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The Real Perfume Creators Are the Great Artisan Noses

by: Geoff Ficke

The stunning growth of the high-end luxury perfume business in the last two decades has been centered in the celebrity endorser, designer category. Actresses, athletes, models and fashion designers have introduced dozens of new scents; each seeking to lure consumers based on the aura created by the endorsing personality.

Whether you admire Michael Jordan’s basketball skills, Narciso Rodriguez’ modernist Spanish designs or Jennifer Lopez’ singing or acting talents, the marketers of these fragrance brands seek to profit from the perceived lifestyle allure of their licensee’s. What very few people realize is that branded fragrances are rarely, if ever, actually created by the endorser.

The perfume industry is a multi-billion dollar international enterprise. The marketers of branded fragrance products, however, rarely, if ever, develop and produce their own scents. This is a specialty business handled by large essential oil houses like IFF, Robertet, and Givaudan. These companies not only formulate scents, but they harvest and source the flora, fauna and the exotic natural ingredients that provide the base for their fragrances. Many of these biologically diverse plants and animal by-products are rare, expensive and fragile, requiring a great deal of special handling and knowledge.

An example is the whale by-product ambergris. Whales are not harvested to obtain ambergris. This is skimmed from the surface of the ocean, above swimming pods of whales, Ambergris is simply whale vomit. It is exceedingly valuable and crucial as a component in many exotic scent bases.

The high cost of perfume is attributed to the expense of obtaining essential oils from rare and expensive plants. Rare orchids can yield only a few drops of oil per plant harvested and processed. The processing of essential oils is its own industry.

Companies like Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Lancome do not produce any of their own fragrances. They typically meet with perfume houses such as Givaudan, provide guidance as to their desired scent direction, and then await and evaluate submissions from the integrated houses chosen to bid on the project. Once a favored prototype scent is chosen then the perfume house is contracted to perfect the scent and produce the oils.

The creation of perfume is part science, part marketing, part branding, and a whole lot of art. The art of designing unique, commercial fragrances is entrusted to the “nose” retained by the perfume house. “Noses” are rare, coddled, gifted and possess a talent so unusual that there are only a few recognized “noses” in the world at any given time.

I have had the good fortune to work with one of the greatest, most successful “noses” of the second half of the 20th century. Francis Camail is a legend in the world of creative perfumery. The list of his achievements is stunning. Watching and experiencing his work is to view the efforts of a “master”.

Mr. Camail, working from his laboratory in Grasse, France has been the creative genius behind Annick Goutal, Revlon’s Charlie (at one time the most popular scent in the world), Giorgio (the most profitable brand of the 1980’s), Estee Lauder’s Aliage, Eternity (Calvin Klein), Ivoire (Pierre Balmain) and Bond #9. These are only a few of the brands that have germinated from his ability to create scents that consumer’s desire and loyally purchase on a repeat basis.

Mr. Camail is unique in that he is an independent contractor hired out by large, international perfume houses on a per job contract basis. His reputation is so powerful that he has the ability to be exceedingly selective in the clients he chooses to work with. To view the process he utilizes to layer, build and nurture various top notes, dry notes and a final bouquet is to experience a true artisan master at work.

The creative process necessary to produce luxury perfumery is an old-world, artisan craftsman skill that can not be taught. Francis Camail does employ assistants and interns, as do most other “noses”. However, very few of them, if any, ever go on to successfully conquer the mystical world of exotic fragrance. His skills are apparently God given.

In a world of mass production and industrialization, it is reassuring to know that skills such as those provided by perfumery “noses” are still extant, and essential. The world still has nooks and crannies that appreciate and value craft and artisan skills and abilities.