What it’s like to be a perfumer: A transcript of Episode 5 of Slate’s Working podcast.

Slate’s Working Podcast, Episode 5 Transcript: How Perfumers Work 

Slate’s Working Podcast, Episode 5 Transcript: How Perfumers Work 

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Nov. 7 2014 11:32 AM
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Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 5 Transcript

How a perfumer explains her workday.

Anne Serrano-McClain.
Anne Serrano-McClain

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by David Plotz

We’re posting transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This is the transcript for Episode 5, which features Anne Serrano-McClain, a perfumer in Brooklyn. To learn more about Working, click here.

You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.

David Plotz: What's your name and what do you do?

Anne Serrano-McClain: My name is Anne Serrano-McClain, and I’m a perfumer.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Plotz: Where are you a perfumer and what's the name of your perfume company?

Serrano-McClain: The name of my perfume company is MCMC Fragrances, and we’re based in Brooklyn, New York.

Plotz: What do you think are the skills you need to be a good perfumer? Also, is that the word, perfumer?

Serrano-McClain: The actual technical term for the occupation is a nose. And I never use that term because I find it weird and I don't—you know, when someone says, “I’m a nose,” all I picture is like, a giant nose. So, I always say “perfumer.” But it's perfumer or nose.

Plotz: In French, would it be nez? Or do you say “nose” even in French, if you're a French perfumer?

Serrano-McClain: You would probably say “nez,” because they never would refer to anything having to do with perfume in English.

Plotz: What are the actual great qualities you need to be a nose?

Serrano-McClain:  The number one quality is organization and creativity. Because creativity, that's obvious—it's a creative field. The other thing that I discovered super quickly was organization, because really what you're making is these super price formulas. You can kind of picture them like a recipe, except down to the 100th of a gram, and you have to keep all of your notes straight because you make hundreds of drafts of a formula and each one has to be labeled correctly. It's way more precise, and it requires a lot more math than I ever thought it would. Which is great, because growing up I was a total nerd and math was, like, my specialty.

Plotz: Tell me how a perfume is created, from your head to the store.

Serrano-McClain: So usually I’ll begin with a creative brief, and so that's something—in my case it's—I like to translate actual things that have happened in my life—memories or places or people—and I want to turn that into a fragrance. For me, it's about capturing something that I feel is too fleeting or too precious, that I need to have memorialized forever into a scent. I think scent and memory is so closely tied, and fragrance is the number one way to get at what it is. So usually I have that idea swimming in my head for a long time. In my case, I would say it's years.

The first fragrance I ever made was called Noble. I had lived in Nepal for four months and I wanted to create—re-create the feeling of having lived in Nepal for four months. But it wasn’t until six years after I had been to Nepal that I started to actually make that fragrance, and I think it's because after all the details kind of wear away, the few hazy, important things are what can be turned into ingredients, in my mind. Then I have this very specific thing, and I create the backbone structure of the perfume. So, it goes from this special memory into the very basic structure of the perfume. So, say, anywhere between two and ten ingredients that I feel like are necessary to the fragrance.

Plotz: Let me interrupt you for a second. So, you cited one example of Nepal. What is another example or a couple of other examples of things which would be the creative inspiration for it?

Serrano-McClain: A person. So, another fragrance I have is called Hunter—it's kind of this, like, woodsy fragrance. It’s based on a friend of mine growing up whose name is Harrison, and he lent me this book called Ishmael, which is about a talking gorilla who talks about nature, and it was pivotal in my life. And so Hunter, it's really about, like, a campfire scent. It’s about being outdoors.

Plotz: And with Hunter, does it actually smell like Nepal or smell like Hunter? Or, no, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with?

Serrano-McClain: That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it. It has to do with I guess my romanticized version of what that could be that would be pleasing to somebody else. There is a fragrance called Maine also that I make, like, the state of Maine. And when I first released it, it was funny because I would see perfume blog comments “Oh, this doesn’t smell like Maine.” And, you know, it's not so literal as that.

Plotz: Go back to, you’ve got your two to ten. Tell us about the two to ten, and then continue.

Serrano-McClain: OK, so, I’ve—then I’ll create the sort of, like, initial backbone for the fragrance. These are the ingredients that I can’t lose no matter what. For example in Nepal, while I was there I fell in love with jasmine, the Indian jasmine because that was growing everywhere. There was also—I lived in an apartment building there with a Tibetan family, and my room was on the roof. It was a separate little room on the roof, and at night in the evenings they would—people would burn garbage. That's how they got rid of their garbage. And so there was this smoky smell outside. And there's an ingredient called vetiver, which is, it's the roots of a grass that are distilled. It's native to Haiti, and it has this really smoky, earthy smell. And so that, for me, was that nighttime smoky smell of the trash burning. So those two ingredients were essential for me. Like, it had to have Indian jasmine and it had to have vetiver.

And then there are these other smells that I encountered in Nepal that were all really pleasant. Chai, for example. We drank chai every day. Incense, because the woman that I lived with burned incense every night. So, in the case of the chai there is a synthetic ingredient called heliotrope, which is, it kind of smells like marzipan, it's like an almond-y smell. That's an ingredient in there. And then for incense, there is kind of myrrh and other resin ingredients. Those ingredients make up the backbone of the fragrance. So, once I have that—it can’t be just those ingredients, because a perfume is—it's very technical as well, and that's where you kind of go from kind of like, amateur just mixing things around, to like, someone who’s got the real kind of training behind it. Because you have to take it from those ingredients to something that’s—we talk about “well-rounded” a lot in perfumery, and that’s kind of one of the things, especially when I was in school and classmates would smell, and we were critiquing each other’s work. We used to say, “Well, it's not quite well-rounded.” Usually that means when one ingredient is, like, too harsh and you can almost identify it too quickly. Because I think with perfume it's not literal and you don’t want to smell just the ingredients. You want to smell more of, like, the scented atmosphere. So, once I’ve got the backbone ingredients, I’m basically just doing technical work after that, and mixing in all kinds of musks or different floral or filler ingredients to round out the fragrance.

Plotz: Let’s go back to the ingredients. How do you get those ingredients, and also how do you know what the palette of possible ingredients is? Is it just you have smelled everything there is to smell and you’ve made a list of all of them? Or, there's a catalogue?

Serrano-McClain: In a way there is a catalogue, and that's—that's the way in which I learned it, is it's called—you basically divide all of the ingredients that are available, which are about 1,500 ingredients. You divide those up into their olfactive families. So if you smell something very basic like orange oil, which is the expressed oil from the peel of an orange, that's a citrus. If you smell basil essential oil, which is steamed distilled basil, that's in the green family. Anything that's a flower is in the floral family. And you can further divide it up after that. So, there's a rose family, there's a jasmine family, and there's a violet family. Once you are familiar enough with the ingredients that you can categorize them right away, it all of a sudden becomes, like, this system in your head where it's a lot easier to memorize ingredients. Because that's really the first thing that you need to do, is memorize from memory all of the ingredients.

Plotz: How do you do that process? That seems incredibly daunting to someone who doesn’t have that training at all.

Serrano-McClain: It's a completely necessary part of becoming a perfumer, if that’s someone’s goal, is that you have to memorize them from memory. It’s like if you wanted to become a chef, you just need to know the ingredients that are in your kitchen. You can’t not know what flour or eggs are before you can start to bake a cake. It's absolutely essential that you can—like, I can recall from my mind right now if you tell me, pink pepper from Kenya, I can imagine that smell in my mind and I can imagine how strong it is. Because that's the other part of making a formula, is you're using different amounts of different components and you kind of need to know how strong it is.

Plotz: All right, this is fascinating. So, if I think about an orange, I can conjure as a sense memory what an orange tastes like. When you are conjuring the smell of orange oil, are you actually smelling it or is it an intellectual process for you?

Serrano-McClain: I kind of imagine that I’m actually smelling it. But it's similar to taste, like, it's—you know, I’m not—if I were eating an orange, you know, I kind of know even the texture of the orange and how the little cells and bits there. When I’m imaging I can smell something in my head, I can smell up to the nuance of it.

Plotz: OK, so, you've decided on the two to ten, and you've also done the kind of magic—I forget your verb, to round it all out—then what do you do?

Serrano-McClain: So at this point, once I have started this process of roughing it out, I probably have a ton of different trials. I’ve probably adjusted the formula 80 times, I would say, and so it's about choosing which one of those is the right one.

Plotz: Sorry, but what is a trial? What does that even mean? You have a lab, which is a kind of office, but what is a trial?

Serrano-McClain: So, a trial is any amount that I have mixed. So picture that I’m writing this recipe, and I’ve got the vetiver, which I’ve mentioned. I’ve got the jasmine, I’ve got the heliotrope, and I’ve got 20 other ingredients. So, I’ve got this list of 25 ingredients and I’ve got all of these different bottles where I’ve mixed them in different quantities. And I’ve taken out ingredients, and I’ve put in new ingredients, and I know some of them didn’t work. I can smell it right away and I think, no, this is not the Noble that I pictured in my head. But I’ve got, say, five that it comes down to, or maybe—sometimes it's one. Like, with Hunter, like, I just knew. I made the one mix—not the first one, but there was a certain mix that I just knew this is Hunter. Sometimes, like in the case of Noble, it comes down a few of them where there's a light different nuance, and eventually I just have to choose. And I choose the one that I decide is the final one and that becomes the final formula. That's written in stone. I can throw away all the other ones if I want to, because they’re basically mess-ups at this point.

In order to get from that phase, where it's kind of this trial, to—in my case, it's really a sellable product. In order to get to that next phase, I have to start making it in bulk.

Plotz: So going back to you making the various samples, how are you literally making them? Do you have pipettes? What do you use to construct those samples or those prototypes?

Serrano-McClain:  So, I have a digital scale that reads to 1/100th of a gram. I have small 30ml bottles. I have all my ingredients lined up in front of me, and I have disposable pipettes.

Plotz: And you're just, like, I take it you have to be ruthlessly careful. Like, “Oh, I really put 48 whatevers in here!”

Serrano-McClain: Yeah, so, I also have this chart in front of me, where I’m writing in exactly what I put in. And I usually—what I’ll do is, in the first column I’ll write down what I want to put in. So, like I was saying, I kind of know the strength of an ingredient. So—I’m just going to use totally round numbers here—but let’s say I wanted—you make it on a scale of a thousand. You’re always working the total number being a thousand.

So let’s say I’ve got my jasmine and I want that to be 200 parts. But then I’ve got ambroxan, which is a synthetic amber ingredient. I want some of that in there, but it's quite strong and I only want a little. So, let’s say I go as small as 0.04 of ambroxan in there. In the second column I’ll write down what actually happened on the scale. Of the pipettes that I use, one drop is usually 0.03, so if I’m trying to do 0.04, it's like, sometimes I have to battle. Do I put in one drop? Do I put in two? Do I try to squeeze half a drop in, you know? Let’s say, instead of the ambroxan being 0.04, it's 0.05. That's what I’ll write in that second column, so I know going forward when I’m evaluating it that I have to evaluate it based on that.

Plotz: But how could you even get to 0.05 if your pipettes are not calibrated that close?

Serrano-McClain: I’ve gotten so good at doing small, tiny measures, that I can, like, get a little air in there, too.

Plotz: Wow, OK. So, you’ve made your—you have the Noble that you know you want. What happens when you have that sample?

Serrano-McClain: The packaging is the next step. The packaging and how it looks has to be a manifestation of the fragrance. And it was difficult to arrive at that first round of packaging. I worked with a friend of mine named Paul and he really helped us to get it there. So it was really, after I have the formula it's coming up with a box design, it's coming up with, like, logos and things like that. Sometimes that we decided to do in our fragrances was put in the story. So, we have these inserts that have the story and the batch number in them.

Plotz: Can you read the Noble one?

Serrano-McClain: Yeah. “Noble is the first fragrance I ever created. Long before formal training, I was toying with the sensual and intoxicating scent of Indian jasmine absolute, and combining it with the earthy vetiver oil of Haiti. The two ingredients are a symbol of time spent in the beautiful and spiritual country of Nepal. Combined with rich, almond-y notes of chai tea, burning incense, and burned musk, the jasmine-centered Noble is a long-lasting floral woody with an ethereal dry-down.

Plotz: What does “ethereal dry-down” mean?

Serrano-McClain: So, drying-down is the term for when all the top notes have burned off and you have only the long-lasting base notes left on your skin. And in this case it was a combination of amber and musks, and kind of this really—almost like a skin scent. Meaning it kind of enhanced your natural smell.

Plotz: OK, so you've now done the packaging. Are you going to start manufacturing?

Serrano-McClain: Yeah, so we’re going to start manufacturing it. So, like I was saying, we always—you're always working when you're doing that formulation on a thousands, and that's because you—I don't—we just learned it—you know, I learned it that way in perfume school and then it kind of worked out where that was about the amount of batch that I myself needed for this company.

So I make one liter of pure at a time. So, I order all the ingredients. That costs, like, hundreds, thousands of dollars depending on the formula. I order all of the ingredients and mix that formula. It has to sit for at least two weeks macerating, it's called, and then it gets bottled. So it gets diluted in alcohol, and then it has to sit for another two weeks in a process called maturing, where then the ingredients mix with the alcohol. If you don’t do the maceration and maturing process this fragrance doesn’t last as long on your skin. So it's an important technical step. It’s gets bottled. My sister, my mom and I put labels on it, we package it, and we send it to our stores.

Plotz: When you're macerating and letting it sit, do you sit and shake it up or something like that, to get it all to mix? Or it's all done very gently?

Serrano-McClain: No, I usually do mix it pretty well. After I’ve mixed all the raw materials together it gets a really good shake.

Plotz: Have you ever spilled a raw—spilled, like—you're like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve just spilled my entire batch!”

Serrano-McClain: I haven’t spilled an entire batch, but I’ve done things where, you know, maybe I was off—maybe I didn’t drink my coffee—I’ve put in the wrong amount of something in a batch and I have to throw away the entire batch, and that's devastating.

Plotz: I’m going to tell you a horror story here, because it's going to freak you out. I have a high school friend who was in car accident and he lost his sense of smell in the car accident. So do you do things to protect your nose? I take it you're not, like, snorting cocaine at all hours of the day and night? But are there other things you do to make sure you're chief organ is instance?

Serrano-McClain:  I don’t smoke. If I know I’m going to be making perfume—if I know I’m going to be actually working on a formula—the night before I won’t drink any alcohol whatsoever and I’ll try to stay away from really strong foods like garlic and things. If I know I’m making perfume the next day I have to have a really good day the day before, like, I have to be really well-rested.

Plotz: And what happens if you're not?

Serrano-McClain: I’m just not focused. And it's a really deep process, in the sense that once I’m kind of in the zone and making perfume, it's so nuanced. You know, when you're smelling them you're smelling them on a strip of paper. You have to analyze it so much that it's very mentally exhausting.

Plotz: So, OK, now you've created a whole bunch of bottles of perfume. How do turn that into actual dollars?

Serrano-McClain: So, we sell them on our website, MCMCFragrances.com, and then we sell them in about a hundred stores in the United States. How we got into all of those stores and how we get traffic to our website is a miracle to me. In the beginning it was really local. So my sister and I, we started doing—we did, like, the Brooklyn Flea. A few stores in Brooklyn started picking them up. We get press on them. People buy them, and that for me is the most gratifying thing, that people want to buy these perfumes.

Plotz: Let’s linger on this question of how you went from being someone who makes perfumes to actually having a business out of it? So, when did you finish making your first perfume?

Serrano-McClain: I graduated from perfume school in December of 2009. By April of 2010 I had three perfumes ready to go.

Plotz: And can you just show up at the Brooklyn Flea and say, I have some perfumes, now please buy them?

Serrano-McClain: That summer we went to the Brooklyn Flea. We got a booth for $80. It ended up being the hottest day of the summer, and our perfumes started to change color in the heat. It was super hot, and we had never done this before so we didn’t have an umbrella or anything. Perfume is really volatile, and so by noon I think our perfumes had turned orange. We waited until we had made our $80 back and we left.

Plotz: OK, that doesn’t sound like a good start. So, what was the second effort?

Serrano-McClain:  The second effort. I did a Mother’s Day special. I guess that was prior to being outside at the Brooklyn Flea, but for Mother’s Day the very first year I just said I would do custom labels on the perfume. You could put your mom’s name. So, let’s say I had Noble. It would say Noble, but then it would also have your mom’s name, and I was just generating these labels off the computer. And at that time Daily Candy wrote about, you know, a special Mother’s Day fragrance, and I guess that's how we got our first wind of business, really.

Plotz: So, if Bloomingdale’s or, I don't know what the—came to you and said, “All we want is MCMC perfume, that's the thing,” would be that a good thing or a bad thing?

Serrano-McClain:  That would be great. Now we’re at a place where we have to capability to manufacture really large amounts. We work with a facility in Pennsylvania and that's all they do, is make perfume in large amounts. So, yeah, we can do that.

Plotz: Is that what you aspire to, or do you aspire to have a small Brooklyn artisanal perfume business?

Serrano-McClain: We really built our following on being kind of small, and all the stores that we sell to now are pretty special and niche boutiques. So that whole question has been a part of the business that has been sort of this, like, almost like a struggle for me, because as a creative person it doesn’t matter to me in a way who my audience is. I want everybody to be able to enjoy it. From a business standpoint I have to think about the longevity of the brand and what stores make sense to carry the brand so that it always has this sort of, like, appeal. And so, that's something we’re struggling with all the time when we get new store inquiries, is basically does this match who other people think we are?

Plotz: So, if Walmart came to you?

Serrano-McClain: If Walmart came to us, for now that would have to be a no.

Plotz: One thing that make distinguish you from other people who have the same job as you is, you literally are a solo artist. If you were working for Big Perfume, would there be this kind of independence? Or is a scent created by a group?

Serrano-McClain: A scent is created by a group. There's the nose. There's a whole job title called the evaluator, who’s just the person that smells the perfume and basically critiques it. And then there's the marketers, and the marketers communicate with the client, then they communicate with the evaluators, and you're basically kind of told what to do. That's the harshest way of putting it. And in my case, I hate sharing a work in progress. On the one hand, I start to feel very insecure. If you criticize me right when I’m in the middle of working on something I really start to double-think it. I also feel that people—other people can’t speak to me about perfume because they don’t know the language, and there's a whole language that goes along with smelling something. People, you know, even just customers will say, like, “Oh, I really hate musky scents.” But I have no idea what they’re talking about, and they have no idea what they’re talking about, and so I don't like to let anybody in during that process. And only when I’m done will I show my friends and family the perfume. If everyone really hates it then I know it's a fail. But otherwise I don't show people until I’m done.

Plotz: There's no, like, focus group at all?

Serrano-McClain: No, there's no focus group. Just recently we created these three fragrances for Anthropologie that will be coming out in about six months or so. And those are important to have more mass appeal because they’re going to a larger number of stores and a larger number of customers. And my sister did not smell them until we were in the final presentation meeting with them.

Plotz: No one had smelled them?

Serrano-McClain: Yeah, no one has smiled them.

Plotz: If you're presenting a perfume to Anthropologie or to the buyers there, they’re not experts. They don’t know the language. They may know it better than a civilian does, but they’re not like you. How do you bridge that gap?

Serrano-McClain: I usually have a presentation that I take along. And within that there's something called the olfactive triangle for each, which is basically a triangle so that you can show the top, the middle, and the base notes. And I even have illustrations for those. Like, if there's vanilla in it, I have a photo of an actual vanilla bean in there. It's like, a mood board too. I have, like, an inspiration board. Unless people are kind of looking at that, I don't think that they—their mind doesn’t grasp the fragrance if I were to show them a fragrance blindly. I have to sort of explain what it is.

Plotz: So, Anne, OK, wait. We have three perfumes here, three of your perfumes, Noble, Hunter, and Maine. So, let’s just smell some of them.

Serrano-McClain: OK. So this one is Noble, which I talked about before. I’ll spray it on here for you.

Plotz: How would you describe that to someone who knows a lot about perfume?

Serrano-McClain: If I were talking to someone who knows a lot about perfume, I would kind of emphasize the natural jasmine that's in there. Because there's kind of, like, not unprecedented but there is an unusual amount of real natural jasmine absolute from India. Natural jasmine has this component in it—it's a naturally-occurring chemical called indole—which has almost like I would say, a mothball kind of smell. Sometimes kind of like, a fuzzy quality to it. But it's very comforting. That, coupled with the smoky—and there is a lot of musk in it as well—is something that, it smells different on your skin and it smells kind of nice, and good, and warm over a long period of time.

Plotz: And you were saying to me that when you smell this you can disaggregate all the smells in your head?

Serrano-McClain: When I first started falling love with different perfumes and really exploring and going to stores, and, you know, smelling perfumes, what I loved was that they were this cloud of a nice smell. And now because I just know ingredients so well, when I smell a perfume the first thing I do—my mind jumps to it—is I start to pick apart what ingredients are in there. I can’t separate myself from doing that thing and just enjoy the smell.

Plotz: If you were going to take Noble and try to get it into Wal-Mart—say you wanted to get into Wal-Mart—what are the things that you would have to do to make it a super mass market kind of perfume?

Serrano-McClain: So, in general mass-market perfumes—basically they’re a little sweeter and kind of, like, predominantly floral, with the most popular category being fruity floral. Personally I really like wood ingredients, especially in a woman’s fragrance. I find that, like, adding a wood ingredient in, which is kind of like unexpected and almost tomboyish, is, like, so nice, you know? In any case, if I were to take this to Wal-Mart—if I were to take Noble and make it a mass fragrance—I would probably just eliminate all the woods all together, keep the jasmine, and just add some fruits on top.

Plotz: And when you speak that way, are you derisive of that kind of perfume? Or it's just, like, a different thing?

Serrano-McClain: It's just a different thing, and I—I guess personally I don't totally love a sweet smell myself, but that's just kind of—that's just a personal thing. And it was funny, because last summer I taught a perfume-making class to a group of 12 16-year-old girls at this community organization called El Puente, and all they wanted to make was sweet smells. And I realized, you know, that's just kind of what girls like. And I think you get introduced to that smell early on, like, a Bath & Bodyworks type of thing when you're, like, 16. And in a way you don’t ever really grow out of think, because that's all the market keeps introducing to you.

Plotz: Perfume is oddly—even though we predictive it as a luxury or as kind of something that's not essential to living, it's one of the oldest things that we as humans do. I mean, I think there's a strong sense that we anointed ourselves and made ourselves smell better forever. Why do you think it's fundamental?

Serrano-McClain: It's very pleasurable, and I don't know why it's something we kind of ignore these days. I think visual and taste really took over at some point, and those are the two things that, you know, society like, says that they need to have in their lives. But one of the reasons that I fell in love was because it was kind of—the sense of smell was this ignored thing. And it feels really luxurious to kind of do something different in that sense.