Couture Chemistry; the Work Behind Favorite Fragrances

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

Couture Chemistry; the Work Behind Favorite Fragrances


Byline: Jen Waters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Heather Barthel of Baltimore has worn Red Door perfume by Elizabeth Arden for 14 years. Although there are many other fragrances she could use, she says it fits her body chemistry best.

Her loyalty to the brand started when her mother took her to the Red Door Salon and Spa in Northwest as a high school graduation gift.

"Once you find your signature scent, you stick with it," she says while shopping in Nordstrom at the Mall in Columbia, Md. "I have several bottles of perfume in my bathroom that I will probably never wear."

Most consumers probably aren't aware of the intense scientific research necessary to create some of their favorite scents. The pleasant smells of perfumes lining department-store shelves are born in chemical laboratories.

Fragrances can be made from thousands of different ingredients. Although some of them come directly from nature, many are synthetic, says Leslie Smith, vice president of fragrance technology at Coty Inc.'s research lab in Morris Plains, N.J.

Mr. Smith, who holds a doctorate in organic chemistry, says tests constantly are being done to create new ingredients for perfumers, who combine the chemicals into a final product. The ingredients usually are patented. After a few years, however, they may be sold to competing companies for use in their products.

Further, scientists' research involves understanding what a chemical will do when it comes into contact with clothing or skin. This will help gauge how long the scent will last and if it changes after interacting with other substances.

Trials also have been performed to better understand the psychology of fragrance. By studying brain waves, researchers can better grasp how a scent affects people's moods when they are exposed to certain odors. For example, scents associated with tangerine and mandarin are stimulating and energizing, while jasmine and lavender are relaxing.

"Science helps the suppliers win business or make a better product," Mr. Smith says. "Even the top perfumers have a pretty close relationship with their technical colleagues."

Harry Fremont, master perfumer at Firmenich Fragrances in New York City, says he depends on scientific breakthroughs to carry his creations to their highest level. As an employee of a fragrance house, he makes finished products for such clients as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Estee Lauder.

For instance, if chemists create 3,000 new chemicals each year, the perfumers are asked to distinguish the best ones, which may be as few as five.

"You can have the best perfumer, but if you don't have the right ingredients, you won't have a good finished product," he says. "When there is really something different in a new fragrance launch, it's usually because of a new natural product or a new chemical."

Researchers search constantly for new scents and will go to extremes to find them, says Rodrigo Flores-Roux, a perfumer for Quest International, a fragrance house in New York City. It takes him eight to 14 months to perfect a perfume with available ingredients.

Scientists frequently visit rain forests to find flowers that provide unique scents. By using "headspace" technology, they can trap and analyze the air surrounding a flower or fruit without touching the subject. The information collected from these tests reveals the scents' components and allows them to be reproduced in the laboratory.

In addition to studying the air, expeditions also have researched scents dissolved in water, which may originate from coral in the ocean or vapor from a waterfall. …

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