Panorama

“Smell is matter of training” – an interview with Geza Schön

How do you invent the ultimately bewitching perfume, capture the scent of a city district in a bottle and track down the essence of a fragrant book? An interview with the perfumer Geza Schön.

Mr Schön, we all know that scents can bewitch. But what people say about your perfume “Molecule 01” sounds fantastic.

As a matter of fact, no one has yet told me of wearing the scent and not then being approached in the street. Typically, other people run after you and want to know what sort of interesting fragrance that is. Or you are noticed by guests sitting on the other side of the room in a crowded bar. I think it has something.

How is that possible?

Molecule 01 is composed of a single fragrance – the synthetic molecule ISO E Super from the group consisting of cedar wood fragrances. The substance has long been used in many perfumes as a kind of odour amp, but has a soft, subtle and very pleasant scent. There’s a theory that ISO E Super is not only absorbed by our smell receptors, but also acts on Jacobson’s organ, which perceives the so-called pheromones.

If the substance has been known for so long, how is it that you first hit on the idea of using it in this way?

That surely has to do with the way the mass market works in my profession. The profit margin of perfumes is relatively large. This means that firms have correspondingly high budgets to elaborately promote the product with. As for the scent itself, there is fairly little interest in quality and innovation. Hardly anyone wants to take the risk and the time required to introduce a fragrance which nobody has smelled before in this form. But that’s exactly the route you must go if you really want to be creative in my profession.

For example, by your developing a perfume for he world memory champion?

Yes, though the scent I developed for Christiane Stenger is also to be understood as a conceptual statement. The idea occurred to me when the Paris Hilton line of perfumes was launched. Since Paris Hilton is pretty much the worst “role model” I can think of, I suddenly had the thought: Let’s turn this around. And so the memory athlete Stenger came to my attention. Christiane has succeeded in something that basically everyone can learn. Quite unlike a celebrity girl like Paris Hilton, who has to do nothing to gain and keep her fame except to be Paris Hilton.

Smelling sessions and chords

You named the perfume “Beautiful Mind”. What does a “beautiful mind” smell like?

First of all, I wanted to give Christiane the opportunity of developing a “liking”, to find out for herself which scents suited her. At the beginning of the project we met every morning for three weeks for smelling sessions. The result was an idea of a basic odour, a so-called “chord”, which we then refined over the course of a year.

A chord, then, is the first building-block of a fragrance?

Exactly. It consists of a few substances that form the basis, which you then generally refine. Most perfumes consist of about twenty to sixty components. But the number of ingredients doesn’t necessarily signify a higher quality. Sometimes a single substance is sufficient, as we see in Molecule 01. Davidoff’s famous Cool Water is also a relatively “short” fragrance, with about thirty ingredients. And the perfume was a success above all because it contained a single odourant, ambroxan, in particularly high dosage.

In addition to your work as a classic perfumer, you take part in a variety of art projects, often in cooperation with the Norwegian scent artist Sissel Tolaas.

I’ve collaborated with Sissel for nearly fifteen years. For the Berlin Biennale 2004, we walked around the Berlin districts of Neukölln, Schöneberg, Mitte and Reinickendorf, tracked down smells and took notes. Then we went to the lab so as to convert the fragrances as well as possible into a kind of “olfactory map” of the city. Last year, together with the Göttingen publisher Gerhard Steidl, I developed “Paper Passion”, a scent for book lovers. It was initially conceived as a perfume, but has become more a smell than a fragrance: dry, oily and very intense – just like a freshly glued book.

Tenacity and exercise

You say paper smells “dry” and at the same time “oily”. That sounds paradoxical, but is nevertheless plausible. Still, most people would have great difficulty describing off the top of their heads the smell of a book. Why is that?

This is – like, by the way, the sense of smell – a matter of training. Just as no talent or genetic disposition whatever is needed to distinguish the many different odours from each other, but only tenacity and exercise. And the ability to name scents is also part of this sensitizing, which develops when you have practiced smelling long enough.

Do you have a name for the smell of, for example, a freshly unwrapped Apple device?

That’s interesting; I’ve actually been thinking about this for some time. It’s a veritable “corporate smell” that greets the nose. I’d call it “plastic freshness”. Probably it’s simply the result of the materials used. But it’s also possible that someone has lent a hand here. Many companies now treat the matter of olfactory marketing professionally.

Isn’t the idea of being manipulated in this way through odours rather unpleasant?

Yes, of course. On the other hand, there are still limits to this manipulation. Take the odour of a linden tree on a July morning – with its incomparable fresh, cucumber-like aroma. You might think that it would soon be possible to replicate it with the help of computers. But this is still too complex for even the fastest computers. Nature has needed thousands of years to create the smell. We can’t really expect to be able to replicate it in the near future. And that’s a good thing.

Klaus Lüber
is a cultural and media scholar and works as a freelance author for “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, “Die Zeit” and “Die Welt”.

Photos:
Most perfumes consist of about twenty to sixty components (© Günther Gumhold/ pixelio.de)
The smell of a book (© Lupo/ pixelio.de)

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
September 2013

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