Serge De Oliveira, 36, works as a perfumer for Robertet, the French leading natural ingredients company. He created several natural fragrances on behalf of raising brands such as Ormaie, Pur Eden, or 100BON. He tells us about his career as a perfumer and the way he works.
How does one become a perfumer?
It’s very complicated. Many people dream about it, but very few achieve their goal. The job relies above all on passion, but one has to be also determined and tenacious. Luck plays a huge role too.
For example, if Robertet had not hired me, I would maybe not have had the opportunity to become a perfumer. I met the right people who saw my passion and believed in me.
What is your professional background?
My career path is atypical. I studied at ISIPCA, the french most famous perfumery school. However, I do not hold a master’s degree nor a specific chemistry diploma. I went to technical school for two years, where I studied cosmetics and pharmacy. I trained for a year at ISIPCA to be an assistant perfumer. That’s why it took me so long!
I worked at L’Oréal and at Dior on the product development process – the step that comes after the supplier’s formula has been validated. I also worked on the stabilization of the product and the coloring with the marketing department. Then, I worked at Chanel as an olfactive quality controller.
Finally, I joined Robertet eight years ago as an assistant perfumer. This job is the best training you can imagine. You spend much time with perfumers, your job is all about olfaction, and you are always manipulating ingredients. You also get the chance to formulate your perfume after your workday.
Being a perfumer is learning day after day. There are 1500 listed ingredients. You don’t have to know each of them entirely, but if someone tells you about a specific component, you have to know its smell. An assistant perfumer learns every day without realizing it since he operates ingredients and smells them before using them. It is an excellent training.
As far as creativity is concerned, how do you find new inspirations?
It may sound cliché, but it is essential for perfumers: We find inspiration in traveling, visiting museums and cities, but also in our food, in materials, textures, or fashion. Everything can and must be a source of inspiration!
Then a perfumer has to remain entirely up to date on the market trends. Many events take place around new product releases and upcoming trends, as in the fashion industry. These events allow us to show the latest trends to our clients.
You have recently created several 100% natural fragrances. Do working with natural ingredients differ from working with synthetics ones?
It is an entirely different way of making perfume. Robertet is a leading company in the natural components supply, so I am lucky to have many natural ingredients at my disposal.
It is more complicated to work 100% natural because it takes longer. Substances take longer to mix. With synthetic components, one night of maceration is enough. As far as natural ingredients are concerned, one or two weeks are required so that the substances correctly mix and you get a homogeneous material.
The other obstacle is that we lack the natural equivalents of some of the most current perfume components, such as musks for long-lasting effects. Customers want perfumes that last long. It’s a challenge for us.
We also work on the roundness of our fragrances. With synthetic ingredients, we give roundness by using musks. With natural ones, we use oriental notes, vanilla, or tolu, for example. We can thus stick to the codes of perfumery.
Today, we aim at the same result with natural components as with synthetics. Our goal is to bring the same level of comfort and pleasure to the user. However, it is necessary to educate customers and explain to them that in spite of everything, natural fragrances will not last as long as synthetic ones. Even benzoin or Bourbon vanilla absolute does not compete with a synthetic musk, like galaxolide.
You also create fragrances for cosmetics. How does that work?
It works the same way as perfumery, but the olfactive result is different depending on the product base. Natural product bases are often harder to balance because they have strong odors. For example, I have worked once on a natural gloss that smelled a little like gas while in conventional cosmetics, this type of product has a relatively neutral smell of fat.
Are there olfactive notes that are hard to create with natural ingredients?
There are the musky notes, as we have only one musk available in natural cosmetics, which is the musk mallow. It is very costly and not as active as synthetic products.
Fruity notes, floral notes, woody notes: it is possible to do all that — even chypre perfumes. Natural perfumery is significantly developing so that there are always fewer things that we can’t do. We can do almost everything, but it will not have the same attributes as the synthetic products. Our research team is continuously discovering and developing new ingredients. At the moment, we are searching for a marine fragrance, as an alternative to calone. We wish to get to its iodized aspect with a fucus like seaweed.
What are your favorite notes as a perfumer?
Strangely enough, I like notes like patchouli or vetiver that may seem a bit dark. These are the ones that appeal to me the most.
Does working only with natural materials restrain your creativity?
It is a real limitation because we have a smaller range of available ingredients. We are developing alternative responses. For example, when we want to give a solar aspect to a fragrance, we look for a molecule that brings this specific character – like an element that can bring to our mind a moment at the beach.
Luxury and natural cosmetics often confront with each other. Do you think that will change?
I’m sure that luxury brands are going to move towards natural cosmetics. Companies that we don’t think about, especially, will embark on natural ingredients. There is a real consumer expectation. New brands like 100BON are shaking up the market and making things change. The big firms are going organic as far as shower gels and shampoos are concerned. Fragrances will follow.
Is it possible to reach the same level of excellence using natural materials as with synthetics ones?
Yes, it is our challenge. I worked for Ormaie, a luxury-positioned natural fragrances brand. The founders expressed the requirement that their customers do not realize they were purchasing a natural product. They would have the same crush on a natural perfume as they had on their fragrance, such as La vie est belle de Lancôme.
Our goal is to bring the same satisfaction with a 100% natural perfume as with a synthetic one.
Some perfumers do not like to work 100% natural though. They do not believe in it. Each perfumer has its perception of nature and organic. Some consider that it is necessary to mix synthetic and natural ingredients. Others think that perfume must contain synthetics. Otherwise, it is terrible. It does not smell like them; it’s as simple as that! I believe in it. It’s a challenge, but it’s also great satisfaction.