What does heaven smell of? Probably something like this…

Can you imaging being invited to enter a room in which several of the world’s best perfumers are seated, ready to share with you the secret scent they’ve been working on, just for the sheer pleasure of experiementing with the materials?

Step with us into the opulent surroundings of Claridges, and have your mind ready to be blown…

This week we were lucky enough to be treated to the annual (usually industry-only) Speed Smelling event, in which the IFF (International Flavours & Fragrances) perfumers gather to play. On this occasion, IFF had very kindly allowed spaces exclusively reserved for the winners of our Perfume Society competition – a rare opportunity, indeed.

And in case you’re what ‘Speed Smelling involves’, well it’s like speed dating, but with perfumers and their scents!

Given completely free reign, with no brief, no client and no expense spared, the noses get to work with materials and abstract concepts they’d never usually be allowed to explore in a commercial sense.

Judith Gross – Global Director, Fragrance Innovation at IFF – held aloft a bell and explained the concept. We were to experience a ‘Speed Smelling’ session with each perfumer, groups of us playing musical chairs as we moved from one to to another, and with a strict time limit of seven minutes per session (hence the bell).

Each year, the Speed Sniffing has a theme, and this time they chose the idea of ‘Post Modern‘ perfumes – like deconstructed works of art, we’d smell the accords or layers and then the final ‘fume. And oh boy, were we in for a treat!

‘Some of them go back to antiquity, others refer to the dawning of modern perfumery in the 19th Century,’ Judith explained before we began, ‘and they have been deconstructed, all the better to re-construct…’

At separate tables, the perfumers sat, passing blotters out with an array of fabulous ingredients and the final creation to smell…

It was with these incredible building blocks we began, as Christine Mortimer from LMR explained how precious the Naturals are (and how the IFF perfumers get so excited about using the latest of their ingredients). ‘We’re the premium supplier for fragrance ingredients, and also within the flavour market,’ Christine told us, while explaining how hard they work to obtain the very best quality of extractions for the perfumers to work with. Firstly we sniffed a stem-distilled juniper berry – which smelled like the best gin and tonic you’ve ever had – and soooo clean.

Our favourite of course had to be the most expensive – the orris – which can reach 100,000 euros per kilo. LMR use a blend of the very best, because the supply chain of orris can be incredibly unpredicatable, and so this way they can guarantee a vital constancy. The carrot seed – part of their ‘Heart Collection’ – was completely glorious, too. For this, they can remove the parts of the smell (in this case, the earthiness) they don’t like to amplify the very best aspects of an ingredient.

Rising star Fanny Bal’s Speed Smelling creation uses an innovative note evoking Nutella!

The first perfumer we spoke to was Fanny Bal –  who began her training eight years ago, and is now working with the legendary nose, Dominique Ropion. Mark our words, Fanny Bal is a name to watch and they way she’s begun her career is incredible (she’s been chosen by Fréderic Malle for the soon-to-be-launched Sale Gosse). Her creation was to revisit an amber base – bases are blends often used by perfumers to create the backbone of their fragrances – ‘I decided to remove ylang ylang from the original amber base and replace it with jasmine, which doesn’t have that medicinal note and isn’t so old-fashioned.’

Adding coriander and pink pepper to further the modernity, her final note was a real surprise… ‘It’s Nutella!’ she beamed, handing blotters for us to sniff. And it really smelled exactly like it! ‘I wanted an addictive, gourmand note, and so I added a completely natural LMR ingredient of cocoa accord. It’s not sweet at all, quite dry, animalic… I found it so interesting to use, with vanilla bean which is also quite dry, really spicy.’ We’d happily have bathed in vats of this, but, mouths watering, we had to move on.

Bruno Jovanovic and his Chypre creation – which he named ‘Neo Fur’

Next up it was the turn of Bruno Jovanovic, whose scent caused quite the sensation within our group – particularly for our Co-Founder Jo Fairley, who declared it was one of the best modern Chypres she’d smelled and ‘must have it!’ (and I’d be totally in on purchasing gallons of this, too).

Bruno’s inspiration was a memory of his (incredibly glamorous sounding) mother, who’d liberally spary her fur coat with Cabochard (a vintage leather Chypre) before kissing him goodbye when she went to work. ‘I wanted to create an olfactive snapshot of the whole image of her in that coat, with the lipstick, her face powder, everything.’ Talking about how special it was for him to remember her smell, that when he missed her while she was at work ‘the scent was a way to have her a little longer,’ he thought this deconstructing theme was ‘a perfect opportunity for me to use my “super powers” to create that again… but with none of the animal-based or unsustainable ingredients.’ And so, ‘this is a “vegetarian fur coat”,’ he grinned, ‘a way of indulging in that past without having access to the materials they used then.’

The final perfume he called ‘Neo Fur’ and he deliberately ‘didn’t look at the price – that’s the beauty of the exercise!’ Jasmine and rose absolute were used along with orris for the freshly made-up face effect… and oh, on the skin it’s just sublime. We couldn’t stop sniffing all day!

Domitille Bertier tricked our noses into detecting musk – without a droplet of that note

The wonderful Domitille Bertier was the next perfumer to describe her creation, and she ‘wanted to create a musk, but without any musk…’ And therefore the name, so suitably chosen, was Not A Musk. Using the indole from jasmine and natural vanilla extract, ‘smells very leathery, really animalic, and not like a cake!’ Domitille described using synthetics as being ‘the real art of the perfumer – a Trompe Nez! [to ‘trick the nose].’ Taking two months to finalise her composition, she said ‘it’s much easier this way, as I am the only judge.’ We asked if when she thought of a perfume idea, could she almost ‘smell’ it in her mind? ‘Oh absolutely!’ Domitille enthused, ‘It’s like when a musician writes a sheet of music. They can hear it before any sound has been made.’

Going back to perfumery’s very roots, Julien Rasquinet put myrrh at the heart of his scent

Julien Rasquinet was our next nose to visit, and he ‘wanted to go back to the very genesis of perfumery. And I want you to guess which note could be linked to this…’ Passing around the blotters, we thought perhaps frankincense? ‘Very close! But it’s myrrh, which the ancient Egyptians believed had healing properties. So for me this was for me a very important ingredient to work with.’ He wanted to capture the history, but also the literal act of smelling the wood, heating the incense and wafting the smoke. Using 8-10% of myrrh (incredibly expensive) he laughed as he said ‘I didn’t care about using so much, because IFF are paying, so it’s wonderful to use what you want!’ The name he gave it? ‘Myrrhveilleux [a play on “marvellous”]… because it also has another meaning. “Veilleux” can be someone who watches out for you and supports you – like a kid’s night light, you know? That’s called a veilleux.’ Adding flinty notes for ‘the gesture of the first man lighting the myrrh’ Julien used a mineralic molecule that’s also used ‘for scenting gas. Because naturally gas has no smell, so they have to scent it so you know if you have a leak.’

Whoah. Now this we did NOT know – did you?

Sophie Labbé challenged herself to create an Eau de Cologne – without using a single citrus note

‘I wanted to revisit an Eau de Cologne,’ Sophie Labbé said, while introducing her scent, ‘because originally they were drank for your health. And,’ she added, ‘it worked for the Queen of Hungary, as she managed to seduce a young prince, so it could be good for us, too!’ The original ‘unisex’ fragrance, Sophie explained she wanted her creation to echo this cocktail Cologne, and ended up calling the fragrance her ‘Moscow Mule Cologne’ to highlight this.

‘When you think of a Cologne, you think of traditional hesperidic notes such as orange, lemon, citruses, orange flower… but there are no hesperidic notes in mine.’ This we found incredible, because it really smelled as though it contained mandarin, but yet again this showed how a clever perfumer can ‘trick the nose.’ So the note she used to trick ours? ‘Ginger…’ And as soon as she said it, we could, fascinatingly, smell the fresh ginger, ‘both the heat and the cold of it,’ Sophie elaborated – a delicously juicy, fizzy juxtaposition of smells which she combined with gentian (that’s used to flavour Angostura Bitters, hence the booziness) and smelled exactly like walking into an old bookshop. The final fragrance was uplifting and comforting, familiar and new all at once.

Alexis Dadier blended four accords he’d previously perfected, to create ‘Rasta Vegan Milk’

Alexis Dadier began by explaining his approach was to use the concept of artists ‘who use collages of old things to create something new. And that’s what I wanted to do with this perfume.’ He described going to his lab and looking at traditional ingredients, but to combine them in a way that was ‘recycling’ them into a whole new smell.

At first he used an almond milk accord – which smelled exactly like hot milk, in fact, we all agreed. His second accord was green matcha tea ‘which is addictive but subtle, kind of salty…’ The next accord was hemp – a very traditional smell, but which we might now associate with a teenager’s bedroom. ‘Very bitter and araomatic, for me it has a nature that’s very vivid.’ An historic Fougere accord was made, and when combined with the other three accords, Alexis calls the scent ‘Rasta Vegan Milk. Something that’s addictive but good for your body!’ We didn’t know if we wanted to spray it on ourselves or eat it, so he defintely succeeded.

We staggered from the room at the final bell, noses having been tantalised, minds having been blown – but not before sharing a canapé and a drink or two with the Perfume Society readers who’d won a place, and were pinching themselves at their good fortune.

Certainly this was another day to be filled with wonder at the art of perfumers, and the skill of those who harvest and create their raw ingredients. The most frequently repeated word throughout the room? ‘Wow!’ And wowed we definitely were.

Wish you’d been there? Well now IFF are making a limited number (only 300!) of the Speed Smelling fragrances available for you to purchase.

From April in Europe they’ll be at shop.auparfum.com, the fabulous gift shop of the Grand Musée du Parfum, and also from luckyscent.com

And you can be sure we’ll be buying one for our archive…!

Written by Suzy Nightingale