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Making Sense of Scents – British Society of Perfumers

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January 16, 2013 by IPAlchemist

Can we really be two weeks into the New Year already? I intended to have a quiet December relatively free from social media activity, but that was supposed to be followed by an active January. It has not quite panned out that way. I have joined the IPKat as a permanent member, so my IP-blogging will mostly be done there. That leaves plenty of other things to write about here – it is, as usual, just a question of finding the time.

On 10 January (nearly a week ago now!) I attended a fascinating event, again at the Royal Society of Chemistry, but this time in association with the British Society of Perfumers, and also supported by IFRA (the fragrance trade body) and basenotes (a website for fragrance enthusiasts). The format was not actually that clear from the advance information, but I attended because I have a long-standing interest in the chemistry of fragrance. Like many things, fragrance is underpinned by a lot of chemistry (a fact that perhaps escapes many people), and in a previous incarnation I used to do some patent work in this space.

When I turned up, the event, entitled Making Sense of Scents, turned out to be a kind of question time, with pre-submitted questions, and further and follow-up questions from the audience, being put to a fabulous panel of experts, namely:

John Bailey, current President of the British Society of Perfumers

Steve Pearce, CEO and Founder of Omega Ingredients Ltd and Maverick Innovations Ltd

Penny Williams, Perfumer and consultant, Orchadia

Grant Osborne, Founder, basenotes

Lisa Hipgrave, Director, IFRA

Ruth Mastenbroek, Perfumer, Ruth Mastenbroek (eponymous niche perfumery)

Will Andrews, Fragrance Scientist, P&G Prestige

I didn’t keep detailed notes, which is why I should have written my blog post a lot sooner. But several points stuck in my mind.

When asked whether perfumery is an art or a science, the panel responded unanimously and in unison: “Both”. Of course that is so. Even chemistry is an art as well as a science, so of course perfumery is also. It was noted that there are “no young Master Perfumers”, and that the acquisition of the necessary knowledge set takes a long time.

I was happy to see it acknowledged that perfumery is a branch of the chemical industry, without equivocation. That means that it has not been untouched by the increasing regulatory pressures applied to chemicals generally. As I understand from what was said, the use of certain fragrance compounds has been banned, while others are permitted only at specified concentrations, depending upon the nature of the final product. Of particular recent concern is apparently the development of allergies to particular fragrance compounds, which is a two stage process – initial sensitisation, requiring exposure to a sensitising dose, after which the allergy can be triggered by the compound at a much lower level. IFRA in particular hope that this issue can be addressed by ensuring that the sensitising dose is never reached. Friends of the IP Alchemist will know my frustration over chemophobia, where “chemical” equals “something toxic” while “natural” equals “safe”, and will therefore not be surprised that I was reassured to note that it was acknowledged that certain flower oils (i.e. “natural” essential oils) are amongst those associated with allergic responses. Of course. I do not quibble at all with sensible regulations that in widely distributed products only compounds with appropriate safety profiles are used. But I do worry that a safety agenda is being driven by an ill-informed constituency, with poor understanding of risk, and fuelled by chemophobia.

I enjoyed seeing the breadth of the fragrance industry, from the ultra-niche perfumer, to the fragrances that are put in household products such as cosmetics and cleaning products. The full breadth was represented on the panel, and their perspectives did not, so far as I could see, differ much on most of the key questions.

The audience, perhaps surprisingly, could field only one person willing to identify themselves as a “perfumista”. The problem for such people apparently is that many fragrances are offered only in larger quantities than a collector wants – someone who wears only one fragrance may wish to buy 100ml bottles, but the person with a collection of 100 fragrances will want smaller unit sizes.

There was an interesting opening question as to why smell is so evocative. Apparently that sense, unlike the others, feeds directly into the limbic system, a more primitive part of the brain than that responsible for the other senses. This was news to me, and makes a lot of sense (boom boom).

There was an interesting discussion around marketing – surely more central to the fragrance industry than almost any other. In particular because of the rise of the internet and social media, it becomes possible to have a highly niche brand, or, indeed, an array of ultra niche brands. So some brands may choose to position themselves as actually unattractive to a large section of consumers in order to be more attractive to their very small target market (who don’t want other people to be wearing their fragrance). Thus, although mass market fragrances continue (and the even larger market of consumer items where the fragrance is incidental also thrives, despite those like the IP Alchemist and at least one other audience member who dislike such incidental smells), there is a burgeoning sector of niche scent. Grant Osborne referred to Etat Libre d’Orange as a fragrance house whose website proclaims:

fragrance has been liberated from the traditional restrictions of the perfume industry, where even the most talented noses are subjected to the expectations of brands and are forced to conform to the demands of the marketplace.

and whose perfumes are given names than many people might find unattractive or even offensive.

There was a drinks mixer after the panel session, where I had the delight to meet another past president of the BSP, David Ruskin, as well as two of the panellists Grant Osborne and Ruth Mastenbroek. Ruth, pleasingly, is like me a chemistry graduate of Oxford University who also spent time in Japan – of course the best start to any career.

I hope to attend and report back on further perfumery related events in due course. This should be a bumper year as the BSP is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013.

 


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  1. [...] you”).  I have not done that much on it yet (although I have touched on it a couple of times here and here), but I was delighted last week to witness the creation of the Chemical-Free Bear, who in [...]

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