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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the February 13,
2002 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In Quest of Uncommon Scents
Scent, like love, is all around us — in our furniture polish
and fabric softener, liquid soap and hand lotion and especially, in
our perfumes. But Calvin and Estee and the brothers Lever don’t always
concoct these aromas in house. Much of this fragrance originates right
in our own backyard at the fragrance and flavor company Firmenich
just off Route 1 on Plainsboro Road.
I started sniffing way before the seventh grade when
I first began to perfume myself. Holed up in my grandmother’s
I’d open her bottle of No. 4711 cologne or remove the top from a box
of talcum powder and just inhale.
I’ve disqualified suitors because something about them smelled funny,
something much more subtle than the reek of sweat or a cloud of Brut.
I’ve hovered over the mouths of my sleeping newborns to catch a whiff
of their fruit-scented breath. The unexpected fragrance of Mennen’s
Skin Bracer, the favorite after-shave of my beloved grandfather now
dead for a dozen years, has reduced me to tears.
My first bottle of cologne was called Love’s Baby Soft. Its scent
was powdery. Its package was a column-shaped bottle with a rounded
cap — rather phallic. At the time I had no acquaintance with
symbolic or otherwise, and splashed it on liberally.
In high school, I trekked from Staten Island to Manhattan to find
Caswell-Massey, an old apothecary shop, which counted the scent
by George Washington among its olfactory hits. Their cucumber blossom
cologne became my first preference for warm weather. (Experience
that a scent that is perfect in winter can become overbearing in
For a few glorious years, Caswell-Massey had a branch store in
Village where I poked and sniffed my way through most of the soaps,
lotions and fragrances in their inventory.
When I found out that Firmenich — a company in my own back yard
— paid people to smell stuff, I was intrigued. I signed up as
a hired nose to be paid $10 for a half hour’s work smelling once a
week. When I was asked to write about the experience, I knew things
couldn’t get much better. And hardly anyone knows anything about
so it would be a challenge.
Call it low profile, flying under the radar, whatever — Firmenich
is not a company looking for widespread name recognition. It is the
butler of the consumer goods industry — always at the service
of its manufacturer master but never at the forefront.
Reluctant to toot its own horn, Firmenich prefers instead to work
quietly behind the scenes supplying the scents and flavors that find
their way into many of the world’s most popular products —
polish and fabric softener, liquid soap and hand lotion and
in our perfumes.
"We work with the Lauders, Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein. We
interact with them, we support them, we supply them. We do a lot of
the back-up work for them," says Robert A. McEwan, vice president
and general manager of the perfumery division.
So when Elizabeth, Calvin, or Estee want to launch a new perfume that
will be witty, urbane, wry, with a hint of spice and gardenia, and
appeal to women ages 18 to 34, chances are they don’t get out the
test tubes and start mixing.
This same scenario holds for a consumer products company envisioning
a pomegranate-flavored sports beverage or a pine-freshened laundry
detergent. "We’re middlemen," says McEwan, explaining why
consumers who are buying Valentine perfumes will not find the
name on the vial of expensive cologne. "We don’t speak of what
we do because our customers, in the eyes of the consumers, make the
fragrances. We work closely with the noses in those companies and
they’re as much in the creative process as we are. We end up
the final product. That’s how we make money," says McEwan.
McEwan sees a well defined market for his products that is dependent
on carefully nurtured relationships. "Our emphasis is on pleasing
our customers and not looking for new customers. We know our customers
— companies such as Unilever, Colgate, and P&G. The new customers
are usually part of these big companies because they have the money
to launch new products."
Firmenich’s attempt to fade into the background is cultivated most
carefully in home care and body care products. McEwan explains
Company A doesn’t want Company B to know that Firmenich is making
the fragrance for its goods and neither does Firmenich. "By
it’s a Firmenich fragrance, they’re looking for our chemicals, they’re
looking for our molecules. It makes it easier for them to copy (the
scent)," he says.
The situation differs notably for fine fragrance market. "It means
something in the sales pitch if Firmenich makes the fragrance,"
says McEwan. To back up his claims, he brandishes a copy Women’s
Wear Daily, the fashion and fragrance industry bible. In the annual
spread summing up new perfume launches, a supplier such as Firmenich
or International Flavors & Fragrances (which has a factory in Dayton)
is prominently linked to each new scent.
Despite this postpartum publicity, secrecy prevails even internally
during the development of new perfumes and during their testing.
don’t spread around what we’re working on and who we’re working
Outside the Firmenich entrance, a Swiss flag flies next to the stars
and stripes. True to the national stereotype of a people with a robust
concern for privacy, Firmenich is based in Switzerland.
It was founded in Geneva in 1895 by a chemist and a businessman. They
were soon joined by Fred Firmenich, who become the majority partner.
Firmenich remains privately owned and is the world’s largest
company in the fragrance and flavor industry. Both the chairman and
the CEO bear the family name.
Not being subject to the whims of the stock market is a major asset
in McEwan’s view. "The thing that sets us apart from other
is we’re a privately owned company. We take a long term planning
We don’t worry from quarter to quarter or month to month about what
we’re doing. That helps our creativity. The creativity just happens
when it happens. You can’t plan that into a quarterly report."
"We’re a culture of innovation, of creativity," says McEwan.
A 1970 graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara,
he started in sales in California and has worked for Firmenich in
Switzerland, London, and Japan.
McEwan puts Firmenich in the top three in the world in perfumery
in terms of total sales dollars but he remains concerned with
"The worldwide potential, we think, for perfumes and flavors is
$11 to $12 billion. It’s growing at two to four percent a year. That
makes it a fairly small industry worldwide. I’m looking at that $11
billion. Are we attacking all 11 or are we attacking 8, or attacking
7. How much of that 7 do we have?"
The company’s current five-year plan anticipates a one-third each
split for revenue among fine fragrance, body care, and home care
Fine fragrance products are typically of smaller physical volume but
these essences command the highest prices.
McEwan sees these products lines as "synergistic — they
help each other. You can have one without the other but you’re not
as strong a company."
But producing the scents for perfumes presents unique challenges,
particularly if they are derived from nature. "The demand is for
high quality and consistent quality. You always want your fragrance
to smell the same. Therefore, you have to be able to replicate nature.
The chemistry we do is basically organic chemistry that is taking
the natural smells, finding the ingredients, and replicating those
on a large scale," says McEwan.
Although a rose is a rose is a rose, rose petals do not always smell
the same from one year to the next. McEwan uses the analogy of
the varying quality of wine vintages from the same vineyard to
the vagaries of producing identically scented perfumes from natural
materials that vary in quality and strength from year to year.
Good years along with lesser years are accepted by wine drinkers but
not by perfumers. "These companies want the quality control of
never having anything change. You want it to smell the same."
The Plainsboro site, established in 1956, is Firmenich’s largest in
North America. McEwan estimates over 500 people, out of 900 employed
on the continent, work in its laboratories and offices. The 200,000
square-foot factory represents almost half of the 390,000-foot campus.
The company moved its perfumers and flavorists from Park Avenue to
Plainsboro in 1975. The fragrance staff has expanded to add an
group of creative, lab, and marketing people back in New York City
on Madison Avenue. "We believe in being as close to the customer
as possible," says McEwan as he explaining the need for the
The company produces its own chemical raw materials to produce the
scents but these are not made in Plainsboro. "Make it clear that
we are not manufacturing chemicals in the middle of Plainsboro,"
says McEwan. "We are blending raw materials to a specified
McEwan has worked at Firmenich for 24 years and is convinced the
plant is not obtrusive to the township’s collective olfactory sense.
"Our factory has air scrubbers. Over the years, we have gotten
more and more equipment. You very rarely smell anything out of our
He says rarely, I say often. At least that was the case six years
ago. My family moved from Linden Lane South six years ago. In that
section of Plainsboro, tucked beside Wicoff School, I would often
step out the front door into an aroma of butterscotch or strawberries.
So before I began to contract my sniffing services to Firmenich, I
had had informal experiences with Firmenich products.
Firmenich calls its rented nostrils "panelists," and labels
the actual job "evaluating fragrances." The first step to
being a panelist is completing a questionnaire. I revealed my brand
of dishwasher soap (Electrosol Tabs) and moisturizer (Nivea Q 10
Control Lotion) and whether I did the family’s grocery shopping
Once on site I signed a form indicating that I was not
suffering from any respiratory infections and did not wear dentures.
To avoid contaminating the testing area, the center has a rule against
panelists wearing any perfume. Women test once a week on Monday,
or Friday. Firmenich also runs a smaller program for male consumers
on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. On my assigned day,
Fridays, I needed to remember to leave off the scent.
Because being a tester depends on an unhampered ability to smell,
a cold can quickly sideline a budding panelist’s career. I dabbed
at my nose once after coming in from some rather blustery weather
and the administrator reminded me panelists are not allowed to test
with a cold.
Since I did some testing when 90 percent of those living north of
the equator were all stuffed up, avoiding illness was no easy feat.
I worried about my nose and even took a decongestant once just to
be sure of being clear.
The company attempts to duplicate the conditions in which a product
is used in the real world. Toilet bowl cleaners are poured into large
soup pots filled with water to replicate conditions in the family
Air fresheners are sprayed out into the atmosphere of small booths.
The Plexiglas porthole cut into the booth’s door allows an evaluator
to open the hatch, stick in her head and sniff. The scents are
at regular intervals throughout the testing period.
Opposite the booths is a row of tiny laundry rooms each equipped with
a washer and dryer where fabric care fragrances are evaluated on wet
and dry hand towels. An adjoining testing lab is equipped with a
counter top and each station has a chair and touch sensitive computer
monitor for inputting evaluation data.
The booths, pots, samples, and laundry rooms are always individually
numbered so results can be identified and panelists are cautioned
to smell only in the prescribed order.
My first day consisted of sniffing six liquid soaps for hand washing,
evaluating four air fresheners and filling out two surveys. After
a few times, stopping in for my weekly appointment became almost
Drive in, park, smell, pull out, and drive away. Once I made it in
and out in 15 minutes including parking the car, galloping up the
stairs, sniffing, filling out the forms, and getting back to the car.
The work was interesting. Where else can you drive into a parking
lot that smells as if it was filled with ripe bananas? But panelists
are sometimes motivated by more than the $10 payment.
Nancy Wieck of Plainsboro has been testing for about eight years now,
most recently as a substitute panelist. Her most unusual experience
at Firmenich was being asked to pick a scent to match a color.
Wieck, who admits she wears perfume only on very special occasions,
is the mother of three sons and full-time homemaker. She was taken
by the idea that her opinion was important, that her input could
which products eventually line store shelves. "Somebody’s actually
paying me for my opinion. It was such a little stroke for me. That
was the clincher," she says.
Rose Greco, who coordinates the consumer testing program for
tries hard to make the experience pleasant for her panelists. Plates
of cookies are offered as an after-sniffing snack and she sometimes
has little goodies like calendars or weekly planners to give away.
But there’s more to being a hired nose than just taking a whiff. Being
quick with a number two pencil is also important. Machine scored
sheets are filled out for each product evaluated. The appeal of each
sample is rated ranging from like extremely to dislike extremely with
seven intermediate gradations. Next, a word or two to explain your
reaction (outdoorsy or perhaps, too fruity).
Further questions include evaluating the fragrance’s strength (too
strong, just right or too weak); whether or not you’d buy it (yes,
no, maybe) and checking off all that apply from a list of attributes
that vary according to the product. Good for the whole family, musty,
or citrus are among the descriptions for personal care products.
for cologne include demure, overpowering, or European.
Some tests request matching a fragrance to a product. Others require
choosing the odd fragrance from three offered. Once I was asked to
match four different air freshener scents sprayed in the booths to
a product concept. This effusive description said the fragrance was
to recall a cascade of water fruits — kiwi, pineapple, melon —
and flowers — wild blue peony and muguet — a combination that
certainly seemed able to freshen the average residence or abandoned
Since I’ve never seen a blue peony (in my neck of the woods most are
white or tinged with pink) or smelled a muguet (no one mentioned
French as a job requirement), I felt a little stranded. Did the scents
go with the concept? Were the marketers drinking too much?
Choosing the one odd fragrance from three offered reminded me of a
common task in kindergarten. A page is filled with drawings of clowns.
All but one is identical. The trick is to find the oddball. Hint:
he is missing the pompom for his hat. Firmenich had me sniff three
kettles filled with a mix of water and toilet bowl cleaner and,
time, three booths scented by stick up air fresheners.
But this task seemed a lot more confusing to a middle-aged nose than
to a five-year-old eye. It was sad but true. Too much smelling gave
me nasal confusion. The only cure seemed to be sticking my head out
a window for a deep breath.
After four weeks of testing sessions, I finally got to smell the good
stuff — cologne. The scent was presented in a plain spray bottle,
very utilitarian, no fantasy packaging here. The instructions were
simple. Uncork it, sniff it, and then, react.
Perfume wearers know a scent can’t be judged by just a sniff out of
the bottle. So does Firmenich. Cologne doesn’t really strut its stuff
until dabbed on the skin and left to sit awhile. I was told to sniff
again in an hour and fax or call in with my thoughts on the ripened
The scent was a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t feel as if I was
in on the ground floor of the creation of another Chanel No. 5. Rather
than reeking of potential, it struck me as mannish.
But even this disappointment was OK. There was always next week and
a new scent. For the time being, I’d just go home, unwrap a bar of
Yardley’s Lavender Soap, take a sniff and relax.
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