You don’t have to be a perfumer geek to know there aren’t many perfumers from Romania. While her heritage makes her unusual in the industry and has given her a different perspective, ultimately that isn’t what makes Gabriela Chelariu stand out. It’s the quality and consistency of her work expressed in the creations below:
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- Jennifer Lopez JLo Glow After Dark EDT (2006)
- Michael Kors Sparkling Blush EDP (2018)
- All Saints Sunset Riot EDP (2018)
- Avon Velvet EDP (2018)
- Bath & Body Works You’re The One EDT (2020)
- Nest Sunkissed Hibiscus EDP (2020)
- Dolly Parton Dolly: Scent From Above (2021)
- Escada Summer Festival EDP (2021)
- Ralph Lauren Romance Parfum (2021)
- Calvin Klein Everyone EDP (2022)
- Guess Vita Bella Rosa EDT (2022)
And then there all her super-popular creations for United Arab Emirates-based brand Kayali: Kayali Vanilla 28 EDP (2018), Kayali Déjà Vu White Flower 57 EDP (2020), Kayali Eden Juicy Apple 01 EDP (2021), Kayali Sweet Diamond Pink Pepper 25 EDP (2021), Kayali Utopia Vanilla Coco 21 EDP (2021), Kayali Lovefest Burning Cherry 48 EDP (2022) and Kayali The Wedding Silk Santal 36 EDP (2023).
Perfumery wasn’t Gabriela Chelariu’s first career choice. Originally, she had her mind set on pharmacy but when she was exposed to the world of fragrance ingredients that would eventually take her to New York, where she currently works for the Swiss flavor and fragrance company Firmenich.
In this interview we chat about the allure of ingredients, working with Dolly Parton, and the creation of Calvin Klein Everyone EDP.
When you’re not working, what kind of fragrances do you like to wear? Any particular favorites?
When I am not working, I find myself reaching for the same fragrance most of the time, a fragrance that is centered around the clean orange flower, ambrette seed, Ambrox (a very diffusive and long-lasting ambery woody molecule), and musk. It has a lot of signature, and clarity and creates a long-lasting aura without being overwhelming.
I like luminous woody textures built around amber woods, vetiver, and cedar, that have verticality, so I can smell the woods from the top and continuously as I wear it. The fragrances I like to wear all have clean warmth but are not to be confused with fresh.
There are creations I do for myself but sometimes they find their way into projects. One is going to be launched next year but since it is not yet announced I can’t disclose it at this time.
You originally studied to become a pharmacist and then discovered the world of aroma chemicals. Briefly, tell us how your career evolved from there.
In my last year of studying pharmacy, I discovered the world of aroma-molecules and this opportunity opened the door into the fascinating world of fragrances.
Soon afterward, I visited Grasse, where I discovered the other extraordinary dimensions of perfumery, such as natural ingredients and their journey from beautiful flowers, vibrant herbs, and earthy roots into clear essences, unctuous absolutes, and resins.
That is when I decided I wanted to become a perfumer. I started studying on my own and found a long-distance course offered by IFEAT (the International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades) in collaboration with Plymouth University. After I moved to the US in 2000, I started as a perfumer assistant at Fragrance Resources where I began the training to become a perfumer.
It might sound simpler than it was, but after years of working late nights in the lab studying fragrance ingredients, creating accords, and finishing fragrances, I look back and it was quite a lengthy process. It was not always easy but being where I am today and being able to live my dream made it all worth it.
My career evolved with every fragrance I created since then, whether it launched or not. It’s not a career where there is a ladder that one ascends, but rather a career of storytelling through every creation and I am always on a journey. I love the process.
What was your fine fragrance debut? Your thoughts on it now?
It was Pink Pearls EDP by Lulu Guinness (2005), quite a playful, easy, and optimistic fragrance that I created around pink grapefruit, orange blossom, apricot, clean musk, and comforting fluffy woods.
With the spirit of a new beginning when everything is bright, hopeful, and innocent, it was very much a reflection of where I was in my career and my mindset at that time. I wouldn’t change anything about it now, but I can see how it was a creation of my younger self.
There can’t be that many Romanian perfumers (please correct me if I’m wrong). Has that given you something different to offer?
Yes, indeed there are not many Romanian perfumers and certainly, there is no tradition in Romania of fragrance creation. To add to this, I grew up far from the world of traditional fine fragrance, due to the political realities of that time in the country, but also the material conditions in which I grew up.
That said, I grew up in a rich world of fragrances, but they were the fragrances of the natural world and daily life in Romania. I was always connected to smells in my life in a profound way. Smells were signaling the arrival of a new season and to this day, there are smells that to me signal the arrival of spring, fall, or winter. The summers smelled like tomato leaves, the end of school smelled like blooming linden, the month of May smelled like peony and February like freesia. My grandmother taught me the names of all the plants around us and their scents reinforced those names.
My experience growing up in Romania gave me a point of view in the fragrance world that is indeed a bit different because I approach perfume from a natural and experiential place, and that plays an important role in all my creations.
How do you like to work? And how do you start each perfume project?
I can’t say I have one method of working, because every project is different.
When creating new accords outside of a specific project it is the same. It can either happen methodically if I have a particular intention in mind, or serendipitously because I encountered something that moved me and I wanted to capture it in a fragrance even if I don’t have an idea yet for where it will go.
When working on a specific fragrance project, I like to start with the story that this fragrance is trying to evoke. Who is the person who is going to wear it? What is the feeling it is going to create within that person? I like to create a universe that is going to give the inspiration for the structure, the ingredients, the accords, and the textures I want to play with.
Do you enjoy the process of competing for briefs?
Competing for briefs is enjoyable mostly when you win them, of course. The competition we, as perfumers, are involved in is winner-takes-all, so there is little consolation when we lose a project. Every project is a competition with oneself as much as a competition with others, and I am fully engaged and always enthusiastic to tackle a new challenge.
The ultimate goal is to create the best possible fragrance that fits the project and when all is said and done, knowing that I did my best no matter the outcome. It’s a tough process sometimes, but the desire to create a fragrance that will touch people’s lives is stronger.
Working with Dolly Parton on her debut fragrance, Scent From Above EDP (2021), must have been a fun experience…
Dolly Parton is one of the most gracious people I have worked with. Although I’ve never met her in person, she was deeply involved in developing the fragrance and was precise in what she wanted this fragrance to be.
I refined the fragrance until she found the signature she envisioned. I remember every time she wanted another adjustment, she always apologized thinking that she was too demanding. She is very considerate and has a lot of respect for the creative process, being a creative force herself.
Calvin Klein Everyone EDP is a 2022 creation of yours. Did you consult your colleague Alberto Morillas (who co-created the original CK One EDT)? What else can you tell us about its creation?
Although a creation started by me, it ended up as a collaboration with Alberto Morillas and Frank Voelkl.
Of course, it was a great honor to work with Alberto, the creator of such an iconic fragrance, and his contribution was key in maintaining the DNA of the brand while evolving it for today’s youth.
The way we worked together was seamless. The last modification liked by the CK team would be passed to each of us and we would each add our individual take, and so on in the next round. This is why the final version weaves in all our ideas in a harmonious way.
Kayali The Wedding Silk Santal 36 EDP (2023) isn’t the first fragrance you’ve created for the brand. How would you describe the creative process with founder Mona Kattan?
I’ve worked with Mona Kattan from the inception of Kayali. This was an illuminating and unique experience as a perfumer because it gave me the opportunity to participate first-hand in the process of building the brand.
Mona is deeply involved in the co-creation process, and from the beginning of every brief, she has a strong sense of where she wants the creation to go. Throughout the process of co-creation, she’ll narrow down to the ideas she feels fit the best and then we start fully developing and finessing the fragrances to reach the final version. This phase of the project can sometimes take quite a long time. It is very important that the fragrance is the best it can be for the vision she has for it.
By working together from the beginning of the brand we have developed a strong relationship based on trust and a common understanding of olfactive language.
What project have you just finished that you can tell us about?
I wish I could share that with you but it is the client’s prerogative to be the first to announce a fragrance launch, so that is a trust I cannot break.
What gets you through a stressful period?
Being in nature and working with plants in the garden gets me through stressful periods. I love hiking and am always in awe of how incredible and resilient nature is. It gives me a lot of energy and optimism.
Tending to flowers and seeing them grow from seeds into majestic blooms is another way to leave the stress behind. It is also a lesson in patience – one cannot rush nature and we must let it run its course. This is also somehow true with fragrances.
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Richard Goller is a fragrance and grooming blogger. His blog is called Fragroom. A senior editor with 20 years' experience, his blog allows him to combine two of his passions: engaging content and the always-intriguing world of fragrances. When he isn't blogging, you'll find Richard indulging in his newly found passion for balcony gardening.