Astier de Villatte, a Paris-based brand that’s set to launch a perfume called Tucson, shares what is unique about the scent and their first impressions of the desert.
TUCSON, AZ— How do you capture the scent of a place? What precise aromas distinguish the smell of one place from another? Benoît Astier de Villatte and Ivan Pericol, the co-founders of Astier de Villatte, a renowned yet small-scale French brand based in Paris, France, develop fragrances that smell like the places they are named after, such as Buenos Aires, Delhi, and Stockholm.
The duo first came to Tucson, Arizona, because of their friendship with the mother and daughter team, Bonnie and Crystal Flynt, who own and run Tucson-based boutique Bon. Unlike any other place they had visited before, Tucson enticed the business partners to ask themselves: what would Tucson smell like if it could be bottled?
For a city bookended by a landfill and a wastewater treatment plant, Interstate 10 travelers might be skeptical of a perfume dedicated to the Old Pueblo. But Tucson sits deep within the Sonoran Desert, where native plant matter mixes with the harshest elements to produce a beguiling and pleasant scent. This part of the Southwest smells of petrichor; a sweet aroma created when rain blesses parched earth.
Astier de Villatte describes their Tucson scent as containing “lightly smokey and sweet aromas of wild grasses, parched wood, immortelle flowers, and red earth, burnt by the sun.” Sold initially only as incense and candles, Tucson emerged as one of Astier de Villatte’s most popular fragrances with their European and international customer base. The warm reception encouraged them to evolve the scent into a perfume, also named Tucson, which is scheduled to launch in Paris on February 25, 2022, and will be available at Astier de Villatte locations, online, and at Tucson’s Bon Boutique.
Benoît and Ivan recently returned to Tucson to shoot a promotional video for the perfume. (Disclosure: I am friends with Bonnie and Crystal, and I happened to find myself at their shop when I overheard Crystal making arrangements for Astier de Villatte’s visit.) I was curious to hear about Astier de Villatte’s first impressions of Tucson and how they came to develop the fragrance.
Impeccably well-dressed, Benoît appears in a button-down dress shirt layered with a vest and sport coat, in a cool and muted color palette. Even after a full day of shooting all over Tucson, Benoît looks impossibly fresh.
Benoît uses an adjective in French to describe the feeling the smell of Tucson elicits when he is here. The word, dépaysant, lacks a direct translation in English but can be interpreted as disorienting or being pulled out of your own country, something like a culture shock. Benoît says that he has had this feeling when he has traveled to places like India but had frames of reference for a country so known in the world.
“Tucson is not a place I could have imagined or had expectations for,” Benoît says. “Growing up in France, I never saw photographs or heard about Tucson, so I had no preconceptions about it.”
Benoît explains that, to him, Tucson not only smells like the indigenous flora of the place but the city itself. Unlike cities in France, there is cohesiveness between the city and nature in Tucson.
Benoît compares the process of scent development to painting. An exercise in observation.
“When you paint nature, you have to observe it in its environment,” he explains. “After observing Tucson, we created the scent, but that’s not always how we develop a smell. Sometimes like with Honolulu, we made the scent first because we love the smell of white flowers. Tying the scent to a place sublimates or elevates the smell because it gives it a sense of place.”
To create the scent, Benoît and Ivan shared their observations with a perfumer in Paris who offered them samples to try and match the adjectives they use to the place.
The Tucson scent is the color of Whiskey del Bac, Tucson’s signature single-malt whiskey, and its top notes carry a similar smokiness. It is subtle, masculine, and feminine. Benoît says the scent is for everyone, and I agree. When I first spray it on my wrist, I detect a musky, earthy aroma. The heart of the fragrance invokes burning mesquite. The dry down smells like our arid lands: dusty sagebrush and oily creosote, not obtrusive but lasting.
Smell is subjective and strongly tied to memory and emotion. Benoît admits that when Astier de Villatte develops a scent, their priority is not to aim for accuracy but to create something beautiful that is good to the senses. For Parisians who have never visited Tucson, Astier de Villatte’s Tucson might become their first impression of the city. Whether it aligns with the reality of the place is open to every visitor’s interpretation.