Guy Robert and lots of questions

beautyToday I would like to address a topic that I have been thinking a great deal about of late.  I am curious as to how some of my readers may feel about the ideas and I invite discussion.


Two days ago, Guy Robert came to our school as an honoured guest. We began with an evening cocktail party out on the lovely terrace off the side of the school building with champagne and canapés; followed the next morning by a lecture and question & answer session in the fantastic boardroom I have mentioned in previous posts.  Guy Robert is a Master Nez, about 80 yrs old, a 4th generation perfumer, the past head of the French Society of Perfumers, and the creator of such masterpieces as Caleche, Madame Rochas as well as fragrances for Hermes and Dior.  A question I addressed to him was ‘how do you feel about natural perfumery?’  I was curious what such an old master who has seen many changes in the industry would think about this return-to-the-old growing niche concept.  He answered simply, saying basically that-: ‘It is all raw materials.  I don’t differentiate or limit myself by what is ‘natural’ or not. Besides, what is natural?”  I realized after, it was like asking an accomplished artist such as a painter what they think about using only paints made with natural pigments, or a composer to consider instruments made only of wood, skin and hair. From his perspective, you cannot create a truly beautiful work of art without the full palette.


The synthetic vs. natural argument in relation to perfumery is discussed in many forums, blogs and articles with a growing platform being supported by many new perfumers who work quite religiously with only ‘naturals’. I too have followed this path.  However, here is another question-

Is the fear of so-called ‘not natural’ partly, if not completely due to a fear of the unknown?  Think about it, does anyone have a succinct definition of what is and what is not natural? Can many people you know list 10 synthetics and say why they may or may not be dangerous?

So what is natural, anyway????   Is it something that only occurs in plants? Is it something unrefined or not chemically altered?  Is it chemical? Does natural mean that it is good for us? Does ‘synthetic’ mean that it is bad for us?

I am learning a great deal about chemistry here as part of the curriculum, and, when you begin to look at any essential oil, you see it is a complex composition of many chemicals.   If we isolate and extract one of those chemicals, is it still natural? Is it safe?  And how about the safety issue?  If we consider the common belief that petroleum products are not safe, then why is acceptable for ‘natural perfumers’ to use absolutes in their products? These are extracted by a petrochemical solvent called Hexane.  Then the concrete is washed with ethyl alcohol, which may or may not be of a petrochemical source.  Given, very little residue is left, but is an absolute natural?  I personally think that jasmine or tuberose absolutes are exquisitely beautiful which has a positive effect on my well-being, so as long as I use them in moderation (just like anything), they are healthy.  But what about methyl ionone- with its beautiful powdery rich woody violet/orris notes- it’s been around since the late 1800’s and there is no indication, as far as I know, that it is any more dangerous than bergamot or ylang ylang oil, so is it good or is it bad????  


Don’t get me wrong, I have always been and still am a proponent of ‘natural’ ‘organic’ ‘healthy’ food, cosmetics and lifestyle.  However, I am learning a lot about what was completely unknown to me before, and with this understanding, comes less fear. Hence my current contemplations on this subject..  Let me give another example.  Coumarin and vanillin occur naturally in some essential oils.  They also can also be synthesized in a lab.   What is synthesized in a lab is not ‘natural’ of course, but does that make these substances bad if they are made synthetically and good if they are in an oil?  The ‘natural fruit flavours’ that enhance the juices sold in natural food stores are created in a lab, so why are they accepted as natural? 


When the incredible Guerlain perfume Jicky was created in 1889, for the first time, synthetic materials were available- coumarin and vanillin- which were used in the formula not in place of naturals but, according to a Guerlain spokesman, to enhance them.  Contrary to this approach, current mainstream perfumery is based primarily on synthetics, for many reasons, and naturals are added to improve the synthetics.  Then, recently, there are the purists who use only direct botanical extracts and in between, a fairly large divide filled with misunderstanding and just a touch of ignorance…  Keep in mind, that in the old days, naturals were used exclusively only because that’s all there was.


Today I watched a film clip of a well-known ‘natural’ perfumer from California who has marketed herself fantastically and is recognized as an authority on the subject, and I was astonished to hear her say that ‘natural perfumes never go bad, only the synthetic ones do’.  (All perfumes will decompose with time, exposure to heat, light etc, and the mainstream ones just might actually last longer because they have added UV filters, and preservatives)  Here is a good example of the commonly held idea that just because it’s natural, it’s better, more stable etc and of the immediate condemnation of the synthetic just for being synthetic.


So consider this- the other day, I was working on a Honeysuckle accord.  As there is no natural honeysuckle oil, the goal is to recreate it.  Most of my classmates were using synthetics with some essential oils and absolutes added to enhance the formula and make it seem more ‘natural’. I was desperately sorting through my olfactive memory, trying to remember and create the flower using only naturals, but I couldn’t capture the clear sparkling aspects of the fresh flower.  What to do?    I realized, ok Jess, just open your mind and see what happens; using a synthetic or two is not going to kill you!  (maybe some of you are now thinking..’ya that’s how I started smoking!’)  So I reached for the Hydroxycitonellal (this one extracted from Citriodora), and cis-3 hexenyl acetate, (which occurs in nature) plus a touch of Aldehyde C-10 (synthetic but also occurring in many essential oils) and added just the tiniest bits possible to my formula.  Voila!  Well sort of.  Although I didn’t quite acheive what I remember as true Honeysuckle, I did create a perfect Sweet Pea that brought back memories and made me very happy. 


My jury is still out on the above subject , but I do think that the artistic creation of beauty in whatever medium is fantastically important, not only for the improvement of humanity, but for the basic enjoyment of life. The art of perfumery is a secretive realm, and the palette from which the artists work has been kept shrouded for too long.  Perhaps it is this that has bred some of the blanket fear we have of the constituents within the juice. Based on my recent understanding, I’m trying on some new ideas for size and realizing that I want to have an open mind in all areas of life, learning before I condemn, whether it’s about fragrance materials or my neighbours. And I hope we all remember that balance, ethical consideration and a deep concern for nature and the well-being of humanity is what matters. It’s time to break down the walls. 


ps. (besides with the new REACH rules, anything that could possibly be considered risky, whether natural or synthetic, will be restricted….or at least that’s one way to look at it!)  

Swimming in the Mediterranean

a la plageFinally today I was able to do something that I have been craving for weeks…….to go to the beach and swim in the sea! I’m a bit sunburned but it was worth it.  The water was fresh and chilly and so salty that I could completely relax and float on my back letting the tiny little swells rock away any stresses that have built up in my body over the last 5 monthes.  The air was whipped by a steady gusty breeze and filled with the fragrance of seaweed and ozone. The water was two tones of blue; a light milky azure where it was shallow and cobalt where the deeper bit began.  The beach that we went is on the opposite side from Cannes of a huge bay at a beautiful seaside town called Theoule sur Mer.  I think everyone was local and it was interesting to note that yes, it is true, going topless on the French Riviera is normal.  However, unlike N America where the younger generation might be more likely to do it to rebel against the norm, here it’s the older women who do simply as the norm.  This is because it was all the rage more in their time- in the 50’s and 60’s. So one sees elegant refined (and I must say fit) women in their 50’s  (or older) tanning without tops.  I was very impressed and decided that I should join in regardless of my age!  Afterall, when in France…!

World Perfumery Congress 2007

The first day of the World Perfumery Congress, held at the state of the art Palais des Festivals in Cannes, saw Ana and I, at 7:30am, behind the front counter sorting through the 1036 (plus guests) names on the delegate list and confirming that there were badges to match filed in perfect alphabetical order.  We saw all the names of the industry greats who would be attending- Michel Roudnitska, Luca Turin, Guy Robert etc.  Then, at 1pm, security opened the doors and the crowds arrived to register. It was a bit like the beginning of a rock concert, and the 6-8 of us were swamped for the good part of the afternoon. The delegates are the elite in the Perfume industry from all sectors; from advertising to creation- representing everything from Armani and Chanel,  to the behind-the-scenes creation experts from companies such as International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF), Givaudan,  Robertet, Mane, Proctor & Gamble, Firmenich, Takasago, Danisco, L’Oreal etc etc.  The theme of the event was “The Future of the Fragrance World” and to sum up with a few words, the lectures which took place in the massive state of the art auditorium (the most fantastic sound quality I have ever heard!) , I would say ‘innovation’, ‘creativity’ , ‘circular advertising’, ‘quality’, ’ social consideration-fair trade/organic’,  ‘niche markets’, and  ‘challenge the status quo’.  The speakers were fantastic, powerful players addressing many subjects.  One even spoke about the importance of fragrance in detergents and actually made the topic interesting!  Humour seemed very important and my favourite presenter was a 71 yr old French man from a giant advertising company who began his career by driving a French car around the world- and whose sense of humour and good-natured classic French appreciation of sex, love and life, had the crowd weeping with laughter.  He showed some of his major success ads, (Evian water in particular), and talked about how to market products without the typical slogan/logo reliant methods.  He said that the British way to market is from the mind to the heart;  the French way, from the heart to the mind; and the American way, from the mind to the wallet.  I realized by this summary, why I love France so much.  Because it is true, here, everything begins in the heart, as sentimental as it may be.  He also used the analogy that in N America, a lover will pick the petals off a daisy saying,  she loves me, she loves me not. But in France, he will take the daisy,  press it in a book of poetry and send it to his lover, and that night she will be in his bed!  An exaggeration perhaps, but an example of a fundamental cultural difference.  The people of this  country are warm,  fun, refined,  romantic, old-fashioned, decadent, and proud; and that is only the surface.  I have much more to discover, I know.   

However, I digress……..I worked 3  mornings  in total, and spent the afternoons exploring the Exibition area in another part of the complex, where the companies had huge and extravagant booths set up for delegates (the whole event was closed to the public), to sit down in easy chairs at low tables in living-room like environments complete with orchids and art, and smell the various materials that each company creates.  It was the week of the muyettes- the smelling strips.  As part of the promotional gift-bags given out by each company, there is the inevitable ‘port a muyette’- a metal logo-bearing smelling strip holder.  I have quite the collection now.  (A little aside note- if anyone wanted to get creative, I think this would be a great little business- designing and manufacturing interesting/artistic versions of these.  Tourists to Grasse would love them….)   

The idea these days, keeping with the look to the future theme of the event, is the constant search for and development of new fragrant molecules to expand the possibilities of the perfumer’s palette. In keeping with this, companies like Givaudan and IFF both launched new molecules at the show-  almost as if the product was a new perfume.  The naturals world is doing the same, with new technology allowing for techniques such as molecular distillation to isolate specific fragrant molecules from existing raw materials.  Biotechnology is also playing more and more of a role. The need for this has been made greater by all the new legislation that has just been implemented through what is called the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemical Products) program.  There are now great restrictions put on many substances, not only naturals (although they are unfairly and detrimentally effected- according to many critics), but also on the many synthetics that have been shown to be dangerous to humans and the environment.  So, in effect, the palette has shrunk and alternatives need to be found.  In the case of the naturals, sometimes the solution is to remove a certain sensitizing chemical constituent from the oil- such as the resins from Oakmoss. 

More and more, we will see essential oils with components removed to render them ‘safe’ according to these new rules.  While I’m on the subject, I have to say, that the conclusions that were arrived at about certain oils were based on studying the effects of isolated chemicals within the oil, not the oil as a whole.  Therefore, linalool, likely synthetic, tested on its own is considered a sensitizer, and because certain essential oils, such as lavender, contain this chemical, their safety is called into question.  There doesn’t seem to be any consideration of what is called the ‘quenching’ effect, which sees the negative effects of a chemical constituent nullified by its synergy within a complex such as an essential oil. There was much discussion about the ridiculous paranoia behind the REACH rules, especially from the many large companies in the Grasse area who traditionally specialize in natural raw materials.  

One fantastic new rule will be a complete ban on the testing of cosmetic materials on animals- beginning 2009.

If you would like to know more about REACH, you can go to the International Fragrance Assoc. website at and click on the tab ‘News and Information”, then scroll down to see the QRA Booklet  which provides 74 pages of information. 

            Last night was the final party of the week, and we all attended the cocktail dinner atop the Palais des Festival, where there was a huge and delicious buffet dinner, champagne, and an 18 piece big band playing great jazz.  We were all dressed up, and got to mingle with the crowd, exchanging business cards and chatting with the people we had met during the week.  A Fabulous Affair.

Flowers, perfume and the WPC

Another two weeks gone by just like that. Time is moving so very fast…so many thoughts and reflections- so many new faces, changing moods, changing light, sunshine and thunderstorms with the Mistral winds so intense last weekend that my potted basil, despite being tied down, disappeared from my 3rd story window sill. (look out below!)

I have spent some more time in Italy, and eaten a fantastic ultra-fresh seafood dinner in San Remo, with the Mediterranean pounding in the background thanks to the same wind.  I have driven about 50km into the mountains behind here to see a Fete de Narcisse as well as gorgeous vistas.  I’ve stood at the base of the red carpet opening night of the Cannes Film Festival and walked the docks looking at  the massive pleasure yachts from around the world. All this decorated by the flora that is blooming in ever-changing waves of beauty.  The wisteria finished, followed by the acacia trees, dripping with white fragrant clusters of flowers.  Then the broom, especially up in the mountains, and the bougainvillea, brilliant intense masses of fuscia, red and purple. Of course the roses as well, oh, and the olives bloomed somewhere in between the acacia and the passion flowers. Now, a shrub I find very intruguing, the oleander, is in full bloom, with blossoms of pink, white or red.


School is ongoing- we continue with chemistry, now understanding stereochemistry, optical isometry and the chemical structure of substances particular to perfumery. (ie substances with an olfactory threshold)  The main goal of all this is to be able to read gas chromatography charts and mass spectrometry readings to not only verify purity and quality of raw materials, but also be able to analyze existing formulae. For a more detailed explantation of GC, go to 

  Our teacher is a sweetheart, although her teaching style is very much her own and we have had to learn how to put the pieces together to have any clue what she is talking about. Being dropped into Grade 12/first year college chemistry is a bit shocking to begin with and, like all the teachers, her grasp of English is very limited, so my ‘Frenglish’ continues to improve!  She is a chemist through and through, but she said something the other day that I love.  She said that we really don’t know anything; we can think that we do, but it is very likely that somewhere down the road, what we think of as fact, will be proved wrong. So there is no point being overly attached to anything as truth.  Maybe for now it is, but maybe not tomorrow….


Otherwise, we continue to study formulation with Max and have also begun to study marketing and the perfume genealogy of existing perfumes with a new teacher who is very proficient in English and has been in the marketing side of the industry for about 25 years. We will study by smell many known fragrances and learn to understand their olfactory structure as well as their industry classification.

Perfume genealogy is the study and categorization of fragrances based on specific families of scent (Chypre, Oriental, Floral etc), further distinguished by subfamilies such as fruity, green, amber, and woody etc. Also, we are looking at the correlation between the creation of perfumes and the specific history at the time and how they can be indicators of the psychology of society during each era.  It’s essentially a study of art history, although it is the ‘art of perfume’ history. All perfumes, historically, are complicated works of art, always inspired by a muse of some sort, be it by times of war or peace, past myth and legend, or by cultural shifts reflected in certain eras such as the Depression of the ‘30’s or perhaps the counter-culture of the 60’s. Perfumes also reflect the changes in technology, with new materials being sought, found and created constantly, making room for ever more possibilities.  In times of peace, the most innovation is seen and in times of war or hardship, the perfumes go back to the known, single note florals because the people need to be comforted by the familiar. It’s a fascinating study and an integral basis of understanding for the creation of any new ideas/products that have any hope of success in the future. Much contemplation must go into the conceptualization of a perfume- including current trends and demands by society- before it is launched.  That said, nowadays, new perfumes are flooding the market, with over 2000 new fragrances being released since the year 2000!  There are only a few though, that are truly innovative and that will have any lasting effect on future trends. (or in people’s memories)

For an interesting sample chapter about the creation of a famous perfume, from a book that I have just ordered,  go to a PDF file at this link  (this may take a bit to download if you have a dial-up connection)


Next on the agenda is the World Perfumery Congress that will take place in at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes for 5 days next week.  This is a huge event, occurring every 3 years, where there will be an exposition showcasing producers of everything from raw material producers to packaging, as well as lectures all day every day.  The students of GIP have been drafted to work there in exchange for a free pass! (a ticket is about 900euros) We have no class scheduled so that we can attend the event.  I will be working early every morning at the ‘Photo Booth’, although I have no idea what that is!  I am very excited about this opportunity, as we will have the chance to meet people from all facets of the industry from around the world from the inside, as staff.  I only work for about 4 hours each day and can attend the lectures the rest of the time. Here is a link to the site so you can have more information…  Look under ‘program’ and then scroll down the menu to see the list of lecturers.

Now, I must get to work studying my French…I have improved dramatically since arriving, but I need to seriously persue the study of grammar and conjugation.  Voila… bientot mes amis…et bious