Twenty years ago, the perfumer was a mysterious creature; probably male, probably French and not usually wheeled out to market his creations. That wasn’t quite true, even then, but the image of the perfumer in the public consciousness has shifted considerably since those days. As have the ways in which fragrances are marketed. The Internet changed many things, including how accessible information (and misinformation) became; and how easy it has been for a whole new movement of independent perfumers to establish themselves, without the traditional structure of a fragrance house -> brand -> consumer. Now perfumer-business owners or brand owner-marketers have direct access to consumers, and the doors are open for anyone to swing through. This has created a scenario in which everyone and their mum is calling themselves a perfumer and it has made some of those old French blokes a bit baffled, or even cross.
So, let’s look at the semantics of the word. What is a perfumer, exactly?
There are several kinds. That’s the trouble. I would propose, that for clarity, we ought to start using some qualifying terms to differentiate between the kinds that exist. On the other hand, if you don’t care about sticking with tradition (a valid argument; things evolve), then we should accept that the semantics of the word “perfumer” have now changed to include a much wider scope of activities. So, let’s have a look.
At this point, I would start with a dictionary definition, but the copy of 1) Concise Oxford English Dictionary does not have an entry for perfumer. The 2) Penguin Complete English Dictionary is no better. Both of them include an entry for “perfumery”:
1) The process of producing and selling perfumes. A shop that sells perfumes.
2) The manufacture of perfumes. A place where perfumes are made or sold (perfumer, noun).
Technically correct, of course. So why would anyone get frustrated if an independent person, self-taught, buys some materials, blends them, bottles them, sells them, and calls themselves a perfumer? That’s because within the industry, a perfumer is a term with a very specific meaning. It’s a job description.
Perfumer – conventional; industry
A person whose main job it is to produce scents for varying product categories. Functional fragrance: air fresheners, candles, cosmetics, detergents, laundry care, kitty litter, panty liners… Fine fragrance: (Usually) alcoholic fragrance blends; eaux de toilettes, colognes, perfumes. Functional fragrance perfumery dominates the industry and is responsible for the vast majority of perfume compound sales within the traditional industry. Just take a moment to think about how many products (and environments) around you are scented. That’s the work of perfumers. The perceived effectiveness of a product is greatly influenced by the correct choice of fragrance; and in some cases fragrance forms part or all of the product’s function (air care; deodorants). The usual way conventional fragrances get made, is that a client (a brand, or a manufacturer) approaches a fragrance house (or several fragrance houses) with a brief for a scent. The perfumer(s) are given the brief, or may even be directly involved in talks with the client about it. The perfumer(s) then submit fragrances for review, and depending on the structure and size of the fragrance house, there could be additional layers to the process (evaluators, consumer panels and so on). Once the client is happy with the smell and the cost of the fragrance, and once its suitability for the intended application has been tested (you can’t just do whatever you like with a scent going into a toilet cleaner, for example; the harsh base product will limit the fragrance materials which can be used), the fragrance is approved and sold. The client manufactures (or contract manufactures) the product, includes the fragrance compound, and usually does not disclose where the fragrance compound came from.
With fine fragrances, disclosing the perfumer and the fragrance house has become more usual in the recent years but it’s still an anomaly in the traditional industry. Many fine fragrances are made to a tight deadline and budget, and share similar bases and accords – partly to save time and partly because the brief might have included a reference to a popular scent – “We would like it to be Angel-type” or “It should be an oudh.”
Training for a perfumer working this way takes years and never stops. According to IFRA, there were 3059 materials used in the scents for fine fragrances and consumer products in 2011. It would be fairly unusual for one perfumer to know all of them, but it’s typical for an experienced perfumer to be aware of and to have worked with hundreds of materials. To get to know a material, you need to understand its nuances; its development; its appropriate use level; substantivity. Some materials smell obnoxious at 100%, so you must dilute them to 10%, 1% or sometimes even less to understand them. Some materials are fleeting; some stay on a scent strip for weeks. Some materials are not at their best when fresh (many natural materials have an unpleasant, vegetative “still note” when just made, and need to be left to air for some time before they become usable); some materials improve considerably when aged; some go off very quickly. Some materials need to be blended with a solvent (like dipropylene glycol) before they’re easy to work with (resinoids); some come in crystal form and need to be solubilised. Some materials discolour the finished product (vanillin; indole) and some materials react with others to form new chemical compounds, once blended (Shiff’s Base). Once you begin working with fragrance blends, you learn about what happens when you blend material X with material Y, and how to modify it. You learn what gives that awful off-note, or what adds a nuance of freshness to an otherwise turgid scent. You learn how to lift a fragrance; how to make it last; how to get a fragrance which sells a product in the shop (when the consumer sniffs the bottle) and performs well in use (when wet, for example). Many (if not all) perfumers develop their own shorthand and, inevitably, their own signature style – as much for time-saving as for artistic flair.
A major part of the job for a traditional fragrance house is administrative and bureaucratic. The regulations (which I am writing about separately; too vast a topic to include here) are easier to deal with for larger companies but are in danger of suffocating smaller businesses. Chemical regulations, health and safety regulations, transport regulations, packaging and labelling regulations – all affect the industry and take up considerable resources. A perfumer needs to be aware of fragrance material restrictions and regulations. IFRA, as crazy it may sound, is actually trying to prevent the over-regulation of perfumery. The problem is the EU, and people who don’t understand the industry trying to regulate fragrances out of existence. IFRA is acting as (currently the only) industry voice, negotiating directly with the EU for reasonable restrictions, rather than outright bans. One can argue about how IFRA is not perfect either, and it certainly isn’t, but as things currently stand, it’s our best hope for maintaining certain materials on the palette of perfumers. I have proposed that there should be an association of independent perfumers, looking after the interests of indies – and if you think so, too, drop me a line.
Conventional industry perfumers may have worked their way up from lab assistants, compounders or evaluators – or have come straight into the industry from having completed a degree in chemistry. A perfumer does not have to be a chemist, but there are specialist jobs in the industry for chemists; including roles in large fragrance houses who also develop their own scent molecules. A perfumer working for IFF or Givaudan may have access to new, patented materials at cost price (or before they are released to others), which gives them an edge over others. Once a material is out of patent, generic versions begin to pop up everywhere. That’s one of the reasons why there will suddenly be a “trend” for a particular accord or a note in mainstream scents – a perfume material might just have become more widely available and the trickle-down process begins. You can now get scented candles and body sprays fragranced with materials which featured heavily in fine fragrances in the early 90s.
Another way to become a conventional perfumer is to apply to one of the in-house perfume schools (Givaudan, Mane, IFF, Firmenich), or to ISIPCA for training, and to hopefully then gain a placement direct from such a school. Knowledge of chemistry is an advantage, as is fluency in French. If you want to apply to some of the perfume houses in other roles (e.g. lab assistant, manufacturing, evaluation, marketing), you may be able to get straight in after your A-levels or university. It’s worth a try – I met someone the other day who walked straight into a sales role at a major international fragrance house after completing her A-levels. The International Federation of Aroma Trades and Plymouth University offer an “MBA in perfumery” – ICATS Diploma In Aroma Trades Studies; a distance-study course for people already working in the industry. It’s an overview of every aspect of the industry and covers chemistry, marketing, origin of raw materials, the briefing process, regulatory issues and more.
Here is a list of some international fragrance houses (in alphabetical order):
Bell Flavors and Fragrances
Givaudan (largest company in the industry)
International Flavours and Fragrances
To learn more about how the traditional perfume industry is structured; and about people’s careers within it, I recommend British Perfumery – A Fragrant History (read my Basenotes review for more detail).
Working in the traditional mainstream perfume industry teaches you vast amounts about the technical aspects of perfumery; about working with a variety of base products (if you’re doing functional fragrances), and about the industry in general. You will also have access to a substantial catalogue of materials (something which is very tough to do as an independent, unless you have unlimited cash at your disposal). However, it is rare to get the chance to work on costly formulas, and so it’s not so self-indulgent or hedonistic; more about being practical, productive and creative within tight constraints.
Perfumer – Independent
Sub-categories: Artisan; Natural
The indie perfume scene has exploded in the last few years. Angela Flanders, the Cotswold Perfumery and Pecksniffs represent some of the forerunners of this category in the UK, but brands such as Miller Harris and Ormonde Jayne have helped to popularise it. Penhaligon’s, Floris and Trumper’s have become known through the perfume enthusiasts’ voracious interest in non-mainstream brands, tradition and independent perfumery (though, of course, scents for many indie brands are made in traditional fragrance houses, by traditional industry perfumers).
Globally, there are entire movements – the Natural Perfumer’s Guild, for example – and groups (Yahoo Perfume Making), dedicated to networking and supporting the self-study process of independent perfumers. Basenotes has a DIY section. Many perfume courses (of varying quality and depth) have popped up. Books have been written and published about perfumes and perfumery; Perfumes, the A-Z Guide probably being one of the most significant works in raising interest in perfumes to the status of a legitimate hobby. Whatever your opinion of that book may be, it was a turning point in the marketing of perfumes, and an inspiration to many writers, bloggers and perfumers (and a headache to many marketers; a gift to others).
One can now obtain perfume materials directly, in small minimum order quantities, from a variety of suppliers (buyer beware, though – the more middle-men your material goes through, the more likely it is to be adulterated somewhere along the way). Some indie brands get their fragrances made by traditional fragrance houses, or by indie perfumers who are set up with a lab, materials and the administrative side of getting everything to comply with regulations, and safety-assessed.
Frederic Malle is a great example of a brand whose ethos changed how perfumers were used in marketing. Frederic set himself up very clearly as the artistic director and curator of his collection, but allowed perfumers some freedom of interpretation – and put their names on the bottles. This was quite a departure when the range first launched. There are also indie perfume brands which set up the brand figurehead as a “perfumer” in their marketing efforts, even though their scents are manufactured for them by a traditional fragrance house. This is still the norm, not the exception, but it’s beginning to be viewed as old-fashioned by many.
There are, of course, many pros and cons about wheeling perfumers out to participate in the marketing of a brand. Many perfumers are much happier being behind-the-scenes, and being allowed to get on with it, rather than to cultivate a public presence.
Some indie perfumers have built everything up from scratch by themselves – two worth mentioning are, of course Andy Tauer and the (world’s first?) crowdsourced perfume start-up 4160 Tuesdays by my friend Sarah McCartney. Some traditionally trained perfumers who have worked in the industry set up their own brands later. Ruth Mastenbroek is a perfect example (and her fragrances are glorious). There are many, many more – and this trend is set to continue.
This represents a bit of a nightmare in semantics: Indie perfumer, self-taught; indie perfumer, not-really-a-perfumer; indie perfumer, ex-industry…
If a self-taught indie perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a functional fragrance industry perfumer; they’ll be met with a blank stare. If an industry perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a member of the general public, it might evoke romantic scenes of sniffing roses and vanilla pods all day long, when the daily reality for that perfumer could be figuring out a cheap but still attractive scent which doesn’t fall apart in a new type of detergent product.
Self-study of perfumery is fraught with difficulties.
The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. Other people are both a blessing and a curse. One of the advantages – maybe the biggest advantage – of traditional perfumery training, is the ability to learn from experienced perfumers; to be mentored and to learn the short-cuts; the problems; the dilutions; the accords. On the other hand, most self-taught indie perfumers focus exclusively on making fine fragrances, which means technical knowledge is not nearly as important. It also means that self-taught indie perfumers can approach their work with the eye of a novice, which can sometimes lead to wonderful discoveries and genuine creativity. Ideally, you want a sweet spot between naivety and experience – to have some tricks up your sleeve, but not be afraid to do things differently; to experiment. Many traditionally-trained perfumers struggle to break away from known accords and the sense of “this is how it’s done.” On the other hand, many self-taught perfumers are not able express quite what they want to through their work, lacking fluency in the language of perfume.
There is much more mis-information about how to make perfumes online, than there is really useful information. Many of the early books on perfumery contain deliberate red herrings. Trying to approach perfumery from a position of complete ignorance (not knowing what you don’t know) is a difficult task. Mistakes will inevitably be made in the beginning. Self-taught indie perfumery is an expensive pursuit and many of the mistakes might be costly. The barrier to entry is much higher than for many other professions. Just to get started, you’ll need a fairly substantial financial investment (materials, equipment, regulatory software, money to certify your products safe to sell, money for marketing, packaging, bottles, closures), and many materials and other equipment are sold only in large quantities (1kg is a usual minimum order quantity for most perfume materials; less for some costly materials – and many bottle and closure suppliers only supply in bulk). Initially, it’s hard to make a profit. Economies of scale mean that the larger manufacturers have an advantage, not just because of in-house expertise. It is a completely valid strategy to decide that what you actually want to do, is to sell and market a brand; and to leave the physical manufacturing process to a company or an individual already set up to do it.
Being an indie perfumer is easier if you have substantial financial freedom, but it’s not impossible to set yourself up without it, too. One of the hardest parts of indie perfumery is getting yourself known; raising above the general hubbub and getting the sales in. For many, indie perfumery remains an expensive hobby rather than a viable business, but there are some excellent examples of good businesses, too. My advice would be to find a mentor, and to really go through your business plan, cost of goods, cost of labour, cost of distribution, and to decide whether you can make it work as a business before you start. Don’t ignore the regulatory and administrative burden – if you sell your products to the general public, you must follow the same laws and regulations as the bigger businesses, but without the same resources to handle them.
Some perfume manufacturers for indie fragrance brands in the UK:
One of the great things about the recent surge in interest for this discipline is the increased availability of perfume making courses where anyone can turn up and try it out without spending hundreds (or even thousands), setting themselves up with a lab and materials, only to realise it’s not for them.
Some of the independent training on offer:
Perfume courses (now also online – though in-person is always best, for the aforementioned reasons) by Karen Gilbert
Perfume courses at the Cotswold Perfumery
Perfume training offered by Penny Williams at Orcadia
You’ll also occasionally see perfume courses pop up at the London College of Fashion, and by other providers – check whether the course is aimed at sales and marketing people or wannabe-perfumers, and whether the person giving the course has some traditional perfumery experience (it may be your only chance as a self-taught indie to get taught by someone who has).
Books which help with appreciation, understanding and learning of perfumery
Level – enthusiast
Level – nose-nerd:
- What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert (a fantastic book about the sense of smell).
- The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin
- Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances by Michael Edwards (this beautiful book is a must-have for perfume enthusiasts, but it’s getting really hard to find, as it is out of print).
- Fragrance by Edwin T. Morris (one of the best perfume history books around; out of print, so you need a bit of luck finding it).
- Perfume, a Global History (a good, if somewhat disjointed collection of essays on perfume history, compiled for the MIP perfume museum in Grasse. I bought my copy from there for 50 Euros but looks like you can get it cheaper from Amazon).
Level – perfumer:
The above is, of course, just a small sample of books on the topic, but it ought to get you started. When working as a perfumer; particularly if on the side of perfume chemistry, many more technical books exist (Allured is a good publisher for these; as is Wiley).
So how did I become a perfumer?
The short answer: in a highly unorthodox manner; and I’m still just beginning. Looking back, it’s easy to create a clear path which has led me to where I am today, but in reality, it’s been a process of searching, learning, experimentation and elimination. There are a few definite milestones on the journey. I was working for a cosmetics and fragrance distributor as a training manager in the mid-90s. One day, the Tiffany rep brought in a miniature “perfume organ” (which, of course, was a fantastic piece of sales theatre, containing only tiny bottles of expensive natural materials in an attractive wooden box). Even though I had sold perfumes as a teen; had worked with them at the distributor; had written training manuals on the topic – the process of making perfume had never been part of my world. I was fascinated. Who makes this stuff? How?
Alas, life got in the way (as did a foray into the IT industry, to see whether I would like to work there instead), so I didn’t return to these burning questions until 2005, when, seemingly out of the blue, I decided I would find out the answers. One day I had that jolt of a realisation – I am a “nose”. I pieced together clues from the past and my yearning for something so interesting and diverse that I could dive into it and never come out (I am, what author Barbara Sher describes as a “scanner” – a person with many interests). I bought a couple of hundred fragrance materials (mostly essential oils and a few fragrance blends), stored them in brown boxes under my bed (I lived in a studio flat), and began experimenting, searching for literature on perfumery, and trying to satisfy my hunger for knowledge. I was looking for a needle in a 1000 haystacks, complete with several fake needles and fake haystacks.
My first blend felt like an attempt to speak a foreign language with a vocabulary of only a dozen words and no idea of correct syntax. I wanted to write a sonnet and I managed “Hello – I do pretty smell.”
Perfumery and writing are the only two disciplines which seem to circle and captivate me; to be ever-present. I naturally thought of making perfumes as writing them. Hence Volatile Fiction – to me, that’s what perfumes are.
Sniffing roses on the field in Senir, Turkey.
I was fortunate enough to work myself up the ranks at Lush to the position of a Junior Perfumer. I wrote about that here, so won’t go into it more now, but it was my first opportunity to create scents for consumer products (and I even made one fine fragrance). Watching the products for which I had created perfumes become best-sellers in multiple countries was surreal, to say the least.
I now work for a UK fragrance, flavour and cosmetic ingredient supplier as a technical manager and a perfumer. Perfumery represents about 10% of my job – the rest is quality control, regulatory matters, customer service, and solving technical conundrums. I create scents for candles, detergents and other functional products. I am still working freelance, but may end up staying at this company for longer than our initial contract states. It’s hugely enjoyable (I am motivated by learning – it’s like an obsession), and there is so much to learn, it nearly blows my mind. I now have access to materials I didn’t at Lush, and that alone is keeping my brain running overtime. I enjoy working on a variety of briefs (the client often has a specific requirement beyond just a “nice smell”) and though it would be a lot of fun to make up fine fragrances, I’ll have time for that later. For the moment, I am happy that this is the right place for me, and the right time to be here.
Throughout my perfume-obsession years (which really started when I was about 16, but I am referring here particularly to the must-become-a-perfumer-years, which started in 2005), I have participated in various perfume-enthusiast activities – Basenotes was transformative in particular. I think what Grant has done there is amazing, and a service to the entire industry; never mind to us smell-obsessed weirdos who were able to talk about the topic with others, at last. Since Basenotes, many scent-related projects and events have popped up and many prefer different communities (Fragrantica, for example). I’ve been a Basenotes contributor for a while, and was also featured in the BSP book, as a very kind gesture of John Bailey, the current president of the Society. Liam Moore, whom I met while we were both at Lush, asked me to contribute to ODOU magazine, and the second issue is due out soon (I wrote a bit of an anti-chemophobia rant for it, if you’re interested). I suppose one major advantage of having worked my way through part-time jobs behind the perfume counter as a teen; to training, marketing, perfumery direct at a brand, and now to being behind-the-scenes at a supplier, is that I have had an overview of almost the entire value chain first-hand. It helps to have a good idea of the sales, marketing and consumer side of perfumery; not just the technical aspects.
The reason I wrote this post was really in the hope that someone, somewhere, having that gut-wrenching eureka moment of “wait a minute, I think I should be a perfumer”, will have an easier time figuring out what kind of perfumer they might like to be, and how to get started. Good luck!
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