Perfumer  What They Do

Just the Facts

Chemists Career Video

Insider Info

dotPerfumers design the scents in products. They ensure household products like skin cream, glass cleaner, candles and even kitty litter are pleasing to the nose. They also design fine perfumes.

Perfumery is part art and part science. Combining scents in unique and exciting ways takes the creativity of an artist and the knowledge of a chemist.

dotEntry into the field isn't easy. In fact, there are only 500 perfumers worldwide. Most are located in the U.S., with 300 belonging to the American Society of Perfumers (ASP).

dotMost perfumers work for large perfume or household product manufacturers. They also work for independent fragrance companies that sell fragrances to manufacturers.

Being a perfumer is like being a painter. You combine the colors on your palette to create new colors that work well together.

dotA perfumer's palette consists of 2,500 "colors." These are oils and chemicals, each with its own distinct scent. Of the 2,500, about 400 are natural substances extracted from things such as twigs, trees, flowers, herbs and grasses. The rest are synthetic, created in a laboratory by chemists.

Some substances that perfumers use are extremely expensive. For example, rose oil is imported from the Mediterranean, where rose petals are hand-picked. If machines were to do it, they would crush the petals, losing the precious oil trapped within. Tons of rose petals are needed to yield one liter of rose oil.

dotTraditionally, perfumery was a family business. Mostly practiced by men, perfumers -- also called "noses" -- passed the trade on to their sons.

"It's still mostly men, but there are a great deal more women in the field than when I started," says Claudette Belnavis. She's a senior perfumer in fine fragrances in New Jersey.

Belnavis says she loves being a perfumer because it's so fascinating. "It's always changing, always interesting," she says. "You're always trying to create the next new fragrance, trying to find the next trends that are going to be hot."

dotMost fragrance manufacturers also create the synthetic chemicals used to make fragrances. Chemists do this. Therefore, most perfumers have a chemistry background. They often start out as lab technicians, analyzing fragrances and memorizing the smells of various chemicals.

The road to becoming a perfumer is long and arduous (not to mention odorous). Six years or more of apprenticeship is the norm. Also, a candidate must pass a series of odor tests, where they have to identify a number of scents.

"Not that you have to name it, but you have to be able to describe it and make commentary about it that is pertinent," says perfumer Pat Whelan of Florida. He has been a perfumer for more than 30 years.

dotWhelan started out by working in quality control for an international fragrance company. His job was to test products to make sure they matched a "control" fragrance. He says working in the lab of such a company is the best way into the field.

"You're learning all the tools of the trade," Whelan says. "You're learning the notes. Then when I got a chance to go into perfumery, [I was] learning to put those notes together in a harmonious fashion."

dotPerfumers sometimes are asked to match a particular scent for a manufacturer. To do that, the perfumer has to break the scent down into its individual components. To do this, an instrument called a gas chromatographer is used.

dotAlso, perfumers need to know how chemicals interact. For example, if a company wants you to make a scent for their soap, it will give you its soap base. You need to know how various oils and chemicals will interact with that base.

Often, the 20 or more ingredients in the base will be kept secret. Trial and error leads to the scents that work best for that product. Some bases just won't lock in certain scents.

"We'll take maybe 300 individual ingredients and put them into the base and see which ones will work well," explains Whelan. "Out of that 300, maybe we find out 150 work well. So, the fragrance we develop will be based on the 150 ingredients that we put in there."

At a Glance

Design the smells for different products

  • There are about 500 perfumers worldwide
  • You have to be able to describe any scent
  • Most perfumers have a chemistry background, but remember that creating scents is also an art