How Perfumers Work

A Rare Breed of Nose

Perfumers don't just smell perfumes all day long. Their talents are in great demand for all manner of cosmetic and household products, like, say, shaving cream, which is what Carl A. Klumpp, Gillette's former chief perfumer, is sniffing.
Perfumers don't just smell perfumes all day long. Their talents are in great demand for all manner of cosmetic and household products, like, say, shaving cream, which is what Carl A. Klumpp, Gillette's former chief perfumer, is sniffing.
© James Leynse/Corbis

Industry statistics have just 500 people working as noses in the perfume industry, so it takes more than a good sniffer to make it as a perfumer [sources: Williams, Perfumers World].

Some artistic souls with amazing noses stumble into the career, but that's rare. Many start their careers working in perfume stores or as lab technicians for perfume manufacturers [sources: Bradley, College for TN]. Others are chemists who discover a love of scent and follow their noses [sources: Bradley, Givaudan].

A degree in chemistry is required, as are years of additional, specialized training in cosmetic science and the specifics of perfumery [source: Academic Invest]. Lots of colleges, universities and private organizations offer perfumery courses, and some offer certificates in the art, but specialized degrees are harder to come by and often require studying at a dedicated perfume school. Those are relatively few, and the most prestigious ones are highly selective: The Givaudan Perfumery School in Paris accepts about 2 percent of its applicants [source: Hume]. For comparison, Harvard University accepts about 6 percent [source: U.S. News & World Report].

Perfume schools offer courses in topics like scent formulation, applications of natural vs. synthetic essential oils, olfactory evaluation and physical-chemical analysis. Trainees learn the scents and qualities of hundreds of natural and synthetic chemicals, developing their olfactory memories [sources: College for TN, ISIPCA]. They spend years as apprentices to master perfumers [source: College for TN].

Students typically also study marketing and business subjects, because perfumery isn't all test strips [source: ISIPCA]. It requires an understanding of consumers, the retail industry, quality control and business management: what people want in a perfume, how to analyze industry trends, how to tell the techs who prepared test batch 3 they messed up the formula [source: Academic Invest].

A formula that took 491 trials to perfect. But that's par for the course. Perfumers are a patient folk.

Right now, in a lab somewhere, someone is adjusting the ratio of musk to vanilla to orange for the 61st time, remembering a decades-old citrus grove, wondering what an oakmoss note might do for the accord ...

Author's Note: How Perfumers Work

Explaining how a perfumer arrives at "subtly dark and sensual" is kind of like explaining how van Gogh achieved "turbulent and lonely" – you don't. Creative processes seldom translate. So I settled here for the concrete: ingredients, ratios, training. Perfumers are artists, and each has his or her unique approach to the work. To get a real feel for the art of perfumery, you probably need to get a set of essential oils and some scent strips and have at it.

Related Articles


  • Academic Invest. "How to Become a Perfumer: Career Path Guide." (Dec. 18, 2014)
  • The American Society of Perfumers. "What is a perfumer?" (Dec. 18, 2014)
  • BBC. "Perfume: Bottling the Memory." (Jan. 10, 2015)
  • Bradley, Georgie. "How do I become ... a perfumer." The Guardian. Dec. 12, 2013. (Dec. 18, 2014)
  • Chanel. "No. 5 Culture Chanel." (Jan. 11, 2015)
  • College for TN. "Perfumer – What They Do." (Jan. 10, 2015)
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  • Fragrantica Perfumes Magazine. (Jan. 11, 2015)
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  • Keville, Kathy and Mindy Green. "Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art." Ten Speed Press. 2012. p. 14. (Accessed Jan. 4, 2015) Available from:
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