Scents and sensibility
WHAT ARE PERFUMES MADE OF?
They get their fragrance from essential oils extracted from aromatic plants—rose, jasmine and lily are industry favourites—or laboratory-created molecules that mimic a single natural odour, or combination of odours. Synthetic smells are usually cheaper to produce than natural ones. Less than ten per cent of the world’s vanilla fragrance—found in everything from Britney Spears’s Hidden Fantasy to Avon perfumes—comes from plants, for instance.
Perfumes also contain natural or synthetic fixatives to slow down the fragrance’s rate of evaporation on the skin and stop it going off. But the main ingredient in your average high-street bottle is solvent solution—usually a mixture of alcohol and water. In general, the more expensive the perfume, the greater the strength and volume of its fragrance ingredients, and the longer it lasts on the skin. An expensive make may be 30 per cent rare and exotic fragrances. An eau de toilette may be as little as four per cent synthetic molecules, and an aftershave just two per cent.
HOW DO YOU INVENT A SCENT?
Perfumers often work to little more than obtuse briefs spawned by marketing brainstormings at global luxury brands—“Create a fragrance that evokes a tropical rainforest,” say, or, “We need the scent of an Atlantic beach.”
Although the precise inspiration for a scent is usually a secret, perfumer Lisa Hipgrave, UK director of the International Fragrance Association, says it often comes from background trends and even hit films. “Movies like Moulin Rouge were all about big, heavy red-and-purple flowers, and heavy voluptuous smells. Titanic was about romance and Edwardian floral imagery with cold marine notes.”
Inspiration can also come from music, paintings or fashion. Amarige, launched by the Paris fashion house Givenchy in 1991, with its intense, sweet tuberose (a waxy, white Mexican flower) signature, was said to be inspired by an organza blouse created for Bettina Graziella, Givenchy’s star model in the Sixties.
HOW DO YOU BECOME A PERFUMER?
There are only about 500 top perfumers in the world, and though some of the big perfume companies offer training courses, entry is very limited. Many perfumers have followed in a parent’s footsteps, while others have had to work their way up from the bottom of fragrance firms, building expertise as they go. Azzi Glasser (left)—who fell in love with perfume after sniffing her mother’s bottles as a child—got an admin job in a mineral company, worked on scented pumice stone, helped secure contracts to supply Boots and The Body Shop, then set up her own perfume company.
But perfumers tend to bracket themselves with writers, painters and playwrights. So creative flair and huge dedication to building up an ultra-sensitive nose are essential. “You have to memorise about 3,000 ingredients,” says Azzi. “I often smell things before I see them and smell people after they’ve gone.”
WHO MAKES PERFUMES?
Just a handful of perfumers work independently. The vast majority of new fragrances are produced by some half a dozen multinational fragrance companies, often on behalf of fashion houses or chain stores. As well as Givaudan, there’s Firmenich in Switzerland, Takasago in Japan, Symrise in Germany, International Flavors & Fragrances in New York, and Robertet in Grasse, France.
Between them, they control a global industry worth close to £20bn, and deal with everything from the creation of perfumes costing £500 for a tiny bottle, to the basic fragrances selected for washing powders and air fresheners.
DO PERFUMES EVER FLOP?
Oh, yes. Hundreds of fragrances are launched every year, then disappear when they fail to capture a market. The most famous flop was Christian Lacroix’s C’est La Vie, launched in 1990 with an alleged £30m worth of backing. It’s not clear whether customers objected to its particular blend of patchouli, peach and raspberry, or the bottle with its blood-vessel-like cap. But they didn’t buy it, and it was quietly withdrawn (though you can still get old stock on the internet, if you really want to).
THE FUTURE OF FRAGRANCE
Personalised perfumes—playing up to the fact that we all experience smells in a different way—are not far off. “We’ve [created] molecules designed to activate specific smell receptors,” says Charles Sell of Givaudan. “And we can see whether or not individuals have these receptors and whether or not they’re activated.”
Cardiff University’s Professor Tim Jacob, an expert on the science of smell, reckons that we could see the 1980s fantasy of Hai Karate aftershave—which supposedly drove women so wild that it came with self-defence instructions—brought to life.
“We know that, for reproductive reasons, people are attracted to the scent of those with different immune systems,” he says. “If we personalise scent, people could use it to enhance their allure to the right members of the opposite sex.”
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CHANEL No 5