How Perfumers Are Trained
The nose, or the perfumer, is not just the creative force behind perfumes. The nose is part chemical genius, part impressionist painter, and part trend-spotter.
Training the Nose
Noses can take their inspiration from nature or from abstract thoughts. But to train up to this position, they learn about smells as a young trainee. In Grasse, a French town in which perfume-making traditions go back for centuries, students learn the intimate details of flowers and plants. They learn what kinds of aromas flowers produce at different times—whether it’s budding, it’s flowering, in the mist, or in dry heat. Noses develop first-hand knowledge of natural ingredients. They develop an acute sense of smell. They develop knowledge of traditional perfume techniques. And they also learn about modern synthetic chemicals. Throughout their intense training, noses become highly skilled scientists and creative artists.
Turning Nature into a Perfume
In Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent, he describes how top perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena worked to capture the atmosphere of the Nile for an Hermes perfume, Un Jardin sur le Nil. In dusty sun-blanched Egypt, Ellena discovered a mango, which represented the lush, verdant green gardens that he imagined growing along the Nile, which of course he did not find. He was inspired by the mango—its fruit and its nectar. But to create the entire atmosphere, he didn’t want to simply mimic the scent of the mango fruit. He wanted to incorporate wood, resin, salty air, nectar, green flesh, and the flowers. The perfumer, pulling inspiration from nature, develops an abstract impression of his experience and the atmosphere to create a stellar perfume.
The perfume making process is not a fluid, organic process where you stand among the glowing glass bottles mix whichever aromatic liquids your heart desires. The noses memorize the smells of chemicals. They understand how chemical compounds change and react when mixed. They have the chemical know-how and the creative agility to comprehend how completely abstract, synthetic smells can be combined to create something that’s so evocative of luscious natural ingredients. In order to create the juice, the do not sample directly from the scent library that are maintained by multi-billion dollar fragrance corporations. Instead their years of training must come into play. Using their memorized knowledge scents and chemical reactions, they simply write down their perfume in a technical manner. They order these selected chemicals. And then using the smallest amounts of these precious liquids, they create miniature samples of potential perfumes.