Guy Robert created Madame Rochas, Caleche, Equipage, Gucci Parfum and Dioressence.
This is a transcript of his lecture at the British Society of Perfumers
From the August 1998 Newsletter…
Biogenesis of a Perfume
A transcript of the lecture by Guy Robert at the B.S.P. Symposium on Thursday
30th April 1998 at the Hilton National
Here are three periods in a perfumer’s life: – at the beginning: an enthusiastic fever, after the first year of training he dreams to write a book to teach perfumery! – a few years later he is sure to be a creative genius, and piles up thousands of raw materials to create fascinating “accords”, but has a very hard time with these stupid people which are always criticising his perfumes : evaluation people, marketing people and even customers! – much later … I can tell you after fifty-two years trying to understand perfumery, I became very modest (I am afraid this is a privilege I am not sharing with too many of our colleagues).
My most important quest was to define which are the essential “building blocks” giving its character to the most important perfumes, and which are the numerous and useless components we usually “pile up” in a formula.Â Â * * *
Two things are very distressing for a creative perfumer :
– the first one is : he will be obliged to show the product he just achieved …
– the other one is : that perfume will be put on the market by somebody who is going to put a lot of money on it, and take a serious risk to lose his good reputation.Â Â * * *Â Â These men are of three types :
– The first is a true perfumer, a marketer, with a good feeling of the customer, he has a very good nose (but never admits it!). That one is going to help you select your best trial, to point out the few weaknesses your perfume could show, he will help you to solve these little problems (if you understand each other). With him, that will be a real team work. (The only problem is: he will be so successful, he will spend more time on financial planning, and you will lose contact …)
– The second one is a “genius” (usually an aesthete, or a high fashion designer). That one knows exactly what he wants: the smell of rust, or the smell of a wet dog, or (I actually have been asked that once) the smell of a bicycle at spring time …Â Â For that one, your evaluation services will find easily in the shelves, the aldehydic-flowery, or flori-oriental he deserves. On the other hand, he will bring you a few original ideas you will use one day for other creations.
– The third one, is the boss of a very important perfumery business.
Unfortunately he reports to his President and to the Board. He will then never take the chance to select anything without opening the “marketing umbrella”. (You know these people which are always looking for extreme originality but feel obliged, most of the time, to select a “me-too” product.)
The Perfumery Marketing Science was at first an old joke : One Day, Arnold L. Van Ameringen (“ALVA”, the founder of IFF) created his “Odor Evaluation Board”, I found the idea terrific. (He told me later in confidence, he had imagined that OEB, at first, to keep away from real business somebody whose contract was so tight it could not be broken.)
Very quickly ALVA was amazed to notice the OEB was becoming the best marketing tool, (after Francois Coty and Albert Gosset, the man who created Rochas, organisations).Â Â When a perfumer can rely on such a technically perfect team, creation becomes easy. The problem is, our customers also have their marketing teams, and two marketing teams working on the same project makes our life very complicated.
Perfume CreationÂ Â If never creating any perfume would be compatible with a creative perfumer’s job, our life would be a dream!
Let us start from a white sheet of paper (or a blank computer screen). This is
ideal : we can start anything, go anywhere, let our imagination work, but the achievement of such a perfume would take us months or years. As we are often left a few days only, to answer even the most important briefs, we better look
for one of the “accords” we have already safely achieved. (An average Creative Perfumer starts a new creation nearly every day, if he has a good rhythm, he has then full drawers of “new projects” …)
To create a perfume is easy: there are several ways to operate :
– Starting from a fragrance theme, an accordÂ Â – Sometimes the impression given by the perfumes of two women seated nearby in a theatre row or at a dinner table.
– Sometimes by taking a classical “accord” but enhancing so much one of the
components so it would become a sort of “concerto” …
– also by using new “research” products, captive chemicals or specially produced natural. (I remember one of my “boys” extracting a wonderful tuberose note from the “fat corps” used in Grasse for the old “enfleurage process”, but with no flower at all = just 2% of Benzyl Salicylate, the product was like a natural dreamed flower …)Â Â About new “research chemicals”, there are treasures in our chemical specialists shelves, but the first problem is: to have the right to use these products, we are obliged to rely on the odour description made by people which are not perfumers.Â Â That was why the Iso Bornyl Cyclo Hexanol, described as a green rosy smell by
the German patent (I suppose it was Schimmel around 1918) was “discovered”
again, patent expired, by the US Givaudan people and called Sandela.Â Â For the same sort of reason, Amyl Cinnamic Aldehyde was considered as the best jasmone body and widely used until I discovered the Descollonges people had patented at the same time, the Hexyl Cinnamic Aldehyde.
It was in 1952, a de Laire chemist made it for me and that allowed me to make the Maycianes line.
There are also several other ways to work :
– the lazy way: you take a classical “accord” : to work around it is easy. But the result may not be as original as the hundreds of recent creations lately appearing on the market …
– Another way (unfortunately!) is to take the idea of a friend (preferably a dead friend).
You are there, facing two different cases :Â Â If you are a well known and very successful perfumer, everybody will find your creation “so” original. And if somebody with too good a nose or a too precise memory complains, you could always quote our French poet Alfred de Musset who, accused to have imitated your poet Byron saidÂ Â “even growing cauliflowers is imitating somebody!”
When you are Moliere or Shakespeare you have the right to use any of Mr Smith’s ideas …Â Â If you are an ordinary Smith (present Smiths excepted, of course), and try to use an idea you found in Shakespeare or Moliere, you will look at the same time stupid and dirty.
That is why I would advise you to start by being a “Taboo Perfumer”.
The “Taboo Perfumer” never creates ordinary perfumes … he is only “achieving
As he never heard of any other existing perfumer, he goes on working alone.
He is convinced his ideas are the only original. For instance, if in one of his creations, he put once : Patchouli and Hedione together, he is assuming any perfume containing Patchouli and Hedione are copied on his work.
You know how it is:Â Â for thousands of years you and your ancestors have been slapping on a goat-skin stretched on a bucket … when suddenly, one of your friends rushes in, out of breath, shouting he just invented the drum.
Our art is so mysterious, most of the perfumers cannot explain the proceedings they use to build a perfume.
Our method could be compared to the Art of Cooking, a sort of “rule of thumb”
(empiricism), and I agree this is not looking very serious!
I am convinced that a few rules comparable to what is called in music: “harmony” or “counterpoint”, should actually exist in perfumery, but nobody succeeded in defining them.
Many fascinating other theories, among them this idea: for every perfume note there are several levels, like what the musicians call “octaves”. (example : Damascones, Rose Oxydes, Otto of Rose, Geranium, Rose Absolute, Rhodinol, Geraniol, Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol …)
It is also possible, by comparing perfumery to painting, to imagine an “intercommunication of tones” like what is happening between the colours.
That theory is probably the most advanced one and the best: Like a painter, a perfumer, consciously or not, built his “palette” which is the “catalogue” of his preferred tones or products. And like a painter, if he accumulates too many elements he is going to get a sometimes awful confusion of grey and sad tones.
Lasting power is not easy to reach, nobody knows how and why this is happening.
I hate and find stupid that theory of “fixateurs”.
We all know these many little songs we are hearing anywhere and forgetting almost immediately, but, from time to time, one of these songs sticks to our ear and we go on whistling it the whole day …Â Â I can assure you the author of these successful songs do not use any “fixatives ingredients” to get that result …
Your “coach” (we all need somebody to push us ahead, like an orchestra needs a
conductor, a thoroughbred horse needs a jockey and a steamship needs a tug-boat) will help you to work, because the main idea is not to make a perfume you and he or she would like, but to make a “successful” perfume.
Remember the imagery of the poker machine used by the great Louis Amic to explain his ideas: “If five cherries come up, you will have a success” (referring to a perfume’s five elements : name, fragrance, bottle, distribution and financial support), “but four cherries and a banana signals a failure!”Â Â * * *
Finally you have obtained a well balanced fragrance, with your perfume numbered “XW”.Â Your customer likes it, your Marketing Manager also.Â Â Even your boss is nice enough to tell you “XW” was the only one of your trials he liked!Â Â Everything looks perfect, the success is at hand …Â Â You are just going to be asked to change:
– the colour which is “impossible for that project”
– the price which is really “creasy”
and to start working on the bases for the soap, the body-cream, the bath line, and the talcum powder.
These products, you know how to work them out, quietly, without any interference.Â Â My opinion is: that technical part is by far the more difficult than to create a luxury fragrance.Â Â * * *
A few weeks later, having already forgotten this well accepted success, you
are working on a new project, when one evening at a professional meeting, one of your old friends brings to you a very nice looking young man, saying : “I would like you to meet Mr So and So … he just created the “XW” perfume”.