At my first job, I was working for a non-profit organisation and our committee had been invited to a wealthy benefactor's mansion. I was 23 years old with an innocent incapacity to conceal my thoughts. Upon first greeting our benefactor, I not only told her she had the largest home I'd ever seen, but that she smelled absolutely fantastic. She merely blinked at the room, but what she really wanted to discuss was her perfume. She had been an 'expat' (It was the first time I had heard that word, and wasn't sure what it meant. It sounded very close to the word 'exotic' and I was starting to feel a little out of my league) in Switzerland, and a French perfumer made the scent just for her. Her perfumer had explained that each scent reacts differently on each person and he knew how to bring out the most pleasing scent for her body. I was mesmerised. Her very own perfume. Although the scent of my mother's perfumes brought comfort, this scent was the essence of this woman. I knew I wanted my own perfume. She warned me that having a custom-created perfume was very expensive. I needed to find out what this expat thing was all about. The master perfumer who created the fragrance for her was following a tradition that can be traced back to ancient Egypt, when essential oils were first used for religious purposes and healing. Nowadays, from marketing brief to bejewelled bottle, creating a perfume is a collaborative effort. Perfumes begin as an abstract concept of an emotion or ideal (redemption, seduction, playfulness, sometimes with a storyline) that will become the scent's soul. The client approaches a perfumerie and requests a scent along the lines of their concept, also including the maximum production price per litre. The master perfumer, 'the nose', will work with a team to develop a few briefs and secure the deal. For the next two to sometimes four years, the team will work on developing and fine-tuning the fragrance that will best deliver the client's message. You might imagine the 'noses' behind the products to be as mysterious and nuanced as the perfumes they create, but Jacques Polge, the legendary perfumer who has been at the helm of Chanel's perfume business for more than 25 years, is more like a fashionable scientist who favours black cashmere sweaters to lab coats and pocket protectors. Before he was 'Le Nez' he was apprentice to Henri Robert, the creator of Chanel No. 19. When the elder master retired, Polge took over. He went on to create Coco, Allure and Chance, and Egoiste for men, among others. Any aspiring perfumer must find a master to nurture their talents. This autumn, Chanel will launch Bleu for men, co-created by Polge and his second-in-command, Christopher Sheldrake. Since we are born with the same fundamental olfactory capability, super-sniffers can be trained to recall ingredients and to understand how many of them work together. They do this at the big fragrance houses or in perfumery schools, such as ISIPCA in Paris. 'You start like a pianist,' Polge explains. 'It is the same way of learning to read the keys by the hand, except, for us, it must be done with the nose. We have to practise until we can memorise each smell and the different constituents, like a chemist.' To perform as a maestro takes 10 to 15 years and the ability to recall 2,000 scents. A perfumer's job is to mix these scents in differing variations to create a fragrant, musical score comprising top notes, middle notes and base notes. They are mindful that each layer will reveal itself through the process of evaporation. It is here that a perfumer's work as a chemist blends with his skills as an artisan and artiste. 'The scent must be nurtured like a mystery and understood like a language through sensitivity alone,' Polge says. Alberto Morillas, master perfumer at Firmenich, agrees. His first inspiration comes from meeting the client. 'Proximity makes all the difference when creating perfume,' says the nose behind Bulgari's launch of 'Bulgari Man' this summer. After that, he always writes his formulas by hand. 'My handwriting is my emotion,' he says, 'When I write the formula, I can smell the perfume.' Yet, 'Le Nez' does not need to live his life any differently to preserve his sense of smell. Rather, says Will Andrews, from the fragrance creation team at P&G Prestige, creators of Anna Sui's latest offering, 'Forbidden Affair', a perfumer experiences life differently. In general, the brain of a trained perfumer will notice odour more readily, Andrews says. 'You also find yourself trying to identify and search for what is causing the odour, rather than reacting to it. 'It does mean that more powerful odours can be very distracting, so a professional perfumery design office has a neutral odour and people are discouraged from wearing fragrances to work. 'This is in stark contrast to the fragrance laboratory next door, which is scented by the powerful odour combination of hundreds of different ingredients,' he adds, noting that evaluation sessions take place in a closed room. Since flavour is 15 per cent taste and 85 per cent smell, a perfumer might be the perfect dinner guest, too. If you are a cosmetics counter hound, don't be led by the myth of sniffing coffee beans to reset your nose. Professionals do not use them because they are another powerful odour. Instead, they smell the crook of their arm, which is a better recalibration point because although you cannot smell your own odour, your brain can. Another myth, Andrews says, is that smoking has a long-term impact on your sense of smell. 'In the short-term it can modify your perception of certain ingredients and odours, but this passes quickly,' he says. The success of any new perfume lies in the master perfumer's awareness of fashion trends. Knowing what is going on in the lives of those who will eventually wear the scent and to capture the spirit of the times of their era requires a second sense. 'We do not invent anything, we just transform values which are unique to us,' says Polge, whose creations have been wildly successful. 'Seduction is the ultimate purpose of perfume.' Smell of success What is perfume? Perfume is made from about 78 to 95 per cent specially denatured ethyl alcohol, while the remainder consists of essential oils. Perfume is the costliest form of fragrance with 22 per cent essential oils. Eau de Parfum is next with between 15 and 22 per cent essential oils. Eau de Toilette has 8 to 15 per cent oils. Eau de Cologne has just 4 per cent essential oils. Eau Fraiche, with 1 to 3 per cent oils, is the lightest dilution of fragrance. Notable smells Each essential oil and perfume has three notes: 1 'Notes de tete': Top notes have tangy or citrus-like scents and are the first thing you smell. 2 'Notes de coeur': Central or heart notes provide body, i.e., aromatic flower scents. 3 'Notes de fond': Base notes provide a lasting fragrance, i.e., woody scents.