Making dollars and scents

Ask any ''nose'' that knows.

In perfumery, form - in this case size - does not follow function. If it did , this small coterie of the most accomplished nostrils on earth would need wheelbarrows to shuffle their schnozzolas to and from the office.

But they don't. A highly trained nose is not necessarily large. And to teach it the 4,400-smell vocabulary of the modern perfumer doesn't take a whip and chair - just about a decade or more. That's about average to make it at the largest developer of fragrances in the world, International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF).

By that time, a perfumer has learned the company's different fragrances and how they interact: the diffusive, spicy musk odor with strong floral reinforcement of Cashmeran, for instance; or the intense, balsamic herbal note of hyacinth in Benzacetex. He has become close friends with the bergamot and the rose-like character of Citronellyl acetate with its green, leafy undertone of plums and litchis. He can identify the intense orange, ginger, Palmarosa-with-ozone muguet in Citronama; the celery odor that reminds one of maple and foenngreek in Celeriax.

If his ''nose'' proves up to snuff, a perfumer will earn his way to a carpeted, wood-paneled, objets d'art-adorned office on the sixth floor of the company's offices here. Perhaps right next to the world's most famous ''nose,'' Frenchman Bernard Chant, or one of the other 55 perfumers IFF retains worldwide. Their sense about scents have brought IFF the sweetest smell of success in a $2 billion-a-year perfume industry. With the lion's share of the approximately 500 fragrances on the world market, IFF has kept a nose ahead of the competition - such firms as Givaudan and Firmenich in Switzerland, Roure-Bertrand duPont in France, Takasago in Japan, and Naarden in Holland.

In doing so, IFF has produced dozens of the most famous fragrances in the world. Avon credits them with most of its colognes, after shaves, and perfumes. Colgate credits IFF with the scent of its Irish Spring soap. And although designer Halston has come out to say he worked for two years with Mr. Chant to create his $65-an-ounce perfume, the rest of the names are top secret. ''We're ghostwriters,'' says Chant.

But you see IFF fragrances at every perfume counter from here to Paris, from the cheapest to most expensive. After shaves, colognes, perfumes, and eau de everything from jasmine and rose to lavender and bay rum. You can smell them from scent bottles, atomizers, sachets, scent bags, and pouncet boxes.

Few large cosmetic firms and designers hire their own perfumers, mostly because so few exist, according to Annette Green, executive director of the Fragrance Foundation, a non-profit educational organization that disseminates information about fragrances. ''It's like a composer of music,'' she says. ''There are only so many great composers, and there are only so many great perfumers.''

And if you could open the black vault kept behind iron bars that contains the formulas for some 25,000 IFF-designed products, you could find which of the world's famous perfume houses have their scents created here. Perhaps more important, you could find out just what combinations of man-made and natural compounds and subcompounds go into them.

Of course, words do not a Hemingway make, nor colors a Monet. Nor smells a Bernard Chant. That takes integrity of thought, dedication of purpose, discipline of execution. And vision.

Bernard Chant is perhaps the best known of some 350 perfumers around the globe. His grandparents lived in Grasse, the capital of the French perfume industry, and he studied chemistry at the Sorbonne. He has been with IFF since 1954, and he supervises IFF's other perfumers. It was Chant that created IFF's more famous and lucrative scents. Just beyond the black vault is his personal bailiwick, where he goes daily to concoct new creations.

This is not necessarily where the fragrance is composed. The conception, vision, revelation, or creation of a scent can take place on a beach, in the woods, flying over the Alps, or swimming off the Great Barrier Reef, says Chant. Mozart composed while riding in a carriage to Maria Theresa in Schonbrunn Palace. Beethoven shut himself in his flat in Vienna. Bernard Chant is at work around the clock.

When he arrives at his office, the surroundings must be conducive to evolving the final product. Hence the quiet, the solitude, the original art - even music. The office is not bedecked with shelf after shelf of amber bottles, computer micro-scales, beakers, test tubes. That's all in an adjacent room, connected to his office by a small, secretive-looking pass-through.

Chant scribbles his compositions on formula paper, hands it through the pass-through, shuts the sliding door, and waits.

On the other side, aspiring Chantses concoct the formula. It may take some time; many involve over 800 different ingredients.

Chant says, when a designer asks him to create a fragrance, he tries to get as much information as possible on the designer's taste. To do this, he analyzes the style of clothes he designs and any fragrances he may have already marketed. As for the ups and downs of scentmaking, Chant says: ''Trends are existing scents. If the public likes woody fragrances, what can we do to continue the woody? A fragrance is a combination of the familiar and the new. You look at the market all the time to keep a pulse on it and to see where you can go. It's not to copy, but to step ahead.''

Fortunately, many of the 4,400 separate scents exist in compounds. Since one compound may include 800 original scents, the lab technician and perfumer don't have to start the creating task with 4,400 amber bottles in front of them.

The white-coated lab technicians use eye droppers and sophisticated measuring devices to mix the formula. It is weighed on a scale accurate to 1/100th of a gram. A slight mistake could mean a transfer back to the mail room or soap division.

The ''nose'' in the next room uses one-quarter-inch wide, 51/2-inch-long paper blotters, calibrated in red to keep track of each stage of a fragrance's birth. He or she may add here or subtract there until the creation reaches the model in mind. The calibrations aid the perfumer in determining how much of a given fragrance he is smelling. Since each fragrance is composed of many ''notes'' - some of which strike the nostrils immediately, others of which don't appear until time has elapsed - he or she may be working on hundreds at once.

The ultimate product will go to the customer who ordered it - or at least to the one who bought it, since some fragrances are rejected and thus sold to other clients. IFF will own the formula and produce it at its New Jersey plant. And Bernard Chant will begin ghostwriting another fragrance. His salary this year will be $230,000 - not including half again as much in possible bonuses.

Of course, perfume isn't the only thing that comes with a fragrance. There are all the other obvious items: soaps, shampoos, floor cleaners and waxes, polishes, body creams, foot powders, and deodorants.

But IFF also perfumes everything from garbage to shower curtains, from raincoats to tissues and artificial logs. One New Jersey garbage plant used IFF-developed perfume oil and alcohol spray in their air-conditioning ducts to keep citizens for miles around from holding their noses. And if you knew what your shower curtain really smelled like, says an IFF official, you'd never buy it.

Breakthroughs in fragrance are being made in other consumer items, such as shopping bags and toys. A ''Strawberry Shortcake'' doll and teddy bears that smell like chocolate or cotton candy already exist. Buying a used car? It's likely to have a leather smell or even a new-car smell sprayed in the interior. Such things as hair-removing cream, which used to smell like a burning sewage plant, now smell nice. And who makes Hawaiian tanning lotion smell like coconut? IFF.

A florist wanted a fresh-flower fragrance spray for flowers that were bred for beauty, not for smell. One deli owner had IFF develop a baked-ham aerosol; another a hot-dog and sauerkraut smell. One marine museum curator had the company develop a salty sea-air scent with seaweed. Another museum owner wanted a 19th-century farmyard and schoolhouse scent. IFF did the research and produced them all.

The labs on IFF's nine other floors deal with experiments in these areas. Since practically the whole building smells pungently of perfume, ''noseweary'' evaluators have to enter booths of pure, filtered air to make final assessments.

In one room, filled with washers and dryers, evaluators remove laundry from the machines and immediately retreat to the closed booths. This allows them to make uncontaminated appraisals of fabric softeners, detergents, bleaches, and so forth.

Of course, every fragrance must be evaluated in the base from which it will eventually emerge as a product - soap bar, kitchen cleanser. Van Vechten Sayre, IFF's advertising manager, points out that no matter how well a product cleans or softens or does its intended job, consumers won't buy it if it smells bad.

Thus there is great competition in the industry for attractive fragrances, ranging from those added to Janitor in a Drum to Pine-Sol and Lestoil. It is difficult to add delicate fragrances such as jasmine or hyacinths to cleaners, says Sayre, because the potent chemicals in the solvents break them down.

When the appropriate fragrance has been added to a product, it is sent to a paneled, carpeted conference room - the OEB, or Odor Evaluation Board. If OEB doesn't hold its nose in the air, it's off to the customer.

On the ninth floor, the whole process starts over again with the additional and closely related sense of taste. There are 2,000 raw materials going into artificially flavored products, says Mr. Sayre - some of which are safer than their natural counterpart. One example is a flavorant used for fruit flavors, primarily cherry and almond, known as benzaldehyde. Natural benzaldehyde, made from almond kernels and peach pits, contains toxic hydrogen cyanide. Synthetic benzaldehyde contains none. Charles Wiener, chief flavorist, says: ''We leave out those dangerous things found in nature. The question isn't whether a product is natural or synthetic, but whether it's safe,'' he says.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate taste and smell companies in the United States.

Strawberries have 350 essential oils, called volatile substances, that give them odor and taste. The FDA says nothing can be added to a strawberry flavor that is not one of these volatile substances. But for IFF, the formulas will result from the different environments the substance will go through - heating, freezing, cooking - that might alter its makeup. The chemicals required would be different, for instance, depending on whether they are used in popsicles, cakes, or frostings.

As with flowers, IFF devises flavor intensifiers for everything from carrots and peas to authentic canned Italian sauces. Yogurts and soups are flavored. Some customers have asked for formulas that put flavors back into prepackaged heat-and-serve foods and fast-food hamburgers -- or taco flavor for tortilla chips.

When Algerian babies refused to be weaned on a UNICEF protein drink, IFF came to the rescue. Their additive -- with just a of hint onion -- imitated the milk with which their mothers had suckled them.

One of the bigges IFF growing areas is analogues -- 100 percent vegetable protein flavored into real-tasting sausages, bacon, tuna, or chicken. They are made from soy beans. One economist has commented that they may yet solve the world food shortage. And they have been popular with people who don't eat meat.

One of the major concerns among customers of all chemical-related firms is safety. IFF has gotten into hot water with Schering-Plough to the tune of a $10 million lawsuit. The company says the coconut-banana fragrance IFF developed for a sunscreen version of Coppertone caused blotches on sunbathers' skin during market tests.

IFF says that at the time it created the fragrance in 1975, the ingredients met all government regulations and standards.

Last year IFF spent over $20 million on research and development, employing over 600 employees in 22 labs around the world. Two-thirds of its sales are overseas. With earnings in foreign currencies, much can be lost when exchanged into dollars. The worldwide recession has taken its toll on sales. Sales grew only 1 percent to reach $451 million in 1981. Earnings grew only 5 percent to $ 66 million. That compares to an average growth rate of 15 percent a year in the 1970s. "Immediate problems aside," says Fortune magazine, which recently spent two months scrutinizing every phase of the company operation and its place in the industry, "IFF is one of the few healthy flowers in the garden."

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK