A Day In The Life Of A Perfumer
Francoise Donche is one of France’s most accomplished olfactory experts/perfumers. Working for one of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses for several decades, she helped guide the designers & fragrance teams to create global bestselling fragrances. Now retired, she looks back at the days she spent working in her pristine office in the heart of Paris, testing and experimenting with new notes and ingredients. She kindly looks back at her fascinating career with Scent Lodge and gives us an exclusive look at the typical work day of a perfumer.
“I always listen to quiet classical music first thing in the morning – Mozart, Chopin, Vivaldi. My grandfather used to play violin at home so I was surrounded by music growing up. I was fortunate during my working years that I didn’t have to jump out of bed in the morning as my office was only three miles away from my apartment – a short commute,” she explains. Breakfast was always café, fresh fruit and bread.
“When you are smelling many different scents, you get very hungry after two hours so I have to start the day with a good breakfast. I think it might be that I’m concentrating so hard on the notes. Scientists have proven there is a connection between our sense of smell and hunger. I can tell you from experience this is true,” she explains. Once she showered and dressed, she hopped in her classic Renault Twingo and drove to her office.
“When perfumers are working on a new fragrance formulation, they like to follow a set schedule. It is very disciplined. On Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, I focused on formulation and smelling prototypes only. Tuesday and Thursdays were spent working on alchemy – the maceration process. A fragrance needs 24 to 48 hours to fully develop before you can smell if the balance of ingredients is correct. This is called maceration – how the ingredients interact with each other. I like to describe it like making wine. Age, temperature and climate affects how a wine tastes on the palette. It is similar in perfumery.”
At 12:45 pm, Francoise would visit the cafeteria for lunch. “I always avoided rich food with sauces as I found it could affect my sense of smell.” She usually chose fish, fresh vegetables, fruit and sometimes a little cheese. Lunch was always followed by some time in the garden. “It was so important to sit in the garden and smell the flowers and leaves. This cleansed my sense of smell and allowed me to prepare for the work in the afternoon.” If it was a nice day, she would invite colleagues to join her outside for a focus group. “I liked to invite seven or eight people to see their reaction to new ingredients I was testing. For example, I felt that juicy watermelon note was one that would appeal to younger men in fragrance. These focus group sessions allowed me to test my theories.” She says that every ingredient in a perfume must be tested rigorously. With a palette of 250 ingredients, it is essential that each one blend perfectly with the other. “Each ingredient in a perfume has its own temperament. When I was in my lab working, I talked to the ingredients like they were people. Each note had its own character and you had to understand how it behaved in a fragrance.” All of her ingredients and samples were displayed on black lacquer trays carefully labelled and organized.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, Francoise attended meetings with the fragrance marketing teams to debrief them on her progress. The average lead-time to develop a scent was 10 months so the marketing and packaging teams had to be working in tandem with her. “These meetings were usually 20 minutes.”
“France has very strict working laws so we had to stop everything at precisely 4:45 pm and be out of the office by 5:10 at the latest. I would save my correspondence, emails and administration for the end of the day.”
“After work, I would often walk to Le Louvre with a handful of lab samples I was working on. I wanted to get a true reading on how these fragrances would appeal to men and women around the world – not just in France. So I would go to the Louvre which attracted a huge tourist audience. I would walk up to people and ask their opinion on my latest fragrances, taking careful notes on their reactions. If the Louvre wasn’t an option, I would stand in the Metro and ask people their opinions.” She says that French perfume consumers could be quite conservative in their tastes so it was essential she reached consumers from America, Asia and throughout Europe. Sometimes she would then visit a department store and talk to the staff to get their reactions.
“I like to eat dinner later, around 8 pm in winter and 9 pm in summer. And at least once a week I would go to the movies. It is essential that a perfumer see as many movies as possible because fragrance is about creating dreams. It is about capturing the mind and the heart with a scent. And movies do the same thing.” She’d return home at 11:30 pm and was in bed by midnight.