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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 current convention (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 conventional commercial perfumer is 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 it. 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 process for creating a fragrance starts when 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) submit fragrances for review, and depending on the structure and size of the fragrance house, there can 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 mainstream 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 and use them in a laboratory setting. 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. Perfumers working for large fragrance houses are also usually restricted to only using materials from their own catalogue. Eventually perfumers get to a stage where they don’t even work with the raw materials directly – they’ll write up the formula (or suggest modifications to an existing scent from a range of hundreds or even thousands), and an assistant will compound the scent. Some projects require the use of new raw materials which may need to be learned, and it’s not a bad idea to occasionally visit the perfume organ to re-smell things because every new project requires looking at materials through its own brief. It is possible for a single fragrance project to require hundreds of modifications (small experiments and adjustments to test what works best) and patience is needed. Learning never stops.
A major part of the job for a conventional fragrance house is administrative and bureaucratic. The regulations (which I wrote 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. Yes, IFRA would probably like to see its recommendations adopted into local laws (and this has happened in some places). 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.
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.
So the recommended route to conventional commercial perfumery could be summarised as: 1) Ideal but not necessary: degree in chemistry, 2) Useful but not necessary: ISIPCA, 3) Find a way to demonstrate your interest and seriousness about the industry through work experience and relevant education, 4) Find any job in a fragrance house, 5) Apply to internal perfumery schools or internal programs until you get trained.
Other things that certainly help: 1) Fluency in French, 2) Willingness to relocate anywhere, 3) A good network.
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 mainstream 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 conventional 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 actually made in fragrance houses, by conventional industry perfumers – even though some don’t advertise the fact).
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 indie perfumers who are set up with a lab, materials and the administrative side of getting everything to comply with regulations, and safety-assessed (so the brand owner isn’t always necessarily the perfumer).
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 pushed 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?) crowdfunded perfume start-up 4160 Tuesdays by Sarah McCartney. Some conventionally-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. Of course many perfumer legends were self-taught and not products of a perfumery school. With a growing interest in fragrance as a hobby; as a form of artistic expression and as something talk about, the lines between commercial, niche, indie and artisan perfumery are blurring.
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 formal 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.
The trouble is that ideas are cheap: creativity is the easy part. Learning how to speak the language of perfume is much harder. The technical expertise of constructing a fragrance that hangs together, doesn’t have any gaps, does what the perfumer intended it to do, conveys the message, doesn’t give the consumer a burning rash, doesn’t discolour or curdle the product – now that’s much more like learning to become a software developer. Perfumery is a mixture of art, science and technology and the best perfumers have spent considerable time practicing their craft.
There is much more misinformation 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 support, 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.
If you want to be a perfumer, the first thing to consider is: what kind? The day-to-day life of a commercial perfumer and an indie perfumer is very different, even though there is some crossover. If you are desperate to express yourself in scent, and want to use it as a creative medium, you may be better off heading towards indie perfumery (though heading there via training and a career in commercial perfumery is a great way of doing it, if you’ve got time, luck and tenacity). If you love scents and can’t get enough of them; love to follow trends and be up on what has been launched recently, you may actually find a career as an evaluator more satisfying. If you are analytical, methodical, patient, tenacious, driven, determined – as well as enthusiastic about using smells as a medium (but quite happy to take direction and do work for projects which don’t necessarily match your personal taste) – you might be happier in commercial perfumery.
When you work as a commercial perfumer for a fragrance supply house, you get to do creative and technical work with scents, but hand the project over to the client at the end of it and don’t nurture it out in the marketplace. Then you move on to the next project, and the next. In a top tier fragrance house, you compete against perfumers from your own house, as well as those from other suppliers and you have to be prepared to be constantly rejected and lose more than you win, yet keep going anyway. If that sounds like an advantage (and would motivate you instead of crush you), and project-based work, correctly interpreting the client’s ideas to scent and working within creative constraints sound appealing, this could be the career path for you.
Of course many indie perfumers work much like commercial perfumers because that’s been their background in the first place – now they just take on the projects they choose for themselves. So the semantics issue raises its head again; it’s not clear cut by any means.
Whatever kind of perfumer you want to be, you should not just be okay with, but really get a kick out of lifelong learning. The good news is that once you understand the basic concepts, the rest is just hard work and practice. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts: to become a skilled perfumer takes an obscene amount of work and repeated exposure to problems. This is not a career for the lazy.
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:
Before you spend thousands of pounds on raw materials and possibly years of your life in frustrated pursuit of a dream that may in the end come crashing down – I strongly recommend investing a few hundred pounds and a few weeks or months of your time in some independent training on offer. If you still want to create perfumes after that, you will then better-equipped to decide whether what you’ll really want is an expensive hobby (just to make fragrances for your own enjoyment) or whether you really want to launch your own brand and jump through all the legal, regulatory and other hoops that requires. In any case, I strongly recommend doing your due diligence, reading up on what kind of training is on offer and taking at least one, but possibly even more than one course available before you begin. You can also get self-study kits now from places like Perfumer’s Apprentice and Olfactik – these are a great way to explore fragrance materials at your own pace and test your nose.
I have listed some training on offer below. I do not endorse any of these courses as I have not personally vetted any of them (with the exception of Penny’s distance-study course at Orchadia), but I have spoken to people who have attended the training courses listed here and can at least say with some degree of confidence that these seem like good places to start your studies.
- If you can’t get into ISIPCA or the Givaudan perfumery school (or want to head down the indie road from the start), the Grasse Institute of Perfumery might not be a bad choice (they offer summer schools and longer courses).
- 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 Orchadia (whose Advanced Perfume Training course is a good foundation for further study, but does not teach you how to make perfume).
- Perfumer’s World offers training in various locations and sells raw materials, too.
You’ll also sometimes 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 commercial perfumery experience (it may be your only chance as a self-taught indie to get taught by someone who has).
Books that help with the 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 it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface. 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 think I might be a ‘nose’ – now what? 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 started 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 have been ever-present. I naturally thought of making perfumes as writing them. Hence Volatile Fiction – to me, that’s what perfumes are. Perfumers are illusionists; telling us stories through smell.
Sniffing roses on the field in Senir, Turkey.
Happily I didn’t have to stop there. 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 (one of which I worked up to a fine fragrance which became an instant cult hit). Watching the products for which I had created perfumes become best-sellers in multiple countries was surreal, to say the least.
Since then I’ve worked for a fragrance and flavour material supplier as a technical manager, and for Penny Williams at Orchadia Solutions (a fragrance industry consultancy) as a perfumer and training manager. Both roles were varied and included perfumery for cosmetics, air care, household products and fine fragrance. Orchadia has now become a client and I consider Penny a dear friend and a mentor.
In fact, one of the perhaps less obvious aspects of why working in fragrance is so addictive are the people.
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 have also written for many other websites and publications.
I was featured in “British Perfumery – a fragrant history”, the 50th anniversary book of the British Society of Perfumers as a very kind gesture by John Bailey, a current council member, BSP Ambassador and a past president of the Society. Turns out I participated in BSP events to such a degree that they thought I might as well help out behind-the-scenes, and so I am now a council member of the BSP.
Liam Moore, whom I met while we were both at Lush, asked me to contribute to ODOU magazine, and I have contributed to three of the four issues so far. 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; to behind-the-scenes at a fragrance supplier, and now to a fragrance industry consultancy, 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.
In the end, I’ve been geeking out about fragrance and writing about it so much that I’ve set up freelance and have plans afoot for some perfume projects (which are still under wraps), but in the meantime, I help other brands with strategy; their products; their dreams and, of course, their stories – and write for Perfumer & Flavorist, too.
I wrote this post 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!
Copyright Pia Long. You may not reproduce this article in any publication without explicit prior written permission. If you want to use this post for staff training, or for any internal educational purpose (at a school, university or any other organisation), please use it under these conditions: 1) it must remain complete, unaltered and include this notice, 2) you must include the complete URL to this page and my name, 3) you must not include it as part of any training for which you are charging a fee.
EDITED TO ADD: I have recently visited the Givaudan perfumery school and am working on some features about what they look for in students and what it’s really like to study there. I’m also in the process of evaluating some of the courses available. Subscribe to this blog to keep up-to-date.