Over the last two decades – thanks at least in part to the efforts of websites like the one on which you’re reading these words – the role of the perfumer has enjoyed a higher profile amongst the general public. Not only do more people know that – surprise surprise – perfumes are composed by human beings. They’re increasingly aware of the specific identities of some of these people. And they know which fragrances they’ve made and which brands they’ve worked for.
But it’s probably true to say that there isn’t yet any widespread knowledge about the role of the evaluator. Precisely what this position entails varies to some extent from one company to another – and perhaps even from one individual to another – but essentially, evaluators fulfil the function of an influential go-between.
In large organisations that take on hundreds of perfume projects every year from brands of all possible descriptions, the evaluator is a layer between the client (ie Versace, YSL, Givenchy et al) and the actual perfumers who are going to create the juice. So it’s the evaluator who communicates with the client about their needs for a potential perfume release, thereby ‘protecting’ the perfumers from having to spend precious time away from their labs. But it’s also the evaluator who challenges the perfumer to meet the brief provided by the client, nudging their work in one direction or another in order to ensure that the project results in a fragrance with which the brand is happy.
As you can imagine, it’s a role that requires several skills. For one thing, evaluators need to have a fairly strong understanding of perfume composition and of the materials that are available to scent-creators. But they must also be in tune to the tastes of the many different segments of the market, as well as to the never-ending ways in which these tastes change. And, like a cross between a psychoanalyst and a sports coach, they have to manage their perfumers’ skills and temperaments, deciding when an ego needs to be massaged or boosted or quashed.
They must also be supremely well-organised. In a multi-national set up like Givaudan, an evaluator may have anything between 10 and 15 projects on the go at any given time. But ‘a project’ doesn’t necessarily equate to a single perfume. In some cases, a project may actually be, say, a seven-scent collection for a new brand. And each of those scents may have one or more perfumers working on it. So a typical evaluator may have to keep tabs on anything in the region of forty individual perfumes at a time, and a sizeable number of individual perfumers. Without a clear focus and dependable, efficient systems, it’s a task that could easily descend into chaos.
To find out more about the sorts of people who play this vital role in the formation of some of our scent memories, I spoke to two evaluators from Givaudan: one at a relatively early stage in her career, and one with an impressive degree of experience.
The latter was Naila Hamayed: half-French, half-Moroccan, born and brought up in Casablanca, part of the Givaudan brigade since 2000, and currently based in their Paris HQ. Bound by the secrecy that necessarily shrouds her work – and that of her colleagues – she wasn’t able to share too many specifics about the projects on her CV. But she did reveal that she was involved in the creation of many of the most high-profile releases of recent years, including the flankers of Paco Rabanne’s 1 Million, several of the Pradas composed by Daniela Andrier and the most recent variants of Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Male and Classique. At the start of our conversation, she told me that she knew from a very early age that her life was bound to be tied up with the realms of scent.
Naila Hamayed: I was very young, actually. My father used a lot of perfume. He used to work for Royal Air Maroc, so he travelled a lot. And he used to bring back thousands of bottles of fragrances, for himself and for my mum. I grew up within a very fragrant universe. In Morocco there are always lots of smells. Spices. Herbs. Food. When I was fourteen, I read an article in a magazine which described ISIPCA. And that was a revelation. I thought, “Wow, there is a place that can teach you about fragrances?” I was a good student, so my parents wanted me to go into the grandes ecoles, but I refused. I told my parents I wanted to work in perfumery. I had no idea of how anything works, but my main objective was to get into ISIPCA. And that was it.
I got a chemistry degree. I passed the ISIPCA exam. But I couldn’t find a company to hire me for two years for the required internship. I had no contacts. This was nearly thirty years ago. At that time it was a very small and very secret universe. If you didn’t know anybody, it was really difficult to get in.
One day, I went to see a new optician. And he told me that I really reminded him of one of his patients, who was working at Lancôme. I told him I was trying to get into a perfume house. I asked him if he would help me get into the industry in some way. And he super-kindly called me back. He gave me the number of a man to call. I called the man, and he arranged for me to call someone at Charabot. And I went to their office in Paris and I was accepted for a two-year internship. That’s why, today, whenever I can help any young people trying to get into the industry, I really try to help them.
Persolaise: What were some of the perfumes your father wore?
NH: He wore so many! Fahrenheit. Egoïste. Bel Ami. Anything new. My mother wore Cabochard and Byzance. My sister Montana Parfum De Peau, but my father didn’t want her to wear it, because it was too sexy. I loved Benetton Colours. Hermes Amazone. I fell in love with Calvin Klein Obsession and Must De Cartier.
P: Were you ever tempted to become a perfumer?
NH: I always wanted to be an evaluator. I really was not attracted by being a perfumer. I always say to junior evaluators that if you want to be a good evaluator, you mustn’t be a frustrated perfumer and you mustn’t want to become a sales person. Otherwise you’ll never be happy. You have to be aware that you won’t be in the spotlight. That you have to deal with a lot of emotions. You have to be a bit of a coach for the perfumers. You have to get the satisfaction of pulling from the person the best that they can do. Sometimes they’re not confident, and you give them confidence. For me, the most exciting thing is making my customer smile while smelling something that I know my perfumer has made with his guts.
P: How would you say your role has changed in the last twenty years?
NH: Consumer tests have changed the way that we handle a project. You know that you have to get good scores on consumer tests. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case so much. And the great challenge is to deal with this. To be sure that you preserve the DNA of your initial idea while pleasing the maximum of consumers through the tests. Angel would never have been launched if it had been tested. This is my opinion, but I think you shouldn’t worry about consumer tests. You can always find something positive in a consumer test. So focus on the positive and try to build around it. Don’t use tests as something that gives you a Yes/No binary approach.
P: In your work, would you say you’re more interested in the people or in the products?
NH: You can’t work in this industry if you don’t like people. We’re always touching ourselves, smelling ourselves. You have to be very social.
P: Would you rather that the perfumes you work on achieve commercial success or artistic success?
NH: Well, artistic means commercial. We’re not totally responsible for commercial success. Sometimes you have a super-nice fragrance which is a flop. But you’re still proud of the fragrance. And sometimes you find that a fragrance that is very well done, but maybe has a bit less signature than you had thought, is a super huge success. In both cases, you’re proud of what you have done.
P: Some people in the industry – perfumers in particular – have told me that they have a negative view of evaluators. They say that they wish they didn’t have to work with them, that they’d rather deal directly with the clients. Why do you think they hold this view?
NH: Because they’re too weak in front of an evaluator. The power doesn’t belong to the evaluator. The power belongs to the perfumer. And if the perfumer has a conviction, he is the boss. You have to respect that. You share your conviction. You share your vision. You help the perfumer. You’re not there to judge. You’re they’re to evaluate — to give value to the work. Evaluation is not directing.
P: Do you ever consciously try to bring certain styles or notes into the projects you’re working on?
NH: No. As an evaluator, the most difficult part of my job is to be objective and not to take into consideration my personal taste. For example, on the ten projects I’m developing, maybe nine out of the ten would be fragrances I wouldn’t wear myself.
P: But in your list of the perfumes from your past, you mentioned several 80s classics. Wouldn’t you like to see any old perfumery styles return?
NH: I’m not nostalgic. Carpe diem would be my motto. I never think things were better before. There were super-great fragrances in the past. There are super-great fragrances today. And there will be super-great fragrances in the coming years. On the other hand, yes, we have gone through a lot of fragrances that smell the same. For sure. But going back to vintage structures will not bring something new. For me, I would say it’s more about how we can, with contemporary codes, reinvent fragrances with signatures as strong as the ones in the 80s. For example, if you smell one of our recent successes – Carolina Herrera Good Girl – you see it has a strong signature. It’s powerful. It’s memorable. And it’s a new kind of fresh oriental. So we can do it. Maybe thanks to new ingredients, new captives, new molecules.
P: Finally, what would you say is the least appreciated aspect of the work that you do?
NH: Well, at Givaudan we are well recognised. Maybe something that’s less considered is the emotional part that we have to deal with all day long. We are like the ‘emotion sponges’ of the perfumers’ doubts, frustrations, everything. But we have to be the ones always smiling and encouraging and believing in their creativity, boosting them. And sometimes we become like an iPhone with a dead battery — no more energy.
Read Part 2 of this article – an interview with Givaudan evaluator Paula Cantuaria on Persolaise.com