Lee, a senior researcher in perfume research, was recruited to Amore Pacific Corporation’s Research and Development Center in 2003, thanks to an acute sense of smell she modestly claims as only “above average.”
Generally, in the first year for the newly recruited perfumers, a perfumer working at a cosmetics corporation must study two to three hundred types of smells. Afterwards, perfumers are able to devise new smells with the knowledge acquired that first year. After her one-year study, Lee was able to learn more and combine various smells with each other, detecting over five hundred different smells.
With such accumulated expertise, Lee went on to produce scents for cosmetic products, such as Etude House’s special perfume “Mini Me.”
If the marketing department requests a smell to evoke the image of something simple, such as a rose, Lee claims this is easy to create.
Concocting complex smells from scratch, however, is a different case.
“An order such as ‘a nostalgic smell of a mother’s powder from early infancy’ is difficult to imagine,” Lee said. “Communication between the marketers and our team is therefore crucial.”
Communicating with the marketers underlines the importance of literary expression. Lee and her team must not only actually create the perfume chemically, but also present it to the marketing department with a precise but literary description of the fragrance.
“Being able to poetically and vividly describe the smell of a perfume is the most important, yet also the most difficult. We try using colorful and descriptive phrases, such as ‘the earth’s natural orange fragrance well mixed with a cool ocean breeze bearing a scent of sandy wind,’” Lee said.
Pleasant scents are usual, but working as a perfumer does not exclude testing fetid odors.
“There was this one time when an employee did not throw away the materials used to test a stinky smell properly, and the entire laboratory reeked like poo for a week!” exclaimed Lee.
Lee recounts another time when she tested a men’s perfume.
“On my bus ride home from work, my body smelt like one of those strong men’s cologne so much that I remember the other bus passengers stared at me the entire bus ride with blatant expressions,” Lee said.
According to Lee, the ability to acquire an acute sense of smell is innate, and she claims to have reacted to smells more readily than others from early childhood on.
Asked whether she had wanted to become a perfumer, however, Lee responded that she had never dreamed of becoming one until a senior colleague of hers from Ewha recommended the job to her.
From being unaware of what a perfumer did to working as an actual perfumer in Korea’s largest cosmetics corporation, Lee found the perfect job for her innate ability.
Despite the lack of awareness and the small number of perfumers such as herself working in Korea, Lee believes that a career as a perfumer is nevertheless meaningful.
Though smelling over 20 different smells per day is tiring and wears down the perfumer’s olfaction, Lee explains that the creativity involved in concocting a smell makes her occupation so irresistable.
“A perfumer is like a fashion designer who dresses the cosmetic products with scents that are unique to each perfume and will not go unnoticed―a perfumer thus gives each perfume its uniqueness.”