What happens when your USP is your sense of smell – and you lose it?

For the serious perfumer, who makes a living from the design of new fragrances, there is nothing more valuable than the sense of smell. The nose (French nez) is what makes a perfumier or perfumer what they are. Though the production of perfume is mostly organic chemistry, the aesthetics of a product is down to the nose of the perfumer – what goes with what, which elements are the top, middle or base notes, what the smell reminds the wearer of, etc. In fact, noses are the keepers of the intellectual property of perfume houses, the ones who know exactly what goes into a perfume. But what happens when the secrets of les nez are threatened? And what happens if the nose no longer knows what it’s smelling? 

Defending the domain of the noses

That heightened sense of smell, and the perfumer’s ability to create perfumes with it, is very valuable indeed. A nez is the creator and guardian of a perfume brand. Take the case of L’Oreal, which won a victory over Dubai-based firm, Bellure, in 2004. L’Oreal took Bellure to court in France for selling near-identical copies of thirteen of L’Oreal’s major perfumes. Because Bellure was careful to put some distance between its perfumes and the originals of L’Oreal, it would have been difficult to prosecute them on the basis of illegal sales of the famous branded perfumes. In stead, L’Oreal took them to court over copyright. A 1975 court ruling had concluded that perfume was a chemical mixture but not a work of art like a novel. But in 2004 L’Oreal scored a partial victory by getting a court to conclude that “a fragrance … is the creation of an original bouquet of odorous products chosen for an aesthetic goal, and thus constituting a work of the mind”.

In that way, L’Oreal finally persuaded the court that its perfumes were entitled to the French droits d’auteur (authorial rights) that protect their creators from imitation for 70 years – same as for authors. However, despite this, the case against Bellure was dismissed because there was no proof that the Bellure perfumes were exact replicas of the L’Oreal originals. Undeterred, L’Oreal’s perfumiers analyzed one such perfume into its constituent smells through chromatographic analysis. It found in the case of that one perfume that 50 out of the 52 elements were the same. In January 2006, the French court ruled that the “olfactory architecture” was almost identical, and ordered Bellure to pay damages of 1.5 million euros (£1 million).

The ruling was welcomed by les nez of the industry – the perfumers whose noses smell out new fragrances. Sylvaine Delacourte, then of Guerlain, said:

“We put one to two years into creating a new fragrance. I am a designer and a nez, the guardian of Guerlain’s name and signature. This is a welcome result.”

Sylvaine Delacourte, now of Sylvaine Delacourte, Paris (Henry Samuel, Perfumiers scent an end to a fragrant abuse, The Telegraph UK,  Feb. 10, 2006)

The disaster of anosmia

That being said, imagine how terrible it must be, to be a perfumer and lose your sense of smell – that one thing that makes you uniquely able to create perfumes – the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) of your business in fact.

While we can’t compare to dogs, which have a whopping 230 million smell receptors compared to our 50 million, humans are still able to discern more scents than scientists originally thought. The human nose can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odours, a resolution much higher than the previous estimate of just 10,000 scents, researchers from Rockefeller University in New York reported in Science Magazine in 2014. If you thought that was good, imagine being a perfumer and being able to keep 50 or more perfume ingredients identified and balanced in any one formulation. As perfumer Sarah McCartney explains:

“Modern professional perfumers train at specialist colleges, smelling odourants on paper strips in thousands of combinations until they can identify hundreds of materials and nuances in quality. The rest of us can become good amateurs.”

Sarah McCartney, the nose of independent micro perfumery “4160Tuesdays” in London UK. (Sarah McCartney, The nose has it: it’s no surprise humans’ sense of smell can be as good as dogs’, The Guardian UK, May 15, 2017)

Losing that ability – developing anosmia – would be a disaster for a perfumer, since it can only partly be taught. Many conditions can temporarily or permanently cause anosmia and, more rarely, a decreased sense of smell can signal the start of a serious condition such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Some people are born with a diminished or heightened ability to smell when compared to others, and overall, our ability to smell may wax and wane over our lifetime, and most of us begin to lose our sense of smell after the age of 60. If someone loses their sense of smell, it may come back. For example, once a person quits smoking, their senses of smell and taste usually improve — but how much a person’s ability to smell returns is variable. Medication side effects that cause loss of smell may be temporary or permanent, depending on the medication.

Perfumer Jo Malone on developing anosmia

Famous British perfumer, Dame Jo Malone, developed anosmia during treatment for breast cancer. In an interview on ITV a few days ago, she revealed the extent of this misfortune. She lost her sense of smell during treatment for breast cancer in 2003.

Jo Malone (Source: Rebecca Gonsalves, The Independent UK, 12 February 2016)

Malone explained: “I thought everyone could smell what I smell, but they can’t. I smell fragrance before I see colour.” […] ”It took my sense of smell. I thought it had gone forever. After I quit Jo Malone and walked away, it came back eight weeks later. How cruel is that?” she said. “I just missed it, I missed creating fragrance,” Malone says. “It’s like if someone took away your voice, you’d be lost.”

(Breast cancer treatment took my sense of smell. I thought it had gone forever”, ITV.com, Loose Women, March 8, 2019)

She has synaesthesia, a rare, yet harmless neurological condition that affects sensory perception, often fusing two or more of the senses to work in unison. “I see in smell, I hear in smell, I feel in smell,” she said in an interview with Brogan Driscoll of the Huffington Post UK in 2015. “I didn’t learn to do it, I don’t think about it – it just happens. My red scarf, I can smell it. The green grass, I can smell it.”Malone was born in November 1963, had severe dyslexia and left school without any qualifications. She created the company, Jo Malone London, with her mother Eileen, in 1983. It initially became well known for scented candles. In 1999, Malone sold Jo Malone London to Estée Lauder for an undisclosed multi-million amount and stayed on as the brand’s creative director until 2006. In 2003, Malone was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, and after a year of treatment was given the all clear. In 2006, when she left the company, she was barred from creating a new fragrance or skin care line for five years due to a non-compete agreement. In 2011 (five years later) she launched her own new fragrance company, Jo Loves.

The first fragrance that Malone produced for Jo Loves is Pomelo. The pomelo, Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis, is the largest citrus fruit from the Rutaceae family. It is a natural citrus fruit, similar in appearance to a large grapefruit, native to South and Southeast Asia. In August 2018, Malone launched Jo by Jo Loves, the company’s latest product, a perfume with a strong grapefruit element.

Malone is building another fragrance empire as she did with Jo Malone London. In 2017, she launched the first Jo Loves Fragrance Brasserie Bar, at 42 Elizabeth Street, London, UK, where customers can enjoy a complimentary “Fragrance Tapas” experience, as she explains in the video below.


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