Exactly how does a perfumer come up with new fragrances?

Chemical Splash (by ThermoFisher Scientific)

We have made the statement on this website that there is nothing actually new in the world. That is not strictly speaking true: in 2016 four new elements were added to the periodic table – Nihonium (Nh);  Moscovium (Mc),  Tennessine (Ts) and  Oganesson (Og), making a total of 118 elements that make up the entire world and everything in it. But those elements were there all along – scientists just discovered them. These 118 chemical elements (natural and synthesized) constitute all of the ordinary matter (not the dark matter) of the universe. As my favourite T-shirt says: Never trust an atom – they make up everything. So, when it comes to making something new, it is a matter of using what already exists. Perfume works in the same way.  The perfumer creatively uses existing organic compounds to create new fragrances

Tools for creativity

Apart from their ability to distinguish smells, and their knowledge of chemistry, perfumers have thinking tools they can use to create new fragrances. Thinking tools for creativity have been written about and taught for decades. But Creative Neuroscientists are still trying to puzzle out how something as systematically networked and rules-based as the human brain can also function in a divergent and non-linear way to be creative.

In the 1980s Dr. Edward de Bono became well known because of his “thinking tools” which were widely used in educational institutions to teach both logical and lateral thinking. The most basic tool was simply consciously combining random things to  come up with something new and then reverse engineering the idea to make it useful.  For instance, a perfumer could randomly select two compounds, say, d-Limonene (found in orange oil) and peppermint oil containing menthol, and combine them and see what comes out. Depending on the quantities used, and the interaction of the scents, it could stink, or it could be marvellous, or it could be a useful beginning of something else.

One of the standard set of tools for innovative thinking in product development, specifically, is the Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) method, taught at many business schools. The tools include; Subtraction – Remove an essential component from a product and find uses for the newly envisioned arrangement of the existing components; Multiplication – Add to a product a component of the same type as an existing component; and Division – Divide the product and/or its components and rearrange them to form a new product.  As you can see, they are variations on the theme of doing different things – including multiplication or combination – with what already exists.

Jean-Claude Ellena (Photo: Vogue)

Jean-Claude Ellena, the nose of Hermès in an article for German magazine Spiegel, explains his preferred creative technique: “I smell with my brain. It stores every scent and knows how to combine them. The perfumes I create originate in my head.For him, it’s about the hundreds of possible combinations.

Ellena: We’re going to play a little. Take this test strip; I’ve dabbed it with orange oil. Wait a moment! I’m soaking the next one in a chemical substance called Rhubofix. And, now, lay both test strips next to one another — et voilà. What do you smell?
SPIEGEL: Grapefruit.
Ellena: Ah, correct. And now — one moment please — take this coconut scent and now this strip with mint scent and, again, lay them on top of each other. Do you smell it? Fig. And, now, choose a scent.
SPIEGEL: Oh dear. Very well, how about passion fruit?
Ellena: I’m sorry, that’s not possible. I don’t have the ingredients here. I’ve reduced the number of ingredients I work with, and now I have only 200. Most perfumers have 1,000.

Watch actor Daniel Radcliffe sing “The Elements” on the Graham Norton show. What a tongue-twister!

header image credits

Source: unsplash.com/@sanfrancisco; licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Photo by Sasha Zvereva

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