Monday, 27 September 2010

The Perfume Diaries At Harrods: Part Two - "The Science Of Scent"

With my latest work project put to bed, I can at last sit down and weave an account of last Thursday's event at Harrods - from a mixture of cryptic scribblings in my notebook, fading smelling strips and my short term memory. Well, it might technically be medium term memory by now. (I will also take this opportunity to put up some more photos from the exhibition.)

"The Science of Scent" talk was led by Will Andrews, an evaluator and member of the Fragrance Creation team at Procter & Gamble (which I always want to spell with two "o"s), with contributions from Jacques Huclier, perfumer with Givaudan, and his colleague Linda Harman, PR/Communication Manager at the company's UK office. It was a fact-filled, "behind the scenes" look at fragrance in all its aspects, from the psychology of scent and the physical mechanism by which we smell, to the sourcing of raw materials and the principle of the perfumery triangle, before culminating in a step by step account of the mechanics of fragrance development.

Will Andrews opened the talk with a brief recap of his career in the perfume industry (he is a scientist with a degree in industrial design). His manner was confident, genial and upbeat, and I thought he would make a great motivational speaker. Only the flintiest of hearts could fail to be moved by his deeply felt passion for fragrance.

At the start of the session, I must confess to having been temporarily distracted by Will's spontaneous use of the term: "professional evaluation strips" for fragrance blotters. In what I thought was a comprehensive post on the subject of tester strip nomenclature here, this term eluded me completely, possibly because it is an insider term known only within the evaluator community. : - )

The other cause of my distraction had to do with the water glasses provided for the speakers. These were the long stemmed tulip kind I associate exclusively with white wine, and I am afraid I spent a good couple of minutes puzzling over the exact fluid these glasses contained. It looked pretty transparent from where I was sitting, and logic told me that it could only be water, as that is customary on such occasions, but the long stemmed style troubled me.

Was the design chosen to give the speakers the impression of wine drinking in terms of the physical sensation of fingers twined around the stem of the glass and lips pressed to the rim? Or is there genuinely a very pale shade of wine that could pass for water at 15 feet, and with a view partially blocked by a gentleman's shoulder? Various Italian varieties started to pop into my head, until I pulled myself together and refocused my mind on the matter in hand, which by this point was how our perfume preferences are established in childhood by good and bad associations with scent.

There were titters of merriment as Will illustrated his point: if as a child you used to visit your grandmother every week for Sunday lunch and the conversation at table was very boring, you just might dislike rose scents today because they are inextricably bound up with your negative memories of your grandmother and the roses lining her garden path.

In explaining the physiology of smell, we were treated to a slide of the inside of our olfactory bulb. I suspect it may have been magnified, as it reminded me a bit of those blow up shots of the germs that lurk on your chopping board - and in the kitchen sponge with which you notionally clean things. As well as little lumps there were wavy hair or cilia, which Will aptly likened to sea anemone swaying in a rock pool.

He went on to explain the direct connection between our nasal receptors and the limbic system of the brain, which accounts for the strong emotions evoked by scent. There was a slide of some cute lion cubs, for whom the scent of a predator triggers a healthy fear response. We learnt how the brain tunes out to a fragrance it has smelt many times before, because it is a known quantity that is considered "safe". This is why people who wear a single signature scent are often unable to smell it on themselves, which may lead them to overapply it in a bid to catch a whiff of their own sillage. I have been in this very spot with a good friend and YSL Paris, who was oblivious to the rosy mushroom cloud that went before her, sometimes with a delay of several seconds.

The next section of the talk focused on the chemical composition of scent: the numerous components which a single note may comprise, and how these ultimately derive from the periodic table. I dimly recall this chart from First Form chemistry, along with those little green volcanoes you could make with ammonium dichromate. I have written down that natural cinammon contains 60 "chemicals" and natural rose 300 "volatile compounds". These two terms may be interchangeable, but I am taking no chances and just going with the notebook.

By this stage the talk had become a double act, with Jacques Huclier adding his comments about each ingredient under discussion. In order to gauge our reaction to a natural oil vs a synthetic material, "professional evaluation strips" were passed around bearing two interpretations of the rose note. The first was earthy and metallic, and reminded me of The Different Company's Rose Poivrée. The second was powdery, fruity, also a bit metallic, and prettily rosy. It reminded me of Nahema crossed with Bvlgari Rose Essentielle. A show of hands indicated about a two thirds preference for the synthetic rose, myself included, at least initially - much later in the course of the discussion I resniffed the natural rose and preferred its darker take on the note.

The gentlemen from P & G and Givaudan clearly know their market and would typically opt for the the synthetic rose in commercial fragrances. "Fruity more likeable" the notebook says, though I beg to differ. Melon, apple, pear and berries of every hue fail to charm me, though we were later given a truly stunning synthetic rendition of peach to sniff. Life-like as it was - and with no disrespect to readers in the state of Georgia - I do not especially want to go out smelling like a peach...

Another interesting fact we learnt about natural rose oil was that of its 300 volatile compounds, just FOUR comprise 90% of the odour we can smell, and our noses are actually capable of smelling a mere 16 out of the 300. That is such a poor ratio! If there is any truth in reincarnation, I shall do my best to come back in the next life as a bloodhound. But then again, if I was a dog I might be able to smell a lot more, but not care a stuff about what I am smelling. Someone upstairs has a funny sense of humour is all I can say.

At this point Linda Harman stepped up (wearing an elegant cream and black version of the new "full skirt" - as seen in Mad Men), and delivered a mini-presentation on the "fragile supply chain" for perfumery raw materials, stressing the company's commitment to sustainability, as you would expect from a PR/Communication Manager! She touched on the dangers of fake ingredients and deforestation, and on the ethics of earmarking crops for perfumery materials rather than food. We were given a virtual tour of Givaudan's sources of sandalwood, tonka bean, benzoin and beeswax, and how these crops benefit local tribes from Venezuela to Laos.

Next up was the perfumery triangle and how different combinations of notes create perfumes for every occasion and mood. Will compared the opening of a fragrance to a "scented handshake", on account of the fleeting but familiar scent of the top notes. This is the perfume's brief chance to win over the consumer, to say, as Jacques charmingly put it: "Hello, you know me, we're friendly!"

Somewhere in this part of the talk either Will or Jacques managed to sneak in their subliminal message again - the gist of which is: "people love fruit". In this instance, however, I think they were referring to the usual suspects in the opening of a scent such as bergamot and mandarin, which I think of as "citrus" notes, rather than "fruity" notes, though of course they are also fruit...

Jacques Huclier spoke briefly about his 20 year career as a perfumer, going back to his college studies in Versailles, where he trained his nose to recognise 500 raw materials (c50 natural and c450 synthetic). Today, this total stands at about 1000, of which about 150 are in constant use. He is the nose behind scents such as Coty's Vanilla Musk, Thierry Mugler A*Men, Anna Sui and Nina Ricci's latest release, Ricci Ricci.

Then it was back to Will, who took us through the development process behind a modern fragrance, starting with the brand owner's brief and the perfumer's own inspiration, and winding up after months of evaluation and countless iterations at the finished formulation. He likened the team effort to that of a "film production team". Several quotes stood out for me:

"There is no simple universal measure of odour."

"There is no specific language of odour."

Yes, indeed - that's precisely why we have Luca Turin and his star rating system, and his "lemon juice in a paper cut"-style metaphors. With which we will often disagree.

It may also be part of the reason why advertising campaigns for new fragrances don't tend to tell you what a perfume smells like, because there could never be a consensus. I wouldn't mind a bit of a clue though... you know, like does it have apple in it?, that sort of thing. I had always assumed that this reticence was because new mainstream releases were primarily about the promotion of the brand, with the perfume playing second fiddle.

Which - at the risk of sounding flippant - reminds me of my old marketing lecturer's first day in technical sales. His boss took him into an empty hall, where a bulky piece of machinery stood shrouded in a sheet. "What is it?" inquired the rookie rep. "Never mind what it is", came the terse reply, "Can you sell it?" (For the record, it was an industrial deep fat fryer.)

I do agree with Will's statement: "You need a brand to be able to connect with the fragrance". I have that manufacturer's sample I got as an extra in a swap which just says "Aromatic Chypre" on it, though I have since been informed that it is in fact a scent by Pecksniff's. Without the "aura" and cachet of a brand, I wasn't at all drawn to it, I'll be honest. I guess it is all about balance. Mystique and an air of luxury are part of the magic, the dream the consumer wants to buy into, to which I am no exception. The magic-making machine only comes off the rails in my view when the fashion houses go totally overboard and focus on style at the expense of substance, on pyrotechnics and special effects (to take the film production analogy and run with it), rather than a good story. "A fur coat and no knickers" scent, as it were.

Will described commercial fragrance as the "scented image of a brand", which (if I remember rightly) he considers harder to create than pure "art", where the perfumer's scope - and maybe also budget? - is less constrained, in the sense of having a specific brief. I suppose that, given the many scent releases in each brand stable, the skill of the commercial perfumer is about delivering a series of scented images, all capturing a different facet of the brand, but all recognisably Dolce & Gabbana or Bvlgari etc.

Lastly, we were given different iterations of a new launch, Gucci Guilty, from an early, rather chemically lilac note to a more balanced lilac accord (with other notes added), to the finished scent, which I had tried on the way out to Germany recently and quite liked - also this second time. And yes, that's even in spite of the presence of some fruit... ("Flittersniffer for a reason", as I always say.)

So, all in all, a very interesting talk, and hats off to Harrods for their generosity to the public at large in lining up all these high profile speakers, and for staging the exhibition, which served as a stunning backdrop. My only minor quibble with this event was the shortage of blotters being passed around. In our row people almost came to blows over the things, and I now greatly regret letting the vanillin one out of my possession...

It was good to meet up with Farah again (my original blind sniffing partner - at Harrods two years ago!), and a pleasant surprise bumping into Grant and Nick from Basenotes. Katie Puckrik's appearance just before the talk started was a major highlight - in a faintly surreal, self-pinching kind of a way. Her celluloid presence is familiar to me going back to the distant days of The Word, and now there she was suddenly in person! I may been just a little bit starstruck, as in answer to her inquiry about what perfume I was wearing, I replied: "Plus Que Jerlain". Anyone would think I'd been minesweeping those tulip glasses...

We had a sniff of a couple of ouds Katie was wearing, and though oud-avoidance is my default stance, I can honestly say that both of these scents smelt nice on her. Katie clearly has oud-muting skin. This led on to a quick discussion about "skin physics" - we were fortunate to have a physicist on hand to consult (ie Farah!) - which segued into the topic of "sensualist geeks", a term coined by Angela of NST. Suddenly, it looked as though the talk was about to start, whereupon Katie rejoined her friend / "husb"? (I was too far away to assess freckle coverage and make a positive ID) at the other side of the room, and headed out.

Unexpectedly, the journey home turned into a bit of a Bonkers Rail Trip, but not even an hour and a half's delay due to signalling problems AND a suspect package could spoil my enjoyment of a uniquely memorable evening.

Photos are all my own (with permission from the organisers). Will Andrews is pictured to the left of the shot at the top of the post, Jacques Huclier to the right.


Ines said...

What a great experience! :) And thanks for describing it so vividly for us.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

You would have found it fascinating, for sure. We just need to nudge Croatia a few hundred km in a westerly direction so you can catch the next event!

Unknown said...

Great post. I find the science and business end of perfume fascinating, which was why i enjoyed The Perfect scent so much. And now I have to try Gucci Guilty - I didn't know it was a lilac scent!

Vanessa said...

Hi kjanicki,

Wasn't The Perfect Scent endlessly fascinating? I was really sorry when I finished it!

Gucci Guilty is less potent than Gucci by Gucci (strangely, given its seductive name), and would make a decent day scent. It is not that memorable going on, but I remember liking the sheerness of the drydown. Jessica on NST describes it as a "sheer fruity oriental" which is a good summary. I wouldn't mind a sample, but that might be enough.

If there had been time for questions at the talk, I had meant to ask what proportion of new launches last 2, 5 or 10 years, but unfortunately we had to vacate the building or risk getting locked in for the night (which wouldn't have been so bad, come to think of it... : - ))

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