Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reflection and Self-Reinvention Part 4: In which I take a perfume class

My secondary education years were long and twisted. I started out as a fresh faced English major and ended up in business school, where my final project/thesis was something about an information system for dairy farms. A couple of years in the real world have sent me back to school, this time for math education (I couldn't let all those years of advanced calculus go to waste). The point is that in my world, taking a class had a lot more to do with econometrics than with having fun.

I got a chance to participate in a two day introduction to perfumery techniques class and the experience was one of the most joyous I can recall. Imagine: learning and immersing yourself in one of your greatest passions while surrounded with people who feel exactly the same way. I felt like the luckiest person in the world.

Cinquième Sens, the French perfumery school has opened a branch in New York City and offering a growing variety of classes and programs for those of us who want to know more about the perfume industry, understand the market, the products and more than anything else: what it's all about. Last summer I visited the Paris school and spoke to one of the teachers (you can read about it here). Cinquième Sens takes a practical approach to fragrance. They focus on translating the art of perfumery into consumer products and they teach you about what's in your bottle. It's a fascinating journey.

The teachers were Jillian Friedman, a fragrance industry professional, who's been a consultant for several major brands, and Aurélie Dematons from the Paris school. Both of them offered knowledge and enthusiasm and patiently answered every question.

My absolutely favorite part was sniffing the raw materials, both natural and synthetic. Most of us have come across an essential oil or two before, but have you ever smelled raw tonka beans or ylang-ylang (my notes on the latter say: weird, oily, aggressive)? I wanted to plant my nose in the oakmoss jar and never let go. But the most amazing ones were the forbidden animalics- the ones that are no longer permitted for use. My vegetarian sensibilities are happy it's now illegal to use real musk, castoreum and civet. But I'm also glad I had a chance to smell them once. And my notes about ambregris, the whale equivalent of hairballs, say simply: "no words".

It was also eye opening to get acquainted with some of the more popular synthetics. It helped me understand my fragrance taste a bit better. When it comes to many (most?) of the new bestselling perfumes, the ones lauded for being light, fresh, young (insert your favorite adjective), I sniff them, sometimes spray on my skin, shrug and move on. I tend to forget them by the time I approach the next counter, unless they turn into a cataclysmic scrubber. Apparently, I'm anosmic to several of these happy new molecules. Sometimes I can't smell them at all, others I can tell there's a scent, but it barely registers.

It was especially fun to smell a raw material and then treasure-hunt it in real perfumes. For the first time I could make the separate notes in Chanel no. 5, especially the orange blossom. You gain appreciation for the art of fragrance construction and seamless blending.

Sitting in a classroom for two days, sniffing blotters with a group of people who are just as passionate about perfume is such a different experience than what most of us are used to. There was a great energy around the table as we passed the scent strips around and commented about them. We were all bubbly with excitement over the chance to spend two days talking about perfume. And who wouldn't be?

I attended the class a guest, thanks to Isabelle Ferrand, the head of the Paris school and Laëtitia Longuefosse, the NY director. For details about the offered programs and schedule for the upcoming months, contact Laëtitia at 212 686 4123 or [email protected] .


  1. Wow. That sounds just about perfect.

    I want one!

  2. What a lovely experience! :) I'd like to spend two days like that!

  3. How nice that you attended as a guest - which is even better than attending on a corporate account, since it certainly wasn't worth the $2,600 they charge for tuition.

  4. Nathan, wouldn't it be wonderful to have a class with a group of bloggers? We'd have so much fun.

  5. Ines, I could probably spend a week like that. Sniffing, sniffing, sniffing...

  6. Poodlegirl, yes, it was nice to be a guest. The price is definitely steep, but not unusual for something that's usually paid by employers. I've seen worse in other industries.

  7. it sounds/smells like a dream come true! good for you.


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