A career as a perfumer
When actress Sarah Jessica Parker launched her first signature scent, a soft powdery-floral called “Lovely” in 2005, she admitted that she had always dreamt of becoming a perfumer. For years, she had been buying essential oils in New York’s Soho District and creating her own blends at home. “I loved combining musk, amber, patchouli and floral oils to make my own personal scents,” she said at the launch party in Manhattan. Celine Dion shared a similar dream. Her series of Dion-themed scents with Coty Inc were fan-favourites and she became so enthusiastic with the process that she would phone and email the perfumers at all hours with ideas and inspirations.
In the beauty world, the job of perfumer holds a mysterious allure. The idea of blending fragrance notes and precious oils in a lab to create a signature scent beloved by women and men around the world is a dream for many. Once hidden behind closed laboratory doors, perfumers are stepping forward and taking well-deserved credit for their wonderful creations. Frederic Malle has been instrumental in championing talented perfumers through his Editions Frederic Malle collection of luxury perfumes. He gives his favourite perfumers carte blanche to develop a scent and then gives them full credit for the work.
One of the most-skilled perfumers in the world today is Guerlain’s Exclusive Perfumer Thierry Wasser. He’s a bonafide star in the world of fine fragrance having created Hypnose for Lancome in 2005, Giorgio Armani Emporio White Diamonds in 2007, Dior Addict in 2002, and La Petite Robe Noir for Guerlain in 2012. He’s worked with Beyonce and Kylie Minogue along with many of the world’s top fashion designers. In 2007, he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur medal in France. His story on how he translated his dream of becoming a perfumer into reality is fascinating.”
“To start, I always say you have to truly love perfume to pursue a career as a perfumer. You need to be passionate about it and have it in your bones,” he says. Born in 1961 in Montreux, Wasser grew up in the Swiss countryside. He unconsciously developed a keen sense of smell by collecting and drying herbs. “I collected herbs like other boys my age collected football cards.” This hobby allowed him to revel in creating new concoctions. For anyone wishing to develop their sense of smell, start by learning to identify different herbs and flowers. Spend time learning the difference between how a rose smells versus a peony for example. What does thyme smell like? A visit to a fruit market or grocer will allow you to experience a multitude of fresh herbs. This is a wonderful first start even for children who want to follow this career path.
“In school, you’ll need to study chemistry and biology in order to enroll in a perfumery school. I don’t know why they insist on this because I don’t use that knowledge when creating a perfume. But those are the rules.” He says there are several good perfumery schools in France. “There is a very good one in Versailles and one in Grasse. And there is one in Paris that is slightly easier to get into.” After coming across an article about Givaudan, a global perfume manufacturer, he spontaneously made an appointment with Jean Hadorn, the director of the perfumery school. He enrolled in a standard course at Givaudan in 1981 and by 1987, he became a Fine Fragrance Perfumer with the company in Paris.
There are a couple of very big fragrance developers such as Givaudan and IFF that hire several hundred perfumers to work on all kinds of different projects. But perfumery is a very competitive industry. You have to work very hard and master your craft.
“There are more astronauts in the world today than perfumers.” – Guerlain Exclusive Perfumer Thierry Wasser.
For those wanting to learn about perfumery, Michael Edwards publishes an annual guide book to all the fragrances that have launched in that past 12 months including information about their notes and fragrance type. You can order it at www.fragrancesoftheworld.com This book alone gives you a master class in fragrance families and categories clearly explaining the difference between mossy woods and say soft florals. Edwards teaches the fundamentals and then illustrates them with examples.
As with any career, learning all you can about your industry is essential. Read about the history of perfume and the most important scents and their creators. Studying and mastering this fragrance history was key to Kilian Hennessy’s early success. He had convinced Wasser to become his mentor and the pair would meet twice a week in the evening and study the evolution of perfume decade-by-decade, fragrance-by-fragrance. When Hennessy landed roles working with Alexander McQueen and at Dior, he was immediately promoted because no one else knew the history of scent like him.
“I would call myself an ‘explorer’ today rather than a perfumer. I spend much of my time traveling to secure the very finest ingredients for Guerlain fragrances. It is very competitive between fragrance companies to secure the best jasmine and rose harvests, the best vetiver and the highest quality sandalwood. I actually travel to the locations and spend time with the farmers in their fields. I’m constantly negotiating with them to buy their harvests. I spend 10 days in Tunisia for the orange flower harvest. Flowers don’t like to travel so I distill them myself for their oil right in the fields. I buy 100 tons of orange flowers every year.”
Writing a fragrance formula is equal parts creativity and science. It’s a disciplined process that is perfected through practice and experience. Wasser can write a formula in as little as 30 minutes which he then gives to the lab technicians to create. This is a chemical equation like the ones you used to see in high school chemistry classes. He’s so quick with the process because he’s been doing it for so long. He know the exact proportion of each ingredient needed to create his desired effect. “You learn how different ingredients interact with each other and how to bring out the best in each.”
“I’m like a chameleon when I travel. I feel at home everywhere I go. When I am in India sourcing jasmine, I live and eat like the locals. Everywhere I go, I meet people dedicated to their craft. And I take all of these memories and experiences with me. I use them when I sit down to write a new fragrance formula.”
He says there is nothing like walking through the fields during the Bulgarian Rose harvest. “I walk through the fields and the fragrance just envelopes you. I breathe in the scent and I’m in another world. Only the buds are harvested. They are carefully placed into aprons then taken to a distillery as quickly as possible. It’s magical. This is the experience I want to capture in a fragrance.”
Former Hermes perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena agrees. He says walking through the fields is a magical experience. He echoes Thierry’s advice that you need to be passionate about the subject and then study diligently. “For me, perfumery is a very disciplined process. I need to work in complete quiet to write and rewrite my formulas.”
If a career in perfumery is something that excites you, there are a number of great resources available to you. The Fragrance Foundation in New York City (fragrance.org) whose mission is to “inspire the world to discover the artistry and passion of fragrance hosts industry events, networking events and trend information. Attending one of their events in New York City allows you the invaluable opportunity to meet industry leaders.
If a vacation to Grasse, France is in the plans, be sure to schedule time to visit a local perfumery where you can create your own fragrance. You’ll see the lavender fields and Grasse rose gardens firsthand and see how the French artisans have been making perfume for centuries. It was Napoleon III who sparked the perfumery industry in France when he insisted on being presented with a different fragrance each day.
Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) is a not-for-profit organization with global chapters that hosts educational and networking events. (The organization welcomes men as well.) You’ll find many members from the top fragrance houses and distributors. The CEW hosts excellent trends events with the opportunity to network.