My interview with a fragrance industry chemist.

A while back I swapped with someone who mentioned he’s a fragrance industry chemist (after I asked why he was swapping it – he said he got it for free at work), so of course I had to ask if he didn’t mind answering some questions. At first he agreed, but then he spoke to someone at his company and was concerned about contract violations, so I told him I’d keep his identity anonymous, and I decided to wait as well, just in case someone in the company he works for decided to poke around after talking to him about this.  He did say that a sense of secrecy pervades the industry, and I got the impression that it might go into the realm of paranoia in some cases, just as it seemed to when I asked the former L’Oreal representative (from whom I bought a test bottle of KL Homme Lagerfeld) for an interview several years ago (she agreed at first, I submitted questions, telling her she could answer whichever ones she wanted, however she wanted, and then never heard from her again).  I had a few more questions, but I am glad this person was willing to answer quite a few, if not all.  Of course, just because someone worked in the industry or is a fragrance chemist doesn’t mean he/she is correct all the time, and it may be that there are differences from one “house” to another.  That’s why I used an identity checker web site (which I paid for) and asked probably the most well-known writer about fragrances (at least in English) to review this exchange, and I was told that there wasn’t anything that looked strange or inconsistent.  Nevertheless, I certainly would prefer to name the chemist, but I won’t renege on a promise, and my belief is that it’s worth “putting it out there” – readers can decide for themselves what to make of it.

B (Bigslyfragrance) indicates a question I asked and C (chemist) is his response.


B:  What does your job entail?

C:  My job is to create parfum within very specific parameters, the most important being PPK (Price per kilo.) You get a creative brief that tells you what it needs to do and what its for (product application) and you go from there.

B:  Do you have any preferences in terms of notes, genres, etc.?

C:  I tend to enjoy gourmands and classic leather compositions (think knize ten) for personal use, but I really enjoy just about everything when done well. Also, I wear what is categorized “women’s” about as often as I do men’s fragrance: sometimes you get a double take on the street if you’ve got a particularly floral scent on, but the overlap of notes (or long tail, rather) in modern fragrance application has created a really wide swath of what is considered socially acceptable for both men and women.

B:  How much thought is put into changes that might occur within the first year after someone purchases a fragrance in a bottle that is sealed (such as the typical bottles marketed these days)?

C:  Very little. This question brings up Perfumery 101 lessons about the nature of chemical composition and how smell works. At it’s very core, perfumery is about volatility, or the rate in which things evaporate. When sealed in an airtight container with compounds that extend shelf life (and inert gases are always used to make sure it it stays fresh) you’re going to get almost zero change in chemicals involved.

B:  Have you read anything online that you consider to be common misconceptions?

C:  Whenever I read about testers having different juice from retail bottles I tend to chuckle, as that would require an entire reformulation, and would cost an obscene amount to accomplish and would be very impractical. To be fair, that’s the view from a larger outfit, and smaller Niche companies might engage in that sort of thing, but I doubt it very much.

B:  Do you have any predictions/thoughts about where the fragrance industry is heading over the next five years or so?

C: Really hard to say, as the industry is extremely trend driven (notice how much Oud has shown up on the radar? Agarwood is not a new material) and companies spend huge amounts chasing trends over three year cycles.

B:  What do you look for in a fragrance?

C:  Tricky question to answer, but I suppose when it comes down to it I look for compositions that aren’t top heavy in extremely volatile compounds (generally used for top notes) as that’s sort of a cheap way to get someone at a fragrance counter to fall in love and purchase a bottle on the spot. Those tend to dissipate after a few hours, and that’s not really the idea behind fragrance (at least in a classical sense.)

B:  “Spoilage” in a major concern of some people, yet these seem to be people who either don’t buy many fragrances that are say, over ten years old, or who have conflicts of interest, while others (including myself) have a great deal of experience with vintage bottles, including splash ones, and have yet to encounter a “spoiled” drydown.  Do you have any experience and/or opinions on the subject?

C:  Spoilage is for the most part a non-issue. In general, the parfum in the juice has two main enemies: heat & light. Within your parfum there are a handful of highly volatile compounds that can be damaged most by heat and light (top notes) so worst case scenario is that your top notes burn off and you’re left with the rest of the composition. This will make the first few minutes smell like acetone (because the first to evaporate in the juice is the alcohol and some other chemicals) but after that goes away the rest of the composition will start to come out. Bottom line, keep them in cool, dark places and they’ll last for an extremely long time. I have 20 year old bottles that smell identical to when I bought them.

B:  If you had to guess, what do you think happens when a major company (Chanel, Dior, Guerlain) decides to do a “major’ launch, such as Sauvage, in terms of trying to figure out what the final scent will be?  In particular, I’m curious about how much decision-making power someone like Francois Demachy may have had, as opposed to the product testing that must have taken place.  Would he have likely produced several variations and then those were product tested?  Or can you imagine a different kind of process?

C:  I can’t really speak to corporate testing structure or procedure, but I can tell you that in pieces like Sauvage, Demachy acts more like a hands off director. Most designer level stuff for big companies are just cash cows, so they spend more time and money on marketing and design than making sure the juice is great. Most companies simply license out their names for use so that the big players (i.e. Estee Lauder) can launch various fragrances under different names to create the appearance of variation, and just keep a “nose” on hand to sign off on the final product and give the appearance of authenticity, while technicians and computer algorithms do most of the heavy lifting.

B:  According to the press release, Red for Men by Giorgio of Beverly Hills originally had 551 ingredients, over 35 of which are “naturals.”  Assuming this is accurate, how does this compare to fragrances today that you know about, whether or not you worked on them yourself or not?  If one wanted to do a “knockoff” of this kind of “old school” fragrance today, what would you estimate the number of ingredients to be?  And how many “naturals” might be used, if any?

C:  The claim of 551 ingredients is a well known piece of showmanship in the industry, because it’s not untrue in the strictest sense, but is somewhat dishonest in its application. The number of ingredients is easily padded when you use naturals in any formulae- a tomato contains a little over 200 aromatic chemicals, but the human nose can only detect 6 of them when isolated (a dog can smell nearly all of them) so using any sort of extract in its natural form is going to pad your numbers.

As far as trying to recreate “classic” style fragrances, you run into one major: regulation. Most older fragrances leaned heavily on a handful of natural ingredients to produce the classic chypre or fougere skeletons from which to build on. Strict regulations have crippled the reliance on the older style of perfumery, making it hard to copy out and out what was available in the past. Worse yet, it’s become much more costly to produce a lot of the older style juices, as synthetics (contrary to popular belief) tend to cost a great deal more to produce than naturals (however, this is a bit inverted when dealing with certain resins and tree based naturals.)

[Note here that one blogger has argued that the above is ridiculous because sandalwood essential oil is expensive – didn’t he read the entire statement?  The fragrance chemist did say this is “inverted” when dealing with particular essential oils, and used the phrase”tree based” to provide an example!  Obviously, there must be some that are not resins or “tree based” yet are very expensive, but the person is clearly talking in general terms, so I suggest reading my blog post about “semi-facts,” for those who want to ponder how to deal with “difficult people” – hardly anyone is going to say something like, “for all intents and purposes” after every other sentence!  Some people seem to enjoy making nonsensical statements – I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis.]

B:  I’m still wondering how they decide to put out a release with a whole lot of ambroxan (Sauvage), for example.  Who probably had that thought?  Wouldn’t that have likely been based upon product testing?  Did you see that BBC perfume documentary?

C:  Stuff like Ambroxan and Iso E Super are the sugar of the perfumery world (they make everything more palatable to the vast majority of consumers), so they get jammed into stuff that they would like to ensure are big sellers (at least initially.)  And yes, I have seen that documentary, I liked it quite a bit!

B:  What about the issue of “cloning.”  As a chemist in general, would you say it’s rather easy to do a reasonably close job, so long as you have a MS/GC unit to test against the original.  Or is it actually a bit difficult to create a good “clone?”  Thanks.

C:  The ease of cloning is directly correlated to the passage of time- most competitors use a Mass Spectrometer (or “shoot the juice” as we say) the day something new comes out, but it takes time untangling how things are arranged, which is very tricky when using captives that were discovered by someone else. However, once they’ve cracked the code the market tends to get flooded with similar products (see Aqua di Gio/Coolwater and the flood of aquatics that came after).

B:  I’m curious about whether it would it be possible to market a scent such as “vintage” Pi now or does it have too much coumarin or something else that has gotten restricted significantly.

C:  It would be very easy to make something similar in today’s market: the restrictions on coumarin are a non-issue in that there are tons of options when trying to produce the scent of tonka bean (coumarin has been synthesized for a very long time, and we’ve had ample opportunity to replace it.)  A lot of people bemoan (myself included) the shift towards lighter, less persistent parfums, but blame it (mistakenly) on over zealous regulations. It’s really more a function of the market: people report wanting less invasive scents, and so the companies produce what they think will sell. We are more than capable of producing knock-out potency stuff, but there is very little demand for them in today’s market.

B:  The other day, I was thinking about the notion of complexity/simplicity, and wondering if you always can detect if a scent is a rather complex or simple composition, or are they almost all rather simple these days?

C:  Complexity is impossible to ascertain without having all the pertinent information (unless something is overloaded with a single ingredient, but even then it might have involved some technical wizardry to make the smaller end pop.)  Something might smell like a high quality rose oil and you think “simple” but it might have been done all synthetic, which takes a ton of work and troubleshooting when trying to match a natural accord flawlessly.

That said, you can often tell when corners have been cut when there has been a clone or when a reformulation is botched, so it’s not really a matter of complexity per se, but more a function of cheaping out.

B:  There’s someone who claims that many if not most cheap fragrances were made (or just happen) to smell rich, complex, etc. up close but smell bland, generic, nondescript, etc. from a distance at which others will likely be smelling the scent.  I’ve only encountered really cheap fragrances that smell “okay” up close, but they all need at least several inches to smell really good (for those that do), so I’m curious to know what you think of this idea.

C:  You’re absolutely correct: cheap fragrances aren’t made to smell different up close vs. from a distance, their whole function is just to provide a decent scent at a low cost, and his notion that there is some kind of conspiracy to trick people with scent duality is pretty far fetched.

And yes, I totally agree that they are playing fast and loose with the idea of blandness/general smells, because there are so many cultural factors and societal factors that go into the perception of a smell (like how in the North America we strongly associate lemons with cleaning products, while the French do the same with Lavender and the Japanese do the same with Roses) that it creates a subjectivity that can’t be easily explained away with the argument that “this fragrance is cheap.”

Conversely, I feel like you could make the argument just as easily in the other direction: so many expensive niche fragrances are made to smell bland in a general sense so as not to offend, and just smell “conventionally good” to please a wider audience (and justify their price point.) I find this to be the case with brands like Amouage, where they are vehemently opposed to stepping outside the formulas you learn in perfumery 101, so the idea that it’s a cheap perfume problem doesn’t wash.

NOTE:  I don’t necessarily agree with everything this person has said above, and one thing I find interesting is the idea that Red for Men’s supposed 551 ingredients is a marketing ploy, because I can’t remember any other scent where such a claim was made so overtly by the company.  Did they try this “ploy,” fail, and then nobody every tried it again?  That seems highly unlikely, but what I find so interesting about Red is that the synthetics seem to be used expertly, whereas in so many other compositions I find myself thinking about whether I’m going to be able to tolerate the synthetics (usually it varies from one wearing to another).  One could describe it as a wood and amber dominant scent, and a great lesson in perfumery is wearing it one day then wearing a “cheap” scent with a typical/generic “woody amber” the next.  This is the difference “quality” can make, even if it is largely the use of more synthetics in a more subtle way.  Whether or not they actually decided to use 551 distinct ingredients, it seems to have a certain quality one finds in a few designer scents in which there is a lot of complexity (but it’s clearly got strong synthetic elements), such as 24, Faubourg.  The thing is, this is quite uncommon in “masculines,” from what I can tell.  Kouros could be another, but in that scent there isn’t the balance I get in Red.  It would be nice if someone subjected these scents to a MS/GC test!

UPDATE:  One response by the chemist, responding to the notion of “sexiness” in a scent, was misplaced for a while, but since I found it I’ll post it here:

The whole idea of fragrance “sexiness” is so balkanized depending upon when (and where) you grew up. Most women over a certain age consider old school fougeres & musks to be the pinnacle of masculine sexiness (classics like old spice, Brut, jovan musk, etc.) but the younger generations brought up in modern, antiseptic environments are more drawn to the smell of cleanliness as a signifier of desirability (“he smells clean, so he must be doing well.”)…

UPDATE #2:  Another statement by the fragrance chemist, coming after the above and after publication of this post, may be of interest also:

…the IFRA has gone really draconian on many naturals for fine perfumery: the legal amount of citrus oil (for an entire 50 ml bottle) is less than you might get on your fingers peeling an orange, so the basic ingredients of perfumery are having to be replaced wholesale.

UPDATE #3:  After posting this. someone has argued (badly, IMO) that the above is fictional, and it certainly could be that someone is claiming to be a fragrance chemist, which is why I wrote a disclaimer in the first paragraph.  However, I feel I’ve done my “due diligence” in consulting an “expert” about it and using an identity checker web site, and just because someone is in the industry doesn’t mean he/she is always correct.  As my readers know, I have no reservations about making my opinions clear, and I also point out when I don’t know something but would guess that something is the case.  I have absolutely no need to invent a person and would never jeopardize my reputation doing something like that – I just wish it were possible for me to bet all my assets that this person does exist!  However, I remembered that something which speaks to this point was said, so I went back to our message exchanges and found this statement by the fragrance chemist:

…I’m on a obscenely strict NDA because I tend to work with captive molecules, and I’m not even allowed to list my place of business on social media because of corporate espionage, and can be sued for the smallest of infractions (and then you tend to get blackballed by all the firms.)…

UPDATE #4:  One blogger has questioned whether inert gas is used in the usual sealed sprayed bottles one finds at dept. stores, Sephora, etc.  Long-time/respected Basenotes and Fragrantica member, “lovingthealien,” had this to say (in 2013):

Many people do this already with their perfumes. This is how they are stored in the osmotheque. Many (most?) factory sealed parfums are already full of inert gas…

Considering how incredibly synthetic most recent releases appear to be, especially designers, and how they use powerful preservatives (BHT seems to be listed on every box I’ve got), I was quite surprised that inert gases would be used.  Also, wouldn’t they be happy if the scent “went bad” after a few years (or less), as many in the industry seem to at least imply?  My guess here is that they want to make sure the scent is fine up until the time they sell it at retail (I doubt they care much about “gray market” sellers), especially with scents that are popular due to the top notes experience (which, again, seems to be especially true for recent designers).  But it seems to be the case that not everyone can “reason through” such things and instead they automatically see a “conspiracy” whenever they learn of something that contradicts their existing notions (does that remind you of anyone who has been in the news quite a bit lately?).


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