I’d love to be called a “nose.” A nose is someone who develops new perfume blends, ranging from the blends used in luxury perfume to scents which will be added to everyday things such as soaps and shampoos. There are thousands of noses in the world, but only around 50 are truly talented individuals, many of whom are famous in their own right. Top perfume companies such as Givaudan and Firmenich employ several noses to work on their scents, with others choosing to work independently, forming their own companies for the production and sale of fragrances.
The technical name for a nose is “perfumer,” with “nose” being more like a friendly slang term. In order to become a perfumer, someone has to have a natural aptitude for scent, combined with an extensive period of training. The best noses train in Grasse, France, a region which has been renowned for its perfume production for centuries, and it can take seven or more years to complete perfumery training, a mix of chemistry, artistry and lots of trial and error.
Traditionally, a nose would have trained as an apprentice, working with another perfumer, often a family member, to learn the tricks of the trade. In addition to being able to identify and blend scents, a nose must also think about issues like the cost of production, the stability of a scent after bottling, and how a scent will interact with other substances. Modern noses typically pursue advanced degrees in chemistry in addition to training in the scent industry, and many also study psychology, since psychology is a very important aspect of the perfume industry.
The services of an extremely talented nose can be quite costly. Jean-Claude Ellena, the creator of Hermes’ Un Jardin sur le Nil, was the subject of perfume writer Chandler Burr’s book “The Perfect Scent: A Year in the Perfume Industry in Paris,” which cataloged the journey, complexity and expense of creating a bestselling new fragrance. Noses are capable of isolating and identifying thousands of scents, and they use a wide variety of resources to come up with scent blends suitable for a range of individuals. When creating a new fragrance, a nose thinks about who the scent will be marketed to, and where it will be sold, as people of different classes, genders, and nationalities prefer different scents.
Working as a nose might sound romantic, but it’s also hard work. A nose must be hyperaware to all of the factors which can influence a scent, ranging from substances in the paper blotters they use to test fragrance oils to ambient odors in the laboratory. Most elite noses are assisted by support staff and apprentices who hope to learn the trade from a master.
Years ago I met “nose” Ann Gottlieb and she made a profound impression on me. Ann learned the art, science and business of fragrance under the personal tutelage of her mentor, Estée Lauder. She founded her company, Ann Gottlieb Associates, in 1983, and has developed top-selling fragrances for every market category, including three of the most famous: Obsession, Eternity and CkOne for Calvin Klein. She translates the vocabulary of fashion houses into the language spoken at essential oil houses, so everyone works in concert. She says: “It’s about listening and endless experimentation, about being fine-tuned to brands, olfactive trends and markets.”
What Of It? I rarely get job-envy, but this is one job that I would love to do. I think perfumery is a fascinating overlap between art and science and one of those rare art forms that is able to truly move us emotionally when it is done right. I remember the first time I smelt Obsession in 1985 and it was so evocative, primal and sexual that it stopped me in my tracks. To years later meet its creator was a real honor. I think nowadays in the hyper-manufactured world of beauty and fragrance, it is rare to find a human, analog skill at the center, one that simply cannot be replicated by a machine.
I Am Curious about crafts passed down from generations, about human, analog experiences in the middle of heavily manufactured industries, about the overlap between artistry and chemistry.