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Smelling like roses ... or not

Students at perfume institute learn the more unfortunate consequences of a highly developed nose.

GRASSE, France — On a recent visit to a horse stable, Viktoria Minya had to hold her breath until she could step outside. And at home recently, the 27-year-old perfumery student has found she needs to take out the trash as often as three times per day. It’s a side effect of her developing olfactory organs: “I smell too much.”

The Hungarian native is one of a dozen students from around the globe currently training at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, located near the French Riviera, to become “noses,” or scent experts and creators of fragrances. Most of these students dream of creating their own perfumes.

“A perfume hides a story,” said Laurence Fauvel, a perfumer and one of the teachers at the school, which opened in February 2002. “To create something really new is very difficult.”

In class, the students flared their nostrils against white tester strips dipped in scented, mostly clear liquid. The exercise tested their olfactory memories as they built on the more than 300 natural and synthetic odors they had memorized since the course began in late January. The task included identifying the scents’ compounds and family.

During the exercise, students described one odor as smoky and woody and sweet. “It’s like a rat that I am trying to catch,” said Sebastien Cresp, 26, a Frenchman whose family has worked in the perfume business for generations. “It’s a chameleon,” he said, describing the scent’s elusiveness.

An official at the school estimated that about 20 star “noses” exist worldwide. Cresp’s father, a perfumer at a leading fragrance firm, Firmenich, is one of them. Olivier Cresp created the perfume Noa for Cacharel in 1998 and Black XS for Paco Rabanne in 2005, among others. In this small field there are also a few hundred lesser-known perfumers who concentrate on less glamorous products like detergents and deodorants.

By the end of the yearlong course, which includes a mandatory internship at a fragrance company lasting several months, students will have acquired a lexicon of at least 500 raw materials; the rest of their creative arsenal, which eventually could include thousands of ingredients, will be developed in the field.

In the meantime, smells pursue them. “It becomes a monster,” Minya said jokingly.