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In his talk at the India Design Forum earlier this month, Paul Austin handed out three small blotters to the audience. “Let’s smell," he told them. Austin had just described to his listeners how his journey in olfaction design had brought him to this country in 2008, and revived his love for perfume. Among other things, coming to the source of many of the world’s most exotic—and essential —perfume ingredients allowed him to experience a culture of scent at its most elemental.

Scent sense: Noses like Bernard Chant’s have defined great perfumes

Austin, whose company, the Austin Advisory Group, does global brand consulting for fragrances, was telling a story to demonstrate what he says is essential to understanding perfume, and how its design is experienced by its users. “There are 1,200 perfumes put out in the market every year, according to some studies," he says. “But authenticity is the key."

What can authenticity mean in a world where chemicals outperform the natural scents they are meant to recreate, tastes change with every generation, and where the market is said to be moving away from the West, towards China, India and West Asia?

In the perfume labs of Chanel and Dior, Hermès and Guerlain—creators of some of the world’s most iconic and best-selling fragrances—the answer is increasingly a function of construction and design.

Training people at Isipca

Perfumers, who study scents for years in design school, memorize hundreds of smells, natural and chemical, and vast numbers of recipes that allow them to manufacture the kind of smells they need. “The structure of perfume design remains fairly constant whether you’re creating a luxury perfume or a more everyday fragrance," explains perfumer Ahalya Matthan.

Matthan studied perfume design at the Institut Supérieur International du Parfum (Isipca) at Versailles, France, before returning home to set up her own fragrance design company in Bangalore. “The base note is the ingredient which lingers—the memory of the perfume."

“The inventiveness poured into these creations reverberates not against our retinas or eardrums," the perfume critic Chandler Burr once wrote in The New York Times, “but against our nasal epithelia." This innovation has a language of its own, which translates into the story of the perfume, or what Austin calls “the sensory narrative" of the fragrance.

Burr wrote the 2008 classic, The Perfect Scent, which was partly about a year spent with Hermès perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, watching him create the signature fragrance Un Jardin sur le Nil. A moment in Burr’s accompanying New Yorker article illustrates how Ellena thinks of the perfume’s “sensory narrative". He inhales jasmine sambac, which is full of indoles, scent molecules which are also present in decaying bodies and faeces. “It’s feminine, the smell of death," Ellena says to explain its power (Un Jardin sur le Nil does not contain jasmine sambac).

Classic scents

This makes even more sense in an era where the nature of perfume ingredients has changed so drastically. The International Fragrance Association’s (Ifra’s) regulations have modified the scent palette of perfumes significantly since 2003, for reasons ranging from health (for example, allergy-inducing or carcinogenic components are strictly regulated or banned) to environmental conservation, and perfumers find themselves chemically attempting to substitute for several vital ingredients, including clove and star anise. Miss Dior and Chanel No. 5 are no longer made of the same ingredients with which they started out. The challenge for perfume design becomes to recreate the vibrancy of traditional perfumes using the palette that they can play with.

“All perfumers are becoming expert in creating workarounds for materials that are banned, and many of them do these brilliantly," Burr says in an email interview. “Whether they’re better or not? It’s possible, given that the workaround is going to have more up to date and perhaps more high-performance raw materials."

For example, using a silicone base for a perfume—as perfumers have increasingly done since the 1990s, substituting it for the traditional alcohol bases—endows it with qualities unthinkable in a more “natural" perfume from 50 years ago. But as Austin explains, the dichotomy is not quite as simple as the distinction we draw between, say, fabrics. “Synthetic ingredients give you qualities that would simply be unavailable otherwise," he says. Burr wrote about Ellena creating a molecule of chocolate scent out of two molecules of isobutyl phenyl acetate and vanillin, making what would otherwise have taken him 800 molecules to create from scratch.

Austin marks the shift subtly when he talks about how India rekindled his love for perfume. He would like people to think of India not just as a source of ingredients, but as a key to iconic fragrances. “It wasn’t until I came to Tamil Nadu that I discovered that vetiver, or khus khus, which is a key ingredient of so many perfumes, actually derives its name from the Tamil for ‘cut roots’," he says. “I’d always supposed it was a French word."

For an industry whose own roots are undergoing a kind of transplantation, the search for stories to bottle in those labs in the south of France is always surprising, and far from over.


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Updated: 23 Mar 2012, 10:34 PM IST
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