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Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

I wasn't expecting art class. Actually, I had no idea what to expect from L'Oréal's first-ever scent workshop for beauty editors and writers, but the mini watercolour palettes placed on the table were the first sign that we would be using more than our noses.

L'Oréal Parfums (home to such hall of fame fragrances as Opium, Armani's Acqua di Gio, Drakkar Noir and Flowerbomb from Viktor & Rolf) designed the course as a way to better acquaint us with the complexities of scent and the expertise involved in identifying the raw materials. Apparently, the company's Paris-based expert Céline Launay had overseen similar interactive seminars in two other countries but on those occasions, she met primarily with internal teams. Now it was time to take the show on the road.

Of the dozen in attendance, nearly all of us write about perfume (one food columnist was researching a future story). We may know the difference between floral and woody notes and that castoreum comes from beaver glands, but there's a lot more to the world of fragrance then being able to pick out popular notes.

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Would you have guessed, for instance, that perfumers must be able to identify more than 3,000 raw materials? Of that number, 500 originate in the plant and animal kingdom, and the other 2,500 or so are synthetic. The smell of peach, interestingly, is synthetic; there is no way obtain the note through natural extraction.

Of the raw materials that fall into the "animal" classification, ambergris is arguably the most intriguing. Produced in the intestine of the sperm whale and regurgitated into the water, it becomes solid over time and takes on a sweet, musky smell. During the Middle Ages, it was used to cover up the stench from plague. Today, ambergris is prohibitively expensive, costing €40,000 (about $54,000) a kilo, according to Launay.

She also showed us how fragrance trends and the development of new scents are not arbitrary but mirror the zeitgeist and evolve each decade. In the 1980s, yuppies ruled and scents such as Poison, Opium, Cool Water and Egoiste were brash and overpowering. The nineties, of course, was the era of unisex fragrances such as CK One and Issey Miyake. The past ten years can be characterized by the duality of glamour and nature, Gucci Guilty versus Terre d'Hermès.

As for the paints, we were each provided with a black box containing raw materials. After dipping blotters into an unlabeled vial, we were instructed to paint what we smelled. For what turned out to be galbanum, an herbaceous plant, we were unanimous on green creating paintings of green stems and squiggles. There was less consensus with galaxolide, a synthetic musk used in laundry detergent. One editor left her box white. Smart.

If understanding fragrance can be compared to learning a language, I'd speculate we got as far as "Hello. How are you? My name is …" Three hours after we began, we had picked up some important new fragrance fundamentals, but left nowhere near fluent. Now, where's my paintbrush?

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