Perfume Pioneers
A new exhibition at London’s Somerset House focuses on ten scents that have pushed the boundaries to create a buzzing new fragrance culture. Lizzie Ostrom, co-curator of the show, lets us in on the scene.

– Since 2000 there has been a real sub-culture in fragrance, with new types of perfumers, new concepts, new molecules, new accords. Until now, these stories have been discussed as part of a niche scene. Yet it’s no longer niche. It has begun to merge with the mainstream in a process you could call incorporation or appropriation, or maybe something else. The emergence of this new fragrance culture is exactly the kind of phenomenon that Somerset House are interested in illuminating.

It’s not often that a perfume breaks out into cultural discourse like Molecule 01.

– We decided to do it through exploring ten seminal perfumes that show how perfume has changed in the past fifteen years. Some have a cult following, others are there because they are particularly important to the perfumer (like Purple Rain for Daniela Andrier), or because they present a radical or rebellious direction (like Dark Ride). We want to highlight milestone scents that confound expectations of what fragrance can be.

– Molecule 01 is essential to this exhibition. It’s not often that a perfume breaks out into cultural discourse like this one. Maybe two or three per decade achieve that level of awareness and controversy.

– Each fragrance in the exhibition is presented in its own immersive space. I don’t want to spoil it by saying any more. I would rather people come and see it for themselves. What I can say is that Molecule 01 is the most talked about, totemic perfume in the exhibition and the design of the space reflects its status and the way it is fetishised.

– Exhibitions are usually overwhelmingly visual. You’re looking, looking, looking. But with this experience, the focus is on smelling, the voice of the perfumery, and to some extent tactile experiences. I think we’ve created a more contemplative experience, and also space to be aware of your body as you sample the scent. Each room reveals the energy of a particular scent. Some rooms are more passive, others more active.

Molecule 01 is the most talked about, totemic perfume in the exhibition and the design of the space reflects the way it is fetishised.

– I think there will be lots of buzz around the laboratory we have set up at the show. Here visitors can watch demos, sample aroma-chemicals, and have the opportunity to meet perfumers. As a curator, my personal highlight has been seeing how the designers at MUF have created furniture for each perfume. Very exciting!

– The future of fragrance is a hot topic right now and on 29th June, we are hosting , “Fragrance Futures’. Geza is part of the panel together with Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University and Timothy Han, who explores the relationship between sound and smell. No idea what they will talk about but my own view on the future of fragrance is that we’re going to move from new olfactory concepts (unusual styles, new molecules) to new contexts – where scent plays a much bigger role in art. So perhaps less about what we smell, and more about how we smell.

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House, 21st June – 17th September. Find out more here: www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/perfume




A Masterclass on Molecule 04
Javanol, star of Escentric Molecules 04, was invented in a lab at Swiss flavour & fragrance giant Givaudan 21 years ago. Philip Kraft, fragrance chemist and molecular designer at the company, unlocks the secrets of an exceptional odorant.

– By the nineties, natural sandalwood oil had become unsustainable to harvest and incredibly expensive. The big flavour & fragrance companies were all looking for a new molecule to use instead. It was kind of a sandalwood arms race.

– There were already several good sandalwood molecules out there. At Givaudan we had Sandela, Radjanol and Ebanol, all with slightly different fragrance profiles. IFF had Bacdanol, Sanjinol and Santaliff, Kao had Santal Mysore Core, Symrise had Brahmanol, Sandel 80 and Sandranol, and Firmenich had found a very successful one, Polysantol.

– Then in 1996 someone came up with Javanol and the sandalwood race was pretty much over. Not because the other sandalwoods were superseded. They weren’t. There is room for variations here. But Javanol turned out to be the best fit for the receptors in your nose that code for sandalwood. The more perfectly the sandalwood ‘foot’ fits the receptor’s ‘shoe’, the more intense the smell will be. Javanol proved to be the sandalwood Cinderella the chemists were looking for.

– There are some 400 odorant receptors in the human nose. While there will always be one perfect fit for each receptor, the receptor pockets are broadly tuned to accept a more general shape. Any odour-molecule is always fairly flexible and therefore hops between different receptors. It’s like a maxxed-out version of those toys where kids have to put the square shape in the square hole, the star shape in the star hole, but where the toys are made of rubber so you can squeeze a star-shaped one into a square hole; though it will pop out again pretty fast.

Javanol proved to be the sandalwood Cinderella the chemists were looking for.

– Here comes the science bit. The person who discovered Javanol back in ’96 was Jerzy Bajgrowicz, a chemist working here at Givaudan. One of the things he did was to substitute the double bond in a part of the molecule called the ‘spacer’ with a cyclopropane ring. This three-membered ring maintains the electronic properties and rigidity of the double bond but improves on the hydrophobicity, so making Javanol a near-perfect fit for the sandalwood receptor pockets in the nose.

– The bonds in the ring are bent like bananas, which makes the electrons sort of pop out. This provides electron density, which is important because what the receptor in the nose ‘sees’ is not just the silhouette of the molecule, but its electronic shape. This electronic shape orientates and then binds a molecule in a particular direction, depending on where its electrons are concentrated. It’s similar to a magnet, which has two poles, a positive and a negative. So how well the molecule fits the receptor pocket is down to where the electrons are concentrated, as well as its overall shape.

What the receptor in the nose ‘sees’ is not just the silhouette of the molecule, but its electronic shape.

– Scent is a language, which is just to say that an odorant impression is down to combinatorial coding. When one conformer shape fits into a pocket, a specific type of neuron lights up, linked only to that shape of pocket. You need a combination of different neurons to light up in order to enable your brain to decode a specific smell. Javanol, for example, lights up the neurons coding for sandalwood, but as it is so strong, it saturates these at low concentration, and then less specific neurons are fired, ie. for lactonic notes, rose, lily of the valley and grapefruit.

– Lab-created molecules like Javanol are sandalwood in abstraction if you like. Natural sandalwood oil is of course much more multi-faceted, it has cedary, smoky, burnt, sweaty, milky, creamy, sweet, animalic, nutty and even urinous aspects. Javanol is an abstraction of “santalness”. It has the creamy, warm, milky-rosy and clean aspects of nature’s sandalwood. It is both sexy and transparent. That’s rare.

Javanol pendant designed by Philip, who is also a jeweller. He suggests you might like to scent the pendant with Molecule 04. You can find it here.




Phial and Error
It took 300 trials and a eureka moment to get to Escentric 04. But it was worth the wait, says Geza Schoen.

– Escentric 04 is the anti-Chanel No5. The story with No5 is that someone in the lab accidentally put in ten times too much aldehyde. And suddenly the fragrance clicked. With Escentric 04 it was the opposite. I started out with ten times too much Javanol.

– I did around 100 trials of E04 and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then it struck me out of the blue: ‘it’s the Javanol, it’s blocking my fragrance’. I started to reduce it dramatically, experimenting with 50, 40, 30 parts per thousand of the formula. I discovered that 25-30 parts, ie. 3% is the sweet spot for this molecule. With the Javanol at that level, the fragrance started to bloom.

“Most of our molecules are not from planet earth. They are the creation of some mad scientist trying to find the next cool smell.”

– Most of our molecules are not from planet Earth. They are the creation of some mad scientist trying to find the next cool smell. Javanol was born in a lab at Givaudan where they have a particular genius for sandalwood-type molecules. It has all the things about sandalwood that I love, like its creamy radiance, and none of its less attractive aspects, like sweaty notes.

– The Escentric fragrance is always an ode to the molecule in Molecule. It’s that simplicity again. Smell the molecule in Molecule, and it will tell you how to make Escentric. When I smell the 04 molecule, Javanol, I detect a rosy note and a grapefruit note in there. This makes it super-interesting. Most molecules aren’t like this. They are more linear.

– Molecule 04 gave me the structure for Escentric 04. Sandalwood, grapefruit, rose: these three notes define the space in which Escentric 04 grew. So for the base I took the sandalwood aspect and expanded it with Iso E Super, ambroxan, a little vetiver. The rose is not a huge part of E04, but it’s there. The grapefruit is the one I ramped up. And I added things to play with its freshness: pink pepper, juniper, and a molecule that is known for its herbal marijuana aroma.

– The way I smell Javanol is subjective. Other perfumers might have a totally different impression that did not include a grapefruit accent. It’s like colours. We have no idea if the person standing next to us perceives yellow the same way we do.

– Once I figured out the Javanol, I did another 200 trials. Not that that tells you anything. Longer isn’t necessarily better, it just worked out that this one took a while. One year. 32 bases, 300 trials. And a very cool molecule.

Escentric 04 and Molecule 04 are now available in store.




Future fresh
“The psychedelic freshness of liquid metallic grapefruit peel” – is how Geza Schoen describes Javanol, the molecule at the heart of his brand-new fragrances, Escentric 04 and Molecule 04.

– I knew right away that Javanol had to be one of our molecules. It’s a molecule that smells close to sandalwood, but sheer and transparent like no sandalwood in nature. What blew me away was its psychedelic freshness. It’s like liquid metallic grapefruit peel. And yet it still has all the endurance and radiance of natural sandalwood.

– Molecule 04 is pure Javanol and nothing else. Here you really get to know and understand the molecule. It’s super-fresh, but it’s also quiet, you want to nestle close to it. It’s as if the metallic liquid grapefruit is poured over a bed of velvety, cream-coloured roses.

– Escentric 04 takes Javanol in a completely original direction. Most sandalwood fragrances are stuffed full of vanillin and sticky candied fruit notes. I don’t like those ultra-sweet notes. And anyway, I don’t want to do the same as everyone else. My challenge for Escentric 04 was to make a sandalwood scent that is radically unlike any of the others. For a long time, this had me scratching my head.

It’s as if metallic liquid grapefruit is poured over a bed of velvety, cream-coloured roses.

– I found the connection when I smelt Javanol first thing in the morning, before I’d had my coffee. At that time your nose is super-sensitive. I cracked open a bottle of Javanol and detected this new side of it – a tiny grapefruit note. That’s when everything clicked. I realised I could conquer the sweetness of sandalwood by playing up Javanol’s grapefruit kick.

– There’s a spaciness and fizz to Escentric 04 that’s down to methyl pamplemousse. It has tons and tons of pink grapefruit, bitter, crisp and fresh. I also used another grapefruit in the fragrance. it’s not a fragrance material, it’s an ingredient normally used in flavouring. It’s fantastically tangy, close to nature. It’s this that makes the fragrance so juicy.

That almost supernatural freshness that lasts and lasts, that is always a dream of mine.

– I wanted to keep the freshness percolating all the way down through Escentric 04. So there’s lime in there, there’s bergamot, and some osmanthus, which has a apricot-peachy note. In the heart, I have made a ‘soft fresh rose’ out of four rose ingredients. One of these ingredients is citronellol, which occurs in natural rose oil. Citronellol is the freshness of the rose. That almost supernatural freshness that lasts and lasts, that is always a dream of mine.

– Javanol is like Iso E Super, the molecule in Escentric Molecules 01, in some ways. Like Iso E Super it comes and goes. You make your mark with it, but you yourself don’t smell it with every breath. I like that relationship with a fragrance, where you are able to forget about it and then have a moment of connection again later on.

Escentric 04 and Molecule 04 will be available in stores from 25th April.




21st Century Fashion Scents
She’s brilliant, brainy and she edits The Gentlewoman, the most discerning fashion magazine on the planet. Penny Martin explains why her latest issue calls Escentric Molecules ‘the scent sensation of the twenty-first century’.

– Can you describe The Gentlewoman? It’s a personality-centred woman’s fashion magazine that profiles women of note and purpose through quality journalism and beautifully art-directed photography. We’ve won awards for our design and journalism but I think people like it most because it’s upbeat, ambitious and it rarely repeats itself.

– How did Escentric Molecules first cross your path? Writer Susan Irvine introduced me to Geza before the fragrances launched. I remember Molecule 01 being described to me as a “dark hovering presence” rather than bearing a likeness to a recognisable scent like flowers or amber. That had me intrigued. And then I smelled it. And it felt like the olfactory equivalent of a long drink of red wine. Warm, rich, faintly narcotic.

The uninitiated would invariably ask what on earth was that strange, heavenly smell.

– Did you wear it? I don’t think I wore anything else for a year – during which practically everyone reeked of Escentric Molecules. True converts could barely recognize that they or anyone else were wearing it but the uninitiated smelt us coming and would invariably ask what on earth was that strange, heavenly smell. The most insistent enquirer I ever had was a Sikh taxi driver in New York – he wasn’t unlocking those doors until we told him what my fragrance was and where to get it. I think we wrote it down for him in a blank receipt.

– Have you ever worn other fragrances? Yes. The first one I bought was L’Air du Temps, would you believe, when I was 13. My friend and I went halves on it, so we each got to wear it only every other day. The big one for me was Chanel No. 19. Those irises really remind me of being 18 and wayward.

He wasn’t unlocking those doors until we told him what my fragrance was.

– What is the idea behind ‘oral history’ in The Gentlewoman? ‘Oral History’ is a more ambitious form of Q&A. Our company, which publishes BUTT and Fantastic Man as well as The Gentlewoman, is really good at conversational journalism. Those multiple interviewee conversations are also a good way of dealing with a subject that’s in the past while keeping the context and content feeling contemporary in spirit. I really love it as a form.

– What inspired you to do an ‘oral history’ of Escentric Molecules? The particulars of its launch tell you as much about the fashion industry and culture and those who work in it as the launch of Mitsouko did about the inter-war period. I love the idea of subjecting that recent history to the same scrutiny as one might an event that occurred a hundred years ago.


The Gentlewoman
Spring/summer issue 2017

The Juice
By Richard O’Mahony

Iso E Super was never meant to be a perfume…That was until a novice perfumer, enamoured by this enigmatic ingredient, struck upon the idea to bottle it and sell it as a pair of fragrances in its own right. It would be called Escentric Molecules 01 and it would become the scent sensation of the 21st century.

[Our extract begins in early 2006…]

The Package

Tim Blanks, fashion journalist and partner of Jeff Lounds, EM sales director: A few years earlier I’d met Daniela Rinaldi, the cosmetics queen of Harvey Nichols, at a Jimmy Choo dinner. We both got screaming drunk and had a fantastic time together talking perfume. She said to me that if there’s ever anything I think she ought to know about then to call her. So I set up a meeting for Jeff and Escentric Molecules with her.

Daniela Rinaldi, controller of perfumery and concessions, Harvey Nichols, 1996–2009: I met Tim and Jeff, and to be honest, when they came to present the perfume, my immediate reaction was disappointment. Firstly, it was a stock bottle with no cap. Harvey Nichols sells haute perfumery, so we were used to super luxe, beautifully crafted bottles with etched glass caps. Caps were being engineered so that they had a soft click — you know, like with the doors on luxury cars?

Anna-Marie Solowij, beauty and health director, British Vogue, 2002–8: At the time, it was all about the big-brand fragrance houses, the blockbusters. Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue was one of the biggest-selling fragrances then. Celebrity fragrances were big business: Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Sarah Jessica Parker, among countless others, all released perfumes. Gourmand fragrances like Calvin Klein’s Euphoria or Nina Ricci’s Nina… it was all quite fruity and sweet.

Chandler Burr, perfume critic, The New York Times, 2006–10: By contrast, Escentric Molecules is a direct descendant of the minimalist school of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert and Jacques Cavallier’s L’Eau d’Issey, both masterpieces of the form.


Daniela Rinaldi: I left the office that night wearing Escentric 01, taking a black cab to Paddington station, and as I get out of the cab, the driver says to me, “You smell gorgeous, love. What is that?” On the train from Paddington to Reading, the very nice gentleman sitting next to me says the same thing. At Reading station, it happens again. We placed an order for 5,000 units of Escentric 01 and Molecule 01 with Jeff the following morning.

Geza Schoen: Tim was wearing the fragrance everywhere he went — fashion shows, parties, openings — sharing it with all his fabulous friends. And Tim pretty much knows everybody.

Tim Blanks: People were captivated by the fragrance. We gave a bottle to Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys before it was launched at Harvey Nichols. He wore it out one night and told us he’d never been hit on so much in his life…

Daniela Rinaldi: The launch toolkit that would normally be used for fragrance didn’t apply. There was no print or outdoor advertising campaign, no splashy displays across the store windows… we decided to approach it subtly, a bit covert, like it was a club — you had to understand it to be in it. We’d grow market share by word of mouth. We had a private dinner in the restaurant at Harvey Nichols on 29 March 2006 to launch Escentric Molecules, and Jeff and Tim did the guest list.

Tim Blanks: We invited a bunch of our friends: Christopher Bailey, Janet Street-Porter, David Furnish… at one point Siouxsie Sioux, Lulu and Sharleen Spiteri were all chatting together, and I thought, Wow, there’s a girl group.

Geza Schoen: It wasn’t the worst way to launch a new fragrance.

[Read the whole story in the s/s 17 issue of The Gentlewoman … out now]