Go ahead. Throw a few essential oils together and see what you come up with. Most likely, you’ll come up with garbage, and the giants of the perfume industry know it.
There is no such thing as an accidental perfume. Making perfume is part science, part alchemy, and part encyclopedic knowledge. But nowhere is it luck.
The Cotys and the Estee Lauders of the world have reaped trillions over the years by guarding their processes of turning base fragrances into coveted scents, and to become truly proficient in perfume making takes years. The ironic thing is that once you’re in the know, there is an endless supply of information at your fingertips.
But where do you start?
Aspiring perfumers can try the five-day perfumery course and workshop, a basic course in the art and science of perfume making, beginning on Monday, May 3, at 9 a.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Woodbridge. Led by British perfumer #b#Stephen Dowthwaite#/b#, the course is designed to introduce the building blocks of perfumery as a craft and business. Cost: $945. Visit www.perfumeprojects.com.
Dowthwaite is a longtime perfumer who once worked for International Flavors & Fragrances, one of the industry’s main players and which has an R&D facility in Dayton. He owns Perfume Projects and its retail store in Bangkok, Thailand. He has come to the New York area twice to teach this workshop, helped by #b#Philip Goutell#/b#, a writer and perfume maker based in New York state, who facilitates the workshops here.
Goutell got started in perfume by accident in the 1980s, when he ran a large mail order company in New York. He had been a writer who began selling his books alongside a variety of items, one of which was a pheromone cologne designed to make guys irresistible to the ladies. It was a good seller, and Goutell eventually dabbled in making fragrances himself.
In 2005 he heard about Dowthwaite’s course, popular in Thailand and newly available in a mail order version. In buying the course, Goutell struck up a friendship with Dowthwaite and eventually became his American distributor and contact for the course and workshop. “Now I seem to be in charge of setting up the workshops here,” he says.
Goutell, who earned his bachelor’s in political science and philosophy from NYU, runs a marketing and mail order company called Lightyears Inc. near his home in Maybrook, New York. There he makes his own scents and markets Dowthwaite’s courses and perfume marketing books.
#b#Parlez vous francais#/b#? Getting into the perfume industry might be easy enough — just ask the girl who stands at the department store counter waiting to spritz passers-by — but getting to the inner circle gets tough.
Even within the big fragrance houses, Goutell says, training in perfumery is limited to a handful of carefully selected employees. “The ISAPP in France offers perfumery training but requires several years of daily classroom attendance.”
And the ability to speak French fluently is recommended.
All this trouble is engineered to keep too many people from knowing how to find the “juice,” Goutell says — the ideal distillation of a scent that provides the base for perfumes and colognes — and the ability to mix them into new and interesting concoctions. Dowthwaite’s workshop, he says, aims to democratize that knowledge by, literally, explaining the ABCs of perfumery.
#b#What about English#/b#? Dowthwaite began sharing his knowledge in 1992, after his return to the perfume business, Goutell says. He had worked for IFF and been married to a perfumer who wanted to move to another company. But Mrs. Dowthwaite could not be hired so long as her husband was involved in the industry for a rival.
“This is how secretive the industry is,” Goutell says. Dowthwaite’s answer? He became a London policeman. His wife got the job and, after an amicable divorce, Dowthwaite moved to Bangkok, where he lives with his second wife and daughter and operates a retail perfumery and training program.
Dowthwaite’s audience had only a tenuous grasp of English, so he developed a system in which he assigned a letter of the alphabet to different perfume bases. A is for aliphatic (fatty, waxy, creamy), B is for berg (as in iceberg, for “cool” fragrances such as mint or camphor), and so on.
This method of teaching through phonetics, Goutell says, ensures that the information starts with the basics — something otherwise unavailable to the world at large.
Though Dowthwaite uses 25 major base groups (Z is for a non-alcoholic activator known as Zolvent), there are more than 700 aroma chemicals available for people to use, Goutell says. “The key is to know the odor groups.”
#b#Past the ABCs#/b#. While the names and characteristics of perfume bases — the building blocks of scents — are a starting point, Goutell says it is still not likely that anyone could simply start mixing Cs with Js to make a knockout perfume. For starters, there are safety issues to contend with — after all, these are chemicals you’re dealing with — a larger understanding of how some scents play off others, and the ability to know how long a particular scent will last on the skin.
Some scents, for example, last only a few seconds while others last a day, Goutell says. And scents linger longer on oily skin than dry skin. Once you know some of these basics, he says, the workshop moves on to conceptualizing fragrances, selecting the right materials, and creating new perfumes.
Spending wisely. Agarwood is one of the most widely loved scents. It also costs $20,000 per kilo.
The reason for the expense is that agarwood comes from a specific tree disease. The disease can be inflicted, but it’s not the same as when it occurs naturally. An experienced nose will know the difference, Goutell says. And an experienced hustler will know how to water down agarwood with other chemicals that smell similar.
“The trick to buying essential oils is knowing how to not get ripped off,” Goutell says. One of the ways around that is to distill your own, which the workshop will touch on. The other way around it, of course, is to know how to spot an ersatz brew.
#b#Is there a living to be made#/b#? Goutell is refreshingly honest about what students can expect from Dowthwaite’s workshop. “You won’t walk out as a perfumer in the industry,” he says. What you’ll have is a foundation that is unavailable otherwise and a grounding in making and marketing perfumes. Students — who are not expected to have any background in perfumery or chemistry — will be able to enter the industry ahead of where you would be if you were to start as a spritzer at the mall.
You will also be on the road to starting your own line. The combinations of bases are boundless, Goutell says, and the door is open for the entrepreneurially minded.
But don’t think that just because you have a fantastic perfume, or even a line of them, you will make money. Like anything, Goutell says, success lies in the marketing. You will not make a perfume in your basement and wow Macy’s with it, unless you also show them receipts that prove people are buying your perfume. Like any other invention, piece of art, or product, its success will rely on the work you put into it, and trying to make a lot of money in perfume as a side job or hobby will get you nowhere.
Goutell’s favorite homemade perfume comes from a forgotten experiment. He kept smelling some delightful scent wafting from his wife, only to find that it was his. He had made a batch and labeled it with a sterile chemical number, forgot about it, and didn’t recognize it. He now has a small line of perfumes that he sells through his website, www.pglightyears.com.
Goutell has retail in his blood. His father was a buyer for Abraham & Strauss, a men’s clothier in New York, and he himself has been at the helm of a mail order company since the days preceding the home computer boom. But he approaches perfumery as an art form as much as a commodity.
“Those who are artists with smells follow their inner muse regardless,” Goutell writes in his blog. “What they create is of more importance to them than what they gain through their creations.”
The successful perfumer, like any other artist, he says, is the one who loves his art and knows what it takes to earn a living.