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One final glance at the water, one last barefoot stroll along the boardwalk. The journey is drawing to a close. In a moment–a moment that she thought would never come–Alexandra Carlin will be moved to tears. She has just finished packing her suitcase, filled with clothing from France and impressions of South Africa. She’s all set to fly back to her hometown of Paris. But then–Carlin can scarcely believe her nose–there’s a sticky-sweet scent in the air, at once soft and exhilarating. She inches her way through the wild shrubs standing between the wall of the building and the garden fence, holding her gentle hands protectively in front of her face. Wild bees found it first: the honeybush, which grows only in South Africa and whose yellow blossoms are used in preparing tea. Alexandra Carlin is at a loss for words. She has spent day after day on the Garden Route in fruitless pursuit of this rare plant. And here it was all along–in the garden of the vacation home where she’s been staying.
Being a perfumer: You’re telling a story–without a single word
For the past nine years, Alexandra Carlin (36) has worked for Symrise, one of the world’s major producers of flavors and fragrances. Since receiving her perfumery certificate in 2011, she has created a host of new fragrances, many of them for the global market. Some are developed on client request, others on her own initiative; either way, Carlin dives into each project with equal delight. “Some clients want too many scents in their perfume, which makes the composition restless. Then I have to determine which scent I can subtract,” says the perfumer, who works with up to two hundred scents at any given time. Carlin learned her craft first in Versailles, France, at the school for fragrance Institut supérieur international du parfum de la cosmétique et de l’aromatique alimentaire (ISIPCA), and later at Symrise’s school at their German headquarters in Holzminden. She later consolidated her knowledge under the guidance of a perfumer in the southern French town of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world. It is here the protagonist of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume refined his olfactory skills. Carlin’s original career goal was to become a writer and to move people through language. “But at the age of eighteen,” she says, “I was listening to the radio and heard perfumers talking about their work. I knew right away that it was the profession for me.”
And what do you learn at a perfume university? The art of smelling fragrances? “Yes, and you keep persevering until you’re able to break down scents into their constituent parts and to determine the proportions of the contents.” This calls for a very special talent, one that must be continuously honed, each and every day. Carlin is firmly convinced that anyone can memorize the raw materials that make up a perfume–all you need is time. “But composing a perfume is a completely different challenge. To do that, you have to be able to strike a chord with people and find the fragrance that will win their hearts. You’re telling a story–without a single word.”
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