Vocation vacations: Job-auditing firm turns career switch dreams into reality
Our reporter takes a short stint with a perfumer. What this man 'nose,' you can learn.
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It wasn't until later in life. He was in a jazz band, attending graduate school at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Tiring of the lifestyle – "going to bed when the sun was coming up" – he met Miriam Novalle, a French-trained master perfumer, at her shop while on vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.Skip to next paragraph
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"I picked up a bottle and smelled it, and out of my mouth came 'heliotrope'," says Harding, who doesn't recall having been told about the plant with a fragrant purple bloom. Ms. Novalle was so impressed that she offered to apprentice Harding and sell him her fragrance bar.
As Harding begins dripping different ratios of "Rain" (his own creation made of lily of the valley and hints of seven other flowers) and other oils onto coffee filters (the most scent-free paper), I become confused. I can distinguish the difference; I just can't say which I like better.
There is something delightfully mad scientist-like about swirling glass pipettes in bottles of oil. And after Harding tells me to smell my sweater, as a way to cleanse my nasal palate, I develop a new appreciation for the simplicity of its woolly smell. My nose would be happy to sniff my sweater all afternoon.
In the course of three hours, I begin to haltingly pick out better balanced scent combinations. I can smell, for example, why two drops of "Rain" to one drop of "Carnation Spicy" is more balanced than two drops of each. Sort of.
When I call a fragrance grassy, Harding sounds surprised. "That was a good call. You've got a nose," he says.
He's mostly being encouraging. As for being a true Nose, he admits, "I could train anyone to make perfume, but this is something you're born with – it's innate."
Which is OK. Because according to my Myers-Briggs career report, my personality type is a 100 percent match with a job as a reporter. Kurth says that about 80 percent of vocationers end up sticking with their original job – though since the company was founded four years ago, more and more "alumni" are beginning to shift careers.
After just five rounds with the coffee filters, my nose is exhausted. Harding says his nose never tires. He's hard-pressed to come up with even one smell he doesn't like. A horse stable, with manure: Loves it. Dead skunk: Loves it. Landfill? "Right," he admits. "That's not the best."
Certainly Harding's most impressive feat is being able to re-create a perfume by scent. He has a very distinct way of smelling, inhaling audibly as he rolls whatever he's sniffing from the left to the right nostril. Working this way, he says, it can take him a few days to unlock a fragrance. (He charges $500 for the first quarter-ounce and his customary $45 a quarter-ounce after that.) To begin, he'll drip different oils into a bottle. Spilling out a few drops here. Adding more of a floral note there. Then a little musk. After figuring out the ingredients, he sends the final mixture off to a lab in New York where the proportions of each oil is determined so that he can reproduce it.
Harding gets some odd requests. A woman in Indiana recently sent him a CVS pharmacy pill bottle. In a letter she asks if he can please replicate the smell of the substance inside. It's a "liquid antibacterial soap that they use in public rest rooms," she writes. She has called Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer, but after being put on hold for a while, all they could tell her was that "fragrance" was on the ingredient list. "Good luck with this," she concludes. "It smells soooo good."
It doesn't, really. It smells like public bathroom hand soap. That much even I can tell.