January 25, 2017

Perfumery Lesson #5: How do I get started?

One of the questions I'm asked most is how I got into studying perfumery, and how one might find themselves a student of the subject. It's true, finding perfumery classes is hard. It seems like almost every craft has a host of classes in any city you could join, except this. The industry is just such that most perfumes are made at large corporate companies by a handful of fine fragrance perfumers. For those of us out here doing our own thing, we've either followed an untraditional educational path or are self-taught.

For my part, I started my perfumery education by taking natural perfume and aromatherapy classes in NYC. In this way I got to know the essential oils and absolutes of flowers, bark, leaves, and other plant parts. I'll never forget the first time I walked into a natural perfume class. Small glass bottles were lined up along an organ, and as we opened each one and inhaled it was like a whole world was being conjured in my mind. That evening quite literally changed my life. 

Craving a more structured and traditional perfume education, I eventually applied to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, one of two independently-operated training programs for aspiring perfumers. But not everyone is at a place in their life where they can move to another country for a year or more, so for those of you, I am sharing my advice on how to get started along the path of perfumery, such a magical art and science.

There are three books I recommend:

Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent illuminates the inner workings of the corporate perfume industry by following the ideation to launch of two big fragrances: Hermes's Un Jardin sur le Nil and Sarah Jessica Parker and Coty's Lovely (which I secretly love).

Mandy Aftel is a San Francisco based natural perfumer. She so lovingly writes about the wonder of natural ingredients in Essence and Alchemy and you get totally swept up in the amazing history of perfume she evokes. I don't know if I read this in her book or not but this is as good a place as any to share. Cleopatra would douse the sails of her ships in perfume so that you could smell them coming along the wind long before you could see them. Queen!

The third book is by Jean Claude Ellena, the former in-house perfumer at Hermes. His minimal approach to perfume and expertise really shine in his book, simply titled Perfume. It's nice to read something by a perfumer, as it helps you realize that perfumers are very much artists.

In addition to reading and taking classes where and when you can, I recommend studying perfumes on the market. I love going to stores and smelling what's new, then coming back and reading reviews. With practice you'll be able to pick out the notes yourself. In a specialty shop, there may be someone there who can give you background on the perfume. It's all about passion. Where there is passion, knowledge will come.

Photos from my time in Grasse, France.