Journey to the Heart of Fragrance
December 30, 2011

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By Neil T. Sternberg

Co-Founder, creator and artist of A Dozen Roses, Sandy Cataldo, signing bottles
There’s something magical about New York City during the holidays.  Despite the cold and the crowds – and even dodging the occasional shower – there is a feeling of warmth and anticipation that you find everywhere.

Sitting alone in a crowded corner pub in Manhattan, finishing a late dinner, I was feeling it.  But it wasn’t just holiday fragrance shopping I was anticipating.  In a few short hours, I would be living a fragrance geek’s dream - inside one of the “big boys” of fragrance.

When IFF invited me to visit their Creative Laboratory in New York City, they didn’t have to wait for a reply.  Ever since I picked up Chandler Burr’s wonderful book, The Perfect Scent, I’ve been trying to piece together a true mental picture of the F&F industry’s innards.  Burr made it all sound fascinating, and I wanted more. I wanted to smell it all. The scientist in me wanted to learn IFF’s deepest secrets – to see what it was that made them a two-and-a-half-billion-dollar business, with offices in the greatest cities of the world.  Would they hint at what they were up to?  Would they tantalize me with their proprietary technology?  Would they show me their crown jewels? 

Done with dessert, I pulled out my wallet.  A whitish, rounded quartz pebble fell out of my pocket and clattered across the pub’s wooden floor.  I leaned over, picked it up, and put it back into my pocket.  Lost in the cacophony of the place, I don’t think anybody even noticed. That pebble is important to me.  People may think it’s silly or superstitious – especially for a scientist – but I carry that pebble, from a beautiful forest in Kentucky, for spiritual reasons.  My dreams tell me that my spirit will go there someday, and I respect the goodness and the power of those dreams. When it comes down to brass tacks, I tend to trust the complicated predictions of modern science over the simple traditions of my very distant ancestors Thanks to my mother’s reverence for her heritage, and my father’s respect for native culture, I try to respect the importance of those traditions.  And even more than that, my gut just tells me that perhaps we underestimate the power of spirit.

Making sure I had my pebble, I paid my bill, returned to my hotel room, and got a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps I had dreams of GC-MS, olfactory receptors, and rational odorant design, but if so, I don’t remember them.

The building which houses the IFF Creative Laboratory and Sales Office in New York City is impressive.  It’s not a skyscraper by any means.  However, I quickly discovered how difficult it is to fit into a single camera shot.  IFF also has impressive security, despite its outward minimalism.  What you see is one door, one elevator, and one guard - who is certainly bigger than you.  If you’re expected, and he likes all of your answers, you get on the elevator. 

When you get off on the designated floor, there is a small landing area.  The IFF lobby is like a shopping trip to Sephora, and more. Though the room is redecorated periodically, parts of it are too good to change.  For starters, there is a garden of ornamental vetiver arranged in squares in the tiled floor.  Each square gives rise to a cube of waving green spikes, with a bottle of perfume floating above on a thin, metal pedestal.  The fragrances are all current and familiar – especially to this lover of modern fragrance.  I was oohing and aahing over the likes of Calvin Klein’s new ck one shock for him, the ladies’ Euphoria, Keith Urban Phoenix, the Bond no.9 I♥NY trio, and Beyoncé’s new fragrance, Pulse.  And yes – you can pick them up, sniff them, and even spray if you like.

Next to these, a quiet and sobering timeline runs the length of one wall.  It charts the growth of IFF from a single-owner immigrant business in the 1800’s, to today’s multinational corporation.  Appearing below the timeline, momentous world events like Einstein’s publication of general relativity, and the Cultural Revolution in China.  Above the scale, important company events, such as the merger which gave IFF its name, and the opening of the new Creative Center in Shanghai.

NEIL STERNBERG | Contributor

About the author

Neil Sternberg is a fragrance fan from the American heartland. He is a regular contributor to Basenotes and the Basenotes forums, il Mondo di Odore blog and other blogs.  You can also find him at his own blog at You can also follow him on twitter at @cologniac.

New York City:  63rd and Broadway
IFF Building:  57th Street and 10th Avenue
Nilesh Ragha: Head of IFF Perfume Laboratory
Ron Winnegrad: Head of Perfumery School
Chiaki Nomura: Perfumer and IFF Perfumery School Graduate
Mackenzie Reilly: Researcher
The Perfume Magazine welcomes tour de force journalist, Neil Sternberg, with this amazing, one-of-a-kind journey into the world of the famous International Flavors and Fragrances. Join us as we travel with him into the heart of fragrance in this fascinating, in-depth account of the offices and labs of the perfume industry. A must read for all lovers of perfume.

All images provided by author. Additional images courtesy from IFF website supplied by Editor.
Headspace Technology.jpeg. courtesy of

International Flavors and Fragrances

EuroPan Bakery Café: Columbus Avenue and Broadway

Hungry and restless after getting back to my hotel room, I headed out into the city night.   Bright lights shimmered on the pavement of the still-busy streets.  I took a photograph of a Chanel advertisement at a bus stop - thankful that I was still enough of a rube that such a thing held wonder for me.  I wandered until I found the comfort of a brightly lit deli, beckoning in the darkness. I reminisced on the day’s events.  I am always touched by the humility of perfumers.  Perfumers realize they’re not the only ones who are passionate about their creations, nor are they the only ones who deserve credit.  Perfumers – more than anybody else - understand that the fragrances they create - no matter how much work they put into them - actually belong to the whole team. 

Whether it was the people in the lab who actually constructed it, the people who
guided the development, or the people who negotiated and sold it, the perfumer
could not have done it alone.  And it goes even further.  In a way, every person
who ever came to work at IFF helped make those fragrances.  From the old veteran, to the young student - they all did it.  That’s why the impressive row of famously named, cobalt blue bottles spans the length of the lobby.  A lot of very talented and very passionate people worked on those fragrances. 

It’s a pattern that echoes not just through the industry, but throughout the universe.  We see it in the flower, where groups of atoms, and then molecules, come together to create the scent we remember.  We see it in the art of fragrance, where beautiful things come together to create something of greater beauty still.  We see it in people, who – together – can turn increasingly vivid dreams into ideas, and increasingly complex ideas into reality.

But what’s the force behind it?  If not gravity or chemistry, what brings things together in such a way that the magic happens?

I smiled at the obvious answer, and felt for the tiny, plush bear in my shirt pocket.  It was still there, just like the quartz pebble in my pants pocket.  I could feel my eyes growing moist, but they were happy tears.

People tend to underestimate the power of spirit - the power of the heart.  But not everybody.

Mackenzie Reilly: Researcher

The thing that startled me about talking to Mackenzie was simply this: I expected that I would get the most radical, mind-expanding, olfactory stuff from the company veterans.  I did not expect that I would get it from the young woman barely out of school. Some of the projects Mackenzie is working on - I can’t mention.  But the most radical stuff?  No problem.  I can tell you all about that.  This, despite the fact that it completely changed everything I ever thought about humans and fragrance.

Well, along comes Mackenzie with research about various tribes in Africa.  About how their osmology (the olfactory analog of cosmology) and their spirituality are both related and differentiated.  We’ve been debating the idiosyncracies of modernist Western and Middle-Eastern fragrance traditions as if they were the only games in town.  Far from it. 

The variability of native African osmologies not only mirrors the linguistic and cultural diversity of the tribes – it goes where Western fragrance has never even dared to go.  The point is this.  We think we know a lot about fragrance, but honestly, we don’t.  The folks at IFF are actively exploring the things we don’t understand, and trying to get a grip on them.  I can think of no better illustration of this, than the fact that Mackenzie has presented her extensive and fascinating research to the senior perfumers at IFF.

The next time that somebody at IFF authors a groundbreaking fragrance, using some new component that everybody else missed, it may actually be based on insight from a culture that has never even heard of “perfume”.

Kip Cleverley: Director of Sustainability

If you want to frighten a vintage fragrance lover, sneak up behind them and whisper “Mysore sandalwood”.  Merely mentioning that beautiful, unsustainable component is almost guaranteed to produce a shudder.

You know the truth.  We all live in dread that the things that make fragrance great are going to disappear, leaving us with insipid petrochemical juices that we can no longer love.  At an emotional level, it’s almost a metaphor for the future of our planet.

Well, you may not realize this, but IFF is way ahead of us on this one.  Losing another important fragrance component is not an option for these folks.  If Kip Cleverley has his way, there will be no more endangered species in your bottle of fragrance.

Kip is a very nice, patient guy, and it’s a good thing.  His is not an easy job.  If you’re a perfumer, you can let your emotions and creativity run wild, though you may have to pay attention to a few boundaries.  But boundaries are somebody else’s job.  Well, not if you’re Kip.  Sustainability may be today’s buzzword, but it’s actually part of a deeper and more fascinating thing.  In some ways, it’s the leading edge of a real awakening to long-term thinking in the corporate world.  In this case, it means making sure that IFF can get what it needs to keep making great fragrances indefinitely. 

Ron Winnegrad: Head of Perfumery School

Whatever you could have possibly thought the IFF perfumery school might be like, I can say this for sure.  You were wrong.  The IFF perfumery school is totally unlike anything you could ever have expected it to be.  Throughout my visit, people spoke of Ron Winnegrad with a very unique sense of admiration.  OK – I’ll say it.  They love the guy.  When I met Ron, I understood why.  Ron is more than a perfumer, and more than a teacher.  And he is more than a friendly person who wears amazingly flowery shirts.  He is an intensely spiritual person.  His warm presence literally fills the school.  You can feel it flowing through every room, every hallway and every person.  You cannot meet Ron and not be touched. 

It is absolutely no surprise that the current president of IFF’s fragrance division, Nicolas Mirzayantz, snatched up Ron when he got the chance.  Although Ron has a body of work in classic and iconic fragrances, his true love is teaching.  The creation of IFF’s perfumery school seems to have been one of those carpe diem moments for both Ron and Nicolas.

The school itself reflects Ron’s magic.  If I had to describe the school, it would be as a cross between kindergarten and an Ivy League chemistry laboratory.  Before you get to the shiny new laboratory filled with neat rows of glass bottles and stainless steel apparatus, you must pass by Ron’s office.  And Ron’s office is filled with plush bears.  You know what I’m talking about.  Teddy bears.  Overflowing with them.

One of them is named Grizz.  But Grizz isn’t just an ordinary teddy bear. 
Grizz wears pins and decorations that were placed upon him by representatives
of some of the most powerful companies in the beauty industry.  By some very important people in the fragrance industry and Ron’s appreciative students.  I promised not to say who has come in those doors to pay homage to Grizz, but I can tell you this.  Grizz, like the gentle person who cares for him - has accumulated vast amounts of power. Power not of the mind or the body, but of the heart.

Ron uses his awesome but gentle power to break down the emotional barriers of his students.  These are the barriers that prevent them from feeling.  From learning.  From becoming world-class perfumers.  When Ron relates the story of how he did this with one student, it is so affecting that I find myself having to hold back tears.  Ron spots this immediately.  He is able to read people like books.   

He teaches perfumery like a martial art - literally.  He wants his students to read perfumes – to feel perfumes – to understand them at an almost subconscious level.  We take a moment to walk through the laboratory.  Far more interesting than the scientific equipment – especially to a scientist who has seen it already - is a simple but prominent bulletin board with quotes and student creations.  It is exactly like you might find in a kindergarten – or a think tank.  This is the Wall of Inspiration.  Included among the student works are powerful quotations from the likes of Gandhi. When a student feels like they just can’t do something, he or she can go to the Wall for encouragement.

Before we leave the school, Ron opens a drawer and gives me something.  He makes me promise that I will keep it.  It is a small teddy bear, not much bigger than my thumb.  He didn’t have to worry that I wouldn’t value it.  Today, that little bear guards my arrowheads, stone animal fetishes, and other important things.

Nilesh Ragha: Head of Perfume Laboratory

Nilesh Ragha loves his job.  He works in the best-smelling laboratory on the planet.  The smell is even better than the fragrance counter at Saks, and much more intense.  It is literally the opposite of a fragrance-free workplace.  I smile at the thought that I am sniffing not merely famous perfumes, but the famous perfumes of tomorrow.  It’s like a preview of next year’s fragrance fashions - and let me tell you – they have to be good.  There is one component that you’re definitely going to be talking about. The IFF perfume laboratory is where the perfume is actually put together. 

“Sometimes, it’s like an emergency room.  It can be very hectic.  The perfumer may run in here and stand right next to the technician - waiting to sniff something the moment it is finished.”

In the old days, the perfumer and his or her technician worked side-by-side at the laboratory bench.  The technician would mix, and the perfumer would sniff.  That’s how the old classics were created.

But times have changed, and so has the physical layout.  The new setup is almost an admission that the perfume lab is what is really central to the operation.  Which is not to say that the perfumers are not valued. 

They occupy some very plush offices surrounding the perfume lab.  Furthermore, the lab is perforated with numerous access hallways leading straight out to them.  Standing at key intersections in the perfume lab, you can look down multiple hallways, and almost see the perfumers at work.  The perfumers can – literally - be out of their chairs and standing in the lab in seconds.
I didn’t realize that I had already met Denise Gillen at the IFF Speed Smelling in New York City, several months earlier.  She had been sitting next to me as I talked to Carlos Benaïm. I suppose that I had an excuse, since people are always a bit star-struck by Carlos.  Still, I now regret not having talked with her more at my first opportunity.

Before we leave for company lunch, Denise shows me three sections from WWD, which appeared as a series.  They feature the same nine perfumers from the IFF Speed Smelling, in three different categories. The perfumers look like rock stars, actors, or even models. IFF is clearly trying to keep a sensitive finger on fashion’s pulse.

As we finish lunch, Denise notices that the young perfumer Bruno Jovanovich is having lunch with two other young, attractive IFF staff members.  One is a senior evaluator – the other is in sales.  Both of them have read my earlier article about the New York Speed Smelling event, and have very kind words for my coverage.  We have some chitchat, and as I walk away, I realize that these people are not just extremely sharp - they are every bit as passionate about fragrance as Bruno.

We arrived at our first stop.  A place that is, in a physical sense, the heart of the operation.

Scanning the entire timeline, I notice the opening of IFF’s own perfumery school in 2002.  That school is one of the stops on the day’s agenda.  It is clearly a big deal to IFF, and I think I can see why.  It has been said that there are more astronauts than industry perfumers.  Even if that should turn out to be a slightly fragrant fib, the point is well taken.  Only a limited number of places teach perfumery at world-class standards.  Having one of those in-house has to be a point of pride for IFF.

On the opposite wall, a long, horizontal recess features an impressive row of cobalt blue apothecary bottles, roughly matching the length of the timeline.  The bottles are all modern and all empty.  However, their contents and packaging are not the point.  Each one bears a plain white label with the name of an important fragrance from IFF.  These are fragrances that every one of us knows, and that – in every case - many of us love.  It’s equally clear that they left out all the bit players, all the flankers, and all the less-than-famous fragrances.  As you walk along the wall – step after step after step after step – viewing the fullness of fragrance history – you realize that IFF hasn’t just been a witness to fragrance history – it created a huge chunk of it.

The display in the back section of the lobby is, however, the best.  The walls of the area feature a huge, lighted, shelf containing the real McCoy.  All of the famous fragrances, in their real bottles. 

The bottles are nestled artistically among iconic photographs, which support the bottles much in the same way that precious metals support gemstones. And the bottles beg to be sprayed.

Since I am hoping to meet Sophia Grojsman, who is tentatively on my schedule, I spray two of her fragrances on my fingers.  Eternity and Trésor, one of my favorite feminine fragrances.  As I enjoy the scent of these marvelous fragrances on my skin, I am brought back to reality.  My host for the day has arrived and greets me warmly.

Carlos Benaïm IFF
Bruno Jovanovich
Denise Gillen: Manager, Fragrances Business Unit Communications
The arrangement could be likened to a square wheel with spokes, but that’s clearly too primitive of an analogy.  It’s more like an integrated circuit, with macroscopic wires fighting for access to the brainy square at the center.  In both cases, it’s the place that turns fluffy thoughts into precise reality.  The next time you see an Intel chip nestled in its motherboard, imagine that the sticker on the box said “Perfume Lab Inside”. 
There is a dumbwaiter in the middle of the lab, and I had to ask what the heck it was doing there.  It turns out that much of the perfume preparation is done by robotics, on a different floor.  The products of the automated steps are then shipped up by dumbwaiter to the perfume lab, where humans finish the job that the robots started.  And those humans – the technicians – are extremely skilled people.  On average, they have 14 years of experience.

The perfume lab is composed of numerous individual bays, where the technicians work with their assigned perfumers’ favorite materials.  There are also multiple storage areas, some on rolling shelving units, which resemble library stacks.  Judging by the size of it all, there may be hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of small brown bottles, waiting patiently to become part of some famous fragrance.  It’s a sobering thought – just how complicated fragrance has actually become.

My attention is drawn to a long laboratory bench-top with numerous small cardboard trays.  Nilesh asks me not to take pictures.  These trays are the unfinished fragrances of tomorrow.  Competitors could gain quite a bit from close-up pictures of them.

Each tray is a fragrance.  The tray contains larger bottles of bases, and smaller bottles of various notes and accords – things that will be used to construct the next iteration of the fragrance.  White stickers with black type on the trays and bottles bear cryptic names - names that seem to hint vaguely at customers, celebrities, and designers.  Many of the bases are even labeled with English and French phrases – things like ideas or mental pictures.  In a “light bulb” moment, I realize that this is where the rubber meets the road in fragrance.  Whether these are working names for perfumes in progress, or accord names of personal significance to the perfumer, this is where those dreams are mixed in precise quantities, becoming reality.

Above this bench-top, and elsewhere in the lab, I notice many blue bottles, which always seem to be separated from the brown bottles.  There are, literally, thousands of them.  I ask Nilesh why these are different.

“These blue bottles are the results of our Living Flowers technology.  This is where the perfumers can come to get inspiration.”

Living Flowers is IFF’s name for their own brand of head space technology – by which a machine can – to oversimplify a bit - sniff an aroma in the air and deduce its chemical composition.  I had always assumed that the purpose was merely to get a printout of what real smells contained, to discover their secret composition.  I understand now what may be an even more important role for this technology – fostering perfumer creativity.  Living Flowers is – literally – inspiration in a bottle.

No more is there a physical need to hop on a plane and go smell a pine forest. Just open a bottle and take a whiff. The ingenuity of such a short-circuit in fragrant information seems almost shocking. Admittedly, if you want to see the trees and hear the streams, there is no substitute for the real pine forest.  But at an individual molecular level, aromas don’t remember their history.  A molecule of alpha-pinene is a molecule of alpha-pinene, no matter when it left the tree.  So if a perfumer closes his eyes, and sniffs from a blue bottle, who’s to say that he’s not smelling the forest?

As I drift off in thought at the marvel of this olfactory photo collection, Denise reminds me that we need to get moving to the next meeting.  And it’s a good thing we didn’t miss it.  I was about to discover some of IFF’s best secrets.  The most important of which I am completely free to tell you.

Chiaki Nomura:
Perfumer and IFF Perfumery School Graduate

Chiaki Nomura is proof that a perfumista can live happily ever after.  Even though Chiaki radiates happiness and artistry as a perfumer now, she worked very hard to get where she is. As a teenager in Japan, Chiaki’s parents didn’t understand her love of fragrance. 

They couldn’t understand why she owned so much, wore it so frequently, and loved it so dearly.  Fragrance simply didn’t make sense to them.  And it certainly didn’t seem like a career option for their daughter.  So when Chiaki went to college, she pursued a career in pharmacy.  But at some point, she learned that one could actually have a career in fragrance.  Even more importantly, she discovered that she could study fragrance in English, in the new international program at ISIPCA in France.

That’s all it took.  She headed to England, for preparative study at the University of Plymouth.  From there, she went to ISIPCA, earning a Master’s degree in fragrance.  After interning with IFF in France, she came to New York, where she studied further under Ron.  Today, Chiaki’s parents understand.  Their daughter is one of the world’s highly valued beauty products perfumers.  Though the world needs people like pharmacists who can make the world healthy and strong, it also needs people who can make life happy and beautiful.  Chiaki is definitely one of those people.

Chiaki works on a lot of brands that you know and love. I am pleasantly surprised to learn that Chiaki knows the various Limited brands. Those companies are a growing force in fragrance, to be sure. 

Long-term thinking requires tedious, laborious, and risky calculations.  Kip sweats it out using spreadsheets, projections, and a lot of number-crunching.  He doesn’t go into things with preconceived notions, either.  People sometimes look at the industry and see a conspiracy to dump “synthetics” on the masses, but the reality isn’t that simple, and industry behavior isn’t that stereotypical.   Naturals are not only a big winner in the marketplace – they are generally more sustainable, and IFF knows it – even better than its customers do. 

But on the flip side, when something is endangered because it’s not being harvested ethically, then sustainability thinking will tell you that synthetic analogs are the smart, ethical answer.   This is what happened with sassafras trees, which were being chopped down in Asia to the point of near-rarity.   IFF switched to its own molecule, Helional, before it was too late.  The number of trees being saved is now estimated at 110,000 per year.  The point is simple – natural is good, but sometimes you have to do the right thing for nature’s sake.

He fancies that he might take a class in the IFF perfumery school someday, so that he can better understand fragrance. 

I think Kip understands fragrance just fine.  He simply understands the part that’s happening in our future.

Chiaki keeps very busy.  Her desk is a beautiful mess, stacked high with samples, jars, vials, bottles, and whatnot.  The fragrant landscape is dotted with those alligator-clip-on-a-wire-on-a-cube picture holders, which she uses as a cute way to hold blotters as she works.  She generally works on about eight to ten projects at a time.  I ask her about the computer technology she uses, since I’m a geek.  Her answers are very, very intriguing, but we have to get moving to our next host, and somebody else needs to see Chiaki.  Like every perfumer I see during my visit, she is very, very busy.