Perfumery and the Perfumer
The word perfume is derived from the Latin word perfumare, which means “to smoke through”. The art of making perfumes can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Perfumery also existed in India during the Indus Valley Civilization. The earliest distillations of Ittar have been mentioned in ancient Hindu texts.
Although perfumery has been around since ancient times, modern perfumery is believed to have begun in the late 19th century with the commercial synthesis of aroma chemicals.
Perfumery is the art of creating agreeable scents using a mixture of essential oils, aroma chemicals, solvents and fixatives. Perfumers need a basic interest in science and also artistic abilities to understand fragrance aesthetics and create complex fragrance compositions that are alluring to the consumer. Therefore, a perfumer is both a scientist and an artist.
Trainee perfumers learn about the sense of smell and then about a variety of fragrance ingredients and their smells. The skill lies in being able to distinguish these ingredients individually and in combination with other ingredients. Moreover, perfumers must know how each of these ingredients interacts with other ingredients and how they reveal themselves through time.
Creative perfumery also requires knowledge about the safety aspects of ingredients. Internationally, the fragrance industry is governed by guidelines that are subject to risk-based safety assessments. However, it falls on perfumers to have in-depth knowledge about the safety measures to be considered during development.
Since the sense of smell is crucial in this profession, perfumers are often known as “noses”. In this line of work, the nose knows best. Therefore, honing the sense of smell is particularly important as also keeping track of new ingredients that can be added to the palette.
When a perfumer creates fragrances, his or her work does not end there. It is important to understand why a fragrance is being created. Fragrances must be created keeping in mind the end product that it will be used in and consumer preferences. This means perfumers must have an insight into the needs and aspirations of consumers. After all, when it comes to sales, consumers’ likes and dislikes are paramount.
Certain personality traits are also essential to perfumery. One needs to be patient and learn through trial and error. You may find that most perfumers are not always satisfied with the fragrance they first create and keep attempting to refine it. For beginners, it could take several trials before developing a satisfactory fragrance. Perfumers can be in training for as long as three to five years before they develop a basic degree of understanding about the field. Mastery in the field is a lifelong quest.
Furthermore, those who aim to be perfumers must be comfortable working in laboratory settings. Communication and sharing ideas are also important aspects in this field. One must be able to record findings, share opinions and liaise with related teams or individuals to facilitate the creation and production of fragrances.
The Perfumer’s Work
Perfumers are typically hired by organisations that develop fragrances for consumer products i.e. FMCG companies. Perfumers may also be hired by companies involved with the essential oil trade and academia. Within organisations, trained personnel may work in a wide range of roles such as perfumery evaluation; quality assurance; production; analytical chemistry; research and development; training and sales. However, the role of creative perfumer (the nose) is the most sought after.
The perfumery industry isn’t a very large one and skilled perfumers remain a small group. For those who believe perfumery is their calling, there is immense opportunity to learn, grow and evolve in this space.