How Many Hands Touch Your Bottle of Perfume : Brief

You walk into Sephora, pass the shelves piled with makeup and find yourself in front of a wall covered with perfume bottles. You pick up the one that catches your eye, spray a blotter, put the tester back on the shelf and continue moving past the display of shiny glass vials. Perhaps you fall in love with the perfume and buy it. You bring it home, put it on your dresser and if the choice was right, the scent will now accompany you everywhere, serving as a fragrant soundtrack for your day. Perfume is such an intimate thing and its effects on us are complex, but equally fascinating is the process by which the aroma ends up in the bottle.

The overwhelming increase of new fragrance launches has robbed perfume both of its luxury status and of its mystery. The story of creators spending years crafting their masterpieces is difficult to believe when most big brands come out with a new fragrance every couple of months. The perfume houses have always been reluctant to disclose the process by which they create fragrances. In some cases, it is because the process contains some precious know-how, in others because it is simply too corporate and not mysterious enough to capture the consumer’s imagination. So how many hands touch your bottle of perfume after all?

In my “How Many Hands Touch Your Bottle of Perfume” series of articles, I will lead you into the perfume lab to explain how the creation process takes places and what players are responsible for the scents you wear on your skin. I stumbled into this world by accident, but it drew me in so much that I never left it. Why is it interesting? On the one hand, understanding the complex process of fragrance creation makes one better appreciate the beautiful scents. On another, some aspects of the process might also make clear why so many perfumes today are bland and boring. Either way, it’s fascinating.

Perfume Idea : Brief

Over the past few years, brands have been more willing to admit their collaboration with professional perfumers. Although many still want the consumer to believe that the fashion designer is the one mixing the oils in the lab, some houses have been pushing the perfumer more and more into the limelight. This trend was started by Frédéric Malle, when he launched his Editions de Parfums line and emblazoned the labels with the perfumers’ names. Apart from the indie perfumers who handle the creative process from start to finish, the idea of a perfumer as a sole artist responsible for a fragrance is misleading, because unlike painting, sculpture or other art forms, perfumery is first and foremost a commercial enterprise.

Whether a fragrance wearer sees their perfume as purely utilitarian (“it makes me smell good”), or as Luca Turin puts it, treats it as a portable form of intelligence, the creative intent is to generate sales. The resulting creation might have the elements of artistry, but its function is not to grace a museum shelf or a gallery wall, but rather to provide a pleasant experience to a consumer.  As such, a perfume is created by a whole group of people besides the perfumer: marketing, fragrance development , consumer research, R&D, laboratory technicians and many more. To focus solely on the perfumer is to disregard the important influence that the other players have on the final product.

If you have read Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, you already know that most of the big brand fragrances are created through the brief process.  With few exceptions like Chanel, Hermès and Jean Patou that have their own in-house perfumers, brands work with the supplier companies that employ most of the perfumers working in the industry—Givaudan, IFF, Firmenich, Takasago, Mane, Symrise and a handful of smaller outfits. Occasionally, the supplier might come up with an idea for a new perfume, but the usual process is for a brand to create a fragrance brief and send it out to the supplier houses. Once the brief is received, the suppliers begin to work on it. The process is extremely competitive, as the perfumers compete not just with noses from other companies, but also with their colleagues.

A brief is a description of a project: what it should evoke, to whom it should appeal, etc. It can be as simple as “a fragrance appealing to women between 20 to 30; able to beat Christian Dior J’Adore in a market test,” or as complex as a multimedia presentation including objects, photographs or films that should inspire the perfumers.  A niche brand owner might simply ask a perfumer she admires to create a fragrance and give a wide range for interpreting her vision. In most cases, before the perfume has even taken olfactory form, its idea has already been elaborated by the marketing team of the fragrance brand. They also determine what fragrance their portfolio is missing, what are the current trends to be captured and what might qualify as a good seller in the contemporary climate. All of these factors affect the perfume about to be born.

Next : How Many Hands Touch Your Bottle of Perfume : The Evaluator

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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54 Comments

  • Annie: Fascinating! Thank you for such a great post. I’m a total perfume newbie and I can’t even imagine how perfume is made. September 10, 2012 at 8:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that it will be interesting, Annie. Some parts of perfume creation are not at all romantic, but it’s such a strange and unique (and fun) industry. September 10, 2012 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Patt: Very interesting. I look forward to the rest of the articles in the series! September 10, 2012 at 8:40am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Patt! If you or anyone else have any specific suggestions on what you would like to me cover, please comment or email me. September 10, 2012 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Barbara: So using names of famous perfumers can be just another marketing trick? September 10, 2012 at 9:02am Reply

    • Victoria: It definitely can be! Sometimes it means nothing. On some big brand launches only the prominent perfumers are mentioned to the press (and not the juniors who also worked on them!) September 10, 2012 at 2:15pm Reply

  • Raluca: Love this! Thank you for this lovely piece and the great idea! It’s so fascinating! 🙂 September 10, 2012 at 9:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Raluca! Even years later, I still find it fascinating. September 10, 2012 at 2:15pm Reply

  • gio: This is such a fascinating series! I can’t wait for the next article. September 10, 2012 at 9:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Gio! Already working on the next part. September 10, 2012 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Daisy: Absolutely fascinating. Looking forward to the next installments! September 10, 2012 at 10:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Merci, Dr. Daisy! 🙂 September 10, 2012 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Apollonia: Thank you for this first installment! It will surely be totally engrossing to learn how the people “behind the scenes” do what they do to make our beloved and many times, detested fragrances. Another great idea, Victoria! September 10, 2012 at 11:46am Reply

    • Victoria: The behind the scenes part was the most exciting one to me. The funny thing is that sometimes perfumers may not even know where their perfumes end up. The process of getting their fragrance to win the client’s attention among all others becomes more important. But anyway, even the most commercial project has so much interesting things happening around it. I hope to give a little glimpse into that, as much as I’m able to. September 10, 2012 at 2:23pm Reply

  • Ferris@DKchocoman: I enjoyed your article about the process of perfume making. This is a very fascinating subject and not many people know about it. I look forward to your next article on the subject. September 10, 2012 at 11:59am Reply

    • Victoria: The perfume business doesn’t really want to admit that it’s a business, but the truth is that some aspects of the way perfume is made are quite fascinating. It made me appreciate my favorites more. September 10, 2012 at 2:26pm Reply

  • Rachel: This is great! I printed out this post to read on my ride back home, and I already can’t wait to learn more. And Victoria, I just want to thank you for all of your hard work. It’s such a pleasure to visit your blog. September 10, 2012 at 12:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your kind words, Rachel!
      Hope that the subsequent articles won’t disappoint. September 10, 2012 at 2:28pm Reply

  • Lucas: Really interesting and I’m looking forward to reading next articles from this series. I, as a chemist should be the one who delivers such information to the perfume community so I’m interested where from will you be sourcing your future writes. September 10, 2012 at 12:03pm Reply

  • sara: Thank you for this first installment!
    I look forward to the rest of the articles in the series!
    Best Regards from Spain.
    Sara September 10, 2012 at 12:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: Btw, I’m making a Spanish dish tonight–la coca de trampó. Move over pizza. This is my favorite pizza-like flatbread. 🙂 September 10, 2012 at 2:31pm Reply

  • OperaFan: I’ll just chime and say that I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series.
    Thank you for this, Victoria! September 10, 2012 at 12:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! It was fun to write about it. I realized that one articles would be way way too long, so I’m breaking it up into separate posts. September 10, 2012 at 2:32pm Reply

  • SL Clark: Don’t forget the accounting staff. They have a massive influence on any given bottle. How many $400+ per ounce ingredients will they allow? To sell at $80 in a retail store, it must have a $40 wholesale channel cost, which means it should cost $20 or less with all expenses folded in, like manufacturing, marketing, etc.

    Fascinating series, can’t wait to see more of this one. 😉 September 10, 2012 at 2:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s an all-important part! Can’t get away from the accounting department when you work for the big perfume labs. Or small, for that matter. September 10, 2012 at 4:59pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Great read!
    I wish ( one can always dream) that they would stop launching so much product.
    One of the things I do like about perfume as an art form is that it is as much about skill as it is about inspiration. ( quite apart from the commercial aspects). It’s one of the things I love about old paintings, it seemed to be more about the skill and less about the most individual expression of the most individual emotion. September 10, 2012 at 3:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s my hope, but I’m losing it. Nobody needs this much perfume. If it were the case of “the more the merrier,” it would be one thing, but the quality of most launches is sub par. I was at the Musée des beaux-arts here in Brussels over the weekend, and my husband and I were remarking how precisely drawn out were the garments in the old medieval paintings. The brocades and jeweled borders looks real, while the human faces were identical and flat. September 10, 2012 at 5:04pm Reply

      • Austenfan: Well it was all about showing the wealth of the patron wasn’t it.
        Did you enjoy the Bruegels? September 11, 2012 at 5:21am Reply

        • Victoria: Very much! The museum is also having a food themed expo. They’ve identified several paintings focused on food, feasting or food preparation, and each painting is accompanied by a detailed explanation. Very interesting. Turns out that 2012 is the gourmet year in Brussels, with every month dedicated to a different food event. So, I’ve picked a good year to move here. 🙂

          (And totally unrelated to anything, but I’m discovering that Dutch, which previously sounded very foreign to me, has many words that are similar to the Russian ones, especially anything related to ships and building. This makes sense, since Peter The Great studied shipbuilding in Holland and brought lots of craftsmen with him. My favorite word is jaarmarkt, which we call jarmarka in Russian.) September 11, 2012 at 6:04am Reply

          • Austenfan: How nice, I will have to visit it then. I always look for dogs on older paintings just to see what kind of breeds they had all those years ago. ( I love dogs btw)

            I tried learning Russian years ago. I did two years of it. I know a few words, can form a few simple phrases but that’s it. One of the great disadvantages of getting older is that learning a new language gets a lot more difficult. I pick up languages really easily but Russian seems to have been my Waterloo. I love hearing it though. And I love me some Russian singers.

            Peter the Great ( well the first really) has a small museum dedicated to him in or near Zaandam ( which is slightly north of Amsterdam). I visited that years ago. It’s where he studied shipbuilding I believe. September 11, 2012 at 8:34am Reply

            • Victoria: I also notice animals in the paintings and various small details. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the way people used to live.

              If you enjoy Russian singers, you probably like Vertinsky. Even the old recordings, with their background noise, reveal how beautiful his voice was.
              Based on what I hear from people trying to learn Russian, it’s a fiendishly complex language. The rules are so completely different, as are the sentence structures. Do you watch movies in Russian? This might be another useful way to become more exposed to it and absorb some of its cadences and sounds. September 11, 2012 at 10:38am Reply

              • Austenfan: I’ll look up Vertinsky for sure. The thing is Russian is much further removed from any other language I have ever studied ( mostly Romance and Germanic ones). Having done Latin and Greek helped understanding the structure. Cases of nouns and aspects of verbs were at least a familiar thing. I think I would really have to live there to learn. September 11, 2012 at 3:59pm Reply

                • Victoria: The immersion might be the best way to go. It’s very hard to pick up a completely different language, as I discovered when I started studying Arabic. Picking up a Spanish textbook and learning enough to read was by contrast not all that challenging.

                  Check Vertinsky’s “Vashi paltsy pakhnut ladanom.” A beautiful, if sad, song. September 12, 2012 at 4:27am Reply

  • Kerrie: Yes, I would like to chime in as well and say how much I appreciate learning from you Victoria and I am looking forward to more in this series! September 10, 2012 at 3:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Kerrie! I hope that you will enjoy the rest. I just love this subject (and sometimes love to complain about the industry too, but that is par for the course, I guess). September 10, 2012 at 5:05pm Reply

  • Andy: I love this series, and cannot wait for the next installment! I am always curious about the inner workings of fragrance labs, and it doesn’t help matters that the fragrance industry is oftentimes shrouded in secrecy. This is such a great topic! September 10, 2012 at 3:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s very secretive. Discretion and secrecy were the main ways in which the information was controlled. Today, with the new technology, it’s possible to figure out most of the formula, so this traditional approach is not as relevant. September 10, 2012 at 5:08pm Reply

  • annemariec: I noticed that on its website Lancome gives rock star treatment to the two perfumers who created Le Vie est Belle (is that the name? forgotten already). Is that unusual in a mainstream brand? September 10, 2012 at 7:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: L’Oreal which owns Lancome usually is pretty good about this sort of thing, but Procter & Gamble would never disclose the names of the perfumes. Estee Lauder usually doesn’t highlight the involvement of perfumers, although it’s gotten less strict about it over the past few years. And considering that they actually do spend money on the perfume and handle the development well, it’s good that they talk about the perfumers to the press. September 11, 2012 at 5:46am Reply

  • Bluepinegrove: I’m really taken with the idea of perfume as “a portable form of intelligence.” I haven’t read Turin’s thoughts on that concept, so I’m not sure exactly what he’s getting at. It makes me wonder how marketing efforts would target those who do regard their perfumes in this way. September 10, 2012 at 9:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a quote from Perfumes: The Guide, “perfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence.” I take it to mean that a beautiful perfume accompanying you during the course of your day can make you think, can make you dream, can add something special that otherwise would not have been possible. It’s about pleasure, but it’s also about fantasy. It’s a bit contrary to the conventional marketing wisdom that perfume is all about seduction of the opposite sex.

      I don’t think that the marketing typically even realized that there are people who treat their perfume as “a portable form of intelligence.” So far as I read the bland and poorly written press releases, I see little evidence of it. September 11, 2012 at 5:52am Reply

      • bluepinegrove: That’s how I read Turin’s phrase, too. I love it. If anyone considers marketing with this is mind it’s the niche lines. I don’t believe mainstream perfume lines care about this segment of customers. September 11, 2012 at 4:03pm Reply

        • Victoria: There are niche lines that definitely do, although today there is such a mix in the niche too. Some lines are what I would call “fake niche”–mass produced fragrances luxuriously priced. September 12, 2012 at 4:28am Reply

  • Ariadne: Wonderful topic and marvelous posts, blending scent with art and history!
    I have recently read the fiction novel The Book of Lost Fragrances by MJ Rose which features a device(?) piece of furniture(?) called a perfume organ. I would love to know more about this.
    On a related note I am very optimistic about the future of perfume as I delve deeper into niche perfumeries. I believe they are the future for transfixing & evocative perfumes, and I mean intellectually as well as sensually. My current perfume journey is exploring this facet of the industry. September 11, 2012 at 5:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Here is a picture of a traditional perfume organ:
      http://plumeperfume.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/perfume-organ-fragonard.jpg
      It is a tiered shelf, on which you place your bottles containing raw materials.

      The niche is very diverse, and yes, there are many exciting brands that do things differently from the big houses. There are many fake niche brands too, but for the most part, the most avant-garde things are happening in the niche. It’s fun to explore. September 12, 2012 at 4:40am Reply

  • Divya: Very fascinating! I love the industry, hoping to learn and become a pert of it! Do you take interns, Victoria? 🙂
    I was reading about IFF the other day. Sounds like the perfect place but it can’t afford it. I hope to get there someday. Amazing how they create products that inter our minds through one sense alone and sometimes never leave. September 13, 2012 at 1:21am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m not sure where you are in India, but IFF has a big centre in Mumbai. I worked with several people in New York from there, and one of IFF’s talented young perfumers, Ruhi Patil, is Indian. September 13, 2012 at 3:08am Reply

      • Divya: That’s great news! I’m in Kolkata, West Bengal. I’m quite open to travel to Mumbai and get guidance. Hope they have courses at the centre, I could only find career opportunities section on their website.
        I’m a NIFT (Fashion Design) graduate and I did have chemistry till the end in school but no formal education in the fragrance department. I’m visiting Kannauj, in UP soon and am very excited to observe the techniques and the rich history the city has to offer. Would you like to know how it was for me when I come back? September 13, 2012 at 5:06am Reply

        • Victoria: – would love to hear about it! Wish you a great trip. 🙂 September 13, 2012 at 6:05am Reply

  • Tina Marie Colombo: Since I’ve been busy, I’m behind in my blog reading, so I actually read this after the article about Honey Lips Kiss Perfume. I’m really interested in reading the rest of this series.
    I wonder how many girls would go into chemistry or science in college if they knew it could be applied in an area like perfumery? September 14, 2012 at 10:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Good point, Tina Marie! I now wonder about this too. September 17, 2012 at 6:33pm Reply

  • Susan: The model in the picture is beautiful! September 15, 2012 at 3:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Can’t agree more. She looked like a pre-Raphaelite Madonna. (She’s a young lab technician at Mane). September 17, 2012 at 6:32pm Reply

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