Perfumery: art or science?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, perfumery was seen as a scientific endeavour, requiring expertise and a keen nose. Perfumers were trained chemists and pharmacists, not artists. This changed with Roure perfumer Jean Carles, who founded Givaudan’s legendary Perfumery School in 1946.
Carles’ method of olfactive study, which organised raw materials by similarity and contrast, is still the standard for perfumery training. “Perfumery is an art, not a science,” he wrote. “Scientific knowledge may even sometimes prove an obstacle… The creative perfumer should use odorous materials in the same way that a painter uses colours.”
Most iconic perfumes of the 20th century
One of Carles’ colleagues, and his equal in terms of legacy, took the opposite approach. Germaine Cellier, a trained chemist, began working in the composition laboratory in 1930. She relied on her own formulae to create her perfumes. Carles the artist and Cellier the chemist were not fans of each other’s methods, yet their conflict was wildly productive: between them they conceived some of the 20th century’s most iconic perfumes. Dior ‘Miss Dior’¹ and Schiaparelli ‘Shocking’ were two of Carles’, while Cellier created Balmain’s ‘Vent Vert’ and Piguet’s ‘Fracas’, among many more.
Legendary fragrances since 1930
Art or science
Today the Perfumery School, based in Paris has a branch in Singapore and is led by Calice Becker, creator of fragrances including Dior ‘J’Adore’, Tommy Hilfiger ‘Tommy Girl’ and Nina Ricci ‘L’Air du Temps’ collection. “Is perfumery art? By definition an art piece is unique and can’t be reproduced, so I think not. It is also not up to us to say,” she says.
“Science is a tool that helps me achieve what I want to achieve, but in the end the gesture is creation. It is to do something out of your imagination with the tools that you have. If you have no idea and you have just your toolbox you can do many things; but with imagination, an open mind and spirit to welcome innovation or new olfactive form, you will create something. And that is the message I give to my students too.”
One of those students is Dana, who misses the painting she had to give up to focus on her chemistry degree studies. “For me perfumery is the perfect blend of scientific and artistic,” she says.
Philip, who designs molecules to make fragrances at Givaudan, agrees: “We design molecules scientifically and apply them artistically,” he says. “The tools are the same, but the outcome is different every time, and in this space you can find art.”
Explore the podcasts of our experts Calice, Head of Perfumery School; Daniela, Vice President Perfumery; Nicolas, Vice President Perfumer; Rodrigo, Vice President Perfumery and Philip, Research Fellow giving their views about perfumery: an art or a science.
Listen to the interview with Calice (00:06:31)
Listen to the interview with Daniela (00:06:43)
Listen to the interview with Nicolas (00:06:38)
Listen to the interview with Rodrigo (00:08:17)
Listen to the interview with Philip (00:04:05)