The perfume house Parfums de Nicolaï was established in 1989 by Patricia de Nicolaï and her husband Jean-Louis Michau. Born in Paris with an unparalleled lineage, as the great-granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain and the niece of Jean-Paul Guerlain, Patricia studied chemistry at university and attended the Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l’aromatique alimentaire (ISIPCA) – the renowned post-graduate school of perfumery and fragrance in Versailles, founded in 1970 by Jean-Jacques Guerlain – before going on to work for Florasynth and Quest International. In 1988, she became the first woman to win the International Prize for Young Perfume Creators, awarded by the Société Française des Parfumeurs. The following year saw the birth of Parfums de Nicolaï, headlined by the fragrance which had won her the SFP award, Nicolaï’s Number One.
Parfums de Nicolaï saw Patricia become unique as a female head of a perfume house. She has remained in charge of the creation of Nicolaï’s fragrances ever since, from the purchase of raw materials through to the technical aspects of composition. Her prowess in the world of perfumery made her an obvious candidate for the position of in-house perfumer at Guerlain: a position which had remained within the Guerlain family since the house’s formation by Pierre-François-Pascal back in 1828. In 1992, Jean-Paul Guerlain took full control of the company, having been its fourth-generation in-house perfumer since the end of the 1950s. In 1994, he controversially sold the company to LVMH, but remained Guerlain’s prominent in-house perfumer until 2002. Patricia was seemingly passed over; and finally in 2008 Thierry Wasser was appointed as Guerlain’s new in-house perfumer. With Patricia the nose of Parfums de Nicolaï, her husband Jean-Louis has been responsible for the management of the company, and for aspects of production and boutique design. In recent years the couple’s son, Axel, has taken on various management duties.
Since 2008, Patricia has also served as president of Osmothèque: the world’s largest scent archive, connected to ISIPCA in Versailles, initiated by senior perfumers including Jean Kerléo and Jean-Claude Ellena in 1990, and now with conference centres in Paris and New York. Storing more than 3,000 fragrances collated from across two millennia – from a reconstituted formula described by Pliny the Elder in a passage on the Parthians written in the first century; to compositions created for disparate historical figures including Elizabeth of Poland and Napoleon; to reconstituted post-1880 classics, like Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky (1889) and François Coty’s Chypre (1917) – Osmothèque also presents and publishes research into the art and history of perfumery. Also in 2008, Patricia received the Légion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France, under the class of Chevalier.
According to the Parfums de Nicolaï website:
‘To emphasise the primary role of the perfumer was the main objective of the Nicolaï concept. A perfumer free in his creative choices and free to use all the finest raw materials that he may wish to use without any marketing or price limits […] From all these creations, the personal style of Patricia de Nicolaï is felt with a great predilection towards white flowers and amber notes. A style characterised by Nicolaï’s large choice of natural essences.’
A competing perspective is provided by Luca Turin, biophysicist and prominent perfume critic, whose 2008 work Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, co-written with his wife Tania Sanchez, quickly became the standard resource in the field. Turin has stated at length:
‘Guy Kawasaki once said that he believed in God because he could see no other reason for the continued existence of Apple Computer, Inc. Now that Apple is out of the woods, I shall redirect my prayers towards Parfums de Nicolaï. Patricia de Nicolaï, owner and perfumer, is one of the unsung greats of the fragrance world, and her superb creations survive in spite of inept marketing, absurd names, and the incapacity of the outfit to settle on a single shade of blue for their packaging or to hire a designer that will finally put their dowdy image out of its misery.’
* * *
Today Parfums de Nicolaï offers an extensive range of fragrances: everything from still-fashionable oud – fragrances based on the pungent resin produced by agarwood – to eau de parfum, eau de toilette, eau de cologne, and eau fraiche (while this terminology is used loosely across brands, typically parfum or extrait is made up of anywhere between 20% and 40% essential oils; eau de parfum around 15%; eau de toilette 10%; eau de cologne 5%; and eau fraiche 3% or less). From about 2007, a line of ‘Intense’, heavily concentrated fragrances has become a cornerstone of the company, incorporating – and in some cases replacing altogether – some of Parfums de Nicolaï’s most respected scents.
Understandably and happily for those with a fondness for the classics, several of Parfums de Nicolaï’s fragrances have been favourably compared to hallmark compositions from the Guerlain catalogue. Sacrebleu has been equated with vintage L’Heure Bleue, which Patricia de Nicolaï has called one of her favourite scents; New York shares clear similarities with Habit Rouge; and Maharanih has induced recollections of both Shalimar and Vol de Nuit. Meanwhile Vie de Château echoes something of Edmond Roudnitska‘s most famous concoctions, including Diorella and Eau Sauvage. Other Nicolaï inventions, like Odalisque, built around a floral accord of jasmine, lily of the valley, and iris, are entirely unique.
New York, a woody amber fragrance with a powdery, citrus opening, peppery middle, and vanilla base, is one of my favourite and most frequently worn scents. Luca Turin proclaims it ‘one of the greatest masculines ever, and probably the one I would save if the house burned down’, admitting ‘Reader, I wore it for a decade’. Parfums de Nicolaï does exceptionally well throughout Turin and Sanchez’s guide, with Eau Turquoise, Maharanih, Nicolaï pour Homme, Sacrebleu, and Vie de Château granted four stars, and a full five awarded to New York, Odalisque, and Le Temps d’une Fête. Only the unusual Fig-Tea suffers the indignity of a sole star.
Some of these, among them Nicolaï pour Homme and Le Temps d’une Fête, have been discontinued over the past few years, although representatives of the company suggest they can still be acquired via special request. On the other hand recent additions like Amber Oud and Cuir Cuba Intense have been well received. With these alongside Patchouli Intense and Odalisque, Parfums de Nicolaï retains its characteristic capacity for imaginative unisex fragrances.
It is useful that its spray bottles come equipped with the best spray action of all the perfumes I own, allowing for full presses and fine mists. Beyond its perfumes, Parfums de Nicolaï emphasises that the same time and money is spent upon the development of its line of home fragrances and catalytic lamps. Indeed, Patricia has noted that in the realm of home fragrance, unfettered by precursors, traditions, and excessive regulations, her creativity has free reign; indicating that her experiments in home fragrance filter through to influence her perfumes. There is a line of bath products too. And in 2014 Patricia and Jean-Louis published the story of their company, entitled Nicolaï: Parfumeur créateur, un métier d’artiste.
The presence of Parfums de Nicolaï in the world of perfume remains a relatively esoteric affair. They have only eight stores, all of which are located in Paris aside from the one in London, on Fulham Road; and their products can be found in around 400 outlets worldwide. But their collection of fragrances can be ordered online, with deliveries sent directly from the Nicolaï factory, near Orléans southwest of Paris. And along with the esteem in which its creations are held, the house can justifiably claim for itself a preeminent role in the growth of niche perfumery over the past two decades.
Cover image via Maeva Destombes and délices.