In 2015, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato released ‘Tabac Tabou’, a vintage fragrance acclaimed by the profession* and one which sounds, even today, like a manifesto for the creative approach he has been pursuing for the past 20 years with his brand Parfum d’Empire – a profoundly free and artistic endeavour. 

‘I was fed up with all these standard perfumes, so I decided to make this vintage edition,’ recalls Marc-Antoine Corticchiato when asked about the beginnings of Tabac Tabou. ‘I wanted to incorporate a note of tobacco, which is a scent I have always thoroughly enjoyed’. It is a note which the current perfumery market is nevertheless very hesitant to embrace at a time of such widespread awareness of the effects of tobacco on our health. ‘Few perfumes use this note in the main body,’ he observes. ‘By that I mean perfumes that are entirely committed to it. The term “tobacco” is often used in perfumery, but usually to describe facets’.
In addition to the sometimes-negative external perception, both within the sector and from the general public, the use of tobacco extract (which is always denicotinised) is very limited by perfumery legislation. 

So, in order to recreate the smell of a tobacco leaf, that is ‘full of essence, smooth and rich,’ just as he likes it, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato – naturally – boosts the amount of tobacco extract, using a blonde leaf tobacco, up to the maximum quantity allowed. He then amplifies this with the addition of other plant extracts which, together, serve to mimic this note: hay, tonka bean or immortelle, whose tobacco facets mingle with honeyed and liquorice accents. ‘For the top of the fragrance, I use an extract of natural narcissus, which combines the vegetal scent of green sap, the floral scent of white flowers, and the animal scent of horse mane. I wanted to find a savannah scent.’

While he fostered an olfactory interest in developing a perfume centred on tobacco, it was instead with a more conceptual view that he approached this double-faceted plant. ‘Tobacco helps us to reconnect with the primary meaning of perfume: the sacred. It was used in the Old World by Native Americans in the same way that we use incense today, that is, for spiritual purposes. And paradoxically, tobacco – like incense – has an extremely sensual, and even sexual smell. It is precisely this dialogue between the earth (the sensual side) and the sky (the sacred origin) that I love.’

The tobacco and the wild plants used in Tabac Tabou are harvested once a year. The essences obtained after the extraction of each of these raw materials remain isolated; under no circumstances are they associated with essences from other years or geographic origins. ‘Generally, in the fragrance industry, we make communelles. This means that for the same plant, we mix different batches of essences so that the final extract always maintains the same olfactory quality. But I didn’t want to do this with Tabac Tabou,’ explains Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. Without the commonly practised blending effect, for which an analogy can be made with the reserve wines in Champagne which ensure a certain linearity in the style of a cuvée from one year to the next, Tabac Tabou can also exhibit a different character from one year to the next, with variations in both scent and colour stemming from how its natural ingredients reflect the climatological conditions they experienced during their growth (sun, drought, cold, rain, etc.) Thus, depending on its origin, each new ‘cuvée’ of Tabac Tabou may reveal a more leathery, floral or gourmand profile, while its colour may also vary, from deep green to amber. 

Tabac Tabou remains exclusive in its production methods – only producing around 1000 bottles per year –, with the concentration of each extract depending on the availability of the necessary wild plants. With each new edition, the harvest year (which always corresponds to the year preceding its sale) is specified on the label of the bottle. Although somewhat extreme in terms of the logic of the vintage, this approach is nevertheless appreciated, particularly amongst distributors, who consider predictable products much more reassuring. ‘Some distributors were even dismayed when I introduced them to Tabac Tabou… They were worried that they would not be able to sell the previous year’s bottles that were still in stock.’ The perfumer confirms that they remain, of course, marketable and that they will also see their value increase – unlike their price. ‘I have too much respect for nature to make it a marketing operation,’ he says. Other distributors, on the other hand, were ‘highly enthusiastic’ about the idea of a vintage fragrance, as were various consumers. ‘We have some great Tabac Tabou fans who collect vintages’, says Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, astonished. They look forward to the new releases, and sometimes contact us because they are looking for editions from specific years.’

Although all the creations of Parfum d’Empire – now ranked at number 21 – revolve around the natural raw material, the vintage dimension is, for the moment, exclusive to Tabac Tabou. The perfumer, who would like to extend this philosophy to other fragrances, is weighing up the commercial risk in view of his product’s sometimes-challenging reception. ‘There is, I find, an injustice from which perfume suffers compared to wine. The public is much more educated about wine than it is about perfume. For example, we readily accept that as a wine ages it may take on a different colour, but we do not consider this when it comes to fragrance. When its colour comes from natural plant extracts and no dye is added, you must accept the idea that it is a living material and that its colour can change.’
Although there may be a slight evolution in terms of its colour, olfactory-wise, there is no noticeable change over time, although the perfumer notes that some of the base notes, such as tobacco, may gain depth and texture – at least to the nose of the more discerning. 

Just like the tobacco extract content, which was maximised for Tabac Tabou, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato often talks about ‘material overflow’, with a perfumery sometimes described as ‘baroque’, despite its scents remaining completely contemporary. ‘In general, I often go overboard’, smiles Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. ‘I like to see how far I can go. The materials that I explore excessively in my perfumes are always natural, even if, of course, there is a complementarity which involves the use of synthetic ingredients, which remain essential. But I do this job first and foremost because I love nature.’ This love of nature led him, as a young adult, to acquire a doctorate in chemistry, focusing on the analysis of perfume plant extracts and extraction methods. He continued to study in this field at the research laboratory that he joined at the beginning of his career, before turning to more creative work in the form of fine perfumery. He therefore has an intimate knowledge of natural raw materials. ‘What has always fascinated me in terms of natural ingredients is that they have, I find, a vibration, an energy that synthetic materials do not always have. They are also more complex because unlike synthetic materials, which involve a single molecule, natural plant extracts are composed of several tens or even hundreds of different molecules. As such, we have something that is more alive.’

Marc-Antoine Corticchiato is free to use these natural raw materials as he pleases after a decision he made 20 years ago to go alone, founding his own fragrance house. ‘It’s a great freedom of mine to be able to use expensive materials that some of my colleagues working for brands are not always allowed to use,’ admits the perfumer. ‘Moreover, unlike them, I can and I want to move away from consumer trends. I always remind them that this freedom, which they sometimes envy me for, has a daily cost. We do not enjoy the same security, nor the same comfort. However, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato has no regrets, and concludes with a smile: ‘Perfumery, as I practise it, is most exciting.’

* In 2016, Tabac Tabou was crowned the best niche perfume during the Fifi Awards, a ceremony organised by Fragrance Foundation France, which each year aims to reward the best perfumes launched during the previous year in their relevant market – equivalent to the Oscars in perfumery.

Text by Ambre Allart
Photos by Benoît Pelletier