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Alain Alchenberger surveys the airy meeting room. Three of his students are in attendance today, sitting around a makeshift meeting table made up of smaller tables pushed together. Each student has made up their own workstation. They are laden with sample bottles, notebooks, pens, scent strips, water bottles; coffee cups. A few roots, seed pods and other raw materials in their natural state sit on the table and in jars. Light pours through the windows in the lab next door, visible through the glass walls. These students have no business creating anything there just yet because they are still in their first year. We are at the Givaudan Perfumery School and I’m here to talk to its new director and quiz the students about what it is like to walk in the footsteps of so many world-renowned perfumers.
The three students here today are Dana Schmitt, Regina Goto and Mara Penchansky. Dana is not far off from having her final exam. She will have to recognize any raw materials Alain chooses to test her against from a possible 500. Students have four to seven months to learn 350 synthetics and 150 naturals.
They unanimously agree that natural materials are easier to memorize.
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“Usually you have a bit of a relationship with some of them already,” says Dana, “like with orange oil. Obviously there are a couple of different oranges, but at first smell you’re at least sure it’s an orange.”
“Natural materials are also more faceted,” adds Regina.
I ask if they can tell Turkish rose apart from the French yet and Alain grins. His whole being conveys a mixture of pride at his students and mischief about what he is putting them through.
Dana smiles but keeps a cool head: “Everything here is tough at first, but we sit and smell eight hours a day so at some point you find your way. I did have a problem with the different roses but you just have to keep working at it and one day you’ll arrive at a clear difference.”
“During their first year, this is like a monastery,” says Alain and laughs. “I’m not a terrible guy, but for me it’s important that they just memorize for the first few months. That’s all I’m asking from them. Of course they will also be learning other things about the raw materials during this time—if it’s a plant, they’ll learn the Latin name, chemical constituents, things like that. We have a computer system they can access for this kind of information and we also sometimes arrange trips to smell naturals in situ.”
Of course if any one of the students fails to memorize the 500 materials in the first seven months at the school, that’ll be the only months they spend there.
A Tested Method
“The school now lasts four years,” says Alain, “and then as soon as they pass the exam at about the seven month mark, they are fine. They will stay for sure. They will have further exams, of course.”
There is no formal structure to the initial memorizing process—each candidate has to devise their own mnemonics, systems and daily schedule to make the most of the available resources. This is a test in itself: being a professional perfumer means being able to withstand pressure and solitary work.
The students find comfort and support in one another. They are in the same boat—many having to learn French on top of their daytime study—and comparing notes leads to important discoveries about odor descriptors.
Bringing students from different cultural backgrounds together is useful. Some scents evoke strong associations and these can be strikingly different.
“One example is a material that I love, fenugreek,” says Dana, “I’m from Connecticut, so I’m like, this is maple syrup and I love it and it reminds me of home! But to Regina, it was bleurgh – spoiled food.”
“For me it was overripe papaya,” says Regina, “not a good smell at all.”
“And that’s 100% cultural, obviously,” says Dana.
Students move on from memorizing raw materials in their first year to familiarizing themselves with accords during the second. They will learn the relationship and contrast between different ingredients at different ratios and develop their skills in constructing accords; the basic building blocks of fragrance: a muguet, a rose, a jasmine, an apple...
Imitation follows. The third year is mostly spent copying fragrance formulas to learn the secrets of full formulation and refine the students’ ability to handle all classic compositions.
The current methodology hasn’t changed much from when Alain studied to become perfumer at Givaudan himself. The main difference is that these days students are chosen to fulfil specific needs—there may be an upcoming shortage at a fine fragrance facility in United States or consumer product division Brazil and the school accommodates this by selecting appropriate candidates and getting them ready to go on to work at the specified location.
The pedagogy is still based on that of Jean Carles, a Roure perfumer who was the first of his profession to refine his apprenticeship into a formal perfume school. The Roure perfume school was established in 1946 and when Roure merged with Givaudan in 1992, the school Givaudan itself had been running merged with Roure’s. Initially located in Grasse, the perfume school moved to its present location in the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil in 1997.
Argenteuil is not just a famous location of perfume manufacture—it was an important source of inspiration for impressionist artists. Its gardens, streets and river views have been immortalized in paintings by the likes of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Givaudan students spend their first three years at Argenteuil and during the newly-added fourth year of the program, they get moved along to placements within the company—either at the Avenue Kléber fine fragrance department in central Paris or at the consumer product facilities in Argenteuil.
A Study of Time and Space
Alain graduated as a chemical engineer in 1979 from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“The first company I visited was Givaudan. They told me ‘we don’t have a job for you as a chemist, but we are opening a perfumery school,’” he reminisces, “I didn’t know what a perfumer was. In fact, I had no clue. But I passed the test straight away and after some discussion, I was selected. I fell in love immediately. I discovered another world.”
“After the perfumery school I became a perfumer’s assistant and then moved on to fabric care as well as shampoo and soap. That lasted until 1987. During this time, I was asked to work on the concept of Odor Value (a measure of the olfactive performance of a raw material which is the ratio of two essential parameters: the volatility divided by the threshold value) which had been developed by Givaudan chemists and as a result I created the Givaudan Odor Value Map which is a visualization of the perfumer’s palette. Around 70 materials went into it. To think that today we have around 1400 materials just goes to show what can happen in more than 40 years of testing and development.”
Visualizing perfume in multiple dimensions is an incredibly useful way to master the art—and to Alain, this is one of his ways to approach perfumery.
“To me, creating a perfume is mastering both time and space”.
“Let’s think about the volatility parameter (or maximum concentration in vapor phase) which is, in my view, linked to time : for example ethyl acetate last 15 seconds on the scent strip and is gone; whereas musk ketone will still be persistent on your blotter, let’s say about six, seven or eight months later.”
“The second parameter—the threshold value (or minimum odorous concentration) is, again in my view, linked to space. For example sandalwood oil works beautifully on skin but you need to stay very close to detect it; whereas Javanola, on the same skin, which is also a very attractive product, can be detected far away from it.”
“Whether in terms of performance or aesthetics there is no value gap dichotomy between naturals and synthetics”.
“If you think about it, all the main bulk synthetics used in perfume today were discovered before 1930. You know? Almost all the important ones: vanillin, heliotropin, citronellal, coumarin... incredible, huh?”
Many people harking back to classic perfumes don’t realize they relied on synthetics—often an overdose of one or more of them—for their unique signature.
Every experienced perfumer agrees that you need both natural and synthetic raw materials to create the most refined fine fragrances. It’s therefore of great importance to ensure sustainable supply of both, and with some naturals there can be real problems in doing so.
Givaudan is currently celebrating 10 years of ethical sourcing—a program which was put in place to safeguard fragile supply chains, improve the quality of natural materials and support local communities.
And sandalwood happens to be a great example. It has had notorious issues around smuggling and government restrictions in India, so it was paramount to incorporate it into this program and it was one of the first to be added.
The Perfect Candidate
In the past, a few perfumers from Europe might have travelled the world and spent some time trying to get to grips with local fragrance preferences. Many success stories in perfumery—both consumer product and fine fragrance—came about this way.
Nevertheless, these days there is a tendency to look for perfumers from regions which are being targeted.
“I think this is a good opportunity for us as a company to have local people coming here, learning a little bit of the French and European perfume culture and going back to their countries, with an extra perspective, it will help them to adapt efficiently to the local markets.”
Alain was asked to take over the perfumery school after its previous director, Jean Guichard, took early retirement last year.
“I didn’t expect to become a teacher but after sharing my knowledge with the perfumery school trainees during their internship at the Givaudan S&T Center, I was asked to take over the job which I did with much enthusiasm.”
More people than ever apply to study at the school. “We have people writing and emailing from all over the world,” says Alain, “and in September 2015 we opened a new perfume school in Singapore, partially to accommodate the growing Asian market, but also to act as a satellite unit to us here. We have one Chinese and one Taiwanese student there at present and they will join us here this September.”
How many students are admitted from the hundreds that apply each year depends on company need. At present there are seven in Paris. Once a student passes the raw materials exam, their placement at Givaudan is normally guaranteed—and the student commits to four years of perfumery school and five years at Givaudan.
Givaudan prefers students with a scientific background, but it is not an absolute must. There have been cases where the perfect candidate came from the arts, for example, but demonstrated experience in the industry and a real passion.
“Passion matters,” says Alain. “But besides passion you also have to show resilience because you have to do so many trials and go up against so much competition before you get a win.”
“We want to have a mix of people with diverse talents. We don’t want clones. Knowing our job is both creative and empirical makes selecting new candidates difficult—how do you measure creativity?”
“If you have a scientific background, the beginning will be easier for sure. But it is possible to learn as you go along, too, and nowadays it takes less time to become operational as a perfumer because of easier access to vast amounts of information,” Alain explains. “Before, a young perfumer would not even see a formula.”
The school is designed to shape the minds of students into working with smells and formulas.
“Olfaction is indeed the core of the perfumery. Memorization is an exercise to habituate your brain to a kind of olfactive visualization. But over the years, it’s highly likely that you will forget a lot of ingredients you have memorized in the past.”
I am sure he won’t be telling his students this just yet—they are yet to pass their first year and if they do, a coveted career in perfumery awaits.