11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

10 Secrets of Airbnb Hosts

iStock/Tero Vesalainen
iStock/Tero Vesalainen

Since it launched in 2008, Airbnb has grown from a scrappy tech startup to a major force in the travel industry. The website acts as a middleman between hosts with empty rooms, guest houses, and vacation homes to rent out and travelers looking for an unconventional (and often affordable) place to stay. The company reportedly recently valued itself at $38 billion.

Tech-savvy globetrotters may be familiar with Airbnb from the guest side, but being a host offers its own experiences. If they're willing to endure the occasional clueless, tardy, or rude guest, hosts often learn that meeting people from around the world can be just as rewarding as travel—and a lot more lucrative. We spoke with a few Airbnb hosts to get their perspective on what it's like to provide a temporary home away from home.

1. Airbnb will send a photographer to host homes.

Airbnb wants its listings to be successful, and they offer hosts some pretty appealing perks to make that happen—including sending a professional photographer to their space for a free photoshoot, if hosts ask for one. “The photographer made the room look really nice,” Steve Wilson, an Airbnb host who manages a listing in Austin, Texas, tells Mental Floss. “And the pictures are certified, so people know Airbnb took them and they’re not fake picture I took from the internet.” Enlisting a professional photographer pays off for both the hosts and the company: According to Airbnb, hosts with professional photos see a 40 percent increase in earnings compared to other hosts in their area.

2. Airbnb hosts know that cute pet photos can lead to bookings.

Brenda Tucker's dog, Boo.
Brenda Tucker's dog, Boo.
Brenda Tucker

Brenda Tucker first listed the spare room of her San Francisco home on Airbnb in 2009. As one of the company’s earliest hosts, she had the honor of having CEO Brian Chesky stay in her home, and he shared some useful tips. One piece of advice he gave is something dating app users may already know: Including photos of your pets is a great way to get attention. “Their data was showing that people weren’t really reading the listings, which is true of myself when I use Airbnb,” Tucker tells Mental Floss. “So I put my dog and my cat in the photos early on and that has been very, very helpful.”

3. There's a reason some Airbnb hosts greet you in person.

Some hosts have a set-up that allows them to check in guests without ever meeting them in person, but Wilson prefers to greet guests the old-fashioned way. It’s a friendlier way of doing business, but he says there’s another motivation behind the protocol. “I’ve worked in retail, and it’s like when you try to say ‘hi’ to every [customer]. It’s nice to do, but it’s also a way to reduce people shoplifting,” he says. “They might be more respectful of the space that way if they see a real person there.”

4. Sometimes Airbnb hosts get gifts.

Beyond checking in on time and being considerate, Airbnb hosts don’t expect much from their guests. But occasionally they encounter a guest who goes above and beyond to leave a good impression. Carla (not her real name), a host in Dublin, Ireland, who’s retired, recalls a woman from Belgium who expressed her gratitude by crocheting her a tea cozy. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” she tells Mental Floss. "She showed me that she used to make these, and she showed me photographs, and [then] she made me one. She was lovely."

Early in his Airbnb career, Wilson received a gift from an unexpected source. “One of my first guests was this guy, he had the worst possible photo of himself. It was weird and out-of-focus and he just looked mean and angry. I begrudgingly accepted his invite, and he turned out to be the nicest, sweetest guy. He was from Seattle and he gave me some freeze-dried salmon and a really nice note he wrote me later on a card. That taught me not to judge anybody by their picture.”

5. Not every Airbnb hosting experience is positive, however.

Even if hosts have positive feelings overall toward their experience with Airbnb, they’re bound to collect a few horror stories after working with the service long enough. One traveler Tucker hosted made herself at home by ruining the walls. “She brought her bike up 36 steps from the street, which left tire marks everywhere.” After that incident, the guest proceeded to wash her dirty clothes in the bathtub and lay it over the furniture in the shared living room to dry. “She did not expect me to come home early that day.”

Wilson recalls a guest who dealt with mosquito season by nearly setting his room on fire. “A few mosquitos had gotten in, he had basically let them in, so he kind of freaked out about it and bought all these mosquito candles and left them under the bed.” Fortunately, Wilson caught the fire hazard before it turned disastrous.

6. Hosts appreciate it when you clean up.

People who host on Airbnb know that cleaning up after guests is part of the job, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it when people go out of their way to be neat. “It’s nice when they clean up a bit,” Wilson says. “They can leave their sheets or towels wherever. I don’t care about that stuff, but it's a nice little touch when they do the dishes. It's not that big of a deal but I feel like it’s considerate.”

7. Airbnb hosts hate it when you're late.

Traveling can be stressful and unpredictable, but if you tell your Airbnb host you’ll arrive at a certain time, try your best to stick to it if you want to stay on their good side. “I don’t want to wait around for hours and hours,” Tucker says. “I understand if your flight is late and that’s something you can’t help, but there have been a few people who unfortunately think I have nothing to do on a Saturday except wait around for six hours. When people are rude or have the expectation that you are a personal concierge and you should behave as a hotel, that makes things more difficult for me.”

Wilson repeats the same sentiment, adding that updating your host if you know you’re going to be late is much better than not communicating with them at all. “I always appreciate it when people give me a decent ballpark figure of when they’re planning to get in, and if they don’t make it at that time if they could possibly give me a heads-up that they’re going to be a little later than they were expecting. I have a set check-in and check-out time, but sometimes I can give people a little more time if they need it.”

8. Airbnb hosts don’t want to give you a bad review.

Airbnb hosts know how important reviews can be, and they aren’t quick to assign negative ratings to guests. Tucker says she always tries to confront issues with her guests in person before airing out the problems online. “I try to be diplomatic. Generally I can have a discussion in person where I can feel heard and there’s some kind of understanding,” she says.

But in some cases, even diplomatic hosts may feel forced to rate guests poorly as a warning to future hosts. Tucker says, “I had a woman who was very challenging. She came too early and she seemed a little entitled. She requested a refund because she was leaving early but she hadn’t let me know. I think that was probably the most negative review I ever gave.”

9. It's hard to make a living just from Airbnb hosting.

Many hosts use Airbnb as a source of supplemental income. For her day job, Tucker is the director of arts marketing for the San Francisco Travel Association, and Wilson is a freelance writer. Both say the money they make from Airbnb is a nice cushion, but it’s not enough to make a real living. “It’s not super lucrative, it’s just a stable stream of dough. I don’t think anyone would get rich off it, especially in a place where you’re taxed and have to have a [short-term rental] license,” Wilson says. Airbnb also takes a service fee of at least 3 percent from hosts for every night they book.

For Tucker, being an Airbnb host is more about meeting new people and being exposed to different cultures than it is about making money. “That opportunity to intersect with other cultures is incredibly interesting to me, and something that has enriched my life quite a bit,” she says.

10. Sometimes hosts make lifelong friendships with guests.

The relationship between Airbnb host and guest doesn’t necessarily end at check-out time. Thanks to her hosting gig, Tucker has developed lasting friendships with former guests who are scattered around the globe. “I've made very close friends with people who’ve stayed with me. I’ve traveled with an Italian guest of mine in France and in Italy. I’ve gone to Sweden twice to see a guest I keep in touch with. Those opportunities have been pretty amazing.”

7 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Roadies

Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus
Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus

Although the word roadie may conjure up images of non-stop partying with rock stars, the reality is that most work unglamorous, physically and emotionally demanding jobs. They lug the gear, set up the instruments, manage the stage, run the sound, sell the merch, drive the bus, and generally do whatever it takes to make concerts possible. Mental Floss talked to a few roadies (who probably wish we'd stop calling them that—see below) to get the inside scoop.

1. Roadie is an outdated term.

Some roadies who worked in the 1960s through the 1980s later wrote books bragging about their sexual conquests, wild partying, and drug use while on the road. Although that lifestyle is not completely obsolete—genres such as metal, rap, and hip hop supposedly see more illegal activity than indie, pop, folk, and alternative—most roadies don’t refer to themselves as such.

Morgan Paros, a violinist and singer based in Los Angeles, says that the generic term roadie seems slightly derogatory now. Instead, it’s better to use terms that more specifically describe individual duties. “Anyone on a tour is generally working very hard to fulfill their role of tour manager, front of house (sound engineer), light tech, stage manager, instrument tech, or merchandise manager,” Paros says. “These individuals make everything possible for the performers every night.”

2. Roadies work insanely long hours.

Most roadies work 16- to 20-hour days. Waking up early and going to sleep late is part of the job description, as Meg MacRae, a production coordinator who’s been on the road with Bon Jovi and the Eagles, attests. A typical day for her starts with a 6 a.m. bus pickup, after which she sets up a temporary production office at the venue. After a long day of problem-solving, booking flights and hotels, and making sure the crew is taken care of, she ends her day at 1:30 or 2 a.m.

3. Roadies get used to roughing it.

Unless they’re working for an A+ list performer, most roadies are not living the high life, sleeping in luxury hotel suites and flying on private jets. Being on the road can be hard work. Depending on the band’s budget level, the road crew may sleep on the floor of a shared hotel room, or sit in a crowded Ford Econoline or Chevrolet Express van for hours.

Tour conditions offer minimal privacy and maximum mess. “You wouldn’t believe how insanely messy a van can get after a 6-week tour of the country,” says Michael Lerner of Telekinesis.

David, a front-of-house sound engineer based in New York, also describes the dirty working conditions in many venues. “Consider how grimy some music venues look. The dusty mixing board in the back coated in spilled beer, the germs of hundreds of singers talking/spitting/shouting into the same microphones night after night, and the questionable odors of green rooms inhabited by people who spend a solid portion of their days packed into a van … this is your office. Good luck not getting sick.”

4. Roadies usually have good reasons for putting up with it all.

So why do roadies subject themselves to the long hours and less-than-glamorous conditions? Many say they love music so much that they can’t imagine working in any other field. “For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to have a job in music,” tour manager and sound engineer William Pepple writes. Some roadies also get into it because they love traveling all over the world, seeing new cities, and meeting new people.

5. Maintaining relationships at home is a big challenge for roadies.

Being a roadie is a lifestyle rather than just a job. Because they travel so frequently for work, roadies often struggle to maintain relationships with loved ones. Technology such as FaceTime and Skype has made keeping up with family, friends, and significant others easier, but it can still be a challenge to find privacy to make phone calls. Roadies who travel on buses have a little more privacy and time to connect with loved ones back home, since bus tours often give them the freedom of waking up in the city where the band’s next show is, while road crew on van tours spend the majority of the daytime driving to the next show.

6. They probably have at least one horror story from the road.

Whether it’s an unscrupulous promoter cheating the band out of their earnings, a bus overheating, a van breaking down, or driving through dangerous winter storms, roadies probably have at least one horror story. Most awful promoters or venues, though, are usually due to simple misunderstandings. “Most bad days are due to either bad communication or a lack of understanding that most touring people just want simple comforts: a clean shower, clean towels, a safe place to put their stuff, laundry machines, and good food,” says Mahina Gannet, who’s worked as a tour manager and production coordinator for bands such as The Postal Service, Death Cab For Cutie, and Neko Case.

7. Good roadies are there to work, not just hang out with the band.

Achieving a balance between being professional and having fun is harder on tours because “you are working, living and traveling with your co-workers,” Gannet adds. “I’m there to get a job done, and when it’s done, I love to hang out. A lot of tour managers I’ve seen definitely can go to either extreme (some actually thinking they are a member of the band, some so distant the band can’t talk to them), but it’s like everything else in life. It’s about finding your own personal balance.”

This piece first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

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