Corrections or additions?

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


says McEwan.

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


market share.

"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

Manhattan office.

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

coal mine.

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.

Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments