Firmenich - Développement durable - Parfum

Conscious perfumery at Firmenich: from vision to reality

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Firmenich’s shift to conscious perfumery, far from curbing perfumers’ creativity, has instead proved to be a source of innovation and inspiration. The delicate interlinking of stringent sustainability requirements, scientific research, commercial goals and consumer satisfaction is a balancing act involving numerous participants working in unison and focused on the same vision.

In a drive to develop perfumery with a positive impact on people and the planet, Firmenich has launched a programme with ESG (environmental, social and governance) targets to reach by 2030. Underpinning the plan to adopt a more conscious form of perfumery are the combined pillars of biodegradability, renewability, carbon impact reduction, transparency and certified ingredient procurement. Set up several years ago, these platforms have begun to bear fruit and deliver fragrances that have now been launched on the market. To understand how these commitments have come to life and examine the interplay between creativity and responsibility at the composition company, we talked to the team driving this movement and a perfumer who has fully embraced the philosophy and the new practices it entails.

“The starting point for the transformation process was understanding consumers and their interests, so we could model innovations in response. Because at the end of the day we need to design a perfume that people like, without compromising on its appeal. Unless there is a tangible benefit for the end client, the approach is pointless,” explains Michal Benmayor, vice-president of global strategic business development. The decision to focus on the sustainability demanded by consumers led the company to review all its production methods, set up collection of new traceability data and create suitable monitoring tools, totally overhauling its industrial model.

“Over the last five years, perfumery has been undergoing a revolution comparable to the emergence of modern-day perfumery in the late 19th century. The transformation underway is deep-reaching and cross-disciplinary. We now have to supply and assess a whole series of data on our ingredients and our fragrances, a process that impacts the entire value chain, from responsible purchasing of raw materials to the regulatory compliance, IT systems and, of course, the daily task of perfume creation,” says Marie-Aude Bluche, senior director of the Green Unit, in charge of the palette and development of conscious perfumery. “When it comes to raw materials, we are essentially seeing two main areas of change: biodegradability and renewability. For the former, our research and development programme Green Gate, set up in 2010, aims to exclusively create biodegradable molecules. For the latter, we have introduced new processes: we are revising the methods used to obtain raw materials with the goal of reducing our dependency on petrochemicals. In the ingredient transformation processes, we are now including renewably sourced carbon from three different sources: biomass, recycling and CO2 capture.” This offers the advantage of preserving the olfactory forms that consumers enjoy, changing only the processes for obtaining them. It is important to remember that a 100 % natural fragrance would be incapable of fully satisfying the public’s hedonic expectations because, as Michal Benmayor explains, “our noses have become so accustomed to certain standards.”

To bring some order to the various products involved and get a 360° view of an ingredient or concentrate’s environmental impact, various custom tools have been developed, including EcoScent Compass[1]See our article Responsible formulation: different tools, one ideal. Michal Benmayor describes it as: “A benefit for our clients, who have to choose which criteria to focus on and be able to explain them very simply to consumers, with clear claims backed by verifiable data: 100% renewable or 100% biodegradable, for example.”

Marie-Aude Bluche believes that it is also a process that has to start inhouse. “The creative teams need to be trained so they have the means to be proactive. This involves olfactory research programmes focused on measurable targets for biodegradability, renewability and naturalness so our perfumers can become familiar with using these innovative resources,” whether ingredients or tools. “In conscious perfumery, perfumers have to deal with a huge range of variables, some of them occasionally contradictory. This complexity can be simplified using the right matrices, which, with the help of AI, make the process easier.”

Perfumer Ane Ayo sees the Firmenich system as a crucial guide to meeting client needs. “As a perfumer, we are aware that these new methods and materials are the future, there’s no way round it.” This approach is also proving to be a source of innovative inspiration. “For those of us constantly looking for something new, driven by insatiable curiosity, responsible ingredients produced by biotechnologies, for example, are a source of ground-breaking tones. We used the recently launched FirGood technology, which avoids petrochemicals with an extraction process whereby water concentrated in the biomass acts as a universal solvent, to obtain ingredients that reflect reality, such as FirGood ginger, green pepper and pear.” These new additions to the perfumer’s palette play different roles, filling a gap or, conversely, conjuring up historic monuments that are difficult to source, such as the ingredient “produced by fermentation, called Dreamwood, which is environmentally friendly while also staying close to a Mysore sandalwood.” Ane Ayo, who recently created A Drop d’Issey for the Issey Miyake brand using ingredients exclusively from the Naturals Together platform combining sustainability criteria with fairness towards communities, is delighted to be receiving an increasing number of client briefs that include care of people and the planet in their specifications. “The Miyake team, in particular, wanted to focus on this area. We had the tools and solutions needed to help them as well as the ingredients capable of evoking purity and simplicity, two notions that were central to the project.” The perfumer opted for an Ambrox Super produced by biotechnology, here used as an overdose, creating a pleasing clean mineral effect and ticking all the boxes in terms of environmental protection, along with an upcycled Virginia cedar, a by-product of the furniture industry.

The culmination of a chain of decisions taken over a long period and implemented by a whole range of actors, this latest Issey Miyake creation to be launched on the market “is the outcome of a great many coordinated efforts, especially since, when selecting from between several competing proposals, in the end the brand made a fairly hedonic choice. The composition creates the right sensations while having been made in a totally innovative way,” points out Michal Benmayor. A new framework for creating fine fragrances is in place. It can be adapted to suit each brief, and is always accurate and rigorous in terms of the qualities claimed. 

More about conscious perfumery at Firmenich

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All perfume lovers know Legendary Perfumes. French Feminine Fragrances<\/em>, published in 1996. With this book, Fragrances of the World’s founder Michael Edwards was the first to give perfumers the opportunity to speak out in order to collect in detail and without detour the entire genesis of the great classics of perfumery.<\/p>

Twenty-three years later, he offers an expanded version with eight new legends (Fracas, Nahema, Féminité du bois, J’adore, Flower, Coco Mademoiselle, Timbuktu, Portrait of a Lady<\/em>), and enriched texts on 52 creations, gathering testimonies and quotes from perfumers, couturiers, artistic directors, designers....<\/p> ", "_my_chapo": "field_5e85d1d4b6b90" }, "mode": "preview" } /-->

Edwards describes himself more as a "word weaver" than as a writer, because most of the legends’ texts are the words of the creators. He continued his research and investigations through the archives of perfume houses and conducted some 200 interviews, in order to transcribe a history of perfumery as accurate as possible to reality, rid of its myths and legends, of formatted, distorted or sublimated speeches by certain journalists, biographers or unscrupulous press officers. The result is a living testimony to the history of perfumery, since, as the author points out, "in a world where perfumes are modified, sometimes destroyed, we have no museums that allow us to examine what happened". This is why he strives to reconstruct this past as closely as possible through the words of the creators themselves, by listening to them and "weaving" their words.

We met him in June in his Parisian apartment, in the Saint-Michel district, where he gave us a few glimpses of his new work through two emblematic creations by Chanel: the famous N°5, often covered in sometimes improbable legends, and Coco Mademoiselle, the feminine global best-seller which was initially intended to be only a small flanker... Interview.

How did Coco Chanel come up with the idea of creating a perfume? You say in your book that two versions coexist: it would be either her friend Misia Sert or the Grand Duke Prince Dmitri Pavlovitch who would have influenced her?

Misia Sert wrote that she gave Chanel the idea for a perfume in 1920, while reading aloud from a newspaper article. That may be true but but Mlle Chanel had already registered the name “Eau de Chanel”, in 1919. So clearly, there were always this premise that there might be a perfume. Was it because of Poiret or Coty, whose perfumes had become increasingly important? Probably.
However, the idea turned into reality when, during the summer of 1920, Chanel was invited to visit Parfums Rallet in La Bocca, near Cannes. There, she was introduced to perfumer Ernest Beaux.

At the beginning, Chanel was hostile to the idea of a fragrance: “I’m a couturier, not a perfumer, and I disapprove of everything perfumers do.” she said. How did her meeting with Ernest Beaux go?

Beaux rarely spoke publicly of his collaboration with Chanel. Once in a speech, he said that he had presented ten perfumes to Chanel which he had created between 1919 to 1920. The perfumes were ordered in two series : 1 to 5 and 20 to 24. She selected four of them, he said : 5, 20, 21 and 22.

At that time was it common to work like this? Were there any exchange between the perfumer and the client? Any reworks? Or just a selection?

Beaux said that he had already created all the perfumes he showed Chanel. His letters demonstrate that he had been working on N°5 for at least five years. He finished it, he said, in 1920, before he met Chanel.

There is no evidence that Coco Chanel told him to rework the formula, make it stronger or more expensive. To the contrary, Beaux would not have permitted to anyone to tell him what to do!

Finally a perfumer would work like a couturier? “You like it, you buy it!”

Exactly, but of course as clients work with perfumers and develop their confidence, the more likely they are to ask for modifications.

So when did this habit of asking for modifications start?

From the start, I assume. Jean Patou started to rework Joy (1930) with Henri Almeras, for example, telling him to “Make it stronger, make it stronger!”, but he would not have gone into perfumery technicalities such as “Make it more aldehydic…”.

Author Ludovic Bron said about N°5: “In the realm of perfumery, it was a sort of French Revolution.” What did he mean?

It was an abstract flower, an imagined floral in an era when perfumes copied nature. Yes, it became famous for its innovative use of aldehydes but Jacques Polge, Chanel’s perfumer, once told me that you can take the aldehydes out of N°5 and it would still remain N°5.

Beaux once said he put the aldehydes to make the richness of the flowers (the jasmine, the May rose, the ylang-ylang) explode.

There’s an old story that the high level of aldehydes in N°5 was the result of a mistake. when his assistent misinterpreted his instruction and did not dilute the aldehyes to a 10% level. It’s been repeated so often it’s assumed to be true but it makes no sense simply because Beaux used a cocktail of three aldehydes in N°5. One mistake, fine, but three ?

This is part of the legend, of the myth of N°5 ? Where does it come from?

From Mademoiselle Chanel, a tell-all biography published by the tabloid Paris Match and released several months after Chanel’s death. The book, riddled with factual errors, was written by Paris Match’s secretary general Pierre Galante, who never interviewed Chanel about her life story, but claimed to have amassed “hundreds of eyewitness accounts” in the few months it took him to pen the manuscript.

Ernest Beaux talks about his military service near Arctic Circle. How did his experience influence the creation of N°5?

Beaux wrote that he had been sent to spend a part of the Allies’ Russian campaign in a Murmansk above the Arctic Circle "at the time of the midnight sun when the lakes and rivers release a perfume of extreme freshness. I retained that note and replicated it." The scent of the water plants was fresh and sharp, full of aldehydes.

It has always been said that it was launched in 1921, but it could be 1922 after all?

Interesting isn’t it? The launch date of N°5 has long been recorded as 1921, but there is no firm evidence to support that claim. According to Yves Roubert, the original formulae were completed in March 1922. Constatin Weriguine, Beaux’s assistant, wrote that the original formulae were completed in March 1922. It is possible, then, that N° 5 was launched in 1922 rather than 1921, alongside six other perfumes of Chanel’s choosing.

Let's come now to Coco Mademoiselle, what prompted its birth?

Coco, the first major women’s perfume to be launched, in 1984, after the death of Coco Chanel, was in danger of being phased out of upscale department stores in the United States. Imagine the humiliation!

Flankers already existed but were not well perceived, more related to mass market?

True, but some had worked to revitalise the brand. The original Drakkar (1972) failed. But Drakkar noir, (1982) succeeded.

At that time, they were preparing the launch of Chance, that was supposed to be the big international launch?

Yes, and Coco Mademoiselle took over!

How did they came with the idea of chypre?

Jacques Polge, Chanel’s perfumer, has always admired Clinique Aromatics Elixir, a masterly chypre. But perfume moves on and patchouli replaced oakmoss as the core note in a chypre. Coco Mademoiselle was created to be the perfume Coco Chanel herself would have wear if she were turning twenty-one in the 21st century. Can you imagine Coco Chanel being a “floral-fruity” lady?

When you look back, what is a chypre? When do chypre come out? Historically, they tended to become important when women become assertive.
WW1: men died, women took over their role. Would they after the war retreat to the way it was before? No! So we saw Chypre de Coty, Mitsouko by Guerlain...
After WW2, a chypre renaissance: Bandit , Miss Dior, Femme de Rochas.
In the 1980’s, when women kick against the glass ceiling: Ysatis, Passion.

At the same time, woody orientals have become more and more important, such as Samsara (1989), but the explosion was Angel (1992). Polge clearly was aware of this influence.

They created a new trend of “neo-chypre”, also because patchouli oil could be fractionned at that time?

Yes, they had already done fractions of patchouli oil for Chance, making it cleaner, less musty, but it was used for the first time in Coco Mademoiselle.

And because it was a flanker, in many ways it was a pure recreation. All the attention was on Chance, so Polge could largely do what he wanted.

In Chance, it seems that this patchouli is used in a lighter way, it’s more facetted? But in Coco Mademoiselle, it’s more direct?

Yes, Chance is more playful, Coco Mademoiselle is more single minded, but the top notes are also very important, they give freshness and lift, which are key for the US market.

And finally Coco Mademoiselle has been an immediate success?

Yes, first in the US first, and then in the world. Today, it has overtaken N°5 to become the best selling perfume in the world.

Interview conducted on the 24th June 2019

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According to Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House and initiator of this project, “perfume is the art of the 21st century”. Her idea for this exhibition ? Offering an olfactory journey through space, time and the emotions created by scents. “If books and movies can make us travel in that way, why couldn't perfumes do the same ?” she asks as an introduction. Co-curator Lizzie Ostrom, aka Odette Toilette, author of Perfume: A Century of Scents (2015), sees this exhibition as a way to challenge our preconceptions and enlighten the current changes in perfumery: from the original and bold choices of raw materials (of which a list opens the exhibition, mixing indiscriminately oris, creosote, chlorine or blood) to the innovative creative intentions of perfumers, who nowadays come not only from specialized schools but are also sometimes completely self-taught.

The introductory rooms presents a few masterpieces from modern perfumery, not necessarily the most famous but amongst the most representative and iconic perfumes of each decade of the 20th century. On a large wooden table, the ten perfume bottles are displayed under elegant glass domes. Two small, rather low-tech, aluminum jars, allow visitors to smell perfumes from both the beginning and the end of the century : L'Origan by Coty (1905), recomposed by Daphné Bugey, and CK One (1994) by Calvin Klein, a confrontation clearly emphasizing the gap between those two creations. In between are showcased Chypre by Coty, N°5 by Chanel, Schocking by Schiaparelli, Vent Vert by Balmain, Youth Dew by Estée Lauder, Eau Sauvage by Dior, Opium by Yves Saint-Laurent, et Giorgio by Giorgio Beverly Hills.

While leaving this historical room, visitors are invited to grab a note-card and a pen before further entering the exhibition. The idea is to allow everyone to write their personal impressions about the ten contemporary fragrances displayed in the exhibition without any textual content. Indeed, scents are simply incorporated into immersive installations reflecting their inspirations, evocations or forms, without visitors knowing what they are smelling. The installations are more or less abstract, with visual elements such as shapes, colors, lights, but are also involving textures, movements and sound: a box of black gravel, a white cube under white light, tree trunk benches, a dark confessional, etc. One thing they all share is the perfumers' voice, as a way to embody their presence. Visitors are therefore invited to interact with each environment, to sit, lay,  reach for or grab the smelling elements. “The smelling experience is intimate. Ideally we would smell everything on skin, but as we can't, we have tried to reproduce this intimacy with objects you can grab, which implies a one-on-one relationship” explains Lizzie Ostrom.

After smelling five perfumes, a room offers the possibility to smell them again in the aluminum jars while learning their name, creator, brand and main materials (natural as well as synthetic, accords by accords). Not to spoil the experience, as visitors are not supposed to know which perfume goes with which display, here follows a randomly ordered list of the fragrances showcased:

Purple Rain (2015), by Daniela Andrier for Prada

Sécrétions magnifiques (2007), by Antoine Lie for Etat Libre d'Orange

Comme des garçons 2 (1999), by Mark Buxton for Comme des Garçons

Avignon (2002), by Bertrand Duchaufour for Comme des Garçons

En passant (2000), d'Olivia Giacobetti pour Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle

Charcoal (2016), by Lyn Harris for Perfumer H

El cosmico (2015), by David Seth Moltz for D.S. & Durga

Molecule 01 (2007), by Geza Schoen for Escentric Molecules

L'air du désert marocain (2005), by Andy Tauer for Tauer Perfumes

Dark Ride (2015), by Killian Wells for Xyrena

The last room, sponsored by Givaudan, is a functioning perfume laboratory. All through the exhibition, trainee perfumers from Givaudan's school will create and weight formulas before the public, allowing visitors to discuss their work and to smell ingredients and accords.

The ten selected scents are supposedly pioneers and representative of the renewal of 21st century perfumery. “We had to find interesting and original scents, explains Lizzie Ostrom. Some were selected because they question what we think is wearable or desirable in a perfume, some because they illustrate the creative approach, the signature or the style of a perfumer, and some were included because they show what perfume can be today, and where its limits are.”

The selection, as well as the intent, differs significantly from Chandler Burr's “The Art of Scent 1889-2012”, held at the New York Museum of Arts and Design in 2013. The purpose is not to present scents as pure works of art by putting them in a white cube-like exhibition space, neither is it to transpose on them a terminology from the field of art history and critical discourse. On the contrary, Lizzie Ostrom wants to question the ambivalent status of scent, in between products and art, by stripping it off its commercial attributes (name, bottle, brand) and introducing it into the museum context in a new and original way. “I am not really saying that perfume is an art but it is the equivalent, it's at the same level” explicits Claire Catterall. Essentially, this exhibition intends to enable an understanding of perfume in all its dimensions by engaging visual, auditive and haptic aspects. “We hope we have done something that is open enough not to force visitors to embrace our point of view. It's a balance really, between not saying too much and not saying too little”, comments Ostrom.

But if the exhibition does gets scent out of its commercial context, the setting of the installations gives it an other context, maybe more hazardous. Designed without any participation from the perfumers, each installation only reflects one interpretation of a perfume, inevitably putting a bias on visitors' subjectivity. The result, though playful and imaginative, may not be completely relevant, for installations are not suitable to explicit the specificity of perfume as a creation. And as scents are integrated in those environments, they lose their autonomy and are prevented from signifying or provoking any aesthetic experience by and for themselves...especially since the smelling devices deprive them from their evolution in time, sadly damaging them.

While exhibiting perfume is most definitely not an easy task, each new attempt widen our perspectives, hopefully fostering future projects. And the simple fact that a cultural institution such as Somerset House would be interested in perfume is an accomplishment, announcing a long-awaited recognition and promising new days for scents.

Somerset House

Perfume: A sensory journey through contemporary scent

From June, 21st to September, 17th 2017

East Wing Galleries, Somerset House, London

Open everyday

Tickets: 11£ (Concessions: 9£)

For more informations and events schedule :

Lectures podcasts :

The Somerset House book store offers a selection of fragrances and books, as well as a small exhibition catalogue and the english version of NEZ#3.

@SomersetHouse #PerfumePioneers

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