April 1, 2006 To increase perfumers' palette with new scents from flowers, biologists now use a device that captures smells. A plant is covered with a glass dome and vapor is extracted and later analyzed. Perfumers use natural scents as raw ingredients, then send their formulas to chemists who develop new products.
New York--Some are strong ... Others soft ... But as you spray your bottle of perfume, have you ever wondered what the inspiration was behind your favorite fragrance?
It is a delicate science to create the perfect perfume. Researchers span the globe, canvassing Africa, Madagascar and Costa Rica to capture nature's finest scents.
David Apel, a perfumer at Givaudan Fine Fragrance in New York, says, "The jungle or tropical environments are the most interesting for us." Givaudan Fine Fragrance is just one company creating the latest fragrances. Its biologists track down a scent they like and then perfumers capture it with a technology called ScentTrek. Next, the plant is covered with a glass dome and vapor is extracted -- basically capturing the smell.
"The primary purpose of ScentTrek for us is to increase the perfumer's palette," Apel says.
Ellen Molner, a perfumer at Givaudan Fine Fragrance, says, "I have my palette of raw materials that I use, or my tools that I use in my fragrances all stored in my computer." Molner knows thousands of ingredients and uses her experience to come up with formulas for a perfume, which is sent to chemists who mix the ingredients and come up with a product.
"Sometimes I will be asked to tweak all the way up until the time it goes up to the counter," Molner says.
Givaudan makes one out of every three perfumes on the market and has over 108 years of experience.
BACKGROUND: The process of making that perfect perfume requires a unique marriage of science and art. Science brings various techniques to the union that isolate the individual scents: cold-press processes, distillation, extraction, or making synthetic molecules, for example. Fragrance artists known as "noses" make the more subjective judgment calls to combine those components into a beautiful scent.
WHAT IS PERFUME: Perfume is a mixture of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents that give off a pleasant smell. Perfumery began in ancient Egypt and was further refined by the Romans and Arabs. Perfumery also existed in East Asia, but most of those fragrances were based on incense. A mixture of alcohol and water is used as the solvent for isolated aromatics. On application, body heat causes the solvent to quickly disperse, leaving the fragrance to evaporate gradually over several hours.
TAKING NOTES: There are three basic components, or "notes," in perfume. Top notes are scents that can be detected immediately when the perfume is applied; they form that critical "first impression." Citrus and ginger are common top notes. Heart notes (middle notes) describe the scent that emerges after the top notes dissipate, usually 2 minutes to one 1 hour after application. They form the main body of a perfume. Lavender and rose are often used as middle notes. Base notes -- such as musk and plant resins -- also appear after the top notes have disappeared, serving as fixatives to hold and boost the strength of the lighter top and heart notes.
THE NOSE KNOWS. Experts known as "noses" are responsible for combining the various "notes" into the full composition of a perfume. Noses must have a keen knowledge of a wide range of fragrance ingredients and their smells, and to be able to tell the difference between them, whether alone or in combination. Such experts are extremely rare.
HOW WE SMELL: A smell is the sensory response to the complex mixtures of chemicals in the air around us, called odorants. We are able to sense these chemicals because they bind to protein receptors that line the cells in our nose. Each kind of receptor can only detect specific chemical compositions, producing the sensation of different smells. These receptor proteins are produced from about 1,000 different genes: almost 3 percent of our total gene count.