trésor unmistakably. “When I started creating accords, I tended to simplify and simplify, which impressed Ernest Shiftan, my mentor.” The formulas at the time were built from several hundred ingredients, mostly because subcompounds were widely employed. For instance, the rose subcompound contained about 100 ingredients in it. A formula might contain several of such subcompounds representing various notes, rose, jasmine, orange blossom, etc. “However, I thought to myself, why should rose be that complicated? I started doing quick simplified rose pieces.”
“Do you see me and all of these of little accessories – that is me and my style,” Ms. Grojsman points at her brightly coloured jewelry and ornamental pieces of her black top. “I usually create the main accord with only 4-7 ingredients, which give the character of this accord. This is the core and then I can take it in whatever direction I choose. It is like drawing a flower—at first, you draw a heart and then you start by painting petals.”
Flowers are not an incidental reference for Ms. Grojsman, whose floral accords are rightfully famous. Whether she creates the scintillating fantasy blue rose in Yvresse or the opulent pink rose of Paris, in her hands the familiar flower takes new forms, previously unexplored. “Rose is a flower of love; it is the first flower that a man gives to a woman. Petals of roses have this luxurious, rich smell that is familiar. My competitors would always say that everything I make is rosey. And even if I did not have any roses in the composition, they would still say that it is too rosey,” She makes a motion with her hand dismissing such criticism. “However, what is wrong with this? When I started, I realized that I need to have a focus. Every time I would start making a new accord, I would create a rose story, but it would be different from what I have done before.”
Each creator has a style that favours some ingredients and avoids others. “I do not like masculine ingredients in feminine fragrances,” she replies unequivocally to my question. “I am tired of lemons and ozonic notes. They are about cleanliness, rather than sensuality. This is good for laundry and room spray; however, in my fragrances they have no place, because my structures are very specific, therefore each ingredient means something. So, I am always trying to use ingredients that accommodate my thinking. If something is odd, it would bother me. Therefore, I avoid citrus and fresh notes in my fragrances. On the other hand, I do not like anything too sweet and sticky. I like to have an aura, a fantasy of dessert. We can easily do foody things; however, it is more interesting to create an impression.” Ms. Grojsman hands me a strip that emanates the most indescribably lovely smell, strange, haunting and very sensual. “I like to create fragrances that make a woman feel happy and beautiful,” she smiles, observing my reaction.
In contrast to the sequential forms of traditional perfumery, she gave rise to a style of monolithic compositions that retain their harmony from top to bottom. Apply Paris, a composition that was inspired by the violet accord of Guerlain Après l'Ondée, and enjoy the vibrancy of its plum suffused rose and violet softness. A few hours later, even though the composition has changed slightly, its essential character of lush rosey softness and warmth will be retained. “Through the top notes, you can see the base. It does not mean that the composition is static. After all, if the fragrance is the same from top to bottom, it will get boring. As it evaporates, it should bring other images and emotions. However, it cannot change dramatically. If the top note is very different from the body and if it is not connected well, then the experience is irritating. The art of perfumery is all in polishing and in structure.”
Ms. Grojsman’s list of creations is impressive, including Yves Saint Laurent Paris, Yves Saint Laurent Yvresse, Calvin Klein Eternity for Women, Lancome Tresor, Perry Ellis 360, Laura Biagotti Sotto Voce, Sun Moon Stars Karl Lagerfeld, Elizabeth Taylor Black Pearls, Boucheron Jaipur, Prescriptives Calyx, Estee Lauder White Linen, Vanderbilt, Bill Blass Nude. She was also a part of numerous other projects, and I ask her if she has a favourite. “How can you ask mother which child she prefers?” She shakes her head, “It is not a fair question, but I would say that the one that you had the most fabulous experience with is always going to be a favourite. Moreover, you feel special attachments with those fragrances that you want to get on the market because you want to prove that there is a new way of making a fragrance.”
Ms. Grojsman’s latest fragrance, S-Perfume 100% Love, is such a composition. It is fascinating on many levels, a fragrance that showcases its creator’s great talent for weaving a delicate motif of sensual warmth and luscious richness while at the same time soaring like an ethereal vision. Its stunning veil of wet roses and dark chocolate touches the skin like a tender kiss. “I like to work with Nobi [Sacré Nobi, the sculptor and the founder of S-Perfume]. He is a deep thinker and he understands the relationship between art and perfume. Moreover, whenever you do something innovative and different, there are always people who do not understand it. Even in the industry, not everyone is open minded. However, my collaboration with S-Perfume was satisfying on this level. I am proud of 100% Love and I love to create unusual and crazy things with Nobi.” She adds, laughing, “I like to make life more entertaining for myself.”
If asked about the creative process, Ms. Grojsman would say that each creation is an experience. “There are times in your life when certain things happen and you want to find peace in what you do. Any creation is enjoyable if the dream is allowed to come to reality. When you have fantasy, you begin to dream about it, visualizing the desired object in the process. The same way, the creative perfumer is trying to reach an accord that he has in his mind. Perfume is like music, and when I begin to compose a scent, like musical composition, it already has a melody in my imagination. If the directions from the client prevent me from reaching it, the process of creation becomes very difficult. If I do not love it, nobody will love the fragrance. There are of course cases when I love it, but the fragrance is not understood, but that is another story. Competition is great and between the creator and the consumer, there are many people involved. By the time, the creator makes an experiment and the fragrance gets to the buyer, the item has changed very much. Sometimes the fragrances are done in a hurry, with short time horizons. Whenever I have spare moments, I return to my original idea that I feel should be explored further.”
With the number of releases increasing rapidly every year, it is difficult not to wonder what might happen to the industry. Can the current oversaturation of the market be sustained? Ms. Grojsman reflects, “Each little company is coming out with 2-3 fragrances a year, because they do not know which one is going to sell. This is why we have 680 fragrances per year. How can a client or a person in the street make up their mind as to what they want? Moreover, perfume does not seem like a luxury item anymore. When I was working on some of my most popular perfumes, it was the best time for the industry, and I was lucky that I was in it at the most productive time of perfumery.”
“Nevertheless, I believe that at the time of upheaval and economic and political troubles, perfume can function like a tranquilizer, without being a drug. It is at this time that gourmand fragrances, with notes of chocolate, vanilla and marzipan are becoming popular. These sweet notes remind us of pleasant times, warmth of home and childhood. Of course, once we say this, next thing—200 fragrances will be the same. Some change will have to take place in the industry, whether it might be that the number of fragrance companies will decrease, or through the introduction of patenting of some sort. Right now the situation is not ideal. Why should there be 50 fragrances that smell exactly the same?” Her kohl-rimmed eyes frown as she continues, “Another problematic issue has to do with the shortage of oil and the restrictions placed on the use of naturals through the incredible increase in their costs and the discoveries of their allergenic potential. In this light, it is going to be difficult for perfumery to be as elaborate as it was before.”
I ask Ms. Grojsman whose work in perfumery she admires. She thinks a little before replying. “Every perfumer is an artist and every perfumer who puts something on the shelf is a specialist. Whether I like the fragrance or not, it is a piece of art and I respect it, because it contains their blood, sweat and tears. It is a piece of art, especially if someone made something that did not exist before. I can still see an innovation, even if I do not care for the finished result. Sometimes one finds fragrances that are not great, but that have a beginning of something new and different. It is much easier to make the next step to improve upon the innovation. It is a difficult and competitive profession, which is why we have to be respectful of each other.”
We chat about interests outside perfumery, and Ms. Grojsman tells me about her love for singing and music, her poetry and her favourite dances. “Just like in my work, I am always looking for something new and unusual, I love to add special touches to the clothes I wear and the dishes I make.”
In conclusion, we return to the question of origins. Ms. Grojsman left at fifteen; however, she firmly believes that her upbringing in Russia gave her memories that will last her a lifetime. “I learned the decency and love for a fellow human being, but the freedom I got in the States gave me new opportunities. In my heart, I am Russian. Despite all of the changes in my life, the roots will remain and one cannot forget the soil upon which one grew up. You can take me out of Russia, but you cannot take Russia out of me.”