The world of the perfumer, in the words of a perfumer
Max Millies, the Nose of Earthgro Perfumes, the producer of the perfumes described here, and the man behind the Maxiamo Perfumes brand, is one of a small group of people in the world who call themselves independent perfume designers. When people choose what to do after school, they seldom come up with “I want to be a perfumer”. In Max’s case, botanicals and fragrances have been his interest and passion from childhood. Ever since high school, he has been working to fulfil his ambition of creating and designing perfumes with unique South African chemistry. Most individuals feel proud of their achievements if they have made anything beautiful of enduring value in their lifetime. To have designed and produced no less than seven commercial perfumes – all by himself – before turning 35, is quite an achievement. He works in a high-end market, using complicated and lengthy processes that require technical skills, scientific knowledge and artistic flair. Yet Max thinks nothing of it. It is simply what he does. He is a perfumer.
“As far back as I can remember, I always had a small garden of my own. When I got to high school, the gardens were bigger, and I got more interested in growing indigenous plants, especially aromatic ones, which South Africa has a lot of. From there on it was a natural step to move to the ingredients in perfume. There is no college or university in South Africa that offers a formal qualification in perfumery, so I studied Chemistry and Physics at the University of Stellenbosch. For the rest, I consider myself self-taught and I’m always learning.”
“Most of the perfumes sold here [by fragrance boutique Twisted Lily] don’t come from Chanel or Christian Dior. They’re handmade by individual perfumers, most of whom are self-taught — which I find striking. You’re awash in options if you want to study piano or cooking or painting, but there are barely any perfumery programs. Scent remains the most enigmatic, least explored of senses.” – Alina Simone, Independent perfumers are making a big splash in the fragrance world
The long road of creating a perfume
“Designing perfumes takes time. I spend a great deal of time on empirical testing, but sometimes trial and error works as well. That’s the main job; composing the formulas that will meet a client’s requirements, down to the last microliter. The formulas are secret, but some can contain as many as 30 ingredients and compounds.
Did you know that Dior’s perfume formulas are secret and are kept locked up? Not even their perfumer Francois Demachy can get to them. It’s not only about the expensive ingredients but about the time it took to design the perfumes.”
“‘Some are more expensive than others, Jasmine de Grasse costs almost 100,000 euros by the kilo, which means it’s twice as expensive as gold,’ says Francois Demachy, Dior’s perfume creator.” (Channel 4 TV, Inside Dior documentary)
“Retail perfumery is a very competitive world, it’s a 39.67 billion dollar market – so you can understand why it’s so secretive. There are people who offer to sell the formulas of famous perfumes (at a cost, of course!), and some even offer open-source perfume formulas that are reverse-engineered formulas of famous perfume formulas or perfume accords. Accords are the perfumery equivalent of a chord in music. It’s a blend of two or more smells that produces a third different and distinctive smell, and it’s often the trickiest bit to formulate.”
The science of perfumes
“What the formula turns out to be, all depends whether you are designing eau fraiche, eau de cologne, eau de toilette, eau de parfum, parfum or a body product with fragrance. You must understand the play between weight and volume of materials, and those include fragrance oils, essential oils – the perfume itself – and aroma chemicals. You must know their dilution strength in alcohol, as well as their percentage in the total formula. And you have to know what the odour threshold is – meaning the concentration at which a material is detectable by its odour.
You have to understand how these elements and functions work together – this is where the art comes into it – what notes will reveal themselves first, and which ones will linger longest.
Just like in a wine, one element that is too strong will make the whole formula unpleasant, or there may be a contrasting note that doesn’t work.
And then, in the end, when it’s done, I ask myself what will the person think when they spray it on? What will they feel? What will they remember? Will this fragrance become part of their image? Will it match their style?
Part of the job is to keep learning. I regularly use [Steffen] Arctander’s Perfume and Flavor Chemicals – it’s an industry standard – and Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin. I like Turin’s honest evaluations of perfumes and his sharp wit and his weird comic sense. I also subscribe to Perfumer & Flavorist magazine to keep up with trends.”
And the bottom line is…
“But mostly my job is not about the references, or the trends, or what people are saying. It’s just me and a table full of scent strips, imagining what it smells like.”
“The perfumer sits at his desk formulating a perfume. He has a list of 70 aroma chemicals, essential oils and bases in the formulation before him. He reduces the Benzyl Acetate and increases the Hexyl Cinnamic Aldehyde, he moves down the page where he adds a little Ylang Ylang Oil Extra, no…, pauses, his nostrils flare ever so slightly, as if mentally sniffing, now he changes it to Ylang Ylang Oil No.2.” (Perfumer’s World)