Just a few weeks ago, during an afternoon like this, I was having a conversation with a well-known perfume creator from a French aristocrat family, Valentine Pozzo di Borgo. Our meeting took place in a café near the headquarters of her company Quintessence Paris. The whole experience already sounding quite surreal, I couldn’t shake off a mysterious feeling that everything in her life was decided by superior powers. Grown up among different generations of perfume creators, she initially chose to study finance until the day she suddenly found herself responsible for a huge project concerning perfumes and cosmetics. Since then, Valentine never returned to finances …
Acknowledging the fact that I was going to have an interview with a descendant of a noble family (and even more important – a woman who’s created an incredibly successful business) was exciting and a little bit intimidating at the same time. What could I expect? Was she going to be arrogant (a cliché which is often used to describe the French people – even the French themselves make fun of this!) or unwilling to answer the questions? Just when I was stepping in the office of Quintessence in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, I already knew these questions weren’t relevant. The soothing atmosphere of the boutique immediately made my worries go away and presented a different kind of way to experience the power of aroma. And this is exactly what I did while waiting for Valentine to descend from her office: enjoyed the abundance of luxurious fragrant smells and checked the products by Quintessence Paris. From the very first second, Valentine seemed to be a very sincere, down-to-earth woman. Dressed in a simple, loose sweater with classic jeans and her hair tied in a messy knot, Valentine invited me to talk to a close café where she ordered hot chocolate and offered me a cup of green tea.
Before meeting Valentine, I knew the spectacular story of her family. It seems as if the most sumptuous perfumes, and not the blood, circulate in their veins. Valentine’s great-great-grandfather Xavier Givaudan left a significant mark in the history of perfumes: his company is known for having created such iconic smells as “Opium” for Yves Saint Laurent. Next generations were also implied in a fabrication of perfumes, so it’s not surprising Valentine grew up surrounded by their heritage. Asked about the most distinct memories from her childhood, Valentine recalls two particular moments: playing with perfume samples in her grandfather’s laboratory, and spending holidays in Corsica (it’s an island from which the Pozzo di Borgo dynasty originated – the first descendants lived there in the thirteenth century!) “Every year we spend our holidays in Corsica and everytime we are greeted by a very special aroma of maquis. These plants are widely spread and their smell is so specific it left a very significant mark in my memory,” she tells me.
“When I was at school, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do later,” Valentine answers if working in a beauty industry wasn’t an obvious career choice. “I felt that I was quite creative but I also enjoyed numbers. At first, I worked in an investment sector and later I got a job in a big Chinese company, which owned a chain of luxurious shops in the airports. There I worked with multiple projects. But then happened an extraordinary thing. With only several months left until the opening of a new airport, a woman responsible for cosmetics and perfume left the job. There was simply no time to search for somebody, so I took on the job… Then I thought, if it’s not a sign of destiny, I don’t know what it is. I finished this mission, got back to France and decided to create my own brand. This is how Quintessence was born,” she reveals.
At the very beginning, Quintessence specialized in creating “olfactory portraits” for other companies. In other words, their mission was to concoct scents that had to embody the DNA of the brand. Based on this concept, Valentine decided to create perfumes inspired by her family members. “This idea came to me very naturally! I lived in this street (Rue de l’Université) with the whole family. There were forty of us.” It’s difficult to believe that different generations could live so peacefully under the same roof – grandfathers, father, mother, aunts, uncles and all the cousins. No intrigues, no mess, no quarrels…? Valentine shakes her head. She calls her family a gang, the most important thing in her life. “Family has an immense value for me and I have very close relations with each member of it,” she confirms. She draws inspiration even from the distant relatives, for example perfume “March 8 1764” is dedicated for her great-great-uncle Carl Andrea Pozzo di Borgo, who was a childhood friend with… Napoleon Bonaparte. When you have such a family, it’s not difficult to create exceptional scents. Valentine recently challenged herself to create an aroma reflecting her inner world, but she couldn’t do it without the help of other professionals. “It was an extremely difficult task. As I’m surrounded by perfumes every day, I don’t use them on myself very often. There are so many aromas that I like but which don’t necessarily reflect who I am. I asked help from two other perfume creators, and both of them suggested iris. This aroma is considered to be very aristocratic, but sometimes it can exude a particular sense of outdatedness. For this reason, the iris were mixed with something quite more modern, the figs. This combination of flowers and fruits appeared very original for me.”
Quintessence brand offers not only perfumes, but also scented candles. Valentine is assured that aroma is the finishing touch in everyone’s home. “There’s not a single home without an aroma. Maybe a hospital could be an exception, but it also has its own palette of smells, cold and sterile. People choose candles according to the atmosphere that they want to create. I noticed that at home people tend to choose warm aromas which transmit a certain sentiment of security”, Valentine reveals. Are there any parallels between the scents that people choose to wear and those they want to smell at home? “People usually don’t want the same thing on themselves and at home,” is all that she answers.
“What I enjoy the most at working in Quintessence is the possibility to be creative. We work with so many different brands and people; get to know diverse characters. But we have a certain basic rule: never copy others. It happens occasionally that people bring certain products and tell us to create the same, but we always refuse to do that. We search for alternatives and suggest our own vision. It’s the only way to stay relevant and interesting to others,”she shrugs. Valentine also wants to shake off a mysterious aura surrounding her family: “Even if I draw inspiration from distant generations of my family and life in the 7th arrondissement, I’m perfectly conscious that for others this can be an unknown universe. One of Quintessence’s goals is to flourish in a modern environment and to present relevant ideas.”
Without perfumes, Valentine has another big passion, which… is horse-riding. It’s worth mentioning that she participates in serious competitions, an obvious proof that it’s not just a simple hobby. Is there anything in common between these two different activities? “I could compare horseriding to having a business. Both of these things need extreme dedication, persistance, hunger to improve and an ability to be self-critical,” she responds.
We finish the conversation by sharing our future ambitions, but let this be our secret. After that, Valentine smiles, finishes her cup of hot chocolate and hurries back to her scented world, leaving a mysterious tray after herself. Such was an impression of a down-to-earth woman I had then met 15 minutes ago. Nonetheless, Valentine is worlds away from ordinary and this impression will persist long after the conversation.
Lithuanian readers can find this article in the newest issue of Lamu Slenis