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Designing a Fragrance is a Perfect Merging of Science and Art

Modern perfumery is a strange amalgamation of modern science, ancient alchemy, and artistry.

by Servo Jeffersen
Sep 26 2016, 7:16pm

Just as three notes on a piano make a chord, a medley of odors can be layered to conjure an emotion, something vague yet strikingly personal. This is the perfumer's craft.

The product of those layered odors is called an accord. Every perfume one might buy at a store is comprised of several dozen ingredients, each an essence of a smell extracted from pulverised flowers and herbs and such. And this palette of ingredients grows steadily with the advent of new synthetic aromas, or new methods by which to extract from familiar materials with greater precision. The skilled perfumer, like the pianist, blends those notes to create a certain mood.

Motherboard spoke with Rodrigo Flores-Roux, the chief perfumer for John Varvatos, about their latest fragrances, Dark Rebel and Dark Rebel Rider, and the strange alchemy of natural sciences that is modern perfumery.

MB: Can you give a little background about yourself?

Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I was born in Mexico, and have worked as a perfumer for 25 years. I studied in France, at International Superior Institute of Perfumery, Cosmetics, and Food Flavours in Versailles. Before that I studied biology at the National University in Mexico. Even now, I consider myself a biologist. I particularly like saying I'm a botanist, because I love plants. That feeds a lot into my work as a perfumer.

Assuming most of our readers don't know how perfume is made, can you walk us through the process?

Basically, top notes are the raw materials that evaporate the fastest, so they give the freshness to the perfume. That's the first thing you smell. The background notes—the base ones—are the ones that stay on the skin; those are what give the weight to the fragrance. I work on all the levels at the same time. Normally, an "accord" will have a little bit of everything already; the original skeleton of an idea will have already a little top and background. And then you work and you polish.

It all starts with inspiration. For example, I love citruses. So I might start with orange or mandarin, adding a musky undertone and a little wood. Like that we can come up with a very simple accord, the heart of the perfume. Or we can go straight to a more complex perfume, because we already know how the materials behave with one another. For instance, there are many raw materials that individually they don't smell good. You need a little of the ugliness here and there to make something balanced and beautiful.

How did Dark Rebel come to be?

Dark Rebel launched a year ago. John Varvatos wanted to push the envelope with a fragrance that was very strong, very masculine—a non-conformist fragrance—but at the same time beautiful, put-together, elegant, and complex. I'm going to quote him: "I want people to smell it and say, 'oh shit.'"

We worked on an accord that has a little booziness on top, and then a smoky and leathery thing in the back. It took a lot of fine tuning, because we were really careful about those notes in order to make a beautiful perfume and not one that smelled strange. A perfume that is strange we sometimes call "UFOs." You don't want a UFO. John Varvatos does not experiment in that way. Some niche brands can do strange smelling things. Here, we have to be very pleasing.

We added a beautiful spice story within it, and also some floral notes, particularly a very cool flower that is called the Dragonskull flower. It's a kind of snapdragon, and when its fruit dries up, the fruit has a little resemblance to a skull. That's how it got its name. It looks really rock 'n' roll. We wanted this fragrance to be very rock 'n' roll.

Is it common when making a fragrance to have a certain person and a certain lifestyle in mind?

In this particular case, yes. The guy who wears this perfume wears the black leather pants and a big chain. But at the same time, he's super elegant. He might be riding a motorcycle, but he's also a high executive in a company. He's the guy with really fantastic boots. It is a dark rebel, and people love him for it. That was the idea.

So that was the first Dark Rebel fragrance. It has gotten a lot of awards. It sells very well. And guys love it. It's kind of a guys' guy's kind of perfume.

And the new fragrance, Dark Rebel Rider, is a sequel?

Dark Rebel Rider, olfactorily, doesn't have anything to do with Dark Rebel. It's not a derivative. John has for many years had the idea of taking a flask and giving it a leather jacket with zippers, basically. So when we had our success with Dark Rebel, he brought up that idea and said let's make a leather perfume.

I was on the treadmill at the gym one day, after work, and the idea came to me to do a blood orange, leather, osmanthus kind of thing. Osmanthus is a flower from China that has a dried fruit smell to it, and also a kind of leatheriness. It's a very expensive raw material.

I constructed this leathery orange story around the osmanthus. It's a formula that's not very complex, but all the ingredients in the fragrance are complex themselves. So I made a concoction. We showed it to John, and he approved it. It was one or two tries, that's it. Dark Rebel took a year of work; this one was right on, right there.

Is that how the creative process generally works: Varvatos comes to you with an idea, and you make it happen?

Yes. We have worked together already for almost 15 years. There have been 13 perfumes in the brand; all of them are mine. He has stuck with me, and I love it. It is kind of an unorthodox approach, because in perfumery, people go to different companies often. But in the case of John Varvatos, I have become the household perfumer.

How many ingredients are in the two Dark Rebel fragrances?

Dark Rebel, the first one, has about 100 ingredients. Dark Rebel Rider has 48.

How many different materials do you have access to?

We have about 1,500 raw materials, and I know them all. I don't use them all, because you know, some painters don't like yellow, or use blue very rarely, for example. Some raw materials aren't exactly my preference. It's part of your signature as a creator.

How many of those materials are natural vs. synthetic?

30% are natural raw materials that come from flowers, fruits, herbs, spices, roots, leaves, etc.

The other 70% is synthetic or manmade. Some exist in nature: for example, benzyl acetate, is a very important raw material in perfumery that's also present in many flowers. It's an important component of jasmine. We don't extract it from jasmine because it's very expensive, but we've mastered a way of creating it synthetically, which makes it much cheaper.

What does your team look like? Or is it just you in a lab?

Perfumers don't really work in the lab. We have lab technicians that do that for us. What we do is write the formula, which is then compounded in the lab. Then we smell it, and modify. It's a very high-tech and low-tech process, because there's a lot of computers involved, but then it ends up being a manually compounded composition.

After you settle on the final recipe, what does the manufacturing process look like?

We have a very big plant in New Jersey with all the raw materials. We compound, I don't know, 100 kilos, and then it's mixed and put into alcohol. It's exactly the same process we do here in the lab, only on a much bigger scale.

So alcohol is usually the carrying fluid?

Yes, in 99% of cases. A perfume is basically a mixture of very concentrated aromatic part, which we call the oil or concentrate, and then a lot of alcohol and a little bit of water. The amount of the concentrate depends on if you want, say, a very strong perfume for ladies, which would be 20%; cologne that is very fresh smelling would be 3%, for example. There are no rules. You can do it however you want.

How do you know when it's done? Was there an a-ha moment with Dark Rebel Rider?

Actually, I don't think perfumes are ever done. [laughs] Even perfumes that are in the market that I've made, sometimes I smell them and think I would have done a little more of this or a little less of that. I'll never show a perfume I don't like, but at the same time, even if you're the creator, you also have to please a client. They have a say. There are many levels of finishing in the world of perfumery.

For Dark Rebel Rider, I wanted an overtly masculine sexuality to this perfume. At the same time, we were also talking about a fragrances that were very nuanced and complex. I always kept in mind, the "oh shit" moment I was mentioning.

When testing out a fragrance, sometimes we'll use the IT or marketing guys. One guy from marketing, Andy, actually enjoys wearing perfume, so we use his skin quite frequently. When we were close to the final formula of this perfume, we tried it out on him. That evening he took the train home from Grand Central Station. Sitting in front of him were two ladies, and next to him another lady, and the three knew each other, so they were chatting and giggling.

One of the girls asked Andy, "what are you wearing as a cologne? It smells really good." He said well, I work for a perfume company, it's a project for an important American designer. So he couldn't tell them exactly what it was. But then one of the ladies said, "you know what, it really is a 'fuck me fragrance.'"

The day after he comes to the office and said, "Rodrigo, you cannot imagine what I was told about this perfume!" Needless to say, we knew we had something good then.

Dark Rebel Rider from John Varvatos is available at Bloomingdale's.