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Notes from the Osmothèque : Jean Carles, the Man and his Method

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Jean Carles is popularly remembered as the Beethoven of Perfume, famously composing Ma Griffe using only his olfactive memory after he had lost his sense of smell. But there was more to this gifted perfumer than the tragedy that overtook him in later life. He was an amateur musician, a talented linguist who spoke six languages, a lover of Great Gatsby style cars and a conjuror who owned more than 120 books on stage magic.

Behind the showman there was of course a more serious side. Carles was a meticulous researcher into primary materials, doing over a thousand experiments on oakmoss alone. From this exacting analysis he evolved a teaching method that systematically compares and contrasts odour materials. This method, named Olfactive Study by Contrast, is still the basis for teaching perfumery students today. It builds up a table of correspondences, with contrasting materials in columns and variants of similar materials (eg different jasmins) along the rows. This contrastive method of study has the advantage of not tiring the nose in the way that analysis of only similar materials would, and it gives students a more lively experience. In the course of his studies Carles also classified materials by volatility - leading him to come up with the idea of the perfume pyramid.

Rather than following the accepted practice of the day - publishing formulae in the trade press - Carles preferred to teach his method directly. Instead of handing out fish to the hungry so they can eat for a day, Carles showed his students how to catch their own fish. Those he taught to navigate the sea of perfume creation included Michel Hy, Bernard Chant and Robert Gonnon. Carles was a demanding teacher, once saying 'if you want to go and study chemistry, go - but don't come back. I want you to be gourmand.' But the joker, who had a penchant for dressing up in disguise and playing practical jokes could never be a simple martinet. He believed that 'a sad perfumer is a bad perfumer' and would sometimes do card tricks for his students to keep them entertained.

Carles' technique was rigorous and methodical, and looking back, it seems incredible that no one really worked in this way before. Instead, perfumers created their formulae by intuition and trial & error, without any logical basis for what they were doing. By contrast, Carles would start a perfume by mixing two base materials at ratios of 1:9 2:8 3:7 etc, and then after choosing the best blend he would add another material to it in the same 1:9 2:8 way, tweaking each successive mix as he went. He worked from base to head notes, which he had already graded by volatility. In this way, not just a haphazard picture was created but a solid perfume architecture, built from the bottom up.

Where Carles the perfumer was analytical in his work, as a man he never lost sight of the bigger picture saying : in perfumery, as in life, the most important quality is enthusiasm.

To judge for yourself how well Jean Carles incorporated a sense of enthusiasm into his rigorous approach to perfumery, notable works are : Canoë, Ma Griffe, Shocking, Snuff, Tabu and Visa. I have to say that the Osmothèque reconstructions are much brighter and lively than the vintage samples I have, so a bit of imagination would be required to replace the missing top notes.


Thanks to Isabelle Chazot - Osmothèque Administrator, Eugénie Briot - Programme Manager at Givaudan School of Perfumery and Thomas Fontaine - Osmothèque Perfumer

Updated 30th April 2019 at 10:20 AM by Wild Gardener

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  1. ramsonroni's Avatar
    Nice post thanks for sharing

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