The first article in this series described the process through which the perfume brief goes before it ends up on the perfumer’s desk (Brief). Then, my perfumery school classmate and former colleague Lauren gave you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a perfume evaluator (Evaluator). Today, I will describe the role of the perfumer.
If you’re new to this series, I recommend starting with Part 1: Brief.
Ever since Frédéric Malle highlighted perfumers by adding their names on the fragrances created for Editions de Parfums, these actors, traditionally consigned to ghost writing scents, have become more prominent. We can find out which nose created our favorite perfume, read about perfumers’ work, and even hear them explain their metier. Names of houses that employ perfumers–International Flavors & Fragrances, Givaudan, Firmenich, Symrise, Mane, Robertet–even show up in the traditional media. Magazines call noses rock stars. Fans queue to meet them at store events. Isn’t then the perfumer the most important person in the process of creating a perfume?
Yes and no. With the exception of those who direct their own brands, most perfumers are only one of many groups that influence how a fragrance will smell. Today, it’s hard to speak of a perfumer’s fingerprint on a big brand launch because many fragrances are created as a collaboration among several creators, marketing reps, sales people, and evaluators. In most cases, an individual perfumer may not have a say in the matter and simply has to follow the given direction.
At the same time, without the perfumer’s expertise and technical knowledge, the abstract ideas–dew sprinkled flowers or the scent of fresh sea breeze–wouldn’t be realized. Perfumers are trained to combine materials to make more than the sum of their parts. While evaluators and marketing personnel might acquire the basic training to differentiate notes or recognize important fragrance classics, the rigorous training of perfumers is what makes them special.
Once a perfumer receives a brief for a new project, he will first put together a few sketches by jotting down a basic fragrance formula and then creating a couple of variations. For instance, if a brief called for a dewy floral, he might take a green gardenia accord and add fruit, spice or watery notes to give different effects. In the back and forth between the evaluator and the brand for which the perfume is intended, he will further refine the idea until the desired perfume is obtained.
Some perfumes take only months to finish and others–a year or even longer. With the fast pace of launches today, the projects are expedited. In some cases, another perfumer might be called in to help because of their unique expertise. For instance, Calice Becker‘s signature is a radiant floral accord, and if a composition requires a brilliant explosion of petals, she’s called on to provide the final touch.
Even if the perfumer’s work is perfect and the fragrance is exactly what the client should like, it doesn’t mean that it will win in the final round. When Coty calls on perfumers at Givaudan to craft a new fragrance, it will also make similar calls at Firmenich and IFF. This means that the submissions from one house compete against those of others, and the client’s taste or consumer tests will determine what ends up in the department store. Frequent rejection is the inevitable outcome, and it’s something that a perfumer has to accept as part of her trade.
It takes up to three years of full time training to create a blend that smells pleasant. It requires decades of practice to compose an outstanding perfume, which is why we praise the work of experienced creators like Sophia Grojsman, Maurice Roucel, Calice Becker, Dominique Ropion or Jean-Claude Ellena. The perfume is a blend of artistic fancy and solid technical knowledge, and once a person has mastered the latter, they can give free reign to their imagination. Roses made out of violet petals bloom in Grojsman’s fragrances. Ellena has few equals when weaving luminous scented vignettes, while Roucel’s seductive scents are the ultimate in femme fatale material.
“It takes blood, sweat and tears, and you have to be able to sacrifice,” says Sophia Grojsman about her profession. “You have to listen to criticism from your colleagues and clients, and you have to learn to accept it. But when I realize that my perfume has given someone a moment of pleasure, nothing else matters. I wouldn’t trade my career for any other.”
Photography by Bois de Jasmin