Friday, 23 July 2010

The Science of Scent

Yesterday, I went to attend a lecture at the grand-sounding Royal Institution of Great Britain, a place that has been a leading centre in scientific research in the UK for more than 200 years. The lecture I attended was part of their public programme, and the talk, The Science of Scent: Adventures in a creative mind, was the third and final lecture in a series on thinking about the developments in smell, held in conjunction with Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Led by Will Andrews, a fragrance evaluator for P&G, he began by stating how the aim of this lecture was think about the idea or image of fragrances, or smells, and to introduce how this process happened. He emphasized that while the development of a perfume is very much a design process, it is not an art, but rather an expert profession. The training process to be become an expert perfumer takes several years, not least due to the complexity of learning the various components that go into making a perfume. In particular there is the need for perfumers to get to grips with the vast number of ingredients that a perfume can be made of, which runs into the thousands, both natural and synthetic, and their potential to inform the making of new perfumes through their infinite variety of combinations. While working with odours or smells is very much an inward process, necessitated by the need to work with perfume ingredients in an isolated way, Andrews explained that the ‘’design process’’ of perfume is similar to others, such as graphic or textile design. In particular, the development of a ‘’reference point’’ for commencing the development of a new perfume, where certain influences are more potent or relevant than others. For fragrance in particular, however, the ‘’memory’’ of certain odours, such as though from childhood, like certain fruits, or the perfume your Nana used to wear, are especially relevant reference points. As so many smells are associated with particular experiences, there comes the challenge of how to develop such a compelling memories or ideas into a wearable fragrance. For example, Andrews mentioned how many people like the smell of petrol, yet this is not an odour you do not necessarily wish to wear on your skin.

Lecture Theatre, RIGB, London

In developing a new perfume for a fashion brand Andrews identified the three main challenges all perfumers face in creating new ones. We each of us have personal emotional responses to certain odours, finding some repugnant and others comforting. The perfumer, however, needs to remain objective in the selection of ingredients. Secondly, and perhaps surprisingly, Andrews stated that there is no universal measure of odours as such, that is it not possible to count the total number of smells, and nor can smell be calibrated in the same music can, which can be measured in terms of decibels for instance. In addition there is no specific language of odour in our culture, which compounds the difficulty of describing odours in words objectively. To get around this problem every perfume company develops their own base or structure of referents. Andrews made reference to the wine tasting ‘’wheel’’ developed by Ann Noble in 1990, which has held to combat a similar problem in the wine industry. Similarly, P&G makes use of its own wheel of table of odour types, broadly divided into male and female, with ‘’male’’ odours being on the more woody or aromatic spectrum, and ‘’female’’ odours tending to be in the floral spectrum. As Andrews noted, even though scent is not gendered per se, there is no such thing as a 'female' of a 'male' odour, societal conventions developed over time dictate that is has become gendered. In developing perfumes aimed at women or men it remains as useful division for those working in creating new perfumes for fashion brands.

In gaining an insight into how a perfumer works on developing ideas for new perfumes Andrew had brought along colleagues from P&G Prestige, who included senior perfumer Jose-Maria Velazquez. Originally from Mexico, Velazquez explained how those smells and odours from childhoold remained important references. As a professional perfumer with 20 years experinece he explained that even today he was perhaps only familiar with only half the potential kinds of smells there are, including both natural and synthetic. Although there is a definite structure to learning the processes of perfume development (Velazquez began his career as a chemist), it was emphasized that a creative flair was just as important as technical know-how in the role of perfumer. In illustrating how and where perfumers develop their inspiration, Andrews spoke about how one perfume had come about through a perfumers idea to combine the odour of the forest in the Acadia National Park, on the USA's Eastern seaboard, with the odour of the Atlantic Ocean, on which the forest pines fall into. In the same way that fashion designers seek inspiration in places or through experiences, so to does the perfumer. For Andrews, the partnership of fashion and perfume acts as the perfect platform, describing scent as ''clothing without a physical form''. He mentioned the example of the original Hugo Boss fragrance as a highly successful example of this.

Hugo Man Green

In concluding, Andrews described how developing a perfume can be compared to working on a film production. Even though perfumery may, on the surface, appear a solitary occupation, working on fragrances in a laboratory, the reality of creating a new perfume with a fashion brand is very much a team effort. In the Q&A that followed the lecture he briefly referenced the differing concepts of smell in the Western and Easter traditions. While scent-wearing in the Europe developed as a way of covering up the noxious smells of both personal body odour and the urban dirt of the city, in Asia, the traditions are very different, although there was no time to elaborate on this further.

With the main lecture over, the audience was divided up into three groups, and we had the opportunity to hear further from the P&G Prestige perfumers about the process of putting a perfume together, and specifically the ''layering'' of smells. Velazquez led the group I was in, and it was certainly interesting to hear about the challenge he faced in developing a perfume which replicated the odour of leather. During his talk we were offered samples of the five different smells that were used at differing times during the process, from initial samples from original natural and synthetic smells, through to a more polished scent. Even as a non-expert perfumer, it was intriguing to note the significant difference between the natural and synthetic smells. While I am sure P&G were revealing no real 'secrets', we were informed that this new leather-like perfume designed with men in mind was in fact a 'sneak preview' of a forthcoming perfume for an un-named fashion brand.


The Royal Institution of Great Britain:

P&G (UK and Ireland):

Hugo - Hugo Boss Fragrances:

Boss - Hugo Boss Fragrances:

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