In search of a scent: perfumers and their story

My journey to the capital of perfume – the small village of Grasse in the South of France – continues and this time I am going to meet with the best perfumers in the world to find out more about their profession. So, who are the ‘noses’ and what do they do?

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The creative artists, or ‘noses’ as they are called here in the South of France, have to compose perfumes within the strict framework of detailed specifications and particular fashions. Marjorie, who works in the Fragonard laboratory in Grasse tells me:

“There are only 50 ‘noses’ in the industry that are actually qualified and are considered the super-professionals. To become one you need to study for 3 years and then practice the science for 7 years. So after these 10 years of smelling and mixing and creating, the nose is able to recognize about 3000 different scents”.

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Hundreds of new perfumes are launched each year, but very few are able to survive beyond their first year. While this massive expansion of the perfume industry still continues today, there are still some artisan perfume makers that offer original creations designed and produced in the traditions of the perfume houses of the past, just like Fragonard.

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In the past we have already discussed the differences between various types of perfume, such as parfum, eau de parfum, eau de toilette, eau de cologne and eau fraiche. Here are just some of the traditional perfume-making techniques that I have seen in action at the Fragonard laboratories during my visit.

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Distillation

This technique is based on the ability of steam to capture essential oils. The flowers or plants are placed on perforated trays in the upper part of the still; the lower part is filled with water that is brought to the boil. As the steam rises through the flowers or plants, it captures the scent-bearing components and carries them into a glass-cooling worm, where this mixture is condensed by refrigeration.

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This mixture of water and essential oils is then collected in essence bottles, called Florentine flasks, in which the two liquids naturally separate because of their different densities. The essential oils rise to the surface and are skimmed off to be used in perfume creation while the scented waters left from certain distillations (rose water, orange blossom water) are used for other purposes. Yes, almost nothing is left unused.

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Absorption

This technique is based on the ability of animal fat to naturally absorb odours and was very popular in Grasse during the 20th century. Depending on how well the plant matter withstands heat, this process can be conducted at either hot or cold temperatures.

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Hot absorption or maceration consists of steeping flowers or other scent-bearing materials in previously heated fats or oils. This mixture is then filtered through fabric to obtain scented unguents. These perfumed pomades are then mechanically washed in alcohol, after which the alcohol, now perfumed, is separated from the fat. This technique was developed as the fragile flowers, such as jasmine or daffodil cannot withstand the hot temperatures.

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Cold absorption consists of spreading a layer of cold, odourless fat onto sheets of glass held in frames; this fat is then covered with flowers that are regularly replaced with fresh ones until the fat is saturated with fragrance. These perfumed pomades can either be used to manufacture cosmetics or mechanically washed in alcohol to eliminate the fat, after which the alcohol is evaporated to obtain absolute.

Extraction using volatile solvents

Extraction using volatile solvents consists of dissolving the fragrance-bearing part of the plant in a solvent, which is then evaporated. This technique was practiced in the 18th century using ether, which is very expensive and highly inflammable; today more suitable solvents such as hexane and ethanol are used.

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The plant matter is placed in extractors, enormous steel vats, and washed in successive quantities of solvents that imbibe the fragrance. After decanting and filtering, the solvent is then evaporated and leaves a highly fragranced paste. This scented mixture is called a concrete when produced from flowers and a resinoid if derived from dried plant matter.

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If you want to study perfumery, the best schools are of course here in France. As Marjorie advises, you should apply for one of these three best institutions:

  1. ISIPCA, an institution founded in the 1970 by Jean-Jacques Guerlain and located in Versaille.
  2. GIP, Grasse Institute of Perfumery, created in 2002 by the French Association of Fragrance Manufacturers and is located in five minutes from the centre of Grasse.
  3. Givaudan, a perfumery school in Paris founded in 1946 by Jean Carles.

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The key mission of the perfumery schools is simple: to train young perfumers to carry on the heritage of perfumery as a craft and develop the knowledge of how to work with fragrance ingredients, both natural and synthetic. The students are encouraged to combine creative expression with technical skills to analyse and create fragrances. 

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Would you like to become a ‘nose’?


Text: Irina Gorskaia

Images: Irina Gorskaia, Fragonard

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Irina Gorskaia

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