The fragrance industry has always been wrapped in a cocoon of mystery and secrecy. It's not that perfumes are made in secret, it's that you rarely get a glimpse of what is behind the scenes.
Occasionally, a mass media outlet would release a story on the back-end of creating a fragrance. It would feature prominent perfumers and industry executives sniffing strips of paper and musing on how to make the perfect aquatic.
The more you watch such documentaries, the more you realize they are advanced PR campaigns, rather than a real glimpse in the world of perfume-making.
If you are the nosy type like me and try to probe the establishment for answers (like whether Dior Homme has been reformulated) you either get a stone cold silence or the PR lady with a plastic smile who reads you the well crafted message for insidious elements like you.
This is why, it is a joyous occasion when I get to read an honest opinion about the fragrance industry from someone who knows it intimately. This Holy Grail of information is what one of my favourite bloggers, Kafka from Kafkaesqueblog.com, has brought to us.
In an extensive interview with the independent perfumer Viktoria Mynia, Kafka has given us a rare glimpse of how things behind the heavy curtain of the perfume industry. Here are some of the things Viktoria Mynia shares, which I found extremely interesting and informative. To get the full picture of what Viktoria Mynia is saying, I strongly suggest you read Kafka's full article: Life of a Nose: One Perfumer's Story.
Who is Viktoria Mynia?
Viktoria Mynia is an award-winning independent perfumer and the owner of Viktoria Mynia Parfums.
After she was graduated from the prominent Grasse Institute of Perfumery, Viktoria worked as a perfumer for several perfume houses. Getting a taste of the industry, Viktoria started her own independent line of fragrances.
As an independent perfumer, Viktoria isn't part of the industry establishment and, hence, she is not bound by the same rules of secrecy. In her interview with Kafka, she shares her honest opinion on what it is like to study as a perfumer in Grasse and how the industry works.
Peach, Rum, Osmanthus,
Iris, Black Currant, Musk, Cocoa, Labdanum
Rose, Peach, White Wine, Musk, Clove, Amber
Cassis, Rose, Grapefruit,
Tokaji Wine, Honey, Immortelle,
Tonka Bean, Sandalwood, Jasmine
What Is It Like to Go to a Perfume School?
Viktoria explains that getting into the Grasse Institute of Perfumery is very competitive. The Institute admits only 12 students at a time, who pay 12,000 euros for the 9-month program.
In the first weeks of the program, the students start off by smelling the most common fragrance ingredients used in modern perfumery. Viktoria describes this experience as feeling drunk from all the smells.
The website of the Grasse Institute of Perfumery states that in addition to learning to recognize the key raw materials, students also learn the language of perfumery, fragrance groups and the "subtle art of blending".
Viktoria adds that she also took courses on Marketing and Law.
As part of the program each student has to undergo a placement with a perfume house. Viktoria started off as a perfumer assistant responsible for mixing formulas. She says that one of her biggest challenges was weighing the formula. One extra drop could throw off the whole composition.
Why Do Perfume Companies Release So Many Flankers?
I always thought the main reason there are so many flankers on the market is because perfume companies don't want to take business risks with original creations. Viktoria seems to confirm my suspicions and adds an extra angle.
Throughout the 80's, some of the largest perfume companies went on a trademark spree and licensed some of the most unique words and phrases that could be make good perfume names.
Every time a company wants to create a new perfume with a new name, their legal team has to verify that they won't be infringing any trademarks. Since the largest perfume companies are global, they have to make such trademark checks in all countries where they want to sell their fragrance.
The reason why Dior named their latest release Sauvage may be motivated by legal restrictions. In a press conference about the release of Sauvage, Dior reps responded that they chose this name because they liked it.
I think the reason for the name has more to do with trademarks rather than what they like. Since Dior already owns the trademark for Eau Sauvage, it was probably much easier to call their newest release Sauvage.
Why Do So Many Perfumes Smell the Same?
The answer to this question may as well be the answer to the question "What motivates investment decisions". It is money, markets and risk.
Viktoria explains that each clients gives a budget of what it should cost to produce the perfume. It is the perfumer's job to produce something as cheap as possible, which at the same time is as good as possible.
Perfumers measure the cost of producing the perfume in price per kilogram. Viktoria clarifies that when the perfumer designs the formula, she enters the ingredients into a software, which calculates the cost per kilogram of the formula.
Increasingly tighter budgets and IFRA restrictions force perfumers to use the same cheap ingredients. But even with a limited pool of ingredients, a skillful perfumer can produce something original.
This magic of originality, however, doesn't happen because of the briefs most large designer companies produce.
A brief is an frag talk for a short description of what the perfume should smell like. Briefs could be very creative (a colour, song or a poem) or they could be very prescriptive and market data driven.
Alas, the major designer companies lean towards the latter. Viktoria says that many clients would give identical briefs. They all would fall into the categories of mysterious, sensual and elegant.
The briefs of the latest designer releases for men probably sounded like each other: a fragrance for the modern man that is contemporary and fresh.
Viktoria adds, some clients would go further and give other popular fragrances as a reference point. They do this just to make sure that despite the limited budget and generic brief, the perfumer doesn't veer off creatively and produce something a focus group might sneeze on.
The standard process in designing a perfume involves going through several modification of the original blend. Chandler Burr aptly describes this process in The Perfect Scent.
Designer companies run these modifications through several focus groups. They pick the one with the most positive responses.
Now you know why most designer fragrances smell generic.
Kafka's interview with Viktoria Mynia is full of many more exciting bits what it is like to be a perfumers. She delves into how she works with private clients and what it is like to run a perfume company in France.
Read the full article here: The Life of "Nose": One Perfumer's Story.
I wanted to give a big thank-you to Kafka and Viktoria for the amazing interview.
Disclaimer: All photos of the Viktoria Mynia fragrances are property of Viktoria Mynia and come from viktoriamynia.com