On the nose

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on March 10, 2018

John Stephen One doesn’t become a perfumer in a day

A chat with John Stephen, master perfumer, on the seven basic scents, why fecal scents are attractive, and why perfumes are personal

What differentiates smell from the rest of our senses? According to John Stephen, master perfumer, the rest of the senses go to the frontal cortex, but smell goes to the hypothalamus, the power centre of the brain directly linked to our nervous system, that controls our impulses. It’s hold cannot be underestimated.

But do people react similarly to all scents? Is there a universal bad or good smell? If he is to be believed, it completely depends on one’s personality. “Oudh, the essential oil, is highly prized in the Middle East, for instance, but usually detested by the Chinese, in my experience. Smells are always subjective, and hence the perfume one wears, reflects one’s personality,” said Stephen, as he took us through a class of a dozen participants, demonstrating the complex and elusive world of a perfumer, a world of tiny vials filled with essential oils. As he dipped scent bars made of absorbent paper in a vial full of the black viscous liquid, Stephen said, “The most expensive smell in the world, oudh oil is extracted from agarwood. It is formed when a particular fungus affects the heart of the agarwood, which then releases an aromatic resin, from which oudh or oud, is extracted. It’s price can skyrocket to $1,00,000 per kg.”

Stephen, a chemist, looked a bit like Walter White in his lab coat, as he roamed around the room offering everyone a whiff of familiar oils, a lavender here, a bergamot there.

At the class in Delhi, organised by 3003 BC, a brand that claims to have introduced bespoke perfume making in India, John Stephen, resident perfumer, held forth on why perfume making was such a delicate art. “It is a bit like cooking. There aren’t many ingredients, even though sometimes there might be, but you must know by instinct to mix the right quantities, in the right order, for magic to happen. Hence, you can’t become a perfumer in a day.”

Stephen handed everyone in the room a sheet, to explain the process of identifying fragrance notes. The sheet had three concentric circles with different adjectives related to fragrant notes such as grassy, forest, spicy, flowery written around the topmost circle. Smells often found similar were written closer to each other, just like the light spectrum. A smell test proved that we were all fairly uneducated in identifying each and every smell present in a perfume, and had to get them checked separately to identify them. “Vocabulary is so important in the perfume world. There are seven basic classifications of fragrance notes, such as aldaheidic, green, floral, citrus, woody, oceanic and spicy.”

Stephen hails from the UK, where he’s one of the five independent perfumers. Having over 40 years of experience, he has made bespoke perfumes for a lot of distinguished people, including Queen Elizabeth II. He currently works with 3003 BC as a consultant. 3003 BC creates a customised fragrance in 12 to 16 weeks. Patrons may be select individuals as well as customised perfumes made for wedding guests. Stephen doesn’t rush to document the individual’s scent memories — 12 weeks is the average time spent before producing a sample.

A detailed face-to-face or virtual consultation takes place and after a few days of exploration and depending upon the customer’s brief, the perfumer creates samples. After the scent is selected, the equally important process of choosing the bottle, name and design of the label begins. According to Stephen, most people are not very communicative about fragrance, and hence time needs to be spent with them, before they’re aware of the kind of perfumes to be produced.

As we found out during the master class, it is difficult to identify what goes into the making of a perfume that we might love. “Fecal notes, can make a fantastic difference to perfumes,” Stephen proclaimed to a room that gasped on hearing his words. He elaborated, “Civet, one of the most prized essential oils, comes from the anal tract of an Abyssinian cat.” Not all scents are singular as well. “Harmonising scent produces a third smell, for instance, oakwood and lavender blend so well.”

Even though the lives of perfumes are not mentioned as a practice on perfume bottles, its shelf life depends upon how well one is able to store it in an airtight container. Its life also depends on the nature of the essential oil in use. For instance, sandalwood and patchouli improve with age. Lavender, on the other hand, needs to be consumed quickly. Half-empty or quarter-full perfume bottles deteriorate the fastest, since they oxygenate with the air present in the empty bottle. The two things that affect a perfume are heat and oxidation, both of which are present in higher quantities in a relatively emptier bottle.

Quality control is another problem that plagues the perfume world. “Twice as much bergamot is sold, as produced,” rues Stephen. Oudh, the most expensive material, also faces similar issues of adulteration. “You won’t become a perfumer in a day, it is one of the older arts that require patience and resilience, from both the perfumer and the patron.” The quickest perfume he has made? “It took me 30 minutes to come up with a scent for a dog shampoo once,” laughed the man, as the class drew to a close. His high-end perfume bottles however, take much longer, and come in pretty blown glass bottles.

Published on October 25, 2017

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