Sunday, December 18, 2011
ON LEARNING PERFUMERY
A while back a perfume-maker colleague asked me the following question: “What is your opinion on studying perfume making? Do you think that enrolling in a perfumers’ course or school has an advantage over self study?” When I was writing a biographical sketch (as a perfumer) on Friday, I was once again reminded of this issue, so I thought it might be interesting to revisit it.
In a nutshell, my answer is that I think the type of training one chooses depends on his or her goals and intended approach to perfumery. For someone who wants to work in the mainstream, corporate, commercial fragrance industry, formal training is probably necessary, not just as a tangible qualification, but also for quickly acquiring the specific set of knowledge and skills related to conventional fragrance formulation for various purposes, including large-scale production of functional scents for non-perfume products.
For someone like myself, who works far outside the conventional corporate box and is mostly interested in what could be characterized as “art perfumery”, I think self-instruction is certainly a viable way to go, although my advice now, knowing what I do, would be, "Don't try this at home". There’s a huge amount of basic information available on the internet, in books, and through networking groups like the Yahoo perfumemaking group. In the same way that one can learn music “by ear” through listening, watching videos, and reading about music theory, one can learn perfumery “by nose” through sampling individual materials and existing perfumes and reading about perfume-making theory. When it comes to hands-on work, the advantage of self-teaching is that there’s no predetermined structure constraining one’s personal vision and scope for experimentation. As in any other art, one needs to learn some basic theory and “rules” in order to bend or break them intelligently, but perfumery is so subjective that the “rules” are not as rigid as in music, for example.
I think it might be fun to take a formal in-person course, but I’m afraid that at this stage of the game I might not be a very compliant student, having little or no patience for elementary exercises for their own sake, especially if I’m paying for them. I’ve looked at ads for a lot of online “courses”, but concluded that some of them seem excessively dogmatic in implementing a specific “method”, or their main goal is to sell “starter kits”, and/or they didn’t seem to offer anything I couldn’t get (or haven't already gotten) on my own.
In any case, one of the most important parts of the learning process in perfumery is becoming intimately familiar with all of the materials with which we work. That takes a lot of time and money and patience - there’s no way around it. The advantage of formal training is that one has a plan laid out for doing this. The advantage of being self-taught is that the process of learning the tools of the trade happens in an evolutionary way that’s optimal for the individual rather than in a quick, lock-step sequence.
For me, the evolution started with years of exposure to, and experimentation with, natural materials, simply because they were readily available. If I have a special fondness for natural materials, it’s probably because that’s what I have the most experience with, but as I’ve learned about man-made aroma materials I’ve developed a deep appreciation for them, too.
The more I smell and work with any material, the more it becomes like a living creature with its own personality. If I had to pick a material that I love to smell straight up, it would be a 20+-year old frankincense that’s one of my original essential oils. It’s so incredibly beautiful that I don’t want to use it, so I’m hoarding it just to smell from time to time when I want inspiration.
I decided to work with man-made materials as soon as I started seriously trying to create perfumes. Naturals are wonderful to work with, but there are things that they just can’t do. To create the scents that I have in my mind, I usually need something to supplement the natural materials. Adding synthetics opens up a huge range of additional possibilities, sort of like going from unamplified acoustic guitar and voice to the possibility of a full band or orchestra complete with electronic sounds. I have to say that there was quite a steep learning curve in figuring out how to use synthetics, and I’m nowhere near through learning yet. I love all of my materials, both natural and synthetic, because each has a purpose even if I haven’t discovered it yet, so I spend time tinkering with my "organ" full of materials whenever I can. I suspect that another advantage of self-teaching is that it never stops.
[The photo at the top shows part of my work area. Other parts of the room contain a sink, glassware storage, and a shelf with analytical balance and racks to hold vials for pipetting samples. Storage areas are located elsewhere.]