Smelling like roses ... or not

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.

Smelling is such a natural, effortless and unconscious activity for most people that we rarely consider the thousands of scents around us: shampoo and shower gel, perfume and aftershave, even laundry detergent and toilet paper. Even more rare still is to think about where those smells come from, which of their components exists in nature and which are created in a laboratory.

In Grasse, considered the cradle of French perfumery, the industry has thrived since the end of the 18th century. Strong perfumes, made with raw materials collected from the region’s fields, were used during the reign of Louis XIV to mask the odors of unwashed aristocrats until hygienic practices evolved in the 19th century, according to an exhibit at the International Perfume Museum here.

Fields of jasmine, a popular ingredient in perfume, still dot Grasse’s hill and valley landscape. When they studied jasmine in class, the students said the smell made them happy. Aromas that were fruity or had cocoa or vanilla notes gave some students hunger pangs. Fauvel said former students reported having vivid dreams. Tschie Ishii, 30, of Japan, who previously worked in a kimono factory, said she had frequent headaches until she became accustomed to the variety of scents. For Minya, some odors caused giggling fits or fatigue.

“You have to always concentrate so much that in the end it is very exhausting mentally,” said Minya, who worked for years in human resources so she could save enough money to pay the 11,500 euros tuition (about $15,000), which does not include living expenses. She said she was not deterred by the years of work ahead.

Students said violets have both a good and bad side, the smell of mint can wake people up and ginger is an aphrodisiac (this prompted a discussion about whether its effects would be stronger if eaten or sniffed). The group correctly identified my face cream’s green tea scent.

“We know everything,” quipped Irina Zhurikhina, 33, from Russia. With a background in piano and chemistry, she decided to combine her scientific and artistic sides.

The students eagerly shared their knowledge of less pleasant odors too, like castoreum, a reddish substance collected from a beaver’s sexual organs. It is used to add character, heat and sensuality to a fragrance. Another, the musky scent obtained from the anal secretions of the cat-like civet, is commonly added to perfumes. Synthetic versions of these smells also exist.

Eventually, students will use their knowledge to compose or perhaps imitate a scent. As part of their coursework, a local company will present to the class a “brief,” industry jargon for instructions for creating a product. Four teams of three will then compete for the company’s nod for its creation, as in the real world.

“The whole aim is not to idealize what a perfumer is doing,” Minya said.

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