The sourcing of raw materials is an aspect often ignored by the public, yet it is an integral part of the perfume creation process. Like a true explorer, the sourcer, this “scent picker” travels the world in search of new raw materials. And these ones may one day find their way into the composition of your next fragrance! We explain the background of this exceptional profession and its evolution over the years.
Profession: sourcing raw materials for perfumery
An unusual job description
Halfway between Indiana Jones and Marco Polo, the mission of the sourcer is complex. The first and most intriguing part of the job is to unearth new fragrant raw materials that can potentially be used in perfumery. The sourcing of raw materials also consists in studying plants already known by perfumers. It then seeks to develop new methods of cultivation and use. To carry out this research, the sourcer explores the whole world, from the Australian bush to the Amazon, through the desert of Namibia.
Does this job make you dream? We understand you! However, there is no real training to become a “scent discoverer”. One thing is certain: you must be comfortable with agronomy, business and enjoy human contact. There are no official figures on the number of these scent adventurers. According to various articles, there are between 15 and 100 of them in the world today.
Who needs the sourcing of raw materials?
Buyer of raw materials and essences, the sourcer is also and above all the link between the producers and the perfumers. He/she thus brings the reality of the “field” into line with the marketing requirements of his clients. But precisely, who do they work for? They can work independently or be employed directly by large composition companies. These are global companies that create fragrances for brands that do not have in-house noses (and this is the majority of fragrance brands today). Adding new scents to their palette is a real commercial argument for these companies. It will allow them to convince more brands to work with them.
Sometimes, the sourcer goes directly to the big perfume houses that design their own fragrances. They are then looking for rare ingredients to create their formulas. More rarely, the explorer can work with smaller players in the perfume industry. But this remains anecdotal when we know the cost of the research of raw materials which is very (very) high. It is easy to understand why this is very expensive, as finding new scents is a real challenge to be competitive. Indeed, integrating a new and still unknown ingredient in a fragrance is often synonymous with a significant advantage over competitors and a real asset for customers.
Ethical and responsible sourcing of raw materials
Behind the postcard image, sourcing raw materials also has a real environmental, ethical and economic responsibility. Several decades ago, the sourcer and their employers did not really care about production conditions. Today, the demands of brands, as well as those of consumers, are much more advanced. People want to know where their product comes from, what it is made of and to be sure that it has been produced in an environmentally and human friendly way. The work of the olfactory explorer must therefore consider these new demands. To meet these more complex specifications, but also to avoid supply disruptions in the long term, finding new raw materials, however exceptional, is no longer enough. It is necessary to ensure that the exploitation of a new perfume plant or a scented wood is sustainable and that it respects the way of life of the local people and their environment.
Sourcing a raw material: the process
Discovering new raw materials for perfumery is not as simple as it seems. By traveling the world, the explorer seeks the most beautiful essences. And to do this, the aim is to identify the best producer, the one who will produce the finest and most fragrant material, while having a true respect for the culture and the workers. Then it is necessary to establish a real relationship of trust with these farmers, who sometimes use ancestral methods, deeply rooted in local cultures. The sourcer must therefore know them and listen to them in order to understand their fears and difficulties.
… to the composition
Once the scent is found, the process doesn’t stop there, quite the opposite. It is necessary to convince the brands/composition companies to be interested in it. And this is not an easy task because investing in a new raw material represents an average of 150,000 euros, just to register it on the market! Once the authorization is given, it is necessary to find an agreement with the local producers to start the exploitation: purchase price, requested volume, manufacturing process… The sourcer acts as an intermediary between the industry and the producer to evaluate all the terms of a future contract. Often, the explorer links up with NGOs or local associations to regulate production and ensure more ethical sourcing of raw materials.
The basic equipment for a scent hunt
Already equipped with your whip and an explorer’s hat? You’ll still need to add a few useful odds and ends to your backpack!
To discover and analyze a raw material, sourcing requires specific equipment with two precise tools. The first is a headspace. It is a kind of capsule that allows to capture the smell of a plant to record its odorous compounds. The plant, the flower or the bark is introduced in a kind of glass bubble which is connected to a pump. This machine will analyze the composition of the air inside the bubble to draw up a sort of olfactory identity card of the plant studied.
The sourcer is also equipped with a still. This tool allows the distillation of a raw material with steam to obtain an essential oil. In a more compact version, the still allows the explorer to heat directly on the spot a flower, roots, leaves, to realize extracts.
To go further
Although this profession is still little known, some people are committed to spreading the word about this intriguing job. This is the case of Stéphane Piquart, a scent hunter who created Behave in 2007, a sourcing raw materials company that seeks to apply a sustainable and ethical model. He tells his story in a podcast of the Fragrance Foundation to listen here. This profession is also experiencing a new interest thanks to Dominique Roques. He is a sourcer for a major composition company, who is publishing a book about his experience. Like a travel diary, Cueilleur d’essences takes us through more than 30 years of travel in search of new scents. Whether you are a connoisseur or simply curious, this book promises a beautiful olfactory escape!
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