Jean Carles on Olfactory Training and Perfumer’s Organ

“Perfumery is an art, not a science, as many seem to believe. A scientific background is not necessary for the perfumer; scientific knowledge may even sometimes prove an obstacle to the freedom required in perfume creation,” wrote Jean Carles (1892-1966), the perfumer whose fingerprint is on Miss Dior, Carven Ma Griffe, Dana Tabu, Schiaparelli Shocking, and my absolute favorite, Elle… Elle by Lucien Lelong.

“The creative perfumer should use odorous materials in the same way that a painter uses colors and give them opportunity for maximum development and effect, although it is understood that potential reactions such as discoloration within the ultimate formulation and also the stability of the perfume should be given due consideration. This is about the only use the perfumer will be able to make of his scientific training, if any.”

Today many would disagree with Carles’s dismissal of a scientific background, especially when a perfumer is expected to create fragrances for a variety of products, from laundry detergents to candles. Carles himself approached perfumery in a scientific manner, laying out the techniques in his influential “A Method of Creation and Perfumery” published in 1961. All perfumer trainees, myself included, studied according to his theories of smelling and composition.

Carles’s is an analytical method that allows one to visualize individual aromas and full accords. His son Marcel Carles mentioned that towards the end of his life, the great perfumer started losing his sense of smell, but so developed was his imagination and knowledge of harmonies that he could compose Beethoven-like. The legendary Ma Griffe dates to this period and showcases his late style.

Under Carles’s influence, the method of analytical smelling and perfume creation was refined further, and today a perfumer’s office is dominated by a computer. Using a special program, perfumers write a formula by selecting from the list of materials available in their company. Should the quantity of an ingredient be limited by regulatory concerns, the program will send an alert. One can even set the budget before starting to write a formula and use the program prompts to find replacements for expensive materials.

Carles didn’t work in such an environment. Instead, he sat in front of a perfumer’s organ, such as the one you can see in these photos. Today it’s housed in the International Perfume Museum of Grasse. Carles’s organ contains 256 bottles, and prominent among them were ambergris, oakmoss, and musk ketone, the materials he used to create his famous chypre accord. While he emphasized that a perfumer uses their imagination, he reminded us of the importance of olfactory training. A perfumer’s organ made refreshing one’s memory easy.

Few of today’s perfumers have such elaborate perfume organs within reach; theirs are the sleek spaces in a laboratory. Nevertheless, Carles’s words still ring true. “Our own perfumers make it a strict rule to test daily their knowledge of perfume materials and this is why a half-hour is set apart for this exercise, which we all perform in a truly competitive spirit,” he wrote.

Carles also reminded us that anyone can sharpen one’s sense of smell, and the exercise I propose during my courses–The Workout for the Nose–is guaranteed to produce a noticeable improvement within a few weeks. “Anyone may acquire a highly developed sense of smell, as this is merely a matter of practice,” reminds us the Beethoven of perfumery.

You can continue exploring the International Perfume Museum by reading about my recent visit and Marie-Antoinette’s travel case.

Photography by Anna Kozlova. Jean Carles’s quotes from the 1968 publication “Soap, Perfumery & Cosmetics.”

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35 Comments

  • Timothy: I confirm that after doing your conscious smelling exercises my sense of smell has gotten much better. May 12, 2017 at 9:47am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very glad to hear it. These exercises are simple but they really do work. May 12, 2017 at 11:46am Reply

      • Liz: I have noticed a vast improvement in my sense of smell from using your suggestions. It has sadly rendered many perfumes I used to like scrub worthy, but perhaps part of that is natural change over time and lifestyle. It’s wonderful that you share this passion so openly and lovingly with the world. May 14, 2017 at 10:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, wonderful! One’s tastes always evolve, so yes, this can be a side effect. 🙂 May 15, 2017 at 12:50pm Reply

  • Joy: What intriguing photos, Victoria! I could imagine myself sitting at this table and beginning work. Except I would not know where to start.

    Thank you for a bright spot in my Friday morning. May 12, 2017 at 10:18am Reply

    • Victoria: These bottles are very tempting. I love the classical pharmacy vials like these ones. May 12, 2017 at 11:47am Reply

      • Joy: I do also, recalls a past time. May 12, 2017 at 12:17pm Reply

        • Victoria: Many perfumers like to collect them, by the way. At some point, they were widely used, but today the lab bottles have tighter seals, so the old pharmacy style bottles are for decoration only. May 12, 2017 at 1:46pm Reply

  • Ayamé: Thank you very much for such an enjoyable and informative article, also about the existence of such a program – it makes sense that such tools are used in every field and that modern perfumers are not buried between flasks , rose petals and boiling pots, shaking and mixing phials in dark cellars (as I sometimes feel that few people seem to believe.) It also fills me with awe to imagine “composing” in the head, not only music but fragrances as well…!

    After reading your Workout article, I now understand that it was just normal that I never could wear something “strong” in the mornings and always reached for lighter fragrances, and that I put on those scents with any edginess/headiness just before bed, when I felt that my nose was just “dumb”. So, testing fragrances in late evenings or even at midday isn’t really realistic for me.

    I do feel a bit blue and inhibited on those mornings when I realise my nose is striking and closed the door. I wonder what the training perfumers would do in that case…? May 12, 2017 at 12:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a very good question. I was taught to work through those blocks and by smelling despite feeling under the weather, tired, etc. I did manage to overcome such moments. At first, it feels very difficult, almost impossible, but once you start smelling, it goes away. So, yes, I agree with Carles that we compose/smell with our mind before anything else.

      Composing perfumes today is a rigorous, analytical process, but of course, there is still room for creativity, romance and imagination. May 12, 2017 at 1:45pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: The round bottle caps remind me of vintage Cabochard by Grès. Which I’m wearing today. Cabochard triggers pictures of a very different age and era, the Seventies: Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Sagan, bistros, non-stop smoking …
    Funny how a mere picture of bottles conjures up images– May 12, 2017 at 1:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: You paint such a vivid image. Once you said Cabochard, I immediately thought of Gainsbourg. Incidentally, the period in which I wore Cabochard is the one in which I read Sagan! “Aimez vous Brahms” (Do You Like Brahms?) is especially Cabochard redolent. May 12, 2017 at 1:50pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: “Chamade” is another novel by Sagan which comes to mind. Yet that perfume somehow is so completely different. Cabochard is the scent of the rebellious young fighting the narrow conventions of French catholic bourgeoisie. Chamade, on the other hand, is the scent of the extremely young and attractive and rich heiress to that Paris town palais.
        Leaving aside all sociological rambling: Chamade, nevertheless, is for me the way more attractive perfume compared to the slightly ashtray-y chypre. May 13, 2017 at 3:40am Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve only seen the film with Catherine Deneuve. In fact, I watched it again recently and couldn’t help snickering at the idea of squalor as embodied by a book-filled bachelor’s pad in the Latin Quarter! Now, what perfume would Lucile wear in her two different avatars? May 13, 2017 at 8:45am Reply

          • OnWingsofSaffron: With Charles: Lanvin, Mon Péché, or perhaps, Guerlain, Shalimar?
            With Antoine: Caron, Muguet du bonheur, or Guerlain, Chant d’Arômes (which she brought along surreptitiously when moving from the one to the other)?
            In the end she switches to Miss Dior. May 13, 2017 at 10:18am Reply

            • Victoria: Love your choices! I especially imagine Chant d’Arômes to complement her black turtlenecks and trench coats. May 13, 2017 at 2:06pm Reply

    • Brenda: I so rarely see Cabouchard mentioned and it just thrilled me. It is, by far, one if my favourite perfumes to wear….and it is also reminiscent to me. When I first discovered it, my children were young and a night out with my husband was something to look forward to all day. And, yes…too many cigarettes in the 70’s! To me, it is a real, true late-nite scent and not for the light hearted. I still reach for it when a ‘little black dress’ is chosen! May 12, 2017 at 8:44pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: “Reminiscent”, that’s Cabochard to me. It is strong on evoking another time, another place. An antibourgeois, liberation seeking, non-conformist time: very much l’année ’68. (At least for me, a 54 year old German.) For today’s young/students in the comparable frame of mind as their counterparts in the Sixities but in a completely different context, I guess Cabochard wouldn’t quite work. The spirit of seeking freedom may be similar, but the expression I think is different. Probably more edgy/chemical like some outré Comme des garçons? May 13, 2017 at 3:33am Reply

        • Victoria: I think that it would have a similar effect, but as you say, Cabochard had its own time and context. It’s difficult to replicate. May 13, 2017 at 8:43am Reply

        • brenda: I very much agree with your analysis of some subliminal messages being sent while wearing the scent of Cabochard…actually, the personality of Cabochard…especially your words “liberation seeking”, which I whole heartedly agree with. I’m glancing at the bottle now and two thoughts come to mind: does the tender bow on the bottle really match the scent?…and, the wider question…do we reach out and choose a perfume to wear – based on our mood – or does the perfume reach out and choose us – and, determine our mood? What I know for sure is that my facing the day is not complete without a scent chosen…whether it is heavy and meaningful, like Cabochard, or light and easy-going like Valentina by Valentino. Ahhh…thank goodness my grandmother allowed me to try her Muguet de Bois – well over 50 years ago! May 13, 2017 at 8:59am Reply

  • Tania: Elle…Elle… is certainly not as well known as the others on that formidable list of creations! In fact, the only other person I know who has ever declared he loved it was Luca, who has written about it several times. It is astonishing to think that the same perfumer who made it also made Miss Dior and Tabu. A genius. May 12, 2017 at 3:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s not that well-known today outside of the perfume lab, but among perfumers it’s still a favorite. Many would name Elle…Elle as Jean Carles’s best creation. I learned it as part of my training, and I loved it even more after unpacking its complex accords. Lelong had a few other gems, but none are the caliber of Elle…Elle.

      Carles himself was especially proud of the formula he made for the Maja soap bar. That’s another marvel. May 12, 2017 at 3:25pm Reply

      • Alicia: How I loved the Maja soaps! Unfortunately they are now produced in Mexico, and no longer smell the same. Sic fugit gloria mundi. May 12, 2017 at 9:22pm Reply

        • Victoria: It doesn’t smell the same, but I still like it. One vintage Maja scents my linen closet. Despite its age it still smells great. May 13, 2017 at 4:45am Reply

      • Tania: I passed your comment along to Luca and he was astonished. When he first brought up Elle…Elle…, no one had heard of it, and Marcel Carles did not remember it and had to search for the recipe for hours. Its reputation must have improved enormously in the meantime if they’re teaching it to trainees at IFF. May 12, 2017 at 11:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, no, it’s not part of the program. But it was rated highly by the perfumes I worked with, so I did it on my own as an extra-curricular activity. With some help, of course, as it’s hard to reconstruct that kind of chypre today.

          And you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if Luca was responsible for bringing it out of oblivion. Perfume industry doesn’t exactly treasure its history, but it does listen to the opinion of passionate and knowledgeable people. He has many fans at IFF. May 13, 2017 at 4:44am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Wonderful post, and very informative — thank you! And I hadn’t seen your Workout for the Nose post before, so I appreciated that link. How fascinating that M. Carles was able to keep composing great perfumes after losing his sense of smell, just like Beethoven composing masterpieces after going deaf. The human brain is a marvelous thing. May 13, 2017 at 8:42am Reply

    • Victoria: He has perfected his method so much and he has experimented with the accords so much that at the time he could envision the effect simply by writing down the ingredients. I’m not sure if he was entirely anosmic, though. It’s true that he started losing his acute sense of smell. May 13, 2017 at 8:48am Reply

  • Lydia: I definitely want to try your workout for the nose. I wish I could take a real perfume course, but there are so many other ways I can enjoy and explore scent. There’s no deadline and no rush, just new forms of fragrance pleasure.

    Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful articles and techniques! May 13, 2017 at 12:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: Anyone can try it, and it’s easy and doesn’t take up too much time. The main thing is to do it regularly. Please let me know if you need more help as you start it. May 13, 2017 at 2:07pm Reply

      • Lydia: I will. Thank you! May 13, 2017 at 4:49pm Reply

  • john: I am not sure if links are OK to post, but NPR has published a fun piece speculating that our senses of smell are much better than previously assumed (compared to the animal world, anyway:) http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/05/11/527750147/why-your-sense-of-smell-is-better-than-you-might-think May 13, 2017 at 5:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, of course, it’s ok. Thank you, John. May 14, 2017 at 5:00am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you for the most interesting quotes, I didn’t know Jean Carles had written a book. What an influence he seems to have had. And thank you so much for introducing me to a perfumer’s organ, I loved that the name references music and your wonderful post rounds up nicely with your comparing Carles to Beethoven – I knew of the latter deafness of course but not about the former’s anosmia. Maja soaps are a staple in my aunt’s home in Madrid as well as La Toja soaps very good too. May 14, 2017 at 4:44am Reply

    • Victoria: He wrote essays, some of which were collected in a publication I mentioned. Perfumer & Flavorist once published his method with a chart; it should still be in their archives.

      Jean Carles’s workspace looks so quaint and old-fashioned in comparison to an average perfumer’s lab, but remove all of the chrome and electronic scales, and they have more similarities than differences. Of course, the computer programs are essential, especially today when all of the projects have very specific parameters and regulatory limitations. One can’t possibly handle the typical workload of a contemporary perfumer (up to 20-30 projects at the same time) without such help. May 14, 2017 at 5:04am Reply

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