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Harry Frémont Interview: From Master Perfumer to Master Gardener

I started following Harry Frémont on Instagram sometime in 2022 and was immediately impressed by his gardening. Could this be the Harry Frémont, the master perfumer behind a legion of classics (see below)? Had he retired?

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And if so, why, and what was he up to now? My journalistic mind was spinning away and needed answers. 

After several DM exchanges, Harry Frémont came back to me with emailed replies to my questions. But before I get to the meat of that, a bit of background on the man who during his more than three-decade career created fragrance hits such as: 

  • Aramis New West For Him EDT (1988)
  • Calvin Klein cK One EDT (1994)
  • Ralph Lauren Polo Sport EDT (1994)
  • Lancôme Miracle EDP (2000)
  • Michael Kors Michael For Men EDT (2001)
  • Kenneth Cole Black For Men EDT (2003)
  • Avon Extraordinary EDP (2005)
  • Juicy Couture EDP (2006)
  • Vera Wang Princess EDT (2006)
  • Tom Ford Noir de Noir EDP (2007)
  • Tom Ford Tuscan Leather EDP (2007)
  • Harajuku Lovers Baby EDT (2008)
  • Diesel Fuel For Life Unlimited EDP (2008)
  • Tom Ford Grey Vetiver EDP (2009)
  • Britney Spears Cosmic Radiance EDP (2011)
  • Clean Clean Skin EDP (2012)
  • Estée Lauder Modern Muse EDP (2013)
  • Yves Saint Laurent Mon Paris EDP (2016)
  • Oscar de la Renta Bella Blanca EDP (2018)

Born in Cannes, France, and a graduate of the prestigious Isipca perfumery school, Harry Frémont moved to New York City in 1990 as the Swiss company Firmenich’s first full-time perfumer there.

Instrumental in establishing the firm’s credentials in the all-important American market, he received several Fragrance Foundation Awards, including 2003 Fragrance of the Year – Women’s Luxury for Vera Wang EDP, 2004 Fragrance of the Year – Men’s Prestige for Kenneth Cole Black For Men EDT, 2007 Fragrance of the Year – Women’s Prestige for Juicy Couture EDP and the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fernweh Editions Fern & Petals Candle

Now, officially retired, his answers reflect a freedom from the stifling demands of corporate life, insights into a changing industry and the joy of immersing himself in what truly matters.

It’s a longer interview than usual, with so much astute detail, so pour yourself a glass of your favourite and enjoy. 

Table of contents

What fragrance are you wearing today? Why did you choose it?

I am not wearing any fragrance today. We live in the middle of nature and I love fragrances, but nothing is better than fresh air, the smell of trees, leaves, grass, the wind or the rain.

I occasionally wear fragrance when we go into town but always very little, as almost no one wears fragrance in rural California.

I always go back to the same one: the original Purple Label EDT from Ralph Lauren [2003] that I created and a woody fragrance that I worked to death for a project that I lost (weirdly enough, I go back to my first trial).

From time to time, I also wear two classics: Calvin Klein for Men Eternity EDT [1990] and a fragrance I always wore when travelling as a perfumer: Giorgio Armani Acqua di Giò EDT [1996].

You retired in 2018. You mentioned in our initial chat on IG that the industry was changing. Please elaborate on how this influenced your decision to retire.

Difficult question to answer without going back to the big changes the industry went through in the last 30 years, in NYC, in particular, but also globally.

My decision to retire is more linked to the evolution of the fine fragrance business rather than the changes before 2018.

I also want to say I am grateful for being part of that business for so many years. You always have young people who are beginning with the same passion and enthusiasm I had when I started. I find this very refreshing.  

The 1990s were my first decade in NYC and America.

It was hard at the beginning because Firmenich [the Swiss fragrance and flavour company he worked for] was a newcomer, but by ’92/’93 we started being successful and the business had a lot of glamour.

Most of the top sellers were from American companies, products with strong concepts and an enticing style of perfumery: fresh, transparent, very floral, clean woods… 

The [economic] crisis of 2000 and September 11 changed everything: the department store fragrance business started to suffer, possibly because a lot of cosmetic brands and designer artists started to take over the fragrance floor.

Speciality retail, with Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret, were growing by leaps and bounds, churning out new products all the time. The fine fragrance concepts were not as strong and precise. Fragrances started to become heavier and our clients had a lot of hesitations to take decisions.

At the same time every celebrity wanted a fragrance. The fragrance business in Latin America, especially Brazil, was becoming more and more important.

Requests for flankers were starting to appear. All this increased tremendously the amount of work created for the perfumers and we had to adapt.

Around 2000, some of us perfumers discovered we could work remotely, transferring formula modifications to our office or affiliate if the evaluators at the office were giving us the right comments.

From that point I never unplugged, even when on vacation or travelling, except for the week between Christmas and New Year when the company was closed. At the beginning it was exciting and you felt powerful but it became like an exhausting mind game or an addiction.

Even if my focus was our North American clients, I was working on a crazy number of projects at the same time in different time zones.

Then came the [economic] crisis of 2008 and the decade that followed was not my favourite. A lot of things changed again. You had to work much more to win business, which was becoming very fragmented and with most of the time a short shelf-life, with the launch of so many flankers, it became difficult to build classics.

Niche and boutique fragrances were emerging. At the beginning I thought they would save us and bring back the quality we were losing in fine fragrance and they kind of did. But they confused customers even more…

Some of our clients started development teams for all their different brands, looking for new ideas without concepts and then working these fragrances to death with heavy consumer tests. 

The business model of the flavour and fragrance companies needed to evolve. Symrise and IFF followed the example of Givaudan and finally Firmenich did the same last year with the merger with DSM [the Dutch health, nutrition and bioscience company].

All evolving into bigger multinational corporations and branching out into health, nutrition, etc, and providing a wider range of products and services bringing the budget for research, safety, testing, sourcing, etc. The fragrance industry today is the sum of so many competencies and synergies.

Fernweh Editions Candles

After working 28 years in NYC, I had built strong relationships with clients and some of them were leaving the industry to be replaced with young people who didn’t have necessarily the same experience.

On a personal level, even if I still had this passion for fragrance creation, the process was becoming less fulfilling, sometimes really frustrating, and a new life was waiting for me and my family in California, where we had found our happy place and where I could enjoy my other passion to the fullest: gardening! It was time for me to go.

From your Instagram page, it looks like you are well on your way to becoming a Master Gardener. Was gardening always a passion of yours, or did this develop in recent years?

Gardening has always been a passion of mine; I started when I was five years old in my parents’ garden in Cannes. Living in northern California is almost like reliving my childhood with a Mediterranean climate. 

After gardening for 28 years in New York, it is like gardening paradise if you have water: we have no rain from May to October, so the flowers have a long blooming time, with almost no disease on roses and vegetables.

Because of the mild rainy winters, you can also play with wild flowers. Seeding them before the first rain, they grow all winter to explode in colourful blooms when April comes. 

Is gardening similar to perfumery in any ways?

Absolutely! In both cases you need to be patient and then you need to have the vision for what you want to create. Pick the right plants with the right colours to blend together.

You have to be sure one plant is not going to overtake the other. Colour, odour, they are remarkably similar if you blend them right, they can really express emotions. When you love someone flowers and perfumes are the best gifts! (Okay, there is also chocolate.)

Gardening like creating perfumes is hard work. One is back-breaking and the other can be mind-bending; there is a steep learning curve but you keep learning year after year. As a perfumer it took me 10 to 15 years to feel I was mastering the craft.

For gardening, experience is important too but sometimes if you move location with a different climate, you have to learn again.

Beyond the creativity and experience, I always said that communication skills are vital to be a successful perfumer. Perfumes are so subjective but when someone makes comments about a fragrance there is always something true about them.

So you need to listen, understand, translate in your formula and then explain what you did so the evaluator or the client feel confident and understand what you did is the right decision.

With gardening there is no one to talk to (which is refreshing!) but you still need to read the signs from nature about the soil, the plant and take the right action to answer their need. Like with perfumes you need to be curious, observe to get the intuition for what you need to do.

I am totally convinced that I would not have been a good perfumer if I did not have this love for nature and gardening. Smells from nature – flowers, woods, leaves, etc – have always been my biggest source of inspiration.

From your IG page, I see you’ve also spoken out about Donald Trump. What are your thoughts on the current state of American politics?

Honestly, it is quite depressing. I love this country and the USA is my adopted country. No politician has ever made me more upset. You can call me a Never Trumper and I thank him for becoming a Democrat for the rest of my life.

His lie about the 2020 election being stolen and the fact that Republican members of Congress keep supporting this, plus that possibly 30% of the US population still believe this lie, is just mind-boggling.

This is a danger for the country, democracy, freedom and the world – look at what just happened in Brazil mimicking the attack on Congress from 6 January.

The Republican Party is becoming like a rogue organisation populated by unhinged people, not respecting the norms and unfortunately on the wrong side of history about everything from renewable energy to women’s rights, gun control, immigration, science, you name it.

They have no program, except the culture war and cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations.

They will never win again the popular vote in a presidential election. 

There is a growing division between rural and urban voters and our electoral system in the constitution has a built-in bias towards rural Republicans: why is that Wyoming (a beautiful state) with a population of 580 000 gets three electoral votes, when California with 39,5 million people has only 55 votes?

If the ratio was correct, we should have 200. And two Senate seats for every state? This is a joke. No wonder it is so difficult to pass legislation in Congress that will benefit every citizen.

Did you always know you wanted to become a perfumer? Or was there another career option for you?

Because of my love of gardening and flowers I wanted to be a landscape designer. I tried to get into an engineer horticultural school in France but I failed the entrance exam, so I did a first degree of biology at Nice University.

At the time I wanted to stay in the south of France, so I was looking for a career possibility there and a school to learn a job.

One of my parent’s neighbours was in the fragrance business and introduced me to someone in Grasse who had been to this school called Isipca in Versailles. With my first degree I could apply to enter directly in the second year and I got accepted.

At the time I knew absolutely nothing about perfumes and I went there without really knowing what to expect. My motivation was to stay in the south of France and work in Grasse, which I never did.

You studied at Isipca. What did you have to learn for yourself through experience?

Honestly, everything! Isipca was a fantastic school – after three years you had general knowledge of the fragrance business and the goal at the time was not really to teach you how to be a perfumer even if some of us became one.

We had a wonderful lady who taught us perfumery, Monique Schlienger, and one day we had to do a lilac, so she gave us materials to mix together.

I started simple trials and after I compared them on blotters, one suddenly smelled exactly like my memory from the lilac that grew in my garden every spring. That was it! I had found a new career and a new passion. I had also found love, as I met my wife at Isipca.

To go back to your question, once I graduated from this school, I had to learn everything to become a perfumer. I was never part of a training program and never had a mentor.

I just started at Haarmann & Reimer (H&R, now part of Symrise) in 1982 at their Paris office as an assistant perfumer, compounding formulas for another perfumer, and worked my way up working on the side when I had free time.

Like many perfumers I am an introvert and we have this particularity: when we find something we are passionate about, we spend most of our energy to learn about it.

As I had access to a gas chromatography machine and became pretty good at using it, once I understood the structure of the classics and the fragrances that were successful in the 1980s, I started doing some creations.

I was extremely curious at the time and knew every fragrance sold in department stores from every fragrance house that existed (the market was simpler than now). 

I was lucky and won in ’83 and ’84 the young perfumer contest for best fragrance from the Société Française des Parfumeurs. In ’85 H&R gave me the title of perfumer after a four-month stay in Germany. 

I have always been hard working. We didn’t have a TV at the time and for five years, every evening after the kids were sleeping, I was working at home for at least two hours, sometimes on the weekends. So when I joined Firmenich Geneva in 1987 I decided I would never work from home again, until I realised I could work on formulas remotely in 2000.

In Geneva I was kind of sheltered from clients but when I arrived in NYC, I realized that to be successful I also needed to become much better at communication.

So it took me a few years to understand the power of words to describe a fragrance, as well as trying to read the body language from the people I was working with.

What was your fine fragrance debut and what do you think of it now?

It was a fragrance for men in an unusual black bottle for an obscure client at H&R. I don’t remember the name, but I remember it was quite expensive and I used great raw materials, natural and molecules, to create it.

It was extremely woody and kind of smoky-leathery (leather smells are one of my obsessions). If I could smell it now, I would find it old-fashioned. 

Calvin Klein cK One (which you co-created with Alberto Morillas) was one of your earlier successes. Why do you think it was and still is such a hit?

It is a combination of the character of the fragrance – fresh and easy to wear – with the way it lasts on skin. This creation has a trail and aura without being overpowering. 

Many fragrances today are just too strong, which makes them difficult to wear for yourself and the people around you.

To be an enduring success, you need to have this feel-good effect for yourself and constant reinforcement from the people around you that this fragrance is so good on you. That’s how classics are made.

Also, the concept, the simplicity of the bottle and its sea-glass soft feeling in your hand that convey a certain sensuality that you find in the fragrance after a few hours on skin.

People think fresh for cK One because of the citrus-aromatic feeling on top but there is this hidden sensuality with the woods, the musk combination and even a tiny tinge of vanilla.

Tom Ford Grey Vetiver must be one of my favourite creations of yours. What can you tell us about its creation? And what was it like working with Mr Ford on this project?

Tom Ford Grey Vetiver is possibly one of the most fulfilling projects I worked on. I have always loved the raw material vetiver oil. It is one of the most complex essential oils, analytically but also from an olfactive point of view with so many facets you can play with and blend with other materials.

I always wanted to do a high-end vetiver fragrance and I tried many times with different clients but they were afraid to do that (thinking it was too polarising) and I never had enough money to make a great one.

When we got this brief from Karyn Khoury [Senior Vice President of Fragrance Development Worldwide for The Estée Lauder Companies], I was so excited.

I could see what Mr Ford wanted with this new request – the level of sophistication, almost like a classic with a modern twist – having worked on Black Orchid (that we had lost to Givaudan) and some of the Private Blend Collection like Tuscan Leather, White Suede and Noir de Noir.

I started working on it with the idea of building the whole fragrance around vetiver. Quickly I realised, even with the good amount of money Lauder had given us to work with, it wasn’t enough, especially because we had this amazing CO2 vetiver roots extract – the perfumer’s dream vetiver without any of the bad notes that you find sometimes in the regular oil, very pure with a lot of depth and character. 

My idea was to show this vetiver in its best light and as the main character. I had, of course, to convince the salesperson who explained the situation to Karyn who accepted to look at my creation.

I had worked so much on vetiver blends in the past that the fragrance came together quickly and I didn’t do too many trials once I had found the right balance between the citrus-aromatic slightly fruity top, some floral spices in the mid and modern woods and musks in the back. 

The stars were aligned: both Karyn Khoury and Tom Ford liked and picked my fragrance. We did some tweaks to it but nothing drastic. The following year in 2010, we won The Fragrance Foundation Perfume Extraordinaire of the Year.

Mr Ford has a real vision for the fragrance he is looking for and has a keen eye for details and quality fabric for his fashion or fragrance materials. Grey Vetiver, for me, is like a tailored men’s suit that fits you perfectly with a light, high-quality fabric like Italian super 150’s wool.

I didn’t meet Tom Ford for Grey Vetiver – the development went very fast. But I met him many times during the development for Black Orchid and at the beginning of the Private Blend Collection.

Ermenegildo Zegna Indonesian Oud (2012) is superb stuff. You co-created this with Pierre Negrin, Frank Voelkl and Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud. How did you contribute to it?

Hehe, this is quite funny! If I remember correctly, this fragrance was originally created by Jacques and after a few years there was a coloration problem.

I worked on it to fix it without changing the character… not very glamorous! I think Frank and Pierre worked on it after I left the company, as they relaunched the line not long ago. I am not 100% sure. 

What did you try to achieve with all your creations?

Beauty and make people happy, make them feel good. Both are difficult to achieve because as a perfumer you don’t work in a vacuum and you have to deal with many opinions to finish a fragrance.

But in my head, I had always this compass to guide me through the numerous modifications. 

Fragrance is one of the most subjective things, so every time you do this journey from your original idea/creation to the finished fragrance that will be launched, it is always a challenge and every day you must find solutions within your vision to modify the fragrance to address the concerns from your client or even the people you work with. 

This is why I compare sometimes fragrance development to a mind game. To stay in control, you must time your mods [modifications] during the course of a project. Unfortunately, it happens quite often that you lose control. That’s why you have all this teamwork going on between perfumers on the big projects.

People forget that our sense of smell originally exists to make the difference between safe and danger the smell of fire, gas, spoiled food.

And when you create a fragrance, you need to take this into account; you want people who are wearing your fragrance to send a safe message to others; it is beyond seduction. 

This is the reason why I was always against all these fragrances that are overtly strong, almost aggressive, and are overwhelming for people around you.

Unfortunately, for many people power is quality and goes beyond the real signature of the fragrance. Power goes against beauty, that’s the fragrance creation conundrum.  

Of your many creations, is there one that has special significance for you? 

Very difficult question! I guess I will say Romance from Ralph Lauren because going back to what I was saying above, it has everything I love about fragrance. 

I was always pretty good at doing men’s fragrance but at the beginning of my career I was struggling with women’s fragrance. Romance was an important step for me to be successful in NYC.

Harry Fremont Interview - Ralph Lauren Romance EDP

Also, years later so many women told me that it was the fragrance they wore in high school or college and how important it was for the image they wanted to project of themselves at the time. My mom wore it too and every time I smelled it, it reminded me of her. 

Between these stories, smelling the fragrance in the street and the success, what could be more special? 

You won several awards during your career. Where do you keep your them?

Awards are always special but once you are retired, you just need to look at them to feel great about your achievements in your previous life.

They are very personal, so I have all of them in my bedroom at home.

People say you cannot create memories if you don’t have an emotion and it is so true. I could describe every minute from the event where I received them and my relief after every acceptance speech.  

Writer

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.