Become a perfumer for a day!

Text: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The beautiful Opéra Garnier is towering me, with its green copper domes, golden statues, and polychromatic façades. France’s world-famous luxurious department stores are just a stone’s throw away. Unexpectedly for most Parisian streets, a delicate fragrance enters my nose as I walk towards the Maison Fragonard boutique where I am about to become an apprentice perfumer for the afternoon…

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If the first per fumus, per their Latin name “through smoke” referring to the creative process were created in Mesopotamia about 4,000 years ago “the first modern perfume, a blend of scented oils in an alcoholic solution, was worn by the Queen of Hungary in 1370” explains Juliette, our nez for today. Nez for “nose” is what the in-house perfumers in France, the undisputed country of perfumes, are called. In the 16th century, under the impulsion of the Renaissance King Francis I, Paris developed as the capital of elegance and fashion. The flower fields of Grasse in southern France provided the utmost quality raw material, and the great perfume houses made a name for themselves, capturing a noble and wealthy international clientele.

“In 1926, the former Parisian notary Eugène Fuchs choses to name his perfume line after the Grasse-native and famous 18th century Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, paying tribute to the fine arts of the 18th century and the town that he loved so much,” Juliette explains. It is still in Grasse, world’s perfume capital, that the famous family-run Maison Fragonard, led today by the fourth generation, is established. Factory visits and workshops are run daily amongst the flower fields, but luckily, it is also possible to uncover the secrets of fragrance creation in the heart of Paris…

Graduated from the selective Ecole Supérieure du Parfum in Grasse, Juliette explains that it takes about 10 years to become a perfumer. Today, we have about two hours ahead of us to play the apprentice perfumer, learning how to smell, formulate, and the most exciting…, create our very own fragrance!

And before mixing elixirs, it is time to start training our noses. It is not only identifying the scents of the 9 different small dark bottles in front of us that matters (a tall order in itself!), but also understanding how they each evolve with time and project how they enhance each other. I dip the blotter, a thick paper strip into one of the bottles, flutter it, smell it, frown, try again. “Fragrance smells more when warm, so you can blow on it to boost the smell,” Juliette advises as she sees me struggle. “What do you get on the nose?” she asks. It is now clearer. I smell summer, zesty fruits, freshness… A sweet orange essence! I pick up bitter and acid notes of lemon from my second blotter, while the third smells like a bouquet of flowers, a bit woody and peppery at the same time. “It is bergamot,” Juliette reveals, “a perfumer’s favourite as this scent is part of every perfume, mixing well with all scents.” These three first scents are the top notes and as a rule of thumb, should make 85% of the fragrance that I am about to create.

More scents await, most of which being essential oils obtained by distillation instead of the previous three that were obtained by cold pression: more labour intensive and precious, a smaller amount is needed to shape a specific fragrance. I keep trying to identify scents by comparison when I feel my nose in overdrive. “Our nose is an alarm system and reacts to new smells. Your brain might get overwhelmed and then confused with all these new impressions. To reset your brain just smell the skin of your arm: it is the most neutral smell for each of us,” Juliette advises.

Once the identification phase is completed, I think of the real-life challenge. If I am already puzzled by how I am going to use the 9 different scents of today, a nez creates new perfumes out of 200 to 300 different scents which are all known by heart, as well as which combines well together, top notes, middle notes, extraction methods… And beyond the smells, some scents bring more longevity to a fragrance and become essential in its composition. Ten years to master the art does not sound over the top…

Before starting to mix the scents in my own bottle with my pipet, I study the notes I have just made and formulate a first baseline. It is a trial-and-error process during which I realize how only a few drops completely change the Eau de Parfum I am working on. After several attempts, I perfect my fragrance to my taste. A drop of jasmine, a few drops of lavender, one more of bergamot, and a hint of rosemary. I find the end-result quite satisfying. Thanks to the formulation, from the experimental pipets, I go to the actual perfume bottle that I fill up carefully keeping the same proportions. Using my most diligent handwriting, I complete the final touch titling my unique Eau de Parfum.

A bit later, after visiting the interesting Fragonard Museum dedicated to perfumes across the ages, I find myself in the Fragonard shop, waving different blotters of the most famous fragrances by the reputed perfumer. I try to use my newly learnt skills to isolate scents, pick up the top notes and realize that perfumes have just taken a whole new dimension for me after this workshop, already thinking about taking a trip to Grasse to uncover more…

Travel tips:

  • To follow the workshop in Paris make sure to book your spot via the website of the  Fragonard Museum.  
  • While in Paris, make sure to visit the excellent Fragonard Museum dedicated to perfumes across the ages.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in Paris, click on these images:

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