Measuring Molecules

Functional it may be, but this secretive sanctuary on top of a sixties apartment block in Berlin is where fragrance alchemy happens.

Measuring Molecules

– I’d love to paint you a romantic picture of my lab. But that would be all wrong. It’s practically a cell, with no windows, though I do have a milk glass dome in the ceiling that I open to let in fresh air. There’s a table, a chair, my weighing-scales, and bottles and bottles of ingredients. Also a fridge with a nice glass door. Nothing much to see in the fridge, though, no ice-cream or champagne just lots of lemon and mandarin oil.

– I thought of getting an assistant. But then I realised it’s chaos in the lab. There are bottles on the floor, round the desk, above the desk, and on some old metal USM Haller shelves at the back. There’s no logic to what goes where except the logic of what goes with what in my head. An assistant just wouldn’t work.

Nothing much to see in the fridge, no ice-cream or champagne just lots of lemon and mandarin oil.

– Making a fragrance is a bit like writing a novel. A writer goes through several drafts before he clinches the novel, and a perfumer goes through several bases before he clinches the fragrance. This is why it’s good to do everything myself. It gives me an opportunity to be near the aroma-chemicals that are the words in my book, if you like; to be constantly rethinking them. If I let someone else measure out my formulae, I would lose this connection.

– I might go to the lab at 10 in the morning and work till 2 in the morning. That’s when I’m obsessed by something. Other times, I don’t set foot in there for a week. I guess on average I work in there two or three hours a day. That's the max I can normally work on a fragrance before I hit a wall.

Hey what would happen if I threw in a gram of mimosa?

– Inspiration is elsewhere. I never sit in the lab and write a formula. An idea will come to me when I’m on the street or in the bath, and I’ll stop and scribble it down. What I do in the room is measure out the materials. Even when I’ve made a new trial, I take it out of the lab into my apartment next door to smell it.

– There are around 1,500 ingredients in my palette. Of these, around 80-100 materials are the bedrock ingredients that go to form the basis of most fragrances I work on. Then there are around 300-400 ingredients I’ll use once or twice a year. And there are some things I’ll only touch once every ten years or so - things that have a very specific effect.

– When you feel the fragrance is 99% right, there’s still 1% to play with. At that point you have to stop yourself saying things like ‘hey what would happen if I threw in a gram of mimosa?’ I used to spend a lot of time on that kind of experiment. Now I stop at 99% and think, ‘Nah, it’s done.’ Though as I close the door to the lab a little part of me whispers: ‘now you’ll never know how it would have smelt with the mimosa.’