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How Does One Become a Perfumer?

Interest in fragrance is surging of late, emphasizing that we’re all attracted and connected to scent.

“I’ve been in love with fragrances for as long as I can remember. From the smell of vanilla birthday cake being cut, surrounded by loved ones, to the delicate jasmine perfume my mom used to always wear. Your sense of smell is always at work — marking moments and memories that come back every time you smell something familiar,” says Mona Kattan, co-founder of Huda Beauty and founder of the fragrance brand Kayali. Referred to as the “Perfume Princess” by fans and followers of @scentgasm — which posts and re-posts perfume and fragrance reviews for 1.5 million followers on Instagram — Kattan works with a fragrance house (DSM-Firmenich) to create her scents. “The heritage, their commitment to delivering quality product and working with some of the finest noses — Olivier Cresp, Gabriela Chelariu, Ilias Ermenidis, Fabrice Pellegrin, Hamid Merati-Kashani and more — played a large role in our decision making. They have been incredible partners over the past six years.”

But what is a fragrance house? Essentially, it’s a company that independently designs and produces perfumes. They employ “noses” or perfumers, who help to create the perfumes, either for themselves to market or in collaboration with brands. Some brands, like Dior, Hermès and Guerlain (one of the oldest fragrance brands), have their own in-house perfumers. Others, like Kayali, work with fragrance houses who also work with other brands. Some of the oldest perfume houses date back to the 17th century, and while there is not one go-to training program for perfumers, European perfumers tend to get their start in France.

As such, many feel that the fragrance industry — particularly the behind-the-scenes side — is in need of an overhaul, with greater diversity of noses and more democratization in the creation of scent.

“I think the fragrance world has historically felt fairly insular because most perfumers were (and likely still are) French men. There are fewer female perfumers out there and fewer people of color,” says Carol Han Pyle, Founder and CEO of Nette. “That is shifting and I’m really excited about what fragrance will look like with time with all of the different voices, perspectives and cultures slowly being added in.” 

Han recently partnered with perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux for Pear Jam, a bright and fruit-forward fragrance with notes of pear, bergamot and black currant. Flores-Roux, vice president of perfumery at fragrance house Givaudan, is behind some of the most iconic fragrances out there, including scents for Thom Browne, John Varvatos and Tom Ford. But it was Clinique Happy that initially catapulted him to perfumer fame. Born in Mexico City, Flores-Roux remembers his grandfather bringing him a perfume magazine as a young adult. (His grandfather was a gastroenterologist who had a perfumer as a client.)

“He would bring me the magazine, so I understood that there were fragrance houses. That vocabulary was a vocabulary that I knew since I was 11, 12, 13,” says Flores-Roux. “I started calling these companies and said, can you send me samples? Can I go visit you? There was no internet or information floating around, no Wikipedia. So I had to do my own research.”

Flores-Roux notes that his background is unique among perfumers, most of whom are from France. After visiting family in Europe, Flores-Roux eventually made his way to Paris, and thankfully had something in hand. “[My grandfather] had given me a very, very, very nice chunky envelope of money. And he said, ‘I want you to spend every single, single penny on perfumes, and then you come back to Mexico and you show them to me’ — which I did.”

Later, Flores-Roux studied biology at university (“I loved plants,” he says) before deciding to apply to the ISIPCA perfumery school in Versailles. While there, he interned and learned the art of perfume, but when he graduated, there were very few jobs open in the industry. But there was a man in Mexico City looking for a perfumer. He moved back, and then made his way to New York City, where he worked at IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances). There, he helped with a project that went from underdog to huge sensation: Clinique Happy.

The reality is, the path to becoming a perfumer isn’t linear — you have to find your own way. One path is to attend a perfuming school, like Flores-Roux did. Another is to take courses offered at universities or independently run companies, either in-person or online. (In New York, Pratt and FIT offer these.) And still another is to teach yourself.

“When I started, I didn’t find anything that could have worked for me in my circumstances,” says Maya Nije, a self-taught perfumer based in London. “My daughter had just started school and so I had to learn via books and online sources, really. If there would have been somewhere for me to go in London that [could have worked with my schedule], I would have loved to go. The route I have gone has had its pluses, though. As much as there are boundaries to teaching yourself, I think there are less constraints, too, in terms of formula framework.” Nije started her brand Maya Njie Perfumes in 2016.

Most perfumers out there, whether “classically” trained or self-taught, have a background in science, specifically chemistry. But not all. (Nije came into it through art and other creative endeavors. She wanted to connect scent and memory.)

“There are many different routes into the business,” explains Nije. “Some start by blending fragrance as a creative endeavor on a small scale and that’s how they want to continue. Others come into the industry with a desire to set up a brand and team up with a perfumer to do it. They have a vision and capital but outsource the perfume formulations. Some brands grow from the ground up and have a hand in every aspect of the business and go straight into contract manufacturing. It can be a long road with many bumps, but if you have genuine passion, great products and people believing in you and supporting you, you will succeed.”

It’s also important to note that being a “nose” or perfumer is one of many roles within the fragrance industry — which include positions in marketing, education, sales and more. Organizations exist to make it a bit easier for people to navigate (and enter) the world of perfumes as well. The Fragrance Foundation (TFF) is a trade group for the fragrance industry, started in 1949. It comprises approximately 150 member companies, including several in the U.S. Members span the industry from fragrance houses to brand founders to retailers.

“Our membership includes small independent brands which have been growing exponentially, as well as mega brands,” explains Linda G. Levy, president of TFF. She acknowledges that barriers to entry are similar to those in many industries in that outsiders often “don’t understand the entry points or pathways in, or the wide variety of roles within a category such as fragrance,” says Levy.

To raise awareness of the opportunities available, TFF created a program in 2021 called “Scents of Success,” through which it works with members to visit university and college campuses, conducting workshops, career fairs and panel discussions.

At the end of the day, perfuming is part art, part science. It’s also reliant on learning what a brand wants and needs.

“Routine doesn’t really exist,” says Flores-Roux. He explains that, alongside smelling and developing a fragrance, you also have to put it through approvals — both from the teams that have stakes, and then from any legislative or certification bodies. “I would say that the most important part of the body of a perfumer is not the nose, it’s the ears. You have to listen. If you don’t listen, you get nowhere.”

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