In my early days as a young and naive perfumer, I flew to Grasse, the birthplace of modern perfumery and centrepiece for the novel and film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. I was to meet the global head of a flavour and fragrance giant. I had hoped to meet their perfumer, to smell some of the raw materials on offer and to meet the farmers who grow and harvest these wondrous oils.

Instead the industry boss took me to a golf club for lunch, crowed about me ordering a salad niçoise “like French girls do” and spent an afternoon speaking about chemicals, brand focus groups and product development. I vowed to do things differently: to work directly with farmers and champion the botanicals from which perfume originates.

It is not always as easy as it seems. There are stories of a large cosmetic company that has bought up the world’s entire supply of quality immortelle (the “everlasting flower”) from Corsica – these farmers have agreements that forbid them to sell it to anyone else! 

There is a handful of global players who formulate and market most commercial fragrances, and supply flavourants to the food and beverage industries: Givaudan and Firmenich (Switzerland), IFF (the United States), Symrise (Germany), Takasago (Japan) and Fragonard (France).

So when you are enamoured with Tom Ford’s Black Orchid, know that it was Roman Kaiser, a fragrance chemist working for Givaudan, who formulated and synthesised notes from Amazonian plants to create 2006’s most anticipated perfume. Of course, Ford should be allowed whatever creative and commercial outlets he can exploit. But discovering this layer of branded commercialism disappointed me; it seems a poorer world when celebrities or designers aren’t truly the source of the scents named for them. 

In the highly competitive environment of commercial perfumes, I wonder whether a perfumer actually ever met Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé or David Beckham, or spent real time with them extrapolating the meaning behind what they want to express and communicate in the signature fragrance that millions will buy because they admire these celebrity icons.

When fragrances are pushed to market based on product calendars and consumer focus groups, the time-honoured craft of perfumery is in danger of being diluted to a point at which no creative person is responsible for what the buyer finally smells.

But an era of independent creative scent designers is imminent. These are small houses that are not yet tainted by the constraints of in-house budget briefs and brand-identity focus groups, such as Yosh Han of YOSH in California, Feuguia1833 in Patagonia and Sweden’s Beyredo.

Creative perfumers are often independent, falling in love with the medium. At times, they can spend months obsessed with a single raw material – something like orris butter (the extract from the rhizome of iris).

It is all about time and dedication to the integrity of the craft, where a designer or celebrity promotes the perfumer’s expertise in a “collaboration” – and showcases the journey that the two have taken together to inform the fragrance.

Tammy Frazer wrote a weekly column for the Mail & Guardian. These are her words.

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