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Instead of Cognac, Perfume

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I came from a family of tuberose wearers, my mother wore tuberose, my grandmother wore tuberose, so I always knew I would make a tuberose perfume.

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Kilian Hennessy is a modern perfumer. Memories of tuberose, an intensely fragrant white flower, aside, what's striking is that Kilian's family is the Hennessy family, as in Hennessy Cognac. Hennessy is known for a premium label Cognac. Not so much known for a tuberose fragrance. But Kilian Hennessy is hoping to make his perfume line, By Kilian, as well-known as his family's Cognac label.

Kilian never worked in the Cognac business, always the perfume business. I'm reminded of family-owned wineries, where the current generation decides to do their own thing instead of taking on the family winery. Are they crazy? I guess my envy is showing. Why couldn't my parents have been winemakers? I'd have no hesitation continuing the legacy. But Kilian did not stray far from his family's influence in the luxury goods market. His grandfather created Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, better known as LVMH. Krug Champagne and Château d'Yquem are owned by LVMH. As Kilian told me, "Luxury is in my blood."

To me, there are many similarities between wine and perfume, or in this case Cognac and perfume. Each can be a complex creation, with many layers of aroma that develop in the glass or on the skin over time. Each can create an emotion and a memory. A whiff of Cognac takes me back to evenings spent with good friends in front of a fire. A whiff of a peach fragrance takes me straight to the streets of Rome. One of Kilian's signature scents, "Pure Oud," smells like the barrel room of a winery to me.

Kilian was at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco for a personal appearance. "It's like being a singer, you go on tour, selling your records." The By Kilian line launched in March 2006 (he's been in the perfume industry 15 years). His inspiration came from a visit to the Baccarat Museum in Paris. The collection is filled with beautiful handcrafted perfume bottles. "You see what was the level of luxury in the perfumes industry 100 years ago." Compared to the state of the perfume industry today, Kilian says, "It's not even the same product. It's like comparing t-shirts with haute couture. No way." I think we can say the same of mass-produced wine and limited production wine. He was convinced he could do perfume as it was done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but with a contemporary twist.

What Kilian's created is a progression of perfume, from delicate to heavy, in his line of 10 fragrances that he calls "L'Oeuvre Noire." It's very much like a fine wine or Cognac, starting with the lightest in body, aroma and flavor, to the bolder, more complex wine. Here Kilian talks about a book with three chapters that reflect the emotion of love, in all of its ranges, from first love to final temptation. In fact, he'll be releasing "Last Temptation" in August 2011 (he would not divulge details, darn it).

Kilian wears his own perfumes. "During the day I wear 'A Taste of Heaven,' at night I wear 'Back to Black: Aphrodisiac,' and right now I wear 'Incense Oud' that I just released. In the summer I do like fresh clean scents so I wear 'Prelude to Love,' that's my scent wardrobe." He does confess to wearing a fragrance that's not his. He has a bottle of the original "Feminite du Bois" by Serge Lutens, before it was reformulated by Shiseido. Kilian uses one precious drop at a time.

By Kilian fragrances aren't cheap, and to me, it's a cult fragrance line, much like the Napa Valley cult Cabernets. A 50-ml. spray bottle is $225, and a travel set, refillable with four 7.5-ml. vials, is $135. Kilian says you buy the bottle or travel spray only once. He doesn't want you to toss the bottle when it's empty. He feels by creating a beautiful bottle, you can't imagine throwing it away. "You don't throw away luxury." Refills are about half-price. As in wine, packaging is everything. A premium wine has a heavier bottle, longer cork, more expensive label and a wooden box. Kilian's scents come in a black lacquer box, with a satin lining that the bottle fits into snugly, and can be locked with a key.

While I love wine, it's rare that I'll spend $135 or more for a bottle. Not so with perfume. Why? For about what a cult Cabernet costs, I can get something that I'll enjoy more than once. While the perfume, when it's sprayed on, lasts not much longer than a glass of that Cabernet, I can go back to it again and again in the bottle. Make that a refillable bottle. Kilian, please don't ever reformulate or discontinue your signature scents.