Renegades, Artists, and Artisans : Women in Perfumery

“Only a few people have the supersense of smell necessary to become a Nose—for reasons known only to Noses themselves, no woman has ever had it,” wrote one Donald William Dresden in a 1947 article about “twenty noses of France.” All of these twenty noses, as Mr. Dresden explains to his New York Times readers, are middle-aged men, imposing and intellectual. At round the same time, Germaine Cellier was galvanizing traditional French perfumery with her unforgettable Bandit (1944) and Vent Vert (1947). But she remained invisible for the likes of Dresden.

Fast forward to 2017. Since 1947 perfumery around the world has been altered dramatically by the greater openness of the industry and the opportunities it gave women. One would have hoped that their contributions were honored and recognized. In July 2017 Allure ran an article, The American Perfumers Modern Approach to Fragrance. Yet, in the magazine issue devoted to diversity, the article about the American indie movement didn’t mention a single female perfumer. It’s a serious oversight, since the indie movement is inconceivable without female perfumers. Having found the traditional houses either closed to them or limited in creative opportunities, talented and ambitious creators turned to the indie approach. The former situation was especially true for women.

To appreciate the scope of change over the past few decades, I only need to consider my own story. In 1947, for instance, a person like myself with no family links to the industry, wouldn’t have even made it inside the doors of a fragrance house. Yet, in the 2000s I was given a chance to study perfumery on the strength of my qualifications alone. My mentor was Sophia Grojsman, a perfumer who revolutionized fragrance composition. Sophia also arrived from outside the industry, a Belorussian immigrant and a chemist, who was engaged by International Flavors & Fragrances to make simple blends to cover up the smell of harsh chemicals in depilatory creams and other such unglamorous tasks.

Sophia’s creativity was noticed and promoted by Josephine Catapano, the author of Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew.  American perfumery was put on the map after WWII. Until then, perfumery trends and fashions were dictated out of Paris, although smaller fragrance houses had always existed in other parts of the world. The war changed everything. A number of companies transferred their perfume making facilities from Europe, while perfumers moved to the United States. Chanel No 5 started being produced in New Jersey. Catapano was of that new generation of perfumers, along with Bernard Chant and Ernest Shiftan. Her contributions, however, aren’t mentioned as often, although her Youth Dew created a revolution. Perfume could be bold, dramatic and enjoyed by a woman at her own pleasure.

As Sophia Grojsman was crafting masterpieces like Yves Saint Laurent Paris, Lancôme Trésor and Calvin Klein Eternity, the late 1980s and 1990s also saw the birth of the indie movement in the US. Moving away from traditional forms and styles, indie creators offered a glimpse into their own universe. The same movement was taking place in France as well, having started in the 1960s with Diptyque and the 1970s with Jean Laporte. Annick Goutal working with Isabelle Doyen since 1986 made artisanal perfumery a part of personal expression, with its focus on capturing her memories and scents of places. Perfumer Olivia Giacobetti‘s name became synonymous with niche, and her compositions like Diptyque Philosykos continue to serve as benchmarks.  In the US, where would niche perfumery be without Mandy Aftel, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, or Maria McElroy, for instance? The examples don’t stop here, of course, but even this brief overview shows what we have to consider if we are to talk about diversity.

In order to help out Allure, Jessica, whose writing you might know from Now Smell This and her own blog Perfume Professor, proposed that we write articles on the topic. Jessica was the one who brought my attention to the July issue, and I was glad to contribute. This is the first article on Bois de Jasmin in this series. Please visit us on Wednesday for Alyssa Harad’s piece on West Coast perfumers who changed the stakes of the indie movement.

Women in Perfumery series: Victoria J’s exploration of indie and niche :: Jessica’s tribute to the indie pioneers :: Gaia’s marvelous post on  Ava Luxe and Soivohle :: Chantal’s article on French independent perfumers.

Update: Michelle Lee, the editor of Allure, did acknowledge the error and promised to do a better job in the future.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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59 Comments

  • Old Herbaceous: Thank you for this thoughtful article! I had re-posted the Allure article on my own blog and wondered why Mandy Aftel hadn’t been listed among the modern American perfumers discussed, but I hadn’t focused on the total absence of women perfumers. Thank you for taking up the slack! I look forward to the upcoming articles on women Noses! I’m especially partial to Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s work, but would also like to know more about Ayala Moriel and others. July 31, 2017 at 7:41am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it was strange, wasn’t it?
      Ayala Moriel has a beautiful line. She’s a Canadian perfumer, although she definitely needs to be mentioned in any article on indies. August 1, 2017 at 2:39am Reply

      • Daniel Jeter: I had no idea you shared lineage with some fabulous and accomplished perfumers. You must feel so blessed! I was choose Sophia every time for an apprenticeship in the industry. She’s a maestro. I just wish Germaine had more of a profile-she’s the only pre-modern perfumer and a visionary talent. I’m a bloke who like’s Fracas.. I’m glad that you’ve mentioned Ayala. I’ve enjoyed many of her perfumes, especially Incarnation and Gigi- a Gardenia fragrance produced without the usage of lactones, no mean feat! There’s some unique and varied treasures to be spotted. She also has a wonderful blog.xx August 4, 2017 at 1:00pm Reply

        • Victoria: Ayala is talented all around. August 7, 2017 at 1:24pm Reply

  • Mariann: I am still surprised when this happens, though I shouldn’t be. But maybe its because I think surely in 2017…Thank you all for these and the upcoming articles, very much looking forward to them! July 31, 2017 at 8:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. I know that it happens, but it’s still disappointing to find it. Allure has no excuse. It takes barely a minute to look up the list of brands on Luckyscent or Fragrantica and see the full picture. August 1, 2017 at 2:40am Reply

  • Kandice: Thank you for this insightful article. I’m looking forward to learning more about the perfume industry and women’s roles in it. Like others, I’m saddened that in this “enlightened time,” in a magazine geared towards women, women perfumers would be excluded. We still have a long way to go. July 31, 2017 at 9:23am Reply

    • Victoria: And it was in an issue on diversity in beauty! August 1, 2017 at 2:42am Reply

  • Ari: Josephine and Sophia’s story illustrates a very important principle: women hire women! As Ariana Huffington said last month before her sexist Uber board member jumped in, “When there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board.” And the perfume industry is so much richer for their, and your, successes. July 31, 2017 at 10:12am Reply

    • Victoria: The most important part is that there are women as role models. August 1, 2017 at 2:44am Reply

  • Judy: After reading The Non-Blonde’s wonderful article on this subject I came straight to your treasured blog. Thanks so much to you and your colleagues for taking time and energy to “reply” to Allure’s article. Reading these different takes on the subject has enlivened my interest once again in great perfumes. Your opinions and advice have led me to so much fragrance pleasure. You all are greatly appreciated. July 31, 2017 at 10:23am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Judy! It’s an important topic, and not least of all, there are so many great perfumes to discover. August 1, 2017 at 2:45am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Sadly, I am not surprised when this happens as it happens in every field, unfortunately. However, I am glad that you and the Non-Blonde are addressing it. July 31, 2017 at 11:18am Reply

    • Victoria: Jessica read Allure and brought the article to our attention. And we decided to help Allure out. 🙂 August 1, 2017 at 2:46am Reply

  • Elisa: THANK YOU for calling this out! A ridiculous oversight in an issue devoted, as you say, to diversity in beauty. July 31, 2017 at 11:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Doesn’t make sense at all. And did you see that they didn’t bother mentioning that DS & Durga has two creative directors behind the helm. They only cited the male half. August 1, 2017 at 2:47am Reply

  • Jillie: Excellent, Victoria! Well done to you and “the Girls”.

    Sophia Grojsman has been one of my idols for many more years than I care to remember, and I have come to realise that many of my favourite perfumes have been created by …. women! And yet recognition amongst their male peers is slow to come. I’m glad to see you championing them. July 31, 2017 at 11:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Sometimes what I find most disheartening, as in this case, is that the recognition is slow to come not among the male peers, but the female ones. The Allure article was written by a woman, after all. In fact, from Dominique Ropinion to Maurice Roucel, the name of Sophia would be among the first if there were to be asked about a creator who influenced the industry the most. But in the end, you’re right, it’s mostly about the ingrained prejudices and biases in our society. We are all subject to it to a lesser or greater extent. August 1, 2017 at 2:50am Reply

      • Jillie: So true. August 1, 2017 at 4:02am Reply

        • Victoria: I was just reflecting how created some of my favorite perfumes, especially those I discovered early in my explorations. Olivia Giacobetti is definitely up there, with her Hermes Hiris, Malle En Passant, L’Artisan Dzing and L’Artisan Premier Figuier (which I prefer to Philosykos). And of course, Annick Goutal. Eau de Camille is still a favorite after all these years. August 1, 2017 at 4:56am Reply

          • Jillie: Ah, my beloved Eau de Camille – I was using the last precious drops of this during our heat wave, and there simply is nothing else like it! August 1, 2017 at 6:31am Reply

      • SilverMoon: Victoria and Jessica, many thanks for calling Allure out for their serious oversight and dare I say hypocrisy – astonishing to claim to write about diversity and then overlooking the most obvious! What’s equally disheartening is that women do this to themselves.

        Many thanks also for proactively correcting their oversight and reminding us about all the wonderful women perfumers in this and the other articles. August 5, 2017 at 12:46pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much for all of your heartfelt and inspiring comments! August 7, 2017 at 1:30pm Reply

  • Ariadne: I am really looking forward to the rest of this series! It is exactly why I do not read Allure…EVER, and I read BdJ ALWAYS. July 31, 2017 at 12:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. 🙂 August 1, 2017 at 2:51am Reply

  • Sandra: This happens in every field, not just beauty/perfume July 31, 2017 at 12:46pm Reply

    • spe: Isn’t that the truth! Remember the “orchestra hiring study?” When musicians auditioned behind a screen, more women were hired.
      Catapano may have also created Eau de Soir. Can anyone confirm that? July 31, 2017 at 12:52pm Reply

      • Victoria: Eau du Soir was created by Jeannine Mongin, a Givaudan perfumer. August 1, 2017 at 2:54am Reply

        • spe: Thank you for clarifying that for me, Victoria. August 1, 2017 at 9:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I’m well aware of that. Unfortunately. August 1, 2017 at 2:52am Reply

  • Lari: Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio should surely be included on the list of accomplished niche USA perfumers. An oversight, I imagine July 31, 2017 at 1:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, she should be. Alyssa will cover it on Wednesday. August 1, 2017 at 2:56am Reply

  • DelRae ROTH: Great article, thank you. Surprising in a way and then again, not so much. It is complicated topic and not just for perfumery.

    I still remember being in Paris and opening an issue of American Vogue. A huge rose bouquet popup ad introducing the new Paris fragrance was stunning. Unforgettable promotion for a fabulous fragrance.
    And, Fidji by Josephine Catapano, another masterpiece, so beautifully green and evocative.
    Thank you Victoria for calling attention to these two remarkable artists and the many others that follow….
    Bises,
    DelRae July 31, 2017 at 1:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: The early ads for Paris were some of the best, lush and romantic just like the perfume.

      I loved Fidji when my mom wore it. August 1, 2017 at 2:57am Reply

      • Christine Malcolm: Fidgi is lovely. My friend and colleague created it. She worked at International flavors and fragrances. She created many other famous Perfumes including Norell and Youth Dew. Sadly she passed away a few years ago. She was the first woman acknowledged it IFF a fragrance house that only hired man as perfumers. Because you do was such a success they had no choice but to make her Vice President. August 2, 2017 at 12:16pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, Josephine was retired by the time I started working at IFF, but I’ve met some of her relatives and heard many stories about her creations and her talent. Sophia always speaks highly of her. August 3, 2017 at 1:36am Reply

  • Mj: Victoria, I’m always learning from your blog, thank you. I just read Gaia’s one and I’m going to Jessica’s blog to further learning…

    Incidentally, I’ve been an Allure subscriber for years. I discover the magazines, 14 years ago, while living in Ohio, and then susbcribe and wait for the magazine to appear in my Barcelona home mailbox every month. However, I feel that in the past year or so, the magazine has lost what I loved about it, talking beauty in a wider and more thought provoking contexts, so I leave the subscription to die…. August 1, 2017 at 3:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you.

      I always liked the way Allure covered beauty and how wide its fragrance coverage was, so it was disappointing. On the other hand, Michelle Lee, the editor of Allure, however, did acknowledge the error and promised to do a better job. August 1, 2017 at 3:52am Reply

  • Chantal-Hélène Wagner: Thank you so much for your own contribution. I am very impressed with the diversity of points of view and styles expressed through this collaboration. Hopefully, it will all help re-establish a more balanced and truthful assessment of the field of indie perfumery, one in which women play such an important role. August 1, 2017 at 9:13am Reply

    • Jessica: Hear, hear! August 1, 2017 at 3:16pm Reply

      • Victoria: And thank you for being the driver behind it. August 3, 2017 at 1:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Chantal. Same here. It was so inspiring to exchange thoughts with all of you, and I enjoyed your article very much. August 3, 2017 at 1:17am Reply

  • Alicia: Well done, Victoria! and waiting for more. My admiration for Sophia Grojsman is unbound. As for perfumery and women, although not an American story, I recall the case of Patricia de Nicolai, who was not allowed to head her family’s company, Guerlain, because she was a woman. Then she created Sacrebleu, New York, Le Temps d’une fete, and my beloved Odalisque, among other delights, for her own company, Parfums de Nicolai.. Her very family discriminated against her. Their loss. August 1, 2017 at 7:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m going to wear Odallisque today! August 3, 2017 at 1:18am Reply

    • ClareObscure: Thanks to BdJ, I have been wearing Patricia de Nicolai’s NY Intense all summer. It’s incredibly memorable..I would love to sample Odalisque. I knew Patricia was part of the Guerlain family, but not that she had been obstructed by them. Thanks for this info. August 3, 2017 at 4:08am Reply

  • aurora: Reading your heartfelt article and the comments make me optimistic about the future. How abysmal though is the Allure contribution. Now I only read ‘women’ magazine in waiting rooms and very rarely find one interesting article in a sea of barely disguised endorsements. The last interesting thing I’ve read was about Inge Morath, the photographer, by Justine Picardie of Harper’s Bazaar. August 2, 2017 at 5:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much. The thing is that the rest of the July issue was wonderful and very interesting. It’s just this article spoiled it. August 3, 2017 at 1:30am Reply

  • SolangeN: Fabulous article and follow up project, thank you!

    I can recall finding it strange, during a visit to Fragonard’s Paris museum in the late 90s, when the chic young woman giving the tour said women were never noses; because I’d always heard women have a more sensitive sense of smell in order to sniff out dangers to children, and because women are the ones evaluating and buying the fumes concocted by said noses.

    I always recalled that comment when later reading about Germaine Cellier, et. al.

    I would just point out that Allure has a strong vested interest (in the form of expensive beauty product ads that generate most of their revenue) in female readers believing they must primarily rely on physical attributes to be successful. August 2, 2017 at 7:07am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve heard a lot of the similar nonsense, even from other women. For instance, that a perfumer should be a man, because most of the perfume buyers were women and a man would know better “how to make a woman smell beautiful.” More prosaically, many of the creative directors on the client side are women indeed, so the companies think that sending a charming man to cast his spell would help their business. It still happens today, although less often than in the past, mostly because the decision-making process on the client side has gotten more complicated. August 3, 2017 at 1:35am Reply

  • Christine Malcolm: Thank you for the tribute to American women perfumers of which there were so few but this has been changing since the 1970’s. In 1970 I started working at International Flavors and Fragrances. Josephine, Sophia and Bette Busse were my mentors. Christine Bailliford created interesting perfumes, however, they were claimed by Bernard Chant the chief perfumer. Starting as a sample lab tech, I was fortunate to view and compound many of the famous perfumes that were created by perfumers at IFF. Odalisque, Wind Song, Jean Nate, Cabochard, Aramis, Gray Flannel, Polo, Detchema, Zen, Aliage, Cabochard, most of the Avon line, and too many to list. I also received my quality control and fragrance evaluation skills there. Later I trained with perfumer’s who created most of the fragrances at Revlon, and other well-known companies. fragrances and many others for Charles of the Ritz, Avon, Intimate, Germaine Monteil… Now I must include myself in the list of American women perfumers. I started my own company Santa Fe Botanical Fragrances in 1987 in New Mexico, creating fragrances, solely with botanical aromatic ingredients which I sourced directly from countries all over the world. At one time they were in natural product stores, and other types of stores across the country. I now offer them via website. Most of my work is in fragrance development for other companies. Many of my perfumes and colognes were created in over 29 years ago and have been revised over time to reflect the differences in available aromatics. They are reflective of classic perfumery style, except I only use 100% natural ingredients, with exotic specialty aromatics that include; Egyptian Green Mango absolute, Champaka Pink and White, Indian Rose Edward, Tasmanian Black Current Bud and a 22 year vintage Mysore Sandalwood. You can see my perfume list on Fragrantica under natural perfumers. Thank you for allowing me to add my name to this list. August 2, 2017 at 1:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Christine! August 3, 2017 at 1:37am Reply

  • john: Wonderful article, which dovetailed beautifully for me with this recent piece on Giacobetti: https://www.fragrantica.com/news/Best-in-Show-The-Fragrances-of-Olivia-Giacobetti-2017–9826.html August 3, 2017 at 5:39pm Reply

  • nozknoz: I also feel that strangely we sometimes seem to be moving backwards. For example, a few months ago I stumbled across this article about Betty Bussé (whom Christine Malcolm recognizes, above) as a successful perfumer in People magazine:

    http://people.com/archive/success-smells-sweet-to-betty-busse-the-woman-with-the-million-dollar-nose-vol-8-no-14/

    I can also recall Annick Goutal being featured in Connoisseur magazine in the 1980s. Of course, there are articles about women perfumers now from time to time — Mandy Aftel was in the New York Times recently — but I really expected us to be farther along by now. Thanks for your efforts to keep us moving! August 4, 2017 at 1:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for posting this article. In French magazines there are some nice features on perfumers, but sometimes the journalists take this cute, cuddly voice when talking about female perfumes that I find irritating. August 7, 2017 at 1:18pm Reply

  • AD: Thank you so much for writing this; it’s been a pleasure reading these articles! August 7, 2017 at 10:49am Reply

  • Monika Tolgo: Dear Victoria!

    Thanks for a great article. I was wondering, could you perhaps write an article about (working together with) Sophia…and maybe about something she thought you…It would be very inspiring to young female perfumers/perfume enthusiasts. Just a thought! Thanks! August 17, 2017 at 8:33am Reply

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