Interning in Robertet

steam distillerssteam distillerssteam distillersToday I was given a full tour of Robertet, the company with whom I have been an intern for the last 3 weeks. I’m not sure how many acres the whole plant takes up, but suffice to say that there is a collection of little scooters for employess to travel from one side of the property to another.  (*see notes at the bottom for some industry stats…)

We began in the main building, which houses the offices and laboratories (which was designed by Monsieur Eiffel, the man who designed the Eiffel tower) and then entered the more industrial sections where the extraction of the natural raw materials takes place.  The first area is dedicated to the extraction of absolutes- ranging from musk ambrette to lavender to tonka.  The machines here are smaller than the regular distillers and perform only part of the functions required to yield the precious pure absolutes.  (To outline briefly, once the plant matter has been washed successively with a solvent, and the solvent removed, the resulting semi-solid concrete is washed again a number of times with ethyl alcohol to separate the waxes from the material of olfactive value, or, the absolute.  After every wash, the resulting slurry must be drained like cheese curds through a fine cloth tied over a large barrel.  Or, depending on the absolute in question, a preferable method may be to strain the mixture through a cylinder containing perlite which acts as a purifying medium.  Once the waxes are washed clean, the alcohol is distilled off in a vacuum and the thick syrupy and highly fragrant absolue is left. )

Next was the hydrodistillation and distillation warehouses where many huge stainless steel extractors were in action, despite the intense summerdistillers or space ships? heat, fed by and emptying into a complicated network of pipes and tanks on two levels. There was a semi-truck load pile of bales of mousse de chine (oakmoss) stacked outside, a heap of fresh verbena leaves, a mountain of large plastic bags of ground orris root; and ground fenugreek, all awaiting extraction.

Soon after, we entered a smaller warehouse and I was told that this was where the most traditional and basic equipment and extraction techniques were implemented to distill the fabulous orris butter from the sliced, dried and aged rhizomes of the Iris. Inside the aged old office, the wooden shelves displayed small stacks of the precious butter yielded after many hours of steaming the sliced rhizomes.   Orris butter is a highly expensive product (due to a very low yield and the long time orris extractionrequired for the distillation) and is high in myristic acid, a large fatty molecule that causes the solid consistency of the product.  The smell is fatty, slightly animalic, cool fresh and earthy, creamy pale green violet; unique and, in my opinion, very beautiful.  Orris has a reputation as a fantastic fixative and soul note and contributes to a powdery rich body note in perfume.

Next stop is at the very bottom of the Robertet grounds, is a modest and rambling lab, complete with a plethora of amazing pyrex flasks and tubes and glass vacuum extractors and bubbling bottles and a stunning view out toward the mountains in the direction of Nice.  Here, one quite young chemist, Dominique, is working to create new natural materials.  I smelled some of the products, including a chilled vial of a molecularly distilled ylang ylang that is another product made exclusively for Chanel.  It was exquisite! -very sweet and pure, without the slightly medicinal or ‘dirty’ aspects of normally distilled oil.  This is one of the main reasons for molecular distillation, or even fractionated oils, where various fractions are separated out and only the best quality, olfactively, are chosen.  The  re-created composite oils are missing the less desirable notes but have not been manipulated with anything other than a bit of heat, and not even much of that because in a vacuum, the heat can be kept extremely low. Becausemore precious than gold the respective boiling points of the various chemicals that make up an oil are different, they evaporate at different times that can  therefore be timed and separated.. After the most interesting ones can be chosen and blended in various proportions to yield a new product. This is another art form, I believe, and a form of perfumery in its own right.     Co-distillations of raw materials, such as myrrh and cedarwood, are also being explored as a means of yielding unique olfactive notes.  Such a fascinating realm of experimentation!

in the perfumery labAs for my work during the internship, the day includes an olfactory test twice per day, smelling 10 raw materials on blotter strips- synthetics in the morning and naturals after lunch.  Otherwise, my daily experiences can range from touring the various GC labs, meeting the marketing people, or today, making a batch of toothepaste for the flavourist’s department to do trials with.  I also am called upon to do translations periodically for emails and memos being sent to English speaking clients.  And always, for everyone, testing, testing, testing.  There is a room attached to our lab that contains 6 small rooms, each can be sealed and has a toilet inside.  This is where many products are tested- deodorants, tile cleaners etc.. These are not active toilets, of course, but are used in simulation tests and each cubicle has its own ventilation system.  There also testing rooms with rows of washing machines or dryers to test detergents and related products right down to what a towel smells like after a week, 2 weeks and so on after drying.   Product development is a major part of the company’s portfolio- testing product stability under all conditions.  A few days ago I was shown a room with ovens ranging in temperature from 37 to 60 degrees where products can be kept for up to a couple of monthes to observe what happens to the cream or shower gel etc  so that all possible flaws in the formulation are found before the product goes to market. In the formulation lab across the hall from ours, the windows are lined on the inside with glass shelves where stacks of jars of samples can sit for monthes in the sunshine (it’s pure sun here ever day by the way…) just to test the effect of the UV and fluctuating temperatures.  I had no idea so much time goes into the process of developing a product, but I have to admit, I’ve gained a lot of respect for the companies whose standards are so high. 

To name some names, some of the companies that Robertet has created products for are Gucci, Escada, Dior, l’Occitane, L’Oreal, Armani, plus many many more. The products created for these name brands are created from beginning to end by Robertet (and other similar companies like Mane, IFF the old smoke stacketc)  and more often than not includes the fragrance, cosmetic formulation (and testing of course), packaging concept, marketing etc.  It’s an incredible process really and all carried out by a bunch of down-to-earth friendly, highly trained, not overly hard working, (being French and all) but dedicated, men and women.


* In 2006, Robertet generated 221 million euros in turnover with 50% of sales in flavours, 35% in compositions and 15% in raw mterials/ingredients. Sales are worldwide with the US taking 40% and Europe 38%.   And, in case anyone is interested in an purchasing raw materials from Robertet, the base minimum order per product is 500 euros .   This is a big company dealing with the big players in the industry. In the shipping area yesterday, I saw an order being prepared and included was a aluminum bottle of Rose Absolute of about two gallons in volumn….worth an absolute fortune!

le stage -or- if I didn’t know how to say ‘fenouil’ before, I do now!

la mini in the lavenderToday was Monday of the second week of my internship in the Grasse based company Robertet.  I am working in both cometics/application, and the perfumery departments.   So far, the days are long, French-speaking, but facinationg and I am gaining insights into the industry that being in school has not able to provide.  I am working on a detailed chapter about this, but of course, time is a bit limited,  so thought I’d give you all a little note now just so you know that I haven’t disappeared into the desert on the back of a camel…

wild lavender in the sub-AlpsAnd on another note, I went into the mountains yesterday to see the Wild Lavender!  Yes the Lavandre Sauvage is in full bloom, and I was amazed by the quantity spread over the whole mountainside and glorious beauty of all that purple in its natural setting.  I cut quite a lot which is now spread out around my apartment drying on newspapers. I also found abundant clumps of a low tough little herb that smells and tastes like hot wild oregano oil many of us are familiar with.  I still need to get hold of a field guide for the wild plants here to identify it, but nonetheless, have a bundle of this drying as well.  From the smell there is a carvacrol and likely a thymol component and I think I’ll make a tincture with the high percentage grape.spirits that can be found in Italy. la mini in the lavender

I was informed that the annual commercial harvest of this fantastic wild and purple product will begin on July 10.  It looks like it might be a good year….

Fields of Lavender

purple splendourpurple splendourpurple splendourclary sage blossomsFriday, the 29th of June, was our last day of school and we marked it by going on a much anticipated field trip to the Lavender growing region past Aix-en-Provence, up in the mountains behind a beautiful town called Mane. We left the school quite early in the morning and after driving for 2 hours on the A-8,  we shifted direction and headed into the hills.  Our first stop was a small rather unassuming little farm that is actually a research centre specializing in lavender, clary sage and the various plants that make up the ‘Herbes de Provence’ official formula.  Here about 100 varieties of lavender and lavandin (the natural hybrid of the high altitude true lavender and ‘spike’ lavender) respectively are propogated/bred, grown, distilled and studied.  We toured the fields and then the small lab, seeing counter-top stills in the process of extracting the essential oils from samples of thyme to be sure that the essential oil content was of sufficient proportion to qualify for commercial use.  Also we were shown the larger equipment used to extract the lavender oil and learned the interesting fact that on average, lavandin will yield 80-100kg of essential oil per hectare and true lavender, only about 30kg.  Besides a variant in yield, the chemical makeup of the two oils is quite different also, with the toxic constituent camphor, being much higher in Lavandin.  

(A side note- at school last week, our chemistry teacher brought in her distiller and from the 50g of fresh lavandin flowers I picked outside in the garden, we extracted 2ml of oil.  More than we expected, and substantially higher than if it had been the true Lavandula Angustofolia.)


monastery in ManeWith the summer sun creating a day that was intensely hot and bright as we all piled back in the cars and left the farm, enroute to Mane, ,where we were invited to lunch with the director of our school and the rest of an organization who’s main purpose is education and the promotion and marketing of the perfumery raw materials that are produced in the region. We arrived at the site, a beautiful and large old monastery, made of stone that provided a cool refuge from the summer sun, where we were treated to a buffet of whole grain salads, meats and other regional goodies. Fantastic.


Then, refueled, we headed out once more ascending gently in search of the fields of lavender.  I’ve seen many postcards since arriving in this part of the world showing the classic shots of Provencal lavender, but nothing could have prepared me for the absolute beauty of the first field we saw.  So much gorgeous purple!  The rich hue of the lavenders in such large swaths of colour surrounded by a landscape that is quite arid and rocky with rolling hills covered in knarled pines is spectacular and something to behold. 

 The honey bees were everywhere, their little back legs heavy with bright orange balls of pollen, (lavender honey is produced also) and the air was clear and clean, whipped by the wind that seems quite constant in the mountains here.  Seeing the lavender in its native realm like this completed my understanding of the oil in such a profound way.  It’s clear fresh aromatic astringent and oily sweetness, with that green vanilla powdery warmth has been formed where it grows; basking in the intensity of the Mediterranean sun under the bluest skies I have ever seen. The winds come from the highest Alps bringing such charged alive air and the soil is ancient! Full of just the right nutrients to give the plants what they need so they can explode into full round masses of purple.

clary sage blossomsclary sage blossomsclary sage blossomsclary sage blossomsclary sage blossomsAs if this wasn’t enough, we were to discover lush pink fields of clary sage, also in full sticky fragrant bloom.  I even saw one particularly colourful field of purple lavender interspersed with the pink exclamation pints of clary sage. Otherwise, there were blocks of purple with pink beside or behind and I must say, the countryside looked particularly feminine!




Clary sage concrete contains a natural constituent called Sclareol that is used as a starting point for the creation of ambergris chemicals such as Ambroxan and other synthesized amber notes. 

  • -The concrete is also a great raw material in itself, for a dry musky ambergris note.  Also as a fixative.
  • -Lavender absolute is a wonderful substance and can be combined in an accord with the essential oil to yield a more true to life scent of the flower itself.
  •  Sclareol in clary, like coumarine in lavender,  is contained in the concrete or absolute and not the essential oil as it is too large a molecule to be extracted by distillation.