Students Uncork the Makings of Fragrance

THIS Valentine's day, amid the flurry of flowers, cards, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, many people will exchange gifts of perfume, eau de toilette, and after-shave. In short, fragrance.

Whether you consider it bottled romance or liquid annoyance, fragrance is a $4 billion industry in the United States.

While most people barely devote a thought to perfume, students at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York are engaged in a full-fledged academic program in the school's new fragrance studio.

Call it Fragrance-making 101.

''For the first time, a lot of young people are aware of fragrance as a career path,'' says Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation (TFF), a nonprofit organization that supports the fragrance industry. Ms. Green is considered a leading authority on fragrance in the United States, which is why the studio at FIT -- billed as the only college fragrance studio in the world -- is named after her and TFF.

Traditionally, employees in the scent sector have had to train on the job. The studio at FIT will help change that, Green says.

At a time when the number of fragrances on the market is at an all-time high -- nearly 900 -- FIT is poised to turn out graduates who have rubbed shoulders with fragrance experts and whipped up rudimentary scents from scratch. The mechanics of a fragrance are very involved, Green notes. Some require more than 200 ingredients and take many months to develop.

But the students are not here to become ''noses'' -- perfumers or chemists. They'll get a bachelor of science degree in marketing cosmetics, fragrances, and toiletries. As Peg Smith, chairwoman of the program, explains, ''We're teaching them how to work with clients and perfumers.''

Say a student gets a job at a fragrance house as an evaluator. Having trained in the FIT studio, they would know enough to say to a perfumer, ''there's something missing here,'' says Virginia Bonofiglio, instructor of the Fragrance Knowledge class.

Industry support has been monumental, as evidenced by the funding of the $100,000 fragrance studio. ''There really is a need for people with this experience,'' says Tom DiGiacomo, executive vice president for Quest International, a fragrance company. ''Instead of just a myopic course in marketing, they can learn how to market and evaluate from a perfumer's point of view.''

The studio looks like a mad chemist's laboratory. Shelves hold small bottles of essential oils. Perfume-origin charts line the walls. Formica work stations are connected by deep sinks. An ''odorless'' evaluation room allows for neutralizing the nostrils.

On any given day, students can be seen measuring out essential oils and evaluating aromas to distinguish a floral ''note'' from an herbal or citrus one.

Outside the lab, students study product development, market trends, and strategies. Increasingly, consumers want a ''wardrobe'' of fragrances, not just one signature scent like Chanel No. 5. Participants discuss the importance of a new fragrance's ''launch,'' for example, and monitor the industry giants.

Calvin Klein is a favorite case study. He doused us with ''Obsession'' (in the 1980s), rescued us with ''Escape,'' and sent us blissfully into ''Eternity.'' Now in the '90s, it seems, we are to be at ''one.'' CK One, the ''shared scent -- for a man or a woman'' -- was the single biggest launch in fragrance history (costing upwards of $30 million); Even Tower Records is carrying it.

Marketing is important, but in order for a fragrance to succeed in the long run, the consumer must become a repeat buyer, Ms. Bonofiglio says. She predicts that consumers will be seeing more fragrances that can be worn by both men and women.

In fact, one will come out of the Fashion Institute's own fragrance studio. ''Threads'' will debut during Fragrance Week in June.

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