There are often myths that surround the study of perfumery. Some people I have shared my interest with have commented, “Don’t you need a chemistry degree to do that?” and in some instances they are correct. To study at the prestigious ISIPCA perfume school in Versailles a degree in chemistry is a prerequisite. Otherwise generally speaking, perfumers are not chemists. Students of perfumery usually begin studying inside a school of one of the world’s large perfume manufacturers. Successful students are not only required to be accomplished composers; they must also memorize hundreds of raw materials and their characteristics. This style of learning is often tailored to the working environments of large manufacturers such as Givaudan, IFF or Firmenich and students graduate taking up positions within the parent company.
The challenge I faced was to find a learning path that was sufficiently in-depth and designed for perfume enthusiasts instead of industry professionals. Some years ago I enrolled in a distance-learning course with Perfumers World, an organization based in Bangkok. Their system of shipping students raw materials and the coursework is completed online suited my need at the time. This was my introduction to modern perfumery, giving me a basic understanding of raw materials and how to build simple reconstitutions of popular flowers such as rose, jasmine and lily of the valley. After this I knew the next step was some form of face-to-face training.
Earlier this year my online wanderings lead me to an organization in Grasse that offer a 2-week summer school in English. This seemed perfect. Not only would I be learning about perfume with a qualified tutor, I would also be doing it in the historic heart of the perfume industry. The Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP) is a division of ASFO-Grasse and has been running since 2002. Annually the school has a small intake of students who live and study in Grasse for a year. While the students are on summer break, the GIP run a series of short courses including programs for English speakers.
I enrolled in their September program with some trepidation, as there was not a lot of information about the course available online and email correspondence with the school had been irregular. Part of the reason I am writing this blog entry is to share my positive experience, which could help those interested in GIP’s English summer school. Our tutor for the two weeks was Laurence Fauvel, a perfumer who graduated from Givaudan’s school of perfumery. GIP facilitators are all working perfumers and many of them come from or have experience with companies such as Givaudan, Mane and Takasago. Not only do you learn standard industry practices, you also get a sense of what the life of a perfumer is like for those that chose to study via more traditional methods. For me, an unexpected pleasure was meeting a group of perfume lovers like myself from all over the world. My student group came from as far abroad as, Alaska, Brazil, Italy, Japan, Russia, France and Switzerland. I even met another Australian, a candle maker from Melbourne.
In our introduction Laurence gave us a lesson in the history of perfume as well as a history of Grasse. Each lesson was peppered with Laurence’s own work experiences that she used to illustrate a point in the curriculum and at other times she entertained us with amusing stories that only an insider of this secretive industry could tell. Our first week was dedicated to natural raw materials. Laurence said that for a perfumer, it is important to first understand naturals and then one can move on to synthetics. It was like a scent meditation. As each raw material was presented, we focused on its characteristics and recorded our impressions in notebooks. Laurence shared with us her own impressions and how the material works in formulation. For example vetiver can bring saltiness to a formula when overdosed and cedarwood adds a dryness that you do not find in sandalwood, which is creamier. By the end of week one we had evaluated over 40 raw materials of natural origin. We also analyzed the difference in odour resulting from various extraction methods. The subtle differences between rose absolute and rose oil was something I had not considered; the absolute is a richer long lasting odour that can still be perceived in the base note of a perfume whereas oil extracted by steam distillation has a sharper odour that is more volatile, proving useful in the top and heart notes. Each morning and sometimes in the afternoon Laurence gave us a blind test of 10 raw materials that we had to identify. For me, it was interesting to see how the same raw material could ‘shift’ from one day to another. This is often the case with naturals because they are complex blends of aromas and this can be a reason why perfumers prefer to work with synthetics. Laurence made a comparison between blackcurrant bud absolute and the synthetic Cassis Base 345B by Firmenich. The synthetic is linear whereas the natural is complex and moving.
As part of our study of naturals we visited a jasmine farmer who was picking for Robertet, a local manufacturer that specialize in the production of high-end naturals. Their jasmine absolute can easily cost upwards of 2000 euro a kilo. Although the farmer grew jasmine, Robertet was encouraging him to expand his small crop of single stem tuberoses. Even with this encouragement the farmer had concerns because a harvestable field of tuberoses takes 5 years to grow and if the current trend for tuberose perfumes dies off so does his 5-year investment. Horticulture in Grasse is becoming increasingly challenging. The farmer said his son has no interest in continuing the family business and his jasmine is increasingly more expensive to harvest. In better times the farm could yield 600-700 tons of jasmine a year. Now the demand is much less and Grasse farmers cannot compete with countries such as India and Egypt who can produce at much lower costs and still satisfy the demand with lower quality product. Many of the small plantations are slowly disappearing. Chanel guaranteed the security of its jasmine and rose stocks by buying fields in the surrounding village of Pegomas but without such support, Grasse’s jasmine and rose fields are at risk of extinction.
By the end of the week we began evaluating some classic perfumes from the past fifty years such as Feminite du Bois, Eau Sauvage, Terre d’Hermes, Chanel No. 5 and many others. This gave us an opportunity to begin seeing the raw materials we had smelt in isolation, working in a perfume. This lead to our first formulation lesson. To further develop our evaluation skills Laurence gave us a list of ingredients for a formula she had written. The first was eau de cologne. Smelling each material separately we had to estimate the amount in the formula, considering how diffusive the material was and how much of its character would be present in the formula. This was an interesting task because often the material that has the largest dosage in a formula is not always the material that speaks the loudest. Laurence corrected our estimates and we measured out the formula on the laboratory measuring scales. Later we could adapt and experiment with the formula. Our brief was to stay within the boundaries of an eau de cologne, but bring something new to the theme. I adapted the neroli oil content by adding orange flower absolute and in the base I decided to add the modern dry amber/wood molecule Karanal. I liked my attempt at modernizing this classic genre but Laurence felt I had stretched the cologne concept too far and my creation was more of an eau de toilette. My attempt at a fougere was less successful although one of the accords in my fougere made from Javanol, Iso E Super, Ambroxan and Hedione was interesting enough for me to keep in my notepad for future reference. Using these heavier molecules Laurence advised me to wait a day for maceration to occur before I evaluate my creation.
By the second week we had more formulations to work with and our vocabulary of odours stretched to synthetic molecules. My chypre aimed to be something between Mistouko and Miss Dior and I realized the importance of methyl ionone in the chypre accord. Methyl ionone is a woody violet note that I did not immediately identify in the chypre theme but without it you do not achieve the same vibrant effect seen in the classic chypres of the 1950s and before. Another formula we worked on was a modern aquatic theme similar to CK One. This lead to a discussion on counter-typing and Laurence explained that in large companies part of the job of a perfumer is to counter-type. Gas chromatography can identify around 80% of a perfume’s components. The perfumer’s nose is needed to identify the remaining 20%. Counter-typing isn’t about copying perfumes. Large companies use counter-typing as a way to understand top selling perfumes and should a new client request a detergent or perfume that smells like a current best seller, the creative department know the DNA of that top seller and they can quickly adapt it to their client’s needs. Sadly in today’s fast paced industry this happens all too often and the demand for a quick turnaround of design briefs is valued above creativity.
Our field trip in the second week was a visit to Expressions Parfumees, a company that specializes in creating fragrance for artistic perfumery as well as technical perfumery (paints and gasoline). The company employs a team of 11 perfumers in Grasse who work on a variety of projects. Laurence said that for larger companies perfumers would specialize in working with different bases. One perfumer will specialize in alcoholic bases, another detergents and another gels or lotions. In smaller companies perfumers need to be multi-specialists because a perfume formula for bath oil will be different from an eau de toilette even if to the customer’s nose, they smell the same. At Expressions Parfumees the marketing team is responsible for providing the perfumers with reports on trends and competitor analysis. In perfume they saw an increase in fleur d’oranger notes and a continued rise in the popularity of chypre styled perfumes. This trend of heavier woody perfumes could be attributed to modern laundry detergents, shower gels, deodorants, hair care and cosmetics, which today are all heavily fragranced. By the time a person comes to apply a perfume, they need something strong enough to mask the presence of all these other odours.
Like most perfume manufacturers, Expressions Parfumees keep a library of all its creations. If a brief cannot be answered with an existing idea from the library, the creative team may adapt an existing formula that is close to what the client has requested. Otherwise the perfumers need to build a new idea from the ground up, which increases development time. In large companies perfumers can work on as many as 10 briefs per month. Or the whole team may work together on an important brief such as a new perfume for YSL or another high profile client. A fact I found interesting was that the client does not pay any service fee for creation. The sale of the compound is where the perfume manufacturers make their investment back. Unless a perfume is made in-house as is the case with brands like Chanel, Guerlain and now Dior, the brand never sees, nor do they own the rights to the formula. This remains the property of the compound manufacturer. At Expressions Parfumees the smallest quantity of compound they sell is 5kg and orders can head into a tonnage for multi-national clients. A perfumer’s performance is measured by how many briefs they win and how many kilos of the winning compound are sold per annum. After visiting the quality-testing department we also visited the warehouse where formulas are blended for large orders. Expressions Parfumees use state of the art computerized robots that can mix hundreds of kilos of formula with perfect precision. The only materials that are mixed by hand are precious oils and absolutes.
After this field trip our group had come to the last day of study. We finalized the formulas we had been working on and had an evaluation in the school garden where we introduced our perfumes and offered feedback for perfumes made by others in the group. For me, two weeks was the perfect length for the course. Any longer and my mind and nose would have become saturated with information and any less, I would have left wanting more. If you are considering attending a perfume course, what GIP offer is well worth considering. You do not need to go with any prior training; you just need a passion for perfume. And for those that have a basic understanding, I found our tutor was very open to conversing on the side if there was any topic I wanted to understand in more depth. I would recommend this course not only for those interested in perfume making but also for those that want a richer appreciation of their favourite perfume or their perfume collection.
Grasse Institute of Perfumery, in Grasse, France