Exploring the Science Of Scent at the Royal Institution

27th July, 2010

The solid Victorian walls of London's Royal Institution have echoed all manner of profound scientific questions over the last two centuries, except perhaps the one asked on Thursday night: How is an idea turned into a fragrance? This was the central theme of the third and final Science Of Scent presentation conducted by Will Andrews, an Evaluator at the Fragrance Design Team of Procter & Gamble Prestige.

In simple terms, Andrews' answer was teamwork, time and obsessive dedication, although he also made it clear over the course of the enthralling evening that few aspects of the world of perfumery can be described as simple.

Regardless of whether it is eventually picked up by one of P&G's clients, Andrews explained that a fragrance must start with a compelling idea. Many of our most evocative scent associations are created when we are very young, which is why perfumers often look to their childhood for a conceptual starting point.

As he distributed smelling strips dipped in a cut-grass accord, Andrews stressed that the entire team responsible for the creation of a scent must remain faithful to this core idea throughout the design process. This is made difficult by three main obstacles: the intense subjectivity of our responses to smell, the lack of a simple, universal measure of odour, and the absence - in any culture - of a specific olfactory language which does not resort to metaphor or analogy.

Convincing evidence of the magnitude of these obstacles was provided when Andrews asked the audience to describe the cut-grass accord using the vocabulary of the non-olfactory senses. Responses ranged from "smooth" and "spiky" and from "white" to "brown".

There is also the not insignificant - but more widely recognised - issue posed by the number of materials available to the modern scent-maker. Jose Maria Velazquez, a Senior P&G Perfumer with 20 years' experience in the field, was invited to explain how, out of the 5000 or so ingredients at his disposal, he may become quite familiar with about 2500, of which he will tend to rely on around 1500. As Andrews stated, the perfumer's most important organ is not the nose, but the brain, within which he or she must strive to construct an intricate "memory palace" of odours. It is also vital to move away from the notion of 'good' and 'bad' smells and learn to appreciate each ingredient for its own unique effects and characteristics.

Despite these challenges, new fragrances are, of course, created on a regular basis, and Andrews briefly described one typical journey from an idea in someone's mind to a product in a department store. Several years ago, whilst hiking in Maine's Acadia National Park, a perfumer suddenly entered a clearing and was faced by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. That one particular moment - charged with the scent of pine trees, the mossy forest floor and the sting of sea water - remained in his mind and prompted him to recreate it in his lab. At the same time, P&G were commissioned to create a fragrance, for which the design team thought the 'Acadia accord' might be suitable. 3 years and 254 iterations later, the accord sported a familiar green apple top note and became the original Hugo from Hugo Boss.

Andrews also used this anecdote to highlight the role played by visual imagery in influencing the success of a fragrance. He conceded that, on the one hand, the photos and short films promoted by the fashion houses fulfill a basic advertising function. However, he also maintained that the 'right' marketing campaign may actually act as a bridge between the perfume and the potential wearer, enabling him or her to make the associations and connections that will enable a full appreciation of what may otherwise seem an inaccessible, 'difficult' scent.

According to Andrews, even though an individual perfumer may be highly introspective, the whole process of perfume creation at P&G would not be possible without a collective effort, in much the same way as the contributions of various people lead to the production of a film. "We are not in the business of making art," he said, "we are in the business of making scented images."

After his lecture, Andrews asked the audience to split into groups, each of which was assigned to one of three P&G perfumers - Velazquez, Julian Plos and Peter Malton - who provided a breakdown of the creation of one of their own scents. Inspired by the Japanese incense ceremony called Kodo, Plos' fragrance was based on a frankincense, orris and benzoin accord, lifted by orange flower absolute. These individual ingredients were passed around the group, prompting a wide variety of queries and observations.

The evening ended with the buzz of countless discussion topics, from differing cultural perceptions of smells to the use of headspace technology to create accords based around the experience of playing a computer game. Andrews stated that his main goal was to use the event to "lift the lid" on the world of perfumery. Judging from the surprisingly wide age range of the audience and the astuteness of their questions, he may well have succeeded.

Event Photos by Tim Mitchell / RI photo by Mike Peel www.mikepeel.net


About the author

Persolaise is a UK-based writer and amateur perfumer who has held a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over two decades. He is currently developing his own line of perfume. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com

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About the author: Persolaise

Persolaise is a four-time Jasmine Award winning writer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has written for Sunday Times Style, Grazia, Glass, The Scented Letter and Now Smell This, amongst others.

Website: http://www.persolaise.com/

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    • CoL | 27th July 2010 21:22

      Wow, now that would have been a fantatstic evening to attend!

    • farcast | 27th July 2010 23:15

      Hugo was my first Cologne. Bought it when I was a teenager. :)

    • kbandarage | 29th July 2010 04:37

      Knw what..! i'm wearing the scent talked and displayed here today, yeppi!

    • urfliness | 29th July 2010 20:53

      Yea Hugo is def classic and a keeper,I just hope some ahole doesn't decide it should be discontinued-not in my life time anyway.:coolold:

    • miss-little-miss | 20th August 2010 01:00

      It's a fabulous article! I just have one comment and it has to do with what Mr. Will Andrews describes as 'his business':

      "We are not in the business of making art," he said, "we are in the business of making scented images."

      Perhaps he is trying to convey the message that they are trying not to give fragrance or scent and its business such a general term. Andrews proclaims that they are in the business of making 'scented images' which in my mind can only come from abstract ideas, concrete and/or fluid words and visions of old and new which is exactly what I thought of as an art form.

      I am guessing he wanted to just open the audiences minds to a more unique way of 'seeing smell' but to disregard it as a type of art disregards the whole point in what makes his 'scented images' uniquely a business.

      There are many facets in the field of perfumery but without the initial idea or creation born out of either memory or, say, a trip to Grasse, there is not going to be any business at all.

      I think I understand what Andrews is trying to convey but to disregard art in the world of perfumery is much like taking colour out of pictures (of course, this is just my opinion).


    • CanwllCorfe | 22nd August 2010 17:43

      Great article! I wish I had been there :cry: