The Harvard of Perfume
There are many paths to becoming a master perfumer - some are self taught, while others go the traditional route of studying at a fragrance institute.
Formal perfumery training can vary in intensity and duration. There are a number of certifying groups in the United States offering training courses that vary from a weekend to 18 months. The gold standard, however, is the Givaudan Perfumery School in Grasse, France. Founded in 1946 by Jean Carles, Givaudan is the premiere institute for fragrance studies.
Jean Carles, founder of the Givaudan School.
Acceptance to this four year program is highly competitive - often only a tiny handful of students are accepted out of thousands of applicants. There are even some years that no students are accepted at all if the admissions staff feels the applicants are not up to their standards.
First year students must undertake the memorization of 500 different compounds by scent alone. Actual fragrance blending does not begin until much later in the program, although students do learn to make basic accords in their initial studies. Predictably, chemistry studies are central to the learning process at Givaudan and students. During this time, students travel to a chemistry research center in Switzerland to learn from top chemists working on the development of new varieties of fragrance compounds. At this point, students graduate from developing simple accords to creating "schema" of 10-12 ingredients that form the framework of a fine fragrance. Studies of perfume history and culture are also included to help give students context in which they move on to create their own blends.
Much like other scientifically based professions, perfumers branch out into specialities later in the academic process. During the 4th years, students begin to work on fully realized perfumes and are paired with mentors to study the specifics of the areas they are interested in. There is a significant difference between the development of fragrances for perfume and industrial uses such as household products and masking fragrances for unpleasant odors. Students at this phase are expected to put their knowledge to use developing blends that can withstand different rigors from those of skin-wear.
This scientific, research based approach to fragrance is not limited only to educating future generations of perfumers - Givaudan is in itself a fragrance research institute. One important contribution they have made to the modern science of perfumery is their "headspace" method of scent development.
One common problem faced by perfumers is the fact that simply extracting the volatile scent chemicals from a source such as a flower will not necessarily result in a compound that actually smells like the original flower. Rather than harvesting a particularly fragrant flower, a glass dome is placed over the bloom to allow the aromatic compounds in the air to accumulate on a non-soluble filter. The collected sample is then run through a gas chromatography machine to determine its exact chemical makeup. This process better enables researchers to synthesize a blend that captures the full spectrum of the blossom's scent and "headspace".
Perfumery is truly a unique profession that is equal parts art and science. While a good "nose" can be extremely beneficial to the process, a truly skilled perfumer combines a strong background in chemistry with the arcane skill of being able to capture emotions with scent. Whatever path you take, perfumery is without a doubt a skill that is never truly mastered.