The Science of Scent at Harrods Perfume Diaries

12th October, 2010

Harrods recently played home to the excellent Perfume Diaries exhibition, which had talks from industry professionals covering different aspects of perfumery throughout. The Science of Scent event at gave a glimpse into the creative process behind fragrances. The exhibition room was so full that people had to stand at the sides and back to get a glimpse of the presentation.

Will Andrews, an evaluator in Proctor & Gamble Prestige's Fine Fragrance Design Team, began the talk by giving us an idea how complex perfumery is, using a metaphor of experimental cooking and trying to achieve the correct balance of strawberries, black pepper and balsamic vinegar, but reiterated that perfumers use hundreds of ingredients, not just three, and achieving balance is a difficult task. This was followed by an short explanation of the current understanding of 'how we smell', and that smell is our most important sense because it is the only one linked directly to the limbic system – the part of the brain responsible for memory, emotions and sex – and that smells from our childhood stay with us.

We were handing smelling strips throughout, the first being cinnamon – the natural oil we were smelling was intensely sweet as well as having that spicy edge. Cinnamon oil contains around 60 different molecules.

The next slide showed us a periodic table, and made a very interesting point. The scents of nearly everything in nature - all odour compounds are made from combinations of 6 different elements – Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Sulphur and Hydrogen. The 6th element is Boron which can be found in Hyacinth.

From cinnamon we moved to rose, and were given 2 different roses to smell. When asked which we preferred, the majority of the audience chose the second rose, which was a rose note constructed in a lab – with more citrus and fruity aspects, as well as a slightly boozy feel too it. The first rose was a Bulgarian rose absolute, which had a metallic quality, as well as being incredibly potent and overpowering the other cards I was holding onto. The rose absolute contains about 300 different molecules, 90% of which comes from only four molecules and we can detect about 16. Andrews made a point of explaining that the other molecules in a rose are probably important for insects – after all, roses want to reproduce, not be picked by humans.

Givaudan's Linda Harman spoke about the need for ethical sourcing of natural oils to be used in perfumery. In 2001, Givaudan was the first supplier to make the switch from Indian to Australian Sandalwood. The industry relies heavily on people from the rural communities that cultivate and harvest the raw naturals to stay there rather than move into cities. To incentivise people to stay, they pay a premium for Benzoin from Laos, and have explored other unique naturals, finding Red Ginger, Beeswax and “Royal Cinnamon” available from the same community. In Venezuela they developed a special grade of Tonka, “Roasted Bean” which accents the powdery cocoa aspects of Tonka and is also certified organic. (More about ethical naturals available here )

Andrews gave an overview of a fragrance pyramid, and we were given our next ingredient to smell – a citrus blend of orange and lime, which was incredibly juicy. Stressing how important the top notes of a fragrance are, Andrews likened them to a “scented handshake”.

Then we were introduced to synthetic ingredients and the point was made that synthetics have been around since the late 1800s – and that it's not new to be using them in perfumery. Synthetics are also taken from natural sources in many cases – Vanillin was originally synthesised from pine bark. The synthetic material we smelled was vanillin.

Andrews then instructed us to smell vanillin, the citrus blend and cinnamon oil together – it was an accurate representation of Coca Cola!

Perfumery faces difficulties in extracting an oil from fruit mean that they have to be created in a lab with headspace technology. To demonstrate what can be done, we smelled a peach accord, which had everything about a peach. The juicy flesh, the fuzzy skin, the bitter almond like stone. It was like a giant peach sprang off the smelling strip.

We were treated to a short interview with Jacques Huclier, a master Perfumer whose creations include Thierry Mugler's A*Men and Nina Ricci's Ricci Ricci. Huclier explained how he'd worked in perfumery for over 20 years, that at perfumery school they train the nose to recognise hundreds of different molecules. Andrews pointed out that the perfumer's brain is the most important tool in creating fragrances.

Image: Gregory Runyan

Andrews then told us how a perfumer was holidaying in the Acadia National Park, and was suddenly inspired by the way the Pine forest ends at the edge of the island and is met by the ocean. We were given a smelling strip of the accord he'd created with 5 ingredients, which smelled intensely Pine-like, balsamic with a huge dose of the fresh, watery molecule: calone. From the “Acadia accord”, the perfumer made over 250 versions of the fragrance before they released it as Hugo. It had to be designed in a way that made it appealing to men, and to be wearable.

Another demonstration was the inspiration behind one of P&G's latest scents, inspired by a rather lonely lilac – which could have been a Yardley soliflore perfume by itself – updated to create the heart accord of the fragrance, which was more recognisable as a designer fragrance, then the end result, Gucci Guilty. Seeing how the fragrances take shape was fascinating and gave a new appreciation for the work that goes into a designer fragrance.

The point that ran through the presentation was that P&G operate a Fragrance Design Team and they are not making pieces of art. Niche perfumery is art, designer fragrance is just that: design. The point of their designs is to bring to life a “scented image” for a fashion house or celebrity. Andrews likened the design team to a film production crew, a whole team of experts, including Perfumers, Designers, and Evaluators that create the end result.


About the author

Nick is a fragrance SA that loves scent and co-runs @FragrantReviews, a 140 character fragrance review project. Nick's personal twitter is @nickgblue

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About the author: Nick Gilbert

Nick has been working in the world of fragrance for over 15 years. He is co-founder of Olfiction, a creative scent agency offering fragrance development, training, copy and content production. He is frequently quoted in the press and has provided perfumery training globally, from London to Seoul.


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    • Persolaise | 12th October 2010 12:06

      Thanks very much for this. Sounds like it was an interesting evening.

    • NevilleM | 13th October 2010 00:32

      Thanks for your account Nick.

      I thought it was a well balanced and interesting evening and I'm glad I went 30 minutes earlier and got a seat!

      Learn 10 notes a day for 2 years and you too can be a Jacques Huclier.

      I too voted for false rose, the real absolute was way too strong and un-rose-like.

      The issues of keeping people in the areas were the naturals were sourced from rather than them being drawn from the land to the cities was well done.

      And "lonely lilac" was so much better than slightly abused lilac and Gucci Guilty.

    • Kalynne | 13th October 2010 04:23

      Appreciate the article!

    • Gblue (article author) | 14th October 2010 08:00

      Thanks for the comments!

      NevilleM - I agree, the thing about Rose oil and Rose absolute is that it doesn't smell "like" Rose, it smells "like" Rose oil or Rose abs. I was amazed by just how loud the absolute was.

    • hirch_duckfinder | 14th October 2010 12:53

      Thanks for a good read!

      What was the dilution of the rose abs? It is usually used at 5%-20% at a quantity of a few drops in a concentrate. It is a very powerful, concentrated oil and the amount they put on that card my have been enough for several bottles of perfume. They should have matched the odour strengths for a reasonable comparison. It sounds like they set that up somewhat.

    • Gblue (article author) | 15th October 2010 09:44

      They didn't mention the concentration of the rose abs - although some people did prefer it to the lab rose.