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.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin