“Capturing the mood and then translating it into what it means to them and then getting it to a level where consumers appreciate it is the hardest thing about making perfumes.” Sumit Bhasin, Director, Global Research and Development and Innovation P&G Prestige, talks to Swide about his love of perfumes, his passion for his work and how he became one of the most renowned “noses” in the perfume industry.
Swide has had the exclusive chance to speak to Sumit Bhasin, Director, Global Research and Development and Innovation P&G Prestige. He has collaborated with Dolce&Gabbana on a number of products, including the latest six part venture into Haute Perfumerie, the Velvet Collection.
Sumit has been working in perfumery for over 20 years, but his passion for fragrances has not subsided one bit. His talent, articulacy, curiosity and his sheer love for what he does seeps through his very soul and is the “essence” of what has allowed him to become one of the most well respected noses out there today.
His generosity and passion are bewitching. In the interview Sumit talks about his background, his understanding of fragrance and the peculiarities of his work.
How did you get involved in making perfumes? Was it a natural consequence of your God given olfactory gift?
For me cedar wood plays a major role, probably a primary role of why I’m in perfumery today. I’m a 3rd generation Indian, my great grandparents came as spice traders to Kenya and ended up settling. Then they moved into farming. I grew up at an environment at about 10000 feet over sea level in an area where cedar trees are indigenous. We were farming them for their wood and saw dust, from which you also get cedar wood oil. My family exported it to perfumery houses all over the world. That’s where my love of perfume came about. And growing up in Kenya, as children we used to invent games where we challenged each other to identify plants by their smell. For me perfumery, the appreciation of smell came at a very early age.
So that’s how you discovered you had a particularly attuned sense of smell, how did you develop it into a career?
What you do need to have is an aptitude for fragrance, for odour. Then you evolve your discriminating approach to smell. For example you should be able to distinguish between an orange, a mandarin a lemon, blood orange, grapefruit etc. Then it’s all about training the nose, through olfactive memory. Personally in my early days, whenever I picked something from a shelf, the first things I looked at smell and texture. Every time I do anything I always look at those to elements. It’s a shame the way society has evolved towards being colour centred. Training your nose takes a long time. For me everyday is an education process, I’m always learning new odours, new types.
So after many years in the industry you can still find new smells foreign odours?
You can never become aware of all smells, you can get a very good feel for understanding for certain olfactive types and categories. In the perfume industry there are scientists who are always developing new molecules which give you different odours. There is a fallacy that chemical is bad, but these chemicals start from very natural substances, or they come from natural world and look after the environment. What these molecules do is to depict odour in nature without destroying nature, which I really like. Perfume science also evolves, you end up smelling new molecules, which are created against a particular need. At the moment we’re trying to create a new generation of musks.
Do you have a preference for natural essences?
I think I like both, as much as I love naturals I like synthetics. For me its the odour that matters. But really for me, its all about the balance of nature and science in harmony. Cause science helps nature as much as science helps nature. You want synthetics that are safe, effective and take you to another world, you want naturals that are sustainable. For me it’s a play between the two.
What is your favourite essence? Is there an essence that brings out special memories to you?
For me, there are 3 or 4 things that evoke strong memories. Interplay with woods, how woods interplay with amber. Culturally, it’s fascinating. The wood area; vetiver, cedar wood or patchouli, those earthy notes resonate with me. It’s difficult to say which is my favourite essence. Coming from a Hindu background, however, growing up sitting for prayer with sandalwood incenses, for me that means serene, spiritual, meditative. Those association can’t go away from you, its what you’ve grown up.
How do you transform a brief from a designer into a perfume?
It’s a collaborative process. You spend as much time as you can in trying to absorb the “essence” of what they want. They’re amazing ant visualising things, I look at my role as taking those visual codes and attitudes and then translating it into what they want olfactory. You start with an accord. You start with an accord [a basic compound of primary essences, [eg. floral, musk, wood] then you take an olfactive direction and develop it. Like drawing a picture.
So capturing the mood of a brief is hardest thing?
Capturing the mood and then translating it into what it means to them and then getting it to a level where consumers appreciate it is the hardest thing about making perfumes. In the first phase of the program you focus on capturing the idea. Then you start looking at how you can tailor it, because you can have something that you really like but no one else does. The bottom line is that you always have to make something that engages the consumer which what you’re working for. That’s why it’s iterative. The toughest bit is never to loose the idea while you’re trying to get other cultures accepting it. That’s the secret.
What perfume do you wear, if anything?
We have a rule here that everyone who works in perfumes can’t wear anything, you are experimenting every day, you’re following a theme, you try fragrances on you hand, the best way to work and develop a fragrance is on your skin. On a weekend I take experimental ideas that I’m working on and wear them. I look at what people’s responses are, you go out and people comment on it, that for me is a good feedback.
Do you judge people on what perfume they’re wearing?
Generally no, because smell is a personal thing its difficult to make a judgement call on a person. By judging one’s perfume I would be making a judgement call on how you want to use and interpret a creative idea. I find that very difficult. I can envisage what you would be in. I’ll make an assessment on preference of the actual notes, but not the personality. I look at it technically, if anything. I approach perfumery from a craftsman viewpoint.
Your livelihood comes from you nose. Does it affect your daily life?
No. I don’t smoke. But really not something in particular, I’ll make sure that during the summer I don’t have extreme cold, because it numbs you, I’m careful not to be in air-conditioning too long, on a plane I have an interesting routine. When I haven odour overload in a plane I go to sleep I don’t want to stay up and smell something horrible.
Smell is all around us, you can never really switch off from your job. Is that stressful?
When you like something you don’t mind not switching off. I just love what I do, I don’t look at it as work, I look at it as an art form or craftsmanship. Something you’re exploring. I like to express it in different way. For example, I love wine, 90% of wine is smell. They’ve banned me from entering blind tasting competitions on wine! I go to wine clubs, it’s a really good way to enjoy your passion in another way, as well as drinking it of course!
Is there a smell you dislike or love? You’re very professional about odour; can you talk about something we can all relate to?
I really love, the thing that just turns me on is the smell in Kenya, when its dry, but the first drops of rain fall on that red earth. That for me is one of the most evocative smells there are. It’s the moisture of the tropical rain on dry soil. That smell is really evocative. I hate the smell of cabbage. I can tell cabbage when its overcooked by the smell. I hate it! It stinks.
Interview by: Valentina Zannoni