- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Heather Barthel of Baltimore has worn Red Door perfume by Elizabeth Arden for 14 years. Although there are many other fragrances she could use, she says it fits her body chemistry best.

Her loyalty to the brand started when her mother took her to the Red Door Salon and Spa in Northwest as a high school graduation gift.

“Once you find your signature scent, you stick with it,” she says while shopping in Nordstrom at the Mall in Columbia, Md. “I have several bottles of perfume in my bathroom that I will probably never wear.”

Most consumers probably aren’t aware of the intense scientific research necessary to create some of their favorite scents. The pleasant smells of perfumes lining department-store shelves are born in chemical laboratories.

Fragrances can be made from thousands of different ingredients. Although some of them come directly from nature, many are synthetic, says Leslie Smith, vice president of fragrance technology at Coty Inc.’s research lab in Morris Plains, N.J.

Mr. Smith, who holds a doctorate in organic chemistry, says tests constantly are being done to create new ingredients for perfumers, who combine the chemicals into a final product. The ingredients usually are patented. After a few years, however, they may be sold to competing companies for use in their products.

Further, scientists’ research involves understanding what a chemical will do when it comes into contact with clothing or skin. This will help gauge how long the scent will last and if it changes after interacting with other substances.

Trials also have been performed to better understand the psychology of fragrance. By studying brain waves, researchers can better grasp how a scent affects people’s moods when they are exposed to certain odors. For example, scents associated with tangerine and mandarin are stimulating and energizing, while jasmine and lavender are relaxing.

“Science helps the suppliers win business or make a better product,” Mr. Smith says. “Even the top perfumers have a pretty close relationship with their technical colleagues.”

Harry Fremont, master perfumer at Firmenich Fragrances in New York City, says he depends on scientific breakthroughs to carry his creations to their highest level. As an employee of a fragrance house, he makes finished products for such clients as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Estee Lauder.

For instance, if chemists create 3,000 new chemicals each year, the perfumers are asked to distinguish the best ones, which may be as few as five.

“You can have the best perfumer, but if you don’t have the right ingredients, you won’t have a good finished product,” he says. “When there is really something different in a new fragrance launch, it’s usually because of a new natural product or a new chemical.”

Researchers search constantly for new scents and will go to extremes to find them, says Rodrigo Flores-Roux, a perfumer for Quest International, a fragrance house in New York City. It takes him eight to 14 months to perfect a perfume with available ingredients.

Scientists frequently visit rain forests to find flowers that provide unique scents. By using “headspace” technology, they can trap and analyze the air surrounding a flower or fruit without touching the subject. The information collected from these tests reveals the scents’ components and allows them to be reproduced in the laboratory.

In addition to studying the air, expeditions also have researched scents dissolved in water, which may originate from coral in the ocean or vapor from a waterfall.

“Some of them are incredibly strange and not pleasant smells,” Mr. Flores-Roux says. “You can mix things that already exist and come up with something that didn’t exist before. … It’s always thrilling to create something new and make something interesting.”

The sky literally has been the limit for finding new scents, says Nicolas Mirzayantz, vice president of global business development for fine fragrances and toiletries at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. in New York City, a fragrance house that develops chemicals and perfumes for clients.

In 1998, the company sent a miniature rose on the space shuttle Discovery to see if the lack of gravity would change the types of scents it created. Astronaut John Glenn was trained to tabulate the pertinent information, which showed that some scents were produced in higher concentrations. The zero-gravity environment did not create a completely original fragrance, however.

Also, the plant in space had to be grown in water enriched with nutrients instead of soil. The data revealed that plants grown by this method produced a purer aroma.

Eventually, the work from the space experiment contributed to a perfume called Zen, marketed by Shiseido. In the future, Mr. Mirzayantz says, the company would like to try other tests during NASA missions.

“It gives additional elements to perfumers,” he says. “It’s like for pianists. … All of a sudden, you give them an expanded keyboard for them to create new harmonies.”

Upstream from commercially viable products, additional studies are being carried out that one day will benefit the fragrance industry, says Craig Warren, visiting scholar in the chemo-sensory perception laboratory at the University of California at San Diego.

Right now, research is taking place involving adaptation, which happens when a person smells an odor long enough that he or she eventually stops smelling it. Although the concept has been recognized for at least 30 years, a total understanding of the phenomenon is yet to be outlined. Scientists are trying to understand how adaptation affects individuals when they distinguish new scents.

“With a large number of fragrance molecules, by the time you’ve taken three good sniffs of them, the odor intensity decreases,” he says. “Your olfactory receptors become saturated with the molecules. You no longer smell it, but for a fresh nose, it will smell very strong.”

Further, Mr. Warren, who holds a doctorate in physical chemistry, says research is being done to identify which olfactory receptors identify molecules from specific scents. Once scientists identify which receptors interact with which smells, they may be able to increase or decrease the sensitivity of the olfactory receptors to the odors.

“It’s still an open question and a very important one,” he says. “The person who finds the answer would be a nominee for a Nobel Prize. … It literally could be used to add a lot of sparkle and beauty to a fragrance. We’re two miracles away from actually practicing this in any sort of constructive way.”

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