It's early Friday morning at the Manhattan offices of International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), one of the world's top fragrance houses. Blockbusters like Clinique Happy and Lancôme Trésor started here, grossing billions across the globe. In an otherwise-corporate training office, I'm surrounded by what must be a hundred teddy bears: Some of them are in T-shirts, others have bows. This is not what I expected perfume school to look like.
I've always been obsessed with scents. Growing up, I'd concoct my own fragrances, soaking flowers—cherry blossoms, lilacs, forsythias—in water overnight to create faint "perfumes." I'd crinkle leaves in my palms, hold them to my nose and sense a whiff of cinnamon underneath the dirt: strange, beautiful magic.
While many ducked the aggressive spritzes of store clerks, I'd stand among them for hours, absorbing every new scent I could. I can detect and name someone's perfume instantly—a little off-putting in regular life but incredibly useful in my career as a beauty editor. And though I love my job, I've always wondered—as I attended perfume launch after perfume launch—if maybe my true calling were right under my nose.
My first stop is the large, sun-filled office of Karyn Khoury, senior vice president of corporate fragrance development worldwide at Estée Lauder. Khoury, elegant in kohl-rimmed eyes and a navy silk dress, has what one colleague refers to as a "nose like a laser beam"; Estée and Leonard Lauder handpicked her to work on the company's fragrances 30 years ago, and she's been there ever since. Khoury is an evaluator—the client of a perfumer at a fragrance house like IFF. As the Lauder nose, she works with her team to dream up ideas for fragrances, then works with fragrance-house perfumers (also called noses) to realize them.
She douses a blotter with Lauder's latest bestseller, Modern Muse, and hands it to me. As I inhale, I'm struck by a vision of an earthy path filled with flowers. "We wanted to reinvent what are considered classic notes, jasmine and patchouli," she says. "We extracted two different forms of both, which gives it this textured dimension and makes it more sophisticated." Between the perfume itself and the way she's talking about it, I can't put the blotter down. "Passion is the most important thing if you want to be a perfumer," she says. "Other than that, it takes years of training, like a med student."
Not everyone gets formal schooling, however. The hunky (seriously, Google him) Ben Gorham, the founder and creative director of Stockholm-based Byredo fragrances, is a former pro-basketball player who had zero fragrance experience before starting his brand. "I met a perfumer after graduating from art school," he says. "We decided to turn my memories into smells, as a sort of creative project. It turned into an obsession—and ended up being the first five perfumes we launched."
Though he works closely with perfumers, Gorham's lack of training as a nose makes him unusual. "I think not knowing so much helps me make emotional decisions, not technical ones," he says. "Even without training, it's a very specific, innate ability."
I'm still wondering whether I possess that specific, innate ability; Khoury e-mails to tell me she found someone to test my nose to see if it's worth training. Which is how I've landed here, at the IFF Perfumery School, facing down vials of raw materials: rose and gardenia absolue, myrrh, cinnamon ... and many teddy bears. Perfumer turned teacher Ron Winnegrad, the program's director, is a legend in the industry—trained by perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena (Bulgari Eau Parfumée Au Thé Vert, plus virtually every modern Hermès scent), he created many successful perfumes (Love's Baby Soft, Armani by Giorgio Armani, Geoffrey Beene), but he's also famous for his lectures on synesthesia, the rare ability to smell colors, shapes, etc.
Jumbled among the scent vials, the bears: I have to ask. Winnegrad says it all started with one (he calls him Grizz) he received as a thank-you for a perfume he made. Somehow, he started taking the bear to meetings. Over the years, Grizz became an institution, accompanying Winnegrad everywhere. Even clients became attached, asking for Grizz by name—a reminder that the process of perfumery, like any art, is at least as much about hunches and emotions as it is about science.
Before we even get to the test, Winnegrad is handing me blotters to smell. The first one, vetiver, a type of grass, is one of my favorite notes. "Very good," he says. He passes another. I know it's a flower, but ... "Don't think, just smell—what do your instincts tell you?" I'm stumped.
So he gives me a bit of a primer, part of his closely guarded, secret method for identifying, learning and organizing scent groups like wood, floral and citrus.
Significantly more enlightened five minutes later, I pick up the strip again and sniff. "You're smelling wrong," he says. "First, you close your eyes. There's too much distraction here," he says, motioning around him. "And hold the strip horizontally; move left to right. You want to engage both of your nasal passages." I try moving it back and forth, but he stops me again. "Sniff it like a puppy: Do two or three short inhales instead of one big one." I follow, and the fragrance is suddenly more alive, more complex—and I know it's some sort of lily. "You got it," he says, as thrilled as I am.
It's time for the actual test. He passes me three new strips; I'm to rank them by intensity, faintest to most concentrated. This is much, much harder than it sounds. I spend what feels like hours deciding; we go through five different sets of three each. Miraculously, I get all of them right. Next, I get more sets of three strips each; this time, I'm to identify which two are exactly the same and which one is slightly different. My nose feels fatigued (we've been at it at least two hours), but in this section I get all but one correct. I can't believe it.
Winnegrad's clearly elated. "You have a talent you'd be crazy not to pursue. Even if you don't end up being a perfumer or an evaluator, training your nose this way makes you just appreciate life more, wherever you go," he says. "Can I tell you something?" he asks. "Your eyes dance when you smell perfume. You have the magic!" I get a little misty; I'm touched by his enthusiasm. I realize why Winnegrad is so beloved by his students (their photos are plastered all over his office) and the industry in general—he's already my greatest champion, and I've known him for only a few hours. There's no stopping his passion, and it validates my own. "You do need to work at it. It takes discipline and patience," he says. "Every time you smell something, you develop and strengthen nerve connections. If you stop, they atrophy like muscles."
I realize I never asked him why he stopped being a perfumer. "I also have a real passion for teaching," he says. "The hardest part for me when I was a perfumer was letting go of a project once it was done." As a writer, I can empathize. Sometimes you work on a story that you wish would never end. But as I look down at the table littered with 50-odd blotters, I think I've finally found one that won't.