How Many Hands Touch Your Bottle of Perfume : Perfumers

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?

perfume-lab1

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

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92 Comments

  • george: I SO want to start my own perfume company………….. October 15, 2013 at 7:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Go for it! 🙂
      But may I ask why you would want to and what would your company do? October 15, 2013 at 7:50am Reply

      • Hannah: If I were really rich and had connections, I would love to be the creative director of my own brand. Why would I want to? Because I sometimes suffer from delusions of grandeur. What would I do? It used to my dream to be a lingerie designer and with each collection I designed (as a hobby, not as a fashion student or professional), I’d come up with a perfume to go along with it so I’ve had some ideas floating in my mind. October 15, 2013 at 5:05pm Reply

        • Victoria: That sounds fantastic, Hannah! I hope that you will try it. Well, it’s much easier to start a small brand today than it used to be in the past. October 16, 2013 at 9:05am Reply

      • george: I’d actually want to do something pretty similar to hannah- create perfumes as part of a creative project in another media; so that with each collection- as such- a perfume was also released. I would then title the perfumes the same as the release in the other media, and also- hopefully- meaningfully so. It would be one perfume released at a time- not a range- and I’d want to be heavily involved with the work’s creation; I have a good idea of the structures I would want, but not the technical expertise to achieve them. I have a background of producing works in different media but not necessarily being the actual person who does the groundwork. It should also be a lot of fun and very involving. I don’t necessarily get that that is the case with the sort of processes you are describing but I guess it differs from case to case. But I would love to work with someone like Maurice Roucel: he looks like he is hilarious. October 16, 2013 at 4:38pm Reply

        • Victoria: As long as you have a vision, you simply need to align yourself with a perfumer who understands it (on the creative side of things, I mean; the admin and financial issues are another story). It sounds like a very interesting idea, George, and I have that you get a windfall sufficient enough to realize it someday! October 17, 2013 at 4:14am Reply

          • george: However- what about yourself- have you never thought of bringing out a perfume? October 18, 2013 at 4:42am Reply

            • Victoria: Right now, not really. I much prefer working behind the scenes right now, and well, launching a perfume line requires either a sponsor or some some of independent income, neither of which I have. It’s certainly the all-time consuming task, and I still have other projects that I want to tackle. October 18, 2013 at 10:53am Reply

              • george: Ah well. Maybe Malle will include you in his portrait line; now you wouldn’t say ‘no’ to that, I guess! October 18, 2013 at 7:00pm Reply

                • Victoria: You never say no, even if you don’t like the client or the brief. First of all, as a hired employee, you’re not in a position to call shots. Second, you would have a poor reputation if you turned down work. As for Malle or some other cool, creative brand, many perfumers would be more than happy to work on such projects. October 19, 2013 at 7:40am Reply

  • rosarita: Very interesting, thank you! This is a great explanation of how talented perfumers are sometimes the nose behind mediocre perfume – the marketers have the final say, basically. The age old struggle between art and commerce and in this day and age, in commercial perfumery, the bottom line wins every time. Of course not all commercial perfumes are bad; you know what I mean. October 15, 2013 at 8:26am Reply

    • Victoria: True! And then many big launches are market tested, which is a sure recipe for something likable but not exactly original. The costs of each launch for a big brand are high, so it’s not surprising that they don’t take risks. And yet, this is exactly what makes the output dull over a long run. When the consumer surveys reveal that people are tired of too many new launches and find that they all smell alike, you know something is wrong. October 15, 2013 at 11:00am Reply

  • Ann: Interesting post! How does it work when several perfumers work together? I’m finding it hard to picture. October 15, 2013 at 8:50am Reply

    • Victoria: They don’t all stand over a pot of perfume oil together and take turns, although it’s a funny image. 🙂 One perfumer may write a perfume formula, which looks like a recipe specifying quantities of different materials. It’s done in a special computer program, which allows you to select materials and even check the price and availability at the same time. Then, a perfumer will send a formula to her colleague, who will do some adjustments, then send it back and so on.

      Or another perfumer might send a part of his formula. For instance, you need an accord that smells like apple and you know that your colleague has worked on something like that. So, you will ask him to join the project and include his accord in your final formula.

      It’s a whole topic in itself, but please ask any other questions, if I wasn’t clear on something. October 15, 2013 at 11:05am Reply

      • Ann: How fascinating! Thank you very much! I’m a newish commenter here and I have to say I love how generous you’re with sharing your knowledge and taking time to give a nice reply to everyone. October 15, 2013 at 11:29am Reply

        • Aisha: You’ll find fellow commenters to be equally helpful. I’m a newbie too and have only been reading/commenting on this blog for about 4-5 months, but I really feel at home here. October 15, 2013 at 11:38am Reply

          • Ann: Thank you, Aisha! I also noticed how friendly and willing to help other commenters are. I really like it here. October 15, 2013 at 11:47am Reply

          • Victoria: 🙂 So true and thank you for saying this, Aisha! It’s a very nice and diverse group that we have here. And anyone is always welcome to join, of course. Makes the conversation more interesting. October 15, 2013 at 3:33pm Reply

        • Victoria: Ann, thank you for your nice words. I’m just a chatty person by nature, so it shows here. 🙂 October 15, 2013 at 3:30pm Reply

      • Aisha: Ha! Love the image of a group of perfumers gathering around a pot of perfume oil. Very Macbeth witches-like. Not that I think perfumers are witches. 😉 October 15, 2013 at 11:44am Reply

        • Victoria: Actually I think that some might be (and some would even like this idea)! 🙂 October 15, 2013 at 3:34pm Reply

      • Marc: That’s cool! I thought perfumers jealously guarded their formulas from each other. October 15, 2013 at 12:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: Most do! There are ways to exchange formulas without revealing the whole thing and also by exchanging and working together, they can benefit from shared credit (and a yearly bonus). October 15, 2013 at 3:42pm Reply

  • Aisha: I LOVE this post, and others like this! Even when I was a young girl playing with my Barbie perfume maker set, I had a hunch that there is definitely a science behind the art of creating a perfume. It isn’t all glitz and glamour. There are real people at every level working on a single fragrance. I just hadn’t realized how many people. It also never occurred to me that there’s competition between perfume houses when a client comes calling!

    Thank you for this series, Victoria. I see fragrances much differently now. The point you made about how in the end it’s client’s and consumer tests that determine what ends up in a department store really hit home. I vow not to criticize the creators of a fragrance anymore. I’ll simply shake my head at the tastes of the consumer. 😉 October 15, 2013 at 9:00am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s always hard to know what was the perfume like in the beginning. Sometimes it can change so drastically that it doesn’t resemble the original at all. The more people influence the final outcome, the more difficult it is for an individual perfumer to have his/her way. But some people have stronger personalities than others or they’re more respected by their clients.

      The competition is fierce, especially today. Plus, not all fragrance houses have access to the same clients. Some, like Estee Lauder, Coty, LVMH, pick only certain houses and work only with them. It means that smaller outfits like Mane or Symrise have fewer options, which is very tough. October 15, 2013 at 11:12am Reply

    • rainboweyes: Oh yes, it’s very sad sometimes… I remember how disappointed I was after sniffing La vie est belle – the creation of many renowned perfumers and the result is just below mediocre… October 15, 2013 at 4:13pm Reply

      • Aisha: I was disappointed by it as well. Oh well. I’m sure there are many others who love it. October 15, 2013 at 7:53pm Reply

  • Marc: Thank you for these posts. I love reading blogs by Tauer and Laurie Erickson and wish more perfumers wrote about their work. October 15, 2013 at 9:01am Reply

    • Victoria: I admire both of them for explaining how they work and giving a glimpse into their labs. It’s refreshing and exactly how indie perfumers should operate, in my opinion. October 15, 2013 at 11:13am Reply

      • Marc: At your recommendation I started reading Jean-Claude Ellena’s Perfume and I like it. I only wish he went into more detail on some topics. October 15, 2013 at 12:46pm Reply

        • sara: i liked his diary much more. perfume was so slowly going i never finished it. October 15, 2013 at 2:54pm Reply

          • sara: oops, re-read and it sounds so curt and grumpy. just to explain, i picked up perfume hoping it was more on perfume history but it was different from what i expected. diary is very personal, probably that’s why i liked it more. October 15, 2013 at 2:56pm Reply

            • Victoria: Some parts of the Diary also were lost on me, but others were terrific. I loved when he searched for inspirations at the market in Italy. October 15, 2013 at 3:47pm Reply

        • Victoria: I loved some parts of the book, but overall, I felt that he either got too philosophical or didn’t get specific enough. Still, it’s refreshing to read something written by a perfumer, so I still like it. October 15, 2013 at 3:41pm Reply

  • Anne of Green Gables: I love this series! Thanks for the article, Victoria. There was a time when I dreamed of becoming a perfumer. I even took a 2 months course on perfumery based on blending. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I realised that it takes more than a good sense of smell and memory to become a perfumer just as it doesn’t mean that you can be a composer because you can play an instrument well. When I experienced the pain and stress involved in creating something new, I gave up on the idea. Because of that, I admire perfumers even more. October 15, 2013 at 9:02am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t remember which perfumer it was (Maurice Roucel or Sophia Grojsman) who said in an interview that he/she wishes that more people tried perfumery to find out how difficult it really is to compose something pleasant (not even beautiful, just pleasant). 🙂

      Thank you, I’m very glad that you’re enjoying this installment. October 15, 2013 at 11:16am Reply

      • Anne of Green Gables: Very true! 🙂 When I did free compositions during the course, I found it difficult to materialise ideas into scents and often different notes clashed even if the formula looked nice on paper. Can professional perfumers smell the composition ‘in their heads’ before they actually make it or is it more of trial and error? I know that most perfumes are created through many iterations but I’m curious whether perfumers have an ability to smell something (in their heads) that they haven’t smelled before. October 15, 2013 at 4:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s like reading a list of ingredients for a dish. With experience, you can tell that 500g flour to 250g butter will make a short pastry or that flour, sugar and egg whites in certain proportions will be an airy angel food cake. When one starts learning, the formula looks obscure, but with practice, a perfume can estimate what the scent will be like. Some perfumers are better at it than others. Usually though, a perfumer will write a formula and have their technician mix a small amount of the trial version. Then they smell it, try it on skin and decide if any changes are needed. October 16, 2013 at 9:02am Reply

          • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks for the explanation, Victoria. I’m currently reading The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr (what a great book to get an insider’s look! I wish I could read more books like this.) and something that JCE said really touched me. Because I don’t have the book with me right now, I can’t quote it exactly but he said that perfumers shouldn’t just imitate reality but they should twist and render it to create an illusion that feels more real and stronger than reality. I thought this was really beautifully put. October 17, 2013 at 8:38am Reply

            • Victoria: JCE has a great way with words, and I love the idea of an enhanced reality. In another one of his books he mentioned a difference between perfume and a nice smell, and it was something to the same effect. Mind you, there are some nice smells I like and enjoying as perfume like very simple, single note florals. October 17, 2013 at 10:31am Reply

  • Estrelle: I join others in thanking for this series. I didn’t know how involved the process of perfume creation was. The quote by Sophia Grojsman warms my heart. October 15, 2013 at 9:49am Reply

    • Victoria: I loved that quote too. She’s a very passionate, generous person and always happy to share. October 15, 2013 at 11:18am Reply

  • Rachel: Hi V, I’ve been too busy to comment lately, but it’s always a pleasure to read you. How do most perfumers learn their trade? I vague recall reading something about perfumery schools, but are there university programs that teach perfumery? It would be interesting to read about it. October 15, 2013 at 10:01am Reply

    • Victoria: No worries, I understand that life gets in the way, but I’m always happy to see the familiar commenters as well as new ones.
      If you’re curious about this subject, Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio wrote a great post:
      http://sonomascent.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/learning-perfumery-classes-and-courses/

      But to answer your question, yes, there are programs, although they’re confined either to the specialty schools like ISIPCA or internal schools within companies like IFF, Givaudan, Symrise, etc. October 15, 2013 at 11:22am Reply

      • Jennifer C: Thanks for that link.. it’s an interesting article. I didn’t realize Bertrand Duchaufour was self-taught! That’s pretty cool. October 15, 2013 at 4:06pm Reply

        • Victoria: Many older perfumers were self-taught, because the perfumery school as a timed course work is a fairly new phenomenon. Maurice Roucel, Sophia Grojsman, Dominique Ropion–they all learned simply by working alongside other great perfumers. Sophia Grojsman often jokes that if she had to do a perfumery school course today, she would fail it. I doubt it, but I can see how that kind of structured learning wouldn’t mesh with her personality. October 15, 2013 at 4:13pm Reply

  • Eric: I read that a chemistry degree is required to be a perfumer. Is it true?
    This is off subject but do you know where one could buy raw materials? I don’t want to be a perfumer but I’m interested to smell materials and learn more about perfume this way. October 15, 2013 at 10:23am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s preferred, but not a requirement for every single school. On the other hand, if you’re applying to ISIPCA (Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l’aromatique alimentaire), then yes, they require a chemistry degree for their perfumery program.

      If you follow the link I posted to Rachel’s comment, at the very bottom, there is a brief discussion on DIY resources. I personally can’t vouch for any of them, since I haven’t tried them. If someone has tried, I hope that they will comment.

      Osmoz also used to have kits of raw materials available. October 15, 2013 at 11:25am Reply

    • Jennifer C: Eric, have you looked at perfumersapprentice.com? (not affiliated, I just order from them a lot) They have a pretty good selection of aromachemicals. You can get small amounts relatively cheaply. Most are $3-5 for 4ml, so that might be a good place to start. They have some naturals too. October 15, 2013 at 3:45pm Reply

  • nikki: How interesting! I do miss not having taken more chemistry in school!

    Now it makes sense why some of my favorite perfumer’s scents (MFK) made for other companies are so different and so mediocre in comparison.

    I am very happy that one knows who the nose is behind perfumes, it makes it more personal. Once I like one perfumer, I try all of her/his fragrances. But I guess it is like a restaurant, just because one likes how it is run, it doesn’t mean one likes every single item on the menu.

    Your background stories about the science and business of perfume are very enlightening, Victoria! October 15, 2013 at 11:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Your analogy is great, and I agree completely. Even in case of perfumers who are able to follow their own creative vision, it doesn’t mean that one will enjoy everything they create. For instance, I generally love Francis Kurkdjian’s work too, but out of his own line, there are only a couple of perfumes that really speak to me, Lumiere Noire and Amyris.

      Anyway, I’m always happy to talk about how perfume is created. Once I found my way to the lab, I couldn’t bear to leave, since the work was just so interesting. 🙂 October 15, 2013 at 11:32am Reply

  • Natalia: I absolutely love the way Frédéric Malle introduces the names of perfumers who worked on the fragrances of the brand. It really does turn these bottles into works of art akin to books or paintings. It gives it something extra.

    It is a very interesting article, thank you very much! I didn’t think perfume companies participated in tenders although it should be obvious, isn’t it? I’d love to observe one such tender – from recieving the brief to developing the concept to presenting results. October 15, 2013 at 12:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: It was such a novel move at the time, and I really think that it changed the way perfumers become perceived.

      The briefs are not tenders in a classical sense and it’s all done internally. The perfume houses brief the suppliers directly (and not even all suppliers; just the ones they choose to work with) and then they either test each submission or the brand’s creative directors or their consultants make their selection.

      The closest you can experience the perfume creation from brief to final product is via the New Yorker article written by Chandler Burr about the creation of Hermes’s Jardin sur le Nil. Maybe, you’ve read it already, but if not, it’s highly recommended. October 15, 2013 at 3:40pm Reply

      • Lavanya: Interesting article, V! And thank you for pointing to the New Yorker article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. haven’t smelled too many of the newer Hermes’ fragrances. But after reading that article I really want to..Loved reading about the process of creating Jardin sur le Nil. Thanks again! October 15, 2013 at 10:26pm Reply

        • Victoria: I like Jardin sur le Nil the most out of the garden series, until Jardin apres la Mousson came around. The story also had a lot to do with me becoming curious about it. Hope that you’ll like the piece. October 16, 2013 at 9:14am Reply

          • Lavanya: Oh yes,as I mentioned above, I loved the piece- now I need to smell the perfume. I think I’ve smelled the mousson one- is that the one with the melon note. I don’t think I liked it but now I want to smell all of them just to follow Ellena’s (and probably Gautier’s) thought process. October 16, 2013 at 11:34am Reply

            • Victoria: Yes, that’s the melony one. I think that I was just about the only person on the blogs who loved it, but it’s just such an uplifting, exhilarating perfume (and I love the cardamom part). October 16, 2013 at 2:41pm Reply

      • Natalia: Thanks for the recommendation, Victoria! No, I am not familiar with the article yet. Look forward to reading it. October 16, 2013 at 6:07am Reply

        • Victoria: You’re welcome, Natalia! It’s Chandler’s best piece, in my opinion. October 16, 2013 at 9:22am Reply

  • Dênis Pagani: Do you plan to talk about the role of the art/creative director in the creation of a fragrance? I see that many owners of niche houses are not perfumers but manage to imprint their vision and take the creations out of the ordinary, like Serge Lutens. and some have great material in hands and the results are… meh.

    Thanks for the great series, Victoria. October 15, 2013 at 1:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can definitely write about it too. The role of the creative director is sort of like that of an evaluator, but with more say on the creative process. A person with a vision and strong ideas (Frederic Malle, Serge Lutens, Vera Strubi who was responsible for Thierry Mugler’s Angel) can make all the difference. October 15, 2013 at 3:44pm Reply

      • Dênis Pagani: it would be great if you could write about them, I love the insider look and information you provide us. October 16, 2013 at 11:55am Reply

        • Victoria: I’ll add it to the list, Denis! October 16, 2013 at 2:43pm Reply

          • Patricia: Yes, please, Victoria! This is a great series and so informative. October 16, 2013 at 5:57pm Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you for your vote of confidence! 🙂 If there are any other subjects, please let me know too. October 17, 2013 at 4:15am Reply

  • sara: thank you! i love learning more about perfumers. can’t believe that before reading blogs i actually believed that calvin klein blended perfumes himself. 🙂 October 15, 2013 at 2:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Before I started exploring perfume obsessively, I thought so too. I mean, who knew that “a nose” was a real profession. 🙂 October 15, 2013 at 3:45pm Reply

      • Maja: I just imagined Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears “standing over a pot of perfume oil” creating their new scents 🙂

        Thank you as always for wonderfully informative posts. It is good to know how everything works from an idea to the perfume counter in a store. October 15, 2013 at 5:12pm Reply

        • Victoria: Very happy that you liked it! 🙂

          I have no idea how much Britney Spears was involved in her perfumes, but standing over a pot of oil she did not. Sarah Jessica Parker might have tried it! October 16, 2013 at 9:07am Reply

  • Di: It is interesting, and I had been wondering how much of the attention to the elevation os a single perfumer has been a marketing effort to create “stars” for what are more complex and collaborative efforts. (Admittedly, this has been a response to the earlier marketing efforts to suggest that the head of design houses and celebreties were creating their own juice’ ) I would also note that in this sense, fragrance is not much different than other arts. Visual artists have assistants, Pop songs these days have multiple composers and producers with the head of the record company often weighing in.

    Unlike other people here, I don’t accept the notion that the fact that scents are usually submitted to clients and evaluated by marketing and specialists to be a problem. Presumably no celebrity, fashion designer, jewelery or car company wants their name associated with a bad product, least of all a bad smelling something people spray on.

    Every creative person needs someone (an editor, a producer, a gallery owner) to help them realize the strong and weak points of a work under development. Even a seemingly solitary author like Jane Austen had a sister who helped her with her manuscripts. Yes, in some cases, it is possible that the a client or evaluator will discourage some brilliant indiosyncracy, but I suspect more often they will push for a better product or chose the better competitor

    I suspect the costs of production, rather than a desire to be boring is what limits most corporate perfumes. However, it also should be noted that nearly all fragrances, paricularily corporate ones on the market smell fairly good, even if they are not all diverse enough from each other to interest fume heads. Most casual purchasers want something in their budget (and few causal purchasers would even conceive of splits or decants) and they want something that smells good, but not necessarily challenging. Indeed all those folks who buy perfumes as a gift probably DONT want something truly unusual. They want a fragrance, bottle and brand which can be immediately appreciated by the recipient October 15, 2013 at 3:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Di, I agree with much of what you say. The lack of creative direction (or the lack of good creative direction) at many small brands is the reason why their ranges are either badly edited and too large or simply not exciting.

      But I personally find the way things done today can be problematic. Too many directors, too many marketing tests, not enough money allocated to the juice itself. I don’t think that the alternative to the bland, identical smelling perfumes with which the market is flooded has to be something challenging and totally avant-garde, but I also don’t agree that “people just want to smell nice” rhetoric. If given a choice, consumers can tell the difference in quality, and they need not be connoisseurs. The great classics we applaud today were likewise created to be appreciated and enjoyed rather than as some cerebral exercise (can anything be more immediately likable than Diorissimo!), but they were developed in a less cynical manner and also with far fewer creative directors and marketing specialists we have today.

      On the other hand, we have many interesting options in the niche lines, but not only are they more expensive, they are not widely available. Anyway, thank you for your points and for giving me a chance to muse a bit. October 15, 2013 at 4:04pm Reply

      • Di: By “nice” I did not mean lacking in quality. I meant that most people will want to smell good, but are not going to be concerned with exact notes or chemicals, or whether a product is the original or even the best of its style or kind on the market. October 17, 2013 at 11:13am Reply

        • Victoria: Sorry if I misinterpreted your statement, Di. I understand that you didn’t mean that, and I was thinking of this refrain more in the context of how it’s used by some brands. It’s true that most casual perfume buyers don’t care about the chemistry or composition, but even they want something that smells distinctive to them. It’s telling that the consumer studies I’ve quoted on this blog (targeting casual perfume shoppers in the US and France) reported the same thing–people are noticing that everything smells alike, there is just too much of it, and they’re confused. And it’s also telling that hardly any of the new launches make it onto the list of top sellers. October 17, 2013 at 12:27pm Reply

  • Annikky: Thanks, Victoria – this was insightful and illuminating, as always. I’m very interested in how the perfume industry works. Certainly the more mainstream end of it seems to be very similar to my own experience with corporations: the product is different, but many of the rules and dynamics are the same. I’m sure there are marked differences between the giants of the industry and indie operations, though, with most of the niche falling somewhere in between.

    I wonder, how much of the perfume industry logic corresponds to the fashion industry logic? Surely, all those rock-star designers aren’t really operating apart from the commercial concerns and marketing teams either? October 15, 2013 at 3:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, that’s a good point, Annikky. I was describing mostly the big perfumery companies. The indie houses operate very differently and a perfumer can wear several different hats. The niche houses also do things differently. Generally, they don’t market test and have fewer layers between the creative director and the perfumer. For instance, Serge Lutens works directly with perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, just like Kilian Hennessy works directs with Calice Becker. Frederic Malle might have an evalutor at the supplier house helping him, but he usually works one on one with a perfumer.

      Many fashion houses whose name become the perfume brands license the business to a developer. For instance, Lady Gaga went to Coty, who took care of all development for her; Gucci–to P&G. In their contracts there may be stipulations on how much involvement they can expect and what they should communicate to the press. In many cases, they are severely limited in what they can do about the product. For instance, Burberry took its perfume development in-house after years of licensing it to InterParfum. Let’s see what the outcome of that will be like. October 15, 2013 at 4:11pm Reply

      • Annikky: I read about Burberry and it’s really interesting – but I guess this is more indicative of the way they run their business than of any wider trend.

        But I meant more the parallels between the way noses and designers work – whether Raf Simons or Miuccia Prada (not to mention more clearly commercial and conformist figures) are really solitary geniuses working outside the marketing and sales framework… October 15, 2013 at 4:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: Sorry, I misunderstood. I somehow doubt that most fashion designers work completely outside the marketing framework, especially if they have to answer to a board of directors or investors.
          But for instance, Annick Goutal’s Camille Goutal and Isabelle Doyen until recently worked independently (I don’t know how it’s changing with Goutal’s new investor group) and it was just the two of them who decided what should be launched and when. Probably, this is why their collection feels especially personal. October 16, 2013 at 9:04am Reply

  • Austenfan: A wonderful read, thank you!

    Apart from really enjoying the insight into the creative process, I was especially struck by Sophia Grojsman’s words. Perfume can be a very joyful, personal experience- for the true afficionado that is- and to be able to give that joy must feel so rewarding.
    (I fondly remember using her Paris as a confidence booster before taking exams) October 15, 2013 at 4:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sophia’s perfumes are just like herself–warm, generous and ready to wrap you in a big hug. I used to wear Tresor for my confidence booster in high school. 🙂 October 16, 2013 at 8:43am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Your article, all these intelligent comments and your detailled answers: fascinating! October 15, 2013 at 4:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Cornelia! The questions are great, and it was fun to respond. October 16, 2013 at 9:05am Reply

  • kaori: Very interesting! When I looked back my perfume history about 10 or 15 years ago, it was surprising that a small group of noses had created my favorite ones. ( Thanks to Internet!) Sadly it is a past story. Now I gradually understand “behind the scene” and sometimes it is very tough to decide right one for me. Bois de Jasmin always helps me 🙂 October 15, 2013 at 9:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: There is also so much more to choose from! 🙂 October 16, 2013 at 9:12am Reply

  • annemariec: I do have a question, if you feel comfortable answering: I imagine that perfumers working for the big companies are salaried employees. If a perfumer creates something that becomes a classic and is still selling strongly 20-30 years later, they get no ongoing financial recognition for their successful work other than a higher salary or bonuses that the company may choose to pay them? Perfumes are often collaborative efforts, as you point out, and there are no intellectual property rights over fragrance, are there? I imagine that is why perfumers are protective of their own formulae?

    I often wonder about this. A lot of people must make a lot of money out of the work of people like Sophia Grojsman and Calice Becker. October 16, 2013 at 5:18am Reply

    • Victoria: There is no concept of royalties like in publishing or some other media. Every company does it slightly differently, but perfumers get a base salary and a yearly bonus. The bonus is calculated based on the estimated profits a perfume project will bring that calendar year. Each perfumer keeps a track of their wins, and based on their rank in the company (junior perfumer, perfumer, senior perfumer, etc.), they have an assigned target of wins. In some companies, if a perfume brought it little one year but a lot the next, there may some adjustment to the bonus, but it’s not always the case. Yes, you’re right, there are no intellectual property rights over fragrance, which is why it’s hard for the companies to share information with the consumers and each other. October 16, 2013 at 9:21am Reply

  • Elia: Hey,

    It’s nice to get more of an insider look, although I’d like to ask what exactly is your own function in this cycle? I’ve read a few of your articles, and maybe I’m missing something, but I still can’t really tell what you do in the lab.

    Also, I’d imagine you’d abstain from critical view of projects you’d been involved with, so I wondered if there was a perfume you’d like to stick 5 stars on but don’t review because you were part of the process?
    Or does involvement in the project include such over-exposure that you can’t readily swoon over the final edition?

    ty October 16, 2013 at 10:18am Reply

    • Victoria: My role in the lab was originally more perfumery oriented, but now I’m involved more with research (which I like better than working on commercial projects). I love exploring new accords, coming up with novel olfactory ideas and also researching raw materials.

      There are some fragrances I avoid reviewing when I feel I wouldn’t be objective, like anything created by Sophia Grojsman who was–and still is–my perfumery mentor and teacher. So if I were to review Tresor or Calyx, I would definitely give them 5 stars. October 16, 2013 at 11:35am Reply

      • Elia: what does researching raw materials entail?
        Is that de-constructing the components to create similes, or isolating components to crystalise part of the scent profile, or something else? October 17, 2013 at 3:27am Reply

        • Victoria: That would be more like the work of a fragrance chemist. Actually, you’ve given me an idea and I’ll talk about it in subsequent posts. October 17, 2013 at 4:10am Reply

          • Elia: thanks for all the information October 17, 2013 at 7:36am Reply

  • Kelly: I worked for a few large fragrance companies so I can tell you firsthand that the only way to become a perfumer is to come from france. Many people in the office are backstabbers and are snobby. Even after you’ve worked for the company for 5+ years, you wont be qualified other than to be a compounder. Even jobs that are “open” are immediately filled by friends/family of people in the industry. April 30, 2014 at 11:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Kelly, I will politely disagree based on my own experience, although it probably depends on the company. I don’t come from France, and neither did all but one of my fellow perfumery school students. I also worked at my company for less than 2 years before I got a placement in the perfumery school. I have no relatives in the industry, and I had no connections either. I simply was passionate enough about perfumery to go around knocking on doors and applying for jobs. So, while there is plenty of nepotism and unsavory practices in the industry, if you’re passionate, you will get there. Not to say that it’s easy, but it’s possible. May 1, 2014 at 4:08am Reply

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