Friday, November 16, 2012

What happens at IFF doesn't always stay at IFF: Gottlieb and Grojsman face off

Of Vats and Vaults, Toilets, Truffles and Top notes

As a part of my admittedly quixotic quest for olfactory omniscience, I have made it my mission to watch every single film with any perfume or scent reference. (Please leave comments with any suggestions you may have!) Using perfume as a search term in my library's database, I recently happened upon an obscure PBS Nova miniseries episode produced back in 1995. The Mystery of the Senses: Smell is not a feature-length film but a 56-minute educational video intended for people like me who are interested in learning about scent.

Even knowing all of this, I must confess that I found my thumb hovering threateningly over the eject button of my DVD player's remote control as I watched and listened to the cringe-worthy opening of this production. The text is narrated by Diane Ackerman, author of The Natural History of the Senses, in a truly annoying tone befitting of a junior high school biology teacher. For your pleasure, I provide the text and a few images from the opening scene:

We're about to embark on a journey through the world of smell. And we're going to start at the Statue of Liberty, of all places, where a real smell-celebration is in full swing.

The fireworks are for Champagne, a new Yves Saint Laurent perfume.

This is Champagne's gala coming out party—the perfume, not the drink.

It's amazing how much sensing happens at a snazzy shindig in the dark. There's lots of conversations to hear, and sights to see, and there's plenty of tasting ... to work off. There's touch.

This is a fabulous party, 
and all for the sake of a smell!

That should suffice. You always know that what you're watching is really lame when your eyes shunt back and forth between the minute counter clock on the DVD player and the screen. Nonetheless, I decided to stick it out. How bad could it really be? I asked myself as I calculated the remaining 53 minutes left to endure. In the end, I was very happy to have invested just under an hour of my life to learn what I learned from this film.

It wasn't watching male cockroaches attempt to copulate with a rod just dipped in female cockroach hormones which redeemed The Mystery of the Senses: Smell. (Sorry: no screen shots, as I have a deep fear and loathing of insects and also prefer not to draw entomologist traffic to this site. Porn enthusiasts already flock here in search of “group orgy”, “prostitutes”, and the like. Believe it or not, such search terms bring more new visitors to the salon de parfum than even “Luca Turin divorce”!)

Nor was I especially smitten with the smart scene where Ms. Ackerman, in her bright red dress and facial foundation two shades too light, sashays into a steam room and does a quick twirl toward the camera amidst several hairy-chested, virile-looking, towel-clad men to proclaim, after drawing a deep breath through her nostrils: 

It really does smell good in here!

Nor was I particularly impressed by the scuba diving clip in which Ms. Ackerman dodges sharks while she explains, with increasingly irritating and inappropriate voice inflections (anyone who has ever listened to AM radio knows what I am talking about...) in a didactic and corny narration along the lines of the above, that undersea creatures such as the lobster which she brings up to eat for lunch are capable of navigating their course underwater by following scent trails.

I felt that the segment on drug-sniffing dogs working for the Feds at an airport and a shipping dock could have been edited out without loss since on the day of the filming the dogs found nothing, making it all seem rather anti-climactic, especially given the suspenseful musical score playing in the background.

An olfactory scientist's ability to literally wave his nose back and forth over the opening of a Chanel no 5 perfume bottle was, I own, mildly amusing. He apparently has extra muscles in his nose or has somehow trained it to move as though it had joints!

I confess, too, to having enjoyed the repeated and graphic demonstrations that skin chemistry is very important to scent perception. 

A brief segment on olfaction instructs viewers as to the process by which we recognize scents: it's a matter of molecular shapes inserting themselves like keys into receptor “locks”.

I enjoyed traveling with a Bedouin-like man by camel over desert terrain to find gnarled trees in which frankincense is hidden. 

He harvests some of the blobs of this resin and then returns home to negotiate a price with a big frankincense dealer. 

This segment was truly educational to me, as I did not formerly know that frankincense was a resin tapped from trees like sap. 

A short excursion to Oman, the true source of the current oud fad  (pace Pierre/William/Ammar) is equally rewarding.

But the undeniable highlights of this film are three. First, the segment featuring a perky little sow on the hunt for truffles, which—I had no idea before this viewing—are sought because they happen to bear the scent of boar musk within them!

Yes, believe it or not, female pigs burrow into the ground to dig out truffles because they believe themselves to be finding a mate! What a revelation. I honestly had no idea. 

A friendly French farmer preparing a truffle omelette slyly confides with slanted eyes that truffles have aphrodisiac effects upon human beings as well!  Ooh, là, là!

All of this excitement and talk of pheromones naturally got me thinking about the possibly biological basis of the age-old “Cats or Dogs” dichotomy. Perhaps it really does come down, in the end, to pheromone receptors! The people who dislike cats often love dogs, and vice versa. Some people, of course, go both ways.

The second big eyeopener of this little film involved a visit to a factory where fragrances are produced. I have often referred to “vat-produced chemical soup” in my negative reviews of what I find to be unwearable fragrances (not worthy of the name perfume...), and in The Mystery of the Senses: Smell, all of my suspicions were confirmed about the various kinds of errors which may arise when factory workers mix together perfumes in large vats.

Ever wonder about batch variations? The nearly infinite possibilities for mistakes are revealed in a few snapshots of the inside of one of the places where fragrances are produced in bulk volumes. All it would take would be one tiny error: a mix-up on the tank, the spigot number, the measurement line for the proper amount to add, a distracting cellphone call, a foreman's illegible scrawl...

After this incredibly insightful look at the inside of one of these fragrance factories, I realized that it's very nearly a miracle that any two different batches ever smell anything alike! 

Small wonder that big perfume houses feel that they can reformulate with impunity. Mistakes are and can only be made! Oh well.

The third, and by far most important part of this educational film, for perfumistas, is the rare glimpse which it offers into the behind-the-scenes workings at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). 

Viewers are treated to such exquisite sights as a perfumer and his manager arguing animatedly over a toilet about whether a new cleaning scent contains too much pine—and (because the manager thinks that it does) what to do about it.

Again, a perfumer and his supervisor hover over a freshly shampooed head, which, they come to agree, smells too sophisticated, too floral, and needs more fruit to be able to appeal to younger consumers! 

So there you have it, my fragrant friends: the ultimate source of the fruity-floral tsunami of fragrances being put out today. These supervisors and managers working behind the scenes at IFF—and elsewhere, I presume—are requiring perfumers to modify their creations to fit prior shared conceptions of what toilets and young women should smell like!

La crème de la crème of The Mystery of the Senses: Smell is without question the portion devoted to perfumer Sophia Grojsman as she struggles to compose a perfume which will please fellow perfumer Ann Gottlieb who, rather than working as a perfumer, wears the client's hat, as she is representing the company for whom Grojsman has been enlisted to produce the perfume on behalf of IFF.

Grojsman expresses manifest frustration at having been asked by her employer to produce a men's fragrance, given that she specializes in women's floral accords. She also complains at one point that the powers that be at IFF have decided that she works better under pressure, so now they all “step on my neck”!

That what Grojsman says is indeed true becomes clear in the scene in which she and Gottlieb face off over Grojsman's fragrance submission. Gottlieb has the power in this relationship, representing as she does the company who will have the final say on whether Grojsman's new composition will be launched as a perfume. 

Gottlieb complains that Grojsman's fragrance needs a fresher top note, and she provides a liquid example of what, as she puts it, “we'd like to see built into your submission.”

All of this takes place on Friday afternoon. The group comprises representatives from both sides: the client, led by Gottlieb; and IFF, with Sophia Grojsman as the target of criticism for having produced a perfume (gasp!) unacceptable to Gottlieb! The group decides to reconvene to evaluate Grojsman's modified submission on Monday afternoon at 2pm. The Friday meeting is thus adjourned and, from there, presumably all of the bureaucrats and Tzar Gottlieb go home to enjoy the weekend. 

Meanwhile, Grojsman toils away nonstop in her laboratory, assistants by her side, attempting to produce Gottlieb's desired fragrance by the looming deadline.

Grojsman's weekend struggle is ultimately for naught, as the fragrance is rejected and the formula relegated to the vault of perfumes composed but never launched, an official failure. Why? 

Because the client rejected what Grojsman produced for having failed to be what the client wanted it to be.


In The Mystery of the Senses: Smell, Gottlieb comes off looking like something of a villain, towering over Grojsman and browbeating her into producing what Gottlieb wishes to smell. Given this derogatory depiction, I feel obliged to observe here that I myself am in fact a fan of perfumer Ann Gottlieb, who was the nose behind two quite original creations: Sarah Jessica Parker Covet, a bizarre lavender-chocolate fougère, and Calvin Klein Contradiction, an oddly indescribable and equally appealing eucalyptus-fruity-oriental perfume. 

Both of these compositions are admired and even loved by me and, perhaps precisely for their sheer eccentricity, both have been discontinued. Gottlieb created these innovative and challenging perfumes and obviously had the gumption to stand up to her clients. Covet and Contradiction, albeit now discontinued, were in fact launched. Alas, these perfumes fell prey to the tyranny of the market, to whom the companies which produced them are beholden. Businesses, lest anyone forget, are intrinsically profit-seeking entities.

In the scene in which Gottlieb appears in The Mystery of the Senses: Smell, she is the boss, exerting near tyrannical power over Grojsman, whom many, however, regard as a better perfumer. Certainly, Grojsman's résumé boasts far more success stories: Estée Lauder White Linen and Beautiful, Calvin Klein Eternity, Yves Saint Laurent Paris and Yvresse (originally launched as Champagne, the perfume being celebrated at the opening of this production), Lancôme Trésor, Bvlgari Bvlgari pour Femme. The list of Sophia Grojsman-designed bestselling perfumes literally goes on and on and on...

I must reiterate that the face-off between Gottlieb and Grojsman presented in this video was very surprising to me, as I have always regarded Sophia Grojsman as the perfume artist par excellence, if any perfumer is an artist at all. That is, in effect, the question pointedly raised by The Mystery of the Senses: Smell, and it makes the short film well worth any perfumista's time to see the reality of what perfumers are doing when they agree to work for clients who have the final say on whether a new creation makes the grade, deserves to be launched and therefore exist.

The fact that Ann Gottlieb, a considerably less well-known and less well-regarded perfumer than Sophia Grojsman should be able to issue a fate-sealing judgment on one of Grojsman's creations constitutes a serious reality check for those who persist in insisting that perfumery is an art. Watch this film, please, if you can find a copy somewhere—anywhere—and then ask yourself whether the kind of pressure under which Grojsman is placed, forced to modify her creative output to reflect the values of other people—and ultimately to please their, not her tastes—can properly be considered artistic creation. To me, this little film provides an iron-clad, definitive proof of what Bryan Ross over at From Pyrgos has been saying all along:

Client-commissioned perfumery is design.

What all of the perfumers at IFF are doing—whether they work in the toilet bowl cleaner area or around the shampoo sinks or in an elaborate workshop such as Sophia Grojsman's, where iconic perfumes are born—is the same. Yes, scents for toilet bowl cleaners and shampoos are created in the same way, with negotiations and concessions being made by clients and contracted perfumers. Should we say, then, that all of the perfumers working at IFF are artists?

One thing is clear: if the word artist is to mean anything, then it must delineate a contrast class. The question becomes: who are the non-artists among all perfumers? If, as Chandler Burr ("The Curator") suggested in an interview for a piece at the Daily Beast regarding his new "olfactory art" exhibit (at the Museum of Arts and Design), even the person who created the scent for Coppertone suntan lotion is an artist, then it starts to sound as though anyone who produces new scents is automatically an artist. In the case of this naïve—or ignorant, if you like—use of artist as an emotive form of approbation, the term simply refers to anyone who produces something which we appreciate. What many in the "perfumery is art" camp fail to grasp is that the question of whether perfumery is art is not a question about whether perfume is a good or worthy thing. It is, rather, a conceptual question.

If every perfumer is an artist, then why not every chef and gardener and wine producer? Are candle and soap makers and bakers also artists in this sense? Well, then why not everyone else who does anything else we value, too? Why not farmers, civil engineers, school teachers, and heads of state? All of these people apply their intellect to generate creative solutions and reach certain goals: crop rotation, irrigation systems, interdisciplinary classroom curricula, five-year plans. Are these all supposed to be artworks, too?

We should not blind ourselves to the implications of this sort of promiscuous application of the term artist to everyone and his mother, brother, sister, father, cousin, niece and nephew.... In the end, if everyone is an artist, then no one is an artist. The label has been evacuated of all meaning. Why not, then, simply honor the perfumers who excel at their trade by identifying them as “great”?


  1. Wow, Sherapop! This is fantastic! Thanks for saving me from the annoying parts of this show.

    I'm tired of how the word "hero" has been utterly diluted since 9/11. (The people who were in the World Trade Center weren't heroes. They were stockbrokers and secretaries and chefs. I'm sorry they were killed, but they weren't heroes per se.) I definitely do not want to see "artist" become equally meaningless.

    The Gottlieb/Grojsman thing is amazing. I guess I would have thought that, with so many amazing successes, Grojsman would have to answer to no one. (I guess Dylan was right - you have to serve somebody.) Much here to think about!

    1. Thank you, pitbull friend, and welcome back! (-;

      Your example of a similar "overreach" with the use of the term of 'hero' is most apt. My view on that one is that people now use 'hero' for anyone who dies "in the line of duty," on analogy to soldiers. The grim reality is that the vast majority of men throughout history who died fighting in wars did not do so voluntarily. Most of them were forced to fight, on pain of certain death (execution) for refusal to do so. The question must, therefore, frankly be addressed: are such people heroes? Yes, it is unfortunate that they died. But do they deserve any moral credit, if they did not willfully sacrifice their lives? Or should we simply regret what happened to them?

      In the case that you mention, of people who died on 9/11, they were in the workplace doing what they usually did in the workplace, as you say: working as stockbrokers and secretaries and chefs. That was why they went to work on that fated day. Had they been asked whether they would risk their lives by going to work, I suspect that the vast majority of them would have said "No." Given the choice, they would have stayed home.

      The volunteer rescuers, on the other hand, and the men and women who accept risk of death as a regular part of their workday, can be properly labeled "heroes", it seems to me.

      I, too, was amazed by the light shed on the nature of perfumery by this little film in the segment on Gottlieb and Grojsman. Regarding "You have to serve somebody": maybe the only people who do not are the bona fide artists? Or are they just incredibly lucky? I wonder, in fact, whether there any perfumers or creative directors who are truly free of market forces...

      Thanks so much for sharing your insights, pitbull friend!

  2. Reading this review almost feels like I got to watch the movie--thank you! The Oud and Frankincense scenes and the perfume factory scenes sound worth the punishment of the campy/juvenile tone of the opening.The Gottlieb/Grojsman interaction here I would also love to see--getting insight into the conflicts that the "giants" of the industry embrace and getting to see some of the friction and struggle involved in perfumes we know and may quickly dismiss gives a certain reawakened desire to retest, revisit, evaluate our own tastes, and the perfumes in the context of their creation and time. Even the worst chemical soup makes me wont to retest and revisit if there is some kind of surprise, some human story in the background of its creation--I remember being enthralled in reading about the personalities of famous noses and the social games and perceptions in Chandler Burr's book "The Perfect Scent". I will seek out this film, and I will seek out more hot stories about conflicts among the world of perfumers and those secondary inanimate creatures, perfumes!

    Oh Most perfume is design indeed, but just as a Lalique paperweight is a paperweight, it might deserve the title of art if it is so elevated in aesthetic sense that it could only be the work of an "artist", whatever that is. I think of Dominique Dubrana, Serge Lutens, Ayala Moriel, among others as artists rather than mere designers, as the originality and completely unique aesthetic senses they engage appear to be driven by a little bit more than a well-engineered, profitable machine producing agreeable scents. Some great perfumes may still be great designs, but there will always be some perfumes that I think warrant the "art" status.

    1. Hello, kastehelmi! Good news, Cryptic (from Parfumo) located this video at Netflix, so it can apparently be streamed online. I have linked it to the post above...

      There is an incredible amount of thought-provoking material in this short film—at least for perfumistas! I need to read “The Perfect Scent”—and I shall at some point. What I find funny about Burr is that he really does seem to know the workings of the perfumery business and yet persists in proclaiming that perfumery is art. This leads one to suspect (as both Bryan Ross and Girasole have pointed out over and over again) that Burr simply does not have enough background in art history and theory to know how to use the term properly. He really seems trapped by this misconception that somehow if we love perfume, therefore, we must christen perfumers “artists”!

      I think that I must disagree with your willingness to apply the honorific “artwork” to designed objects which exhibit superlative beauty and aesthetic virtue. By that criterion, many objects in nature should qualify as works of art. Is the Grand Canyon a work of art? I think not. I realize that some religious people may say that it is God's creation and, therefore, a work of art, but that seems, again, to be stretching usage to the point of rendering the term vacuous.

      The question is not whether we value, admire, or even love an object of great beauty and apparently boundless novelty. The question of whether it is really art revolves only around what its creator was doing, it seems to me... I do believe that occasionally perfumers produce works of art, but I do not believe that the artworks should be distinguished from the works of design by our reception and estimation of them.

      That said, I agree with you that when a creative director imposes his or her values on the world in generating an entire oeuvre, he or she may be an artist. But the perfumers (noses) who help such creative directors to realize their vision may or may not be artists. It will vary from case to case. My distinct impression is that someone like Yann Vasnier, who seems to have designed every other perfume which I been testing of late, is a nose for hire—end of story. I feel the same way about Alberto Morillas. One thing is clear: whether Alberto Morillas is a genuine artist has nothing to do with how much we consumers value (if we do...) Mugler Cologne!

      Thank you for stopping by, kastehelmi. I always appreciate your incisive comments! (-;

    2. I should clarify Sherapop--the combination between name, backstory, bottle, high quality ingredients, and the presence of an "artisan" behind the perfume is what makes a work of art to me. But I might concede that it still is great design, since I was just going to say that a bell jar of Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles or Arabie or Rose de Nuit would be right at home in a fine art museum--beautiful glassworks is artistry, is it not? But if we are speaking of scent alone, it is not the same process, for sure. Still, one might sensibly say that certain noses are "doing it for the art"--or at least have done so, once or twice.I have to concede that Montale Roses musk, Aoud Roses Petals, Serge Lutens El Attarine, Hermes Hermessences and Hermes Eau de Merveilles among many other upmarket perfumes are my favorites, and may have been called "masterpieces", but "brilliantly designed perfumes" doesn't have to cheapen them. There is a reason why there is an uproar among perfumistas about Guerlain L'abeille extrait de parfum with its deep honey color in a sharply faceted baccarat crystal urn--few think it's "fair" to charge 12,500 Euros for it, but who in good taste will complain about a Jack Vettriano painting selling for upwards of 70x that?

      And the Grand Canyon is definitely not a work of art--nor of design ;)

    3. Thanks for this clarification, kastehelmi!

      I agree with you that there is something curious about both wanting to exalt perfumery as an art and at the same time bitching about the price! (-; Perfumistas should be happy that in our culture perfume is thought of as a lowly toiletry. That's the only reason why most of them can afford to indulge in such a luxury.

      How many people who wear perfumes by Chanel and Prada also wear clothes by those design houses? Very few, I'd surmise... And those prices are only for haute couture--as you say, a tiny fraction of the cost of (culturally acknowledged) fine art!

      I also agree that "brilliantly designed perfume" is not a term of derogation! Nor is "great perfumer"! (-;

  3. This is rather marvelous. I've been wearing Calvin Klein Eternity since its launch in 1988, only to find the Coty reformulations so disappointing. So, I was trying to find vintage bottles of Eternity when I chanced upon Gottlieb's site that seems to claim Eternity as her own work and remembering otherwise, I did a search that led me here. The account of Gottlieb v. Grojsman is fascinating.

    1. Greetings, sanaenam, and welcome to the salon de parfum!

      I am not surprised about the disappointing reformulation of CK Eternity, as I have generally been disappointed with the Coty-period output of formerly independent houses such as Marc Jacobs. At this point, I have basically given up on reformulations. I don't even seek out formerly classic perfumes because I know that I am simply setting myself up for disappointment. The time to acquire perfumes these days is at their launch. If you like what you sniff, then pick up a bottle or two. If not, it's better to simply move on rather than waste one's time hunting down possibly stale (or fake) vintage perfumes or the muzak reformulations of what once upon a time were great perfumes... It's all become quite a scam by now, with marketing campaigns riding out the wave of success of perfumes which bear scant resemblance to their former selves...

      I am glad that you enjoyed my account of the Gottlieb and Grojsman drama. If you have access to Netflix, be sure to check out this little film (now linked above).

      Thanks for stopping by, sanaenam—I hope to read you here again!

  4. Beautiful article. It's funny that you mention the toilet bowl cleaner - I was at a friend's house yesterday and he had a soap dispenser at the sink that I used to wash my hands. The scent was supposed to be "Pumpkin Spice" or some such thing, a Bath & Body Works product. It smelled like vanilla. It occurred to me that most companies like this one just throw basic aroma chemicals into common household products, and then use visual and title-based associations to attempt to convince the buyer that their product smells like what it says on the label. That, ironically, is true artifice, although certainly far, far from art.

    1. Hello, Bryan, and thank you! Yes, being a product of artifice is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for something to qualify as art.

      I'm not sure that I think that naming a vanilla scent so as to make it seasonally appealing (for example, as "Pumpkin Spice") is really any different from using beautiful (often seductive images) to market perfumes. No real connection exists between the people (Marilyn Monroe, Nicole Kidman... Brad Pitt!) depicted in advertisements for Chanel no 5 and the properties of the perfume itself. It became coveted over the past century in large part because of those images. Once a woman owns a bottle of the stuff, she will cherish it. Does she cherish it for the contents or for the whole package: the glamour she feels by donning such a perfume?

      I'm not knocking Chanel no 5, just saying that our reception is absolutely affected by its marketing. There is no extricating the experience of the perfume from the cultural associations induced by the process by which it was brought to our attention in the first place... When post World War II GI's lined up in Paris to acquire bottles of Chanel no 5 for their girlfriends and wives, it could not have been the scent which led them there--the vast majority of them (and their loved ones) had never smelled it before!


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