Shyamala Maisondieu is indeed an international perfumer.
Perfumery is a precise science, just like cookery. The entire process of generating and producing fragrance is much more complex technically. Having said that, a Malaysian-born woman has been making a name for herself internationally by working with some well-known brands and artists in this sector.
With more than 30 years of experience, Shyamala Maisondieu has contributed to the creation of more than 80 scents. Given her background in chemical engineering and creative nature, perfumery seemed to be the ideal career for her.
She first discovered her knack for fragrance while living in Hong Kong, and after that, she pursued education at the Givaudan Perfumery Academy in Grasse and Argenteuil, , where she met her husband, Antoine Maisondieu. She is renowned for her originality and broad perspective, which she tries to incorporate into her fragrances.
Shyamala was born into a Malay and Indian family in Malaysia, where three different cultures mingle, and this multicultural upbringing has had a big impact on her life. She has always attempted to use her uniqueness as a strength despite encountering questions about her identity.
She is now known for her collaborations with brands such as État Libre d’Orange, Tom Ford, Lanvin, Coach, Comme des Garcons, Dolce & Gabbana, Estee Lauder, L’Occitane, Lancome, Pierre Cardin, Prada and more.
Shyamala shares a glimpse behind the walls about what it takes to be a Givaudan perfumer.
Asking about when did she realize that perfumery was what she wanted to do after graduating from chemical engineering, Shyamala said “It was a long time ago when I first met my mentor. It was 1992 and I just turned 23. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time, but I aspired to be an astronomer at first. Growing up, I was always looking at the stars.,”
“But when I met this perfumer, who introduced me to the job and employed me after just one interview, he told me that “there were more astronauts than there were perfumers in the world” she explained.
She was more intrigued about the job when he delve more into what the job is. “The process was so much like my chemical engineering background; chemistry was the science of mixing ingredients, to put it simply, and that was very much like what perfumers did.
That’s the moment she felt like, “This is it! This is what I wanted to be.”
“And I think that the perfumer who was interviewing me at the time knew, so the next thing he said was, “You’re the person I would like to hire.” Fast-forward 30 years later, and I’m still here! That’s certainly something to celebrate.” she said.
Shyamala further divulges what makes her to stick into this line for almost three decades long.
“It was when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit Indonesia that I had second thoughts about my profession. From where I was in France at the time, watching the devastation that hit Indonesia was heartbreaking. And it shook me to my core; suddenly, I felt like my job wasn’t as important anymore because as a perfumer, what did I do that contributed to society at all?” she questioned herself.
“These healthcare professionals and human crisis workers were all saving lives that were devastated, so what was I doing to help?” she said noting that she wanted to leave everything to join a humanitarian organisation and help those communities. Unfortunately, she couldn’t as she had two young children at the time and couldn’t afford to just drop everything. “I love what I do though, don’t get me wrong,” Shyamala expressed.
“After the tsunami happened, my colleagues at the time listened to my doubts, and they told me this: “Though the impact [we make as perfumers] may not be visible straightaway, the things we create do bring a kind of joy to people.” Shyamala remarked that this made her feel better – she became more in love with her career.
“To not only be able to create, but to create for others as well as myself? It’s hard to put it into words, but it satisfies one’s soul.”
“We make fragrances with people from all walks of life in mind, it is welcoming in a sense that it is required that perfumers learn to understand and embrace all of society and humanity.” she said mentioning that in the various fragrance companies that she worked with, it was multiracial and multicultural.
“It was so beautiful and it was what made our fragrances so unique. At the end of the day, our goal is to create a fragrance that no matter the demographic, they would want to wear it.” she highlighted.
“To not only be able to create, but to create for others as well as myself? It’s hard to put it into words, but it satisfies one’s soul.” – Shyamala Maisondieu
Curiously asking about how does the fragrance industry changed since she joined, this perfumer said “In so many ways I think it has changed, because I’ve gone through different phases myself—aspects of my job have changed as well.”
When she first started, she was creating fragrance for detergents and from there she changed companies. At the time she joined, it was called Givaudan Roure but now it’s just Givaudan.
Givaudan Roure used to be a smaller company when she first joined and now it’s one of the three main players in the fragrance industry across the globe.
Further explaining “It’s also a very competitive job; there are many preliminary stages for us to go through and often more than not, four or more perfumers will work on a perfume. And sometimes, one project will take us four and a half years to produce.”
She also shared another fascinating story. “I remember taking on a project that took 10 years to do. It’s a lot of refining and tweaking, and not a lot of people realise that to distil these raw materials, it takes a lot of time.”
Sharing about what inspired her in creating fragrances “I think I had phases, but one thing that’s always been my staple is spices. And that’s where my Malaysian roots come in. My mother is Malay and my father is Indian, so my mother would cook us Indian food and use all these spices, making her own mixtures for the curry. I remember that she used to grind coriander and cumin and I grew up with that,”
“Which is why I always add a dash of spice to my formulas.” – Shyamala Maisondieu
“One time, during one of the many stages I’ve been through, I was in this tonka-benzoin (a type of balsamic resin with a sweet vanilla body) phase—background notes I was obsessed with. I also love ylang ylang as well.”
Warm scents are always my go-to;-
She love having a sense of comfort for the base notes, so she use a lot of very warm scents which is her beloved Malaysian roots talking. “But I also love fresh citrus; I like mixing bergamot or mandarin with very woody background notes. I had a phase where I was doing citrusy fragrances as well,” adding “With Idôle, I also had a period where I played with roses. And at some point, the combo of orris, amber and pear notes. I like coming up with new ideas as I go along, changing and switching through different phases.”
When asked to choose her all-time favourite creations, she said it was difficult to pick just one.
“This is a hard question! It’s like trying to choose your favourite child. But because each fragrance tells a story, every single one of them is important to me. The first two fine fragrances that I made were important to me because they were what established me as an official perfumer.
“It’s the Sisley number three; they’re relaunching it again so I’m super happy. It had notes of ginger, vetiver and patchouli; it’s very refreshing.” adding that Lancôme’s Idôle was also important to her.
“It was a very challenging project because for large-scale commercial projects, we would run test fragrances in certain countries, and if people liked it, then you win the project. So for L’Oréal, we tested in France, the United States, and China too.”
Well, L’Oréal was always one of the biggest benchmarks every perfumer wanted to work with
“The team cried together when we were enlisted to create the fragrance; it was a huge milestone for us” Shyamala shares her fond memory of the memorable perfume making.
“Perfume is the art that makes memory speak.”