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!

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.

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!)  

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

Mood and the psychology of scent

After a chilly and cloudy day yesterday, with the general mood of the class (and me- what a difficult day!) to match, it was a relief to step out of the old wood door into the quiet coolness of my little street this morning and ascend the steep route up through the honeycomb of the centre ville into the blazing glory of a sunny day.  My mood was good; another one of those days I love when I am overcome by happiness at being able to experience the beauty that surrounds me here.  There is pure art all around.  The colours, the light, the sounds, the shapes and angles, the general composition of everything.  My photographer’s eye is constantly sated with so many beautiful possibilities that I don’t even know where to point my camera- so I don’t.  I just take it all in.  It feels like everything is too beautiful to capture.

Today at school was chemistry.  We are learning material that is at a  fairly advanced high-school/first year college level- and at

Flowers in winter

a a speed that condenses three years into about 5 weeks.  It is all  relevant to perfumery of course and today the subject was the science of gas chromatography.  We will be learning how to read the highly technical reports that are produced by these machines and we will also be able to understand the chemical structure of all the components in the materials being analyzed. (both essential oils and synthetic chemicals)  Part of the work will be to choose a perfume to put through the gas chromatography process, then be able analyze the result and decipher the formula of the perfume.  (we can choose anything- Chanel 5 or one of  my favourites, Annick Goutal and at the end, after extensive study and comparative work, we will have a very good idea of the basic formula.)  Because of this technology, there are no secrets in formulation anymore.  Copies happen all the time- it is normal. There are no secrets. So from my what I gather, it comes down mostly to the name.  Yves St Laurent, for example, or Chanel,  could be copied exactly, but it doesn’t really threaten them, because the consumer wants the prestige of the NAME-  Yves St Laurent or Chanel- on their dressing table, and on their body, socially. This can matter more than the actual appreciation of the fragrance itself.  This effect is subtle- hard to pin absolutely, because the power of scent is so emotional that it infiltrates an individual’s experience to such a degree that they don’t even know if they like how something smells because of its name, or because of how it actually smells.  Association plays a roll as well- if it smells how we have been conditioned to think ‘expensive and prestigious’ smells, then in this day and age, we want it.

That said, there is serious research going on these days in the area of aromachology.  Especially in Japan.  (one of my classmates is a biologist who works for Shiseido in this area).      Aromachology* is the study of odour psychology and of human responses to odours. Aromachology does not distinguish between natural or synthetic chemicals.  Heliotropin, for example, has been shown to have a calming effect on the subjects studied, despite being a synthetic material (although it is available from natural sources as well)  The results of these studies is beginning to play a serious role in the formulation of perfumes. We are being chemically influenced by the perfume industry without being aware of it.  Historically, the ultimate goal of the perfume industry has been a healthy bottom-line- not our general well-being. My hope is that the two will inadvertently or eventually coincide.

All this is fabulously interesting and is expanding my perspective in many different directions.  I realize how easy it is to become limited by my beliefs, by what I think I know.   A beginner’s mind, always, seems to allow for an incredibly rich experience in this life……….

*A service mark of the Olfactory Research Fund

Now, my window is open, as usual these warm Spring evenings, and I can hear a cat yowling, and people walking by, laughing and talking, in French, below.  Once in a while, a car roars by, with inches to spare on either side, blasting either hip-hop in a foreign language or Moroccan pop- but otherwise, the heaped up ancient rooms that form this beautiful cluster of humanity isquieting down for the night.  By 10:30, all will be so silent, I can hear my ears ring, and sleep will creep in and encompass all who dwell behind the wood  shutters that are ritually closed by every household, every night……….