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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 10:53 GMT
Sniffing out a fragrant future
By Jemima Laing
BBC News Online, Plymouth

Sandra Meyer, Marios Nicolaou, Kin Ling Wu and Aditya Chandrachud
The students can identify up to 400 smells by the end of the course
When you bury your nose in your freshly-laundered washing, you may wonder how that summer meadow fragrance clinging to your smalls was created.

Scents do not just appear in your conditioner, deodorant or air freshener by accident.

There are people whose life's work it is to design the aromas which prompt us to buy certain products or wear a particular perfume - and many are learning their art at a Devon university.

Students from across the globe are attracted to the University of Plymouth's BA in Business and Perfumery.

A post-graduate course, run in tandem with Versailles University, and several distance learning programmes are also on offer.

The lives of most trademark smells, whether a top notch high fashion fragrance or a humble loo block, start in the same place - in one of the leading creative fragrance companies, such as IFF, Quest or Firmenich .

The maker of a shampoo or a washing powder briefs several of the top companies to come up with a fragrance for their product.

Meet the students who are following their noses

This process begins in their evaluation departments, which are populated by the kind of students being taught in Plymouth.

Their fragrance ideas are then passed on to the creative perfumer - the so-called nose - who performs the sensory alchemy which transforms a number of raw ingredients (including essential oils and chemicals) into the desired fragrance.

"No fragrance is created by one person alone any more. It's a debate between marketing, the perfumer and the evaluator," said Dr Tony Curtis, the Plymouth courses' creator.

"I always say the perfumer is the author and the evaluator is the commissioning editor."

Once the fragrance has been created to fit the brief it is shipped out in liquid form - in tankers or 40-gallon drums depending on the amount - to the factories where it is incorporated into the required product.

But, as Dr Curtis points out, the creation of the smell is often nothing to do with functionality but is about evoking an emotional response from the consumer.

"It's about getting the product to speak to you," says Dr Curtis.

"Odour is about a cue, if you want something to be caring we know in this industry how to create a caring fragrance, likewise if you want it to be revitalising we know how to do that."

Dr Tony Curtis
What we are teaching is an international language of odour
Dr Tony Curtis
So students on the undergraduate course at Plymouth - which Dr Curtis says is unique in Europe - learn a mix of marketing and perfumery and a vital skill they are taught is the ability to recognise a plethora of smells.

In addition to memorising each individual scent, students also have to master a new lexicon to describe the aromas.

"What we are teaching is an international language of odour which any perfumer will recognise," said Dr Curtis.

"Students have to learn a standard vocabulary so they can communicate properly with others in the industry."

By the end of the four-year course they can identify and describe up to 400 different smells.

The noses can recognise between 2,000 and 4,000, which requires a minimum five-year apprenticeship.

And students get a glimpse of the world of fragrance during their year-long placement in the industry.

"During that year they are working with perfumery noses and major customers and they get to see the whole creative process, it is very inspiring," said Dr Curtis.

The placement also helps students keep track of the ever-changing trends emerging within the world of fragrance.

As the top-end catwalk trends eventually find their way into the likes of Top Shop and Miss Selfridge so the high-end fragrances eventually end up in high street personal care products.

'A hidden world'

While students have to keep their eye on emerging trends they also have to remember the cultural differences associated with smell.

"The meaning of the word "fresh" changes from country to country," said Dr Curtis.

"Here we might regard citrus as fresh but when you get into southern Europe it has different connotations and when you get into Indonesia, for example, the olfactory language is different, there is definitely a cultural dimension.

Worldwide centres

"That's why all the major perfumery companies have creative centres all over the world."

That fact is reflected in the locations in which former students have secured themselves jobs - Germany, Holland and New York to name but a few.

And Dr Curtis will himself be heading to India next year - an emerging market in the fragrance trade - to teach a residential course to senior executives at Ultra International, India's largest fragrance company.

His invitation came after one of the company's employees was impressed by a course he attended in Plymouth.

But it is, as Dr Curtis says, a "hidden world".

He concedes that many people outside the perfumery industry are unaware these jobs even exist.

"But we certainly don't die of boredom," he said.

"It is a very interesting and very exciting job."

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