Over the centuries, antisemitic propagandists have had a field day with the supposed physical characteristics of the Jewish nose. So what on earth would they have made of Carlos Benaïm. For he is a Jewish “nose”. Or, to put it another way, a “nose” who happens to be Jewish. Or to put it another way still, Benaïm is one of the world’s leading perfumers — a creator of perfumes worn be celebrities from Elizabeth Taylor to Rachel Weisz.
He was born in 1944 in Tangier — the Moroccan coastal city where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic meet. It was also a meeting place of another kind — an international city which had come to symbolise peaceful co-existence between different faiths and backgrounds.
As Benaïm says: “People from various religions lived together in harmony. The police force was equally composed of Jews, Muslims and Christians; and the police inspector, whose last name was Israel, was the father of a friend of mine. My own name, Carlos, reflects the Spanish influence in the area.”
Benaïm considers that the scents he was exposed to as a child in Morocco have had a profound influence on his career.“Smells are things you treasure for a lifetime,” he says. “As a young boy I would often accompany my grandfather to the marketplace in Tangier, and I remember the smells of the spices and fruits, oranges, peaches, melons and apricots — they are engraved in my memory.”
This paradise of multiculturalism and tolerance came to an abrupt end, however, when, shortly after the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, the 22-year-old Benaïm received a phone call from his father. He had just graduated in chemical engineering in the French city of Toulouse. “Do not come back,” his father told him. Violence had broken out against the Moroccan Jewish community in reaction to conflict at the othe end of the Mediterranean.
Benaïm moved to Paris, then Amsterdam and Buenos Aires before settling in New York. It was there that he embarked on an apprenticeship with the perfume company, International Flavors & Fragrances, using his appreciation of fragrances coupled with his knowledge of chemistry to establish himself as one of the world’s leading noses.
His breakthrough fragrance was Ralph Lauren’s Polo (he was barely 30 at the time) and he has gone on to create Flowerbomb for Viktor & Rolf, Giorgio Armani’s Code for women and Yves Saint Laurent’s recently-launched Saharienne among many others.
The world of perfume is often framed in pretentious language which is hard to take seriously. YSLdescribes Saharienne, for example, as opening “with primo fiore lemon, Italian bergamot and mandarin zests, dazzling the overexposed, white petals with a thousand sparks of citrus like blanc de blanc champagne”. Now, that, surely, is nothing more than elaborate marketing hype?
“As a matter of fact it is not,” the softly-spoken Benaïm insists. “We do receive inspiration from plants and we had done a lot of work on champagnes. What I was trying to do with Saharienne was create that sense of freshness and explosiveness, while retaining the notes which give you that fruity and citrusy feel.”
Whatever natural talent Benaïm has for his profession, he attributes his success to hard work, and an ability to survive in what sounds like a surprisingly tough environment.
“The work I do is rather extraordinary in the sense that we are artists and we are well compensated. That said, it’s hard because we always have to compete with our colleagues. There might be 20 fragrances on the table and everyone knows very well that only one will be chosen. That’s tough. We have to compete for every win for every fragrance. Talent on its own is not enough. You have got to put the work in too. The Flowerbomb fragrance, for example, was the result of experiments in the lab which went on for several years, having started the entire process from scratch.”
He might well rub shoulders with celebrities from time to time and now firmly considers New York City as home, but he never has forgotten his Sephardi roots or the plight of Moroccan Jews who made their way to Israel rather than Europe or the United States. “They didn’t have the same opportunities as we were given,” he says. “To put it bluntly, Sephardi Jews in Israel were discriminated against in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.”
Benaïm’s response is to have become first a donor, and now chairman of the ISEF Foundation, which attempts to combat social inequality in Israel by offering funding for higher education to gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has awarded over 18,000 scholarships since it was set up in 1977. “Israel’s greatest resource is the minds of its young. Our approach is a way of protecting Israel — by developing its brain power,” he says.
Benaïm was excluded from Morocco in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, and he has not been back since. That will change next year when, after an absence of almost half a century, he hopes to return to visit the country of his birth.
“I am really excited about this trip. My family’s roots in Morocco go back several centuries. You can’t simply wipe out a historic Jewish identity just like that. It made me who I am. It remains part of me and will do so until the day I die.”