Wednesday, Apr. 01, 2009

Making Scents of It

The temptation on being introduced to Jean Guichard and Antoine Lie is to look each of them in the nose. For both are perfumers, working for the world's leading fragrance company, a giant called Givaudan that holds a 25% market share of an industry with a global value of $14.6 billion.

In fact, neither the veteran, Guichard, who counts among his creations 1987's Loulou by Cacharel, which was the best-selling fragrance across Europe in 1989, nor Lie (pronounced Lee), who was trained by Guichard and went on to create the 2004 blockbuster Armani Code, demonstrates even a hint of the olfactory exuberance of a Cyrano de Bergerac. "You create perfume mentally, not with your nose," Guichard
explains. "So even old perfumers who cannot smell anymore can still create very well. People who play music can understand this, as with Beethoven. You can smell mentally, like you can see mentally. If I say yellow, you can see yellow. With smell, it is exactly the same. If you say eugenol, I will get the smell of cloves."

As for Givaudan — which has its headquarters in Vernier, Switzerland, and its perfumers based in New York City and just outside Paris, in Argenteuil — its name may be unfamiliar. Yet the following fragrances, which have defined eras and endured beyond them, won't be: Fracas by Robert Piguet and L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci, from the 1940s; Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, from the '70s; Poison by Christian -Dior, from the '80s; Angel by Thierry Mugler, from 1992; and the current best seller, Infusion d'Iris by Prada, released in 2007.

Givaudan is confident that the hits — and profits — will continue even in challenging times. Fragrance sales (along with those of cosmetics) have been the financial backbone of a fashion industry now in a downturn. And perfume is one of the rare luxuries, historically, that remain in demand even in a listless economy. While the number of new perfumes coming to -market — more than 500 in 2008 alone — is in a sharp decline, executives at Givaudan seem far from cowed by the current climate, going so far as to call it "good." Fewer launches will mean the consumer will be less overwhelmed. "Things were happening too fast," says Michael Carlos, president of the fragrance division.

More precious than speed, apparently, is the company's reach. The fragrance empire traces its origins back to 1796 and owes its size to 25 successful mergers and acquisitions. (On a more prosaic level, it is also responsible for the lemon scent of your detergent.) Even if your favorite fragrance was not created by Givaudan, it's 
likely there's a link. The company's 60-year-old perfume school in Argenteuil, which Guichard helms, is so renowned in the business, you could call it the olfactory equivalent of Harvard. Almost all the best "noses" are alumni, including Jacques Polge of Chanel and 
Jean-Claude Ellena of Hermes. Indeed, one-third of the world's fragrances have been created by perfumers trained by Givaudan. From the 200 or so applicants each year — most of whom are already working in the industry — only three or four are admitted to the grueling three-year course. They receive a salary while they study and, in return, are contracted to work for the company after graduation, although later they can go where they please. Among the alumni who have left Givaudan and later returned is Antoine Lie.

What makes a great perfumer? The gift of a good sense of smell is just the start. (And no, perfumers don't wrap their noses under scarves in the winter months, and some even smoke.) The hard work comes in developing a memory of more than 1,200 ingredients — akin to learning the Mandarin of smell — and then using this alphabet, known by heart, to conjure up the fragrance equivalents of words, then -phrases. Six months into the course, students must be able to visualize tuberose, lilac and bergamot as automatically as the rest of us can see the colors of the rainbow. They must also be able to recognize the 500 components that together give scent to a single rose. As a result of his training, Lie can even create perfume on the go, away from the lab. "When I'm traveling, if an e-mail arrives saying 'Make it more fruity,' I can look at the formulation on my laptop and see in my head what I need to add," he says.

Students also study the Dante, Shakespeare and Voltaire of fragrance, which is to say classics such as Chanel No. 5 and, above all, Fracas, which, heady with the carnal floral notes of tuberose, remains "essential to perfume's genealogy," according to Guichard. "Just as 
Picasso could not have existed without Van Gogh, without Fracas, there would be no Chloe, no Michael Kors, no Poison by Dior. Fracas is the mother to modern perfume."

While learning from the past, students must also embrace the present. They are encouraged to see exhibitions, go to movies and hang out — to the point that the request of a student who wanted to condense the course into two years was refused because working late would interfere with his life outside school. "We can teach technique, but we are not able to teach ideas," says Guichard. "We always say that when a perfume is successful, it is not just luck. It is because it translates the idea of its time, exactly like music or like fashion." As for outside influences, Lie, who numbers Ralph Lauren Romance Men, Paul Smith London and Davidoff Adventure among a string of hits in the men's market, loves the movies of Martin Scorsese and is developing a scent for which the brief includes the words American and tough. So he's listening to Johnny Cash on his iPod.

Some of the greatest perfumes have been created by those at the beginning of their career, when their fresh ideas are matched with enough technical skill. "But the balance is very fragile. There can be a time when everything is very easy, and then, later on, you can be out of touch," counsels Guichard, who says he is relieved that often, late in their career, perfumers get what the French call un deuxieme souffle
(a second wind). Guichard likens the life of a perfumer to that of an actor. One minute you're the hot young buck, and everyone thinks your life is wonderful, even though you've slept in your car to get there. Then you wake up one day too old to play young and too young to play old. Things get better much later, when the character roles start coming in.

Perfumers work in close partnership with the marketing czars of the global beauty business, such as Estee Lauder and Elizabeth 
Arden (companies that also, confusingly, might be fragrance creators, as some employ in-house perfumers). While the likes of L'Oreal have the overall know-how — from deciding which designer or singer to sign to choosing the bottle, packaging, image and name — Givaudan or one of its few competitors in sensory innovation gets called in to supply "the juice," a process in which the client is extremely collaborative. The person whose name is on the bottle, however, may not be collaborative at all, although those who play an active role can reap dividends. President of fragrance Carlos cites Tom Ford, "who has a great sense of smell and is deeply involved," and Sean John's 
Sean (Diddy) Combs as being among those who have seen their efforts repaid hand-somely. "Sean worked really hard for 18 months," recalls Carlos. "He knew he wanted something that was a really high quality with a strong signature. And he would smell what was being done, and then he would wear it out in the evening and see what type of response he would get. And he'd come back the next morning and talk about what people thought, and he kept doing that until everyone was satisfied." The result: Unforgivable is a best seller and an industry award winner. Of course, other factors, including the racy advertising, have contributed to that success. "I think when men buy it, they are thinking of those three girls in the bed, no?" says Guichard, with a twinkle in his eyes.

While some fragrances are tweaked to keep them current, most of the classics have had to be reformulated to comply with International Fragrance Association standards. Natural civet, from a catlike creature of the same name, musk from deer and castoreum from beaver are no longer used. The challenge for today's perfumers is to replace these 
elements with safe and ethical alternatives without consumers' detecting that their favorite scent has changed.

Faced with dwindling supplies of sandalwood, a key note in many great fragrances, including Must de Cartier, Givaudan has embarked on an initiative in Western Australia to sustainably harvest the precious sandalwood oil. The harvest is strictly controlled by the federal government and profits local indigenous communities. There are also more-modern options. Using a biotechnical innovation known as headspacing, company scientists set off into jungles and swamps on what Givaudan calls ScentTreks, carrying a device that looks something like a goldfish bowl. Instead of plucking a rare orchid and transporting it back to a lab to extract its essential oil, the scientists invert the device over the flower in situ to capture an exact synthesis of its smell. The orchid is left completely intact, growing exactly where it was.

Then again, sometimes the very simplest action leads to success. One of the most famous legends of fragrance is that of Fracas, born when a young woman named Germaine Cellier took a vial of what would become L'Air du Temps from the man working next to her and added an almost indecent amount of -tuberose, the sexiest of all the florals. A fragrance that has endured 61 years was thus created in about six minutes. A period of two to three years is more realistic, although modern perfumers saw that time frame shrink in recent years as they hurried to meet deadlines to get each new "juice" to market. (Lie says he counts himself lucky to have had a year and a half to develop Armani Code.)

"To feel passion but to be without pressure is very important for creation," says Guichard. For the perfumer-teacher tries to ensure that his students remember the key ingredient with no scent at all — time.