Fragrant Solutions. From Signature Scents to Cleaning Products
26. July 2021
Andreas Wilhelm took us on a tour of the fascinating world of scents. The renowned perfumer creates bespoke fragrances for various businesses and needs.
A few hundred components in as many bottles, a fridge chock-full with essential oils, droppers, beakers, precision scales, various recipes – and a pinball machine, because every once in a while, Andreas Wilhelm needs to clear his mind when he’s concocting his scents. The perfumer has been operating his own studio in Zurich since 2008, and he creates fragrances for various businesses and needs. Among others, his clientele includes the renowned hotel group Sofitel and the luxury branch of Hyundai, both of which now have their own signature scent thanks to Wilhelm. He’s also stuck his nose into the art world. Not long ago he made headlines with his money scent, which was commissioned by the artist Katharina Hohmann. Of course, he also designs traditional perfumes. «Basically we do anything as long as it’s related to scents in some shape or form» says the forty-four-year-old about the product range of his business.
Andreas Wilhelm introduced Dobas to the world of scents, and in a conversation that took place in his studio in Zurich, he talked about how he works, the opportunities and risks of signature scents, and the implementation of fragrances for spaces.
Mr. Wilhelm, how did you end up as a perfumer?
Andreas Wilhelm (AW): In the nineties, I was an apprentice at Givaudan where I worked as a laboratory chemist researching the basic substances involved in perfume design. The brand still is number one in the market for scents and flavours. Once I completed my apprenticeship, I was able to stay on and had a chance to get acquainted with the actual production. Some weeks I would extract vanilla pods to the tune of 700 kilograms! And that was it: I knew what I wanted to do with my life. After a brief stop with the extract provider Emil Flachsmann (now Frutarom Switzerland Ltd), I applied for a trainee position with the established Luzi AG. Eventually I became a perfumer. But I also always say that I consider myself a storyteller. No one buys a perfume simply because it smells nice. You buy it because of its history, because it’s rare and exclusive.
You’ve been a freelance perfumer since 2008. What products does Wilhelm Perfume offer?
AW: I create scents and then implement them in production. Our specialty is creating perfume concentrates tailored to the wishes of our clients. These concentrates are the starting point: they can be used, for example, in a scented candle, in a diffuser, or in a perfume. Or in a signature scent that makes sure a certain brand sticks in people’s minds.
What’s the process of creating these concentrates?
AW: Usually we start by analysing the brand DNA and the corporate identity of the client. We brainstorm with them, and during a workshop we define which emotions and associations a scent is meant to trigger. Should it be natural? Mundane? Technical? Cool? Green? Putting together this briefing usually takes a while, but it’s the foundation of the entire process. It’s different, of course, if a client already has a certain benchmark in mind, for example when I’m asked to design a scent for a candle that is meant to have a similar scent as one already on the market. Or when a customer wants to design a scent for target market X, and which is meant to sell 100.000 units. It also happens that a client asks me to meet them in a particular location and say: «I want my shop to smell exactly like this place!»
Doesn’t it make a difference for the development process if the perfume concentrate is used for a candle or a signature scent?
AW: The creative process is more or less the same, but the final use determines which raw materials we use in a given recipe. I can’t use anything that won’t perform. A scented candle that is meant to smell like a lemon will be designed differently than a lemon scent for a space. The purpose of a scent changes the technical baseline because it comes with different requirements. That’s also why it’s so important for us to know beforehand what products a concentrate will be used for.
Let’s turn to the recipes. How do you put them together?
AW: I design the scent based on our assessment of the client’s needs – at first only on the computer. I use a third-party database to mix the different components. The database belongs to the same provider that also produces the concentrate once I receive the client’s «go.» The database gives me access to 2000 raw materials, which I use to translate my ideas into recipes. Then I mix about 10 grams of the recipe to see if it smells the way I thought it would. Sometimes I produce more, 50 or 100 grams, and use the base formula to test out other combinations. I’ll add violets, for example, or iris root to see how it changes the scent.
Is there a lower and upper limit for how many components you use?
AW: It varies. In the end, a scent needs to be manufacturable. My recipes usually consist of 25 to 100 components. Jean-Claude Ellena, the longstanding perfume designer of Hermès, once said that the recipes grow shorter as you grow older. Based on my own experience, I would say he’s right. After a while, you’ve smelled so many things, you’ve designed so many scents…which means that you have considerable experience to fall back on.
You work internationally. How do cultural contexts impact the choice of the components of a scent?
AW: There are local preferences, which are learned. In the Middle East, for example, certain qualities of oudh are popular, which generally aren’t liked in Switzerland. Oudh is extracted from agar trees that have been infected by a particular fungus. The fungus produces the aromatic resin from which the essential oil is extracted. This makes the oil very expensive, more expensive than gold. A kilogram can cost up to 40.000 Swiss Francs. The extraction of iris root, by the way, is similarly intensive. It has to be stored in a stone hut for two years in order for a certain molecule to close enzymatically, which is when the distillation process can begin. The price for a kilogram is around 60.000 Francs.
What about the role of the body? Does it react differently to certain scents?
AW: Yes, that’s a so-called body reaction. It accompanies the cognitive processing of a scent, which is learned and subjective. Scientific research on this topic is still in its infancy, so there’s not yet a great deal of data, but we’re already deeply engaged with the topic and foster individual contacts with researchers, such as Hanns Hatt, chair of cell biology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum.
Scents can retrieve memories, both good and bad, from the unconscious. Is there a risk involved in creating scents, particularly when it comes to signature scents?
AW: The benefit of a signature scent is that it bolsters brand recognition. Humans remember events better in association with scents, whether the perception is conscious or not. Of course, that also bears certain risks, and a customer might forever associate a scent with a negative memory, but here we need to come back to the body reaction…a signature scent can include components that are soothing, for example the natural substance linalool. In the case of a negative event, you can make sure that the customer generally is more relaxed thanks to the scent. That way they tend to judge the event less negatively.
Are there certain businesses of fields particularly suited for having their own signature scent? And, conversely, are there any that should stay away from such scents?
AW: No. I think every business is suited to have a signature scent. Personally I think it's important to have a unique scent and not one off the rack. As I mentioned before, there are 2000 raw materials and the number of possible combinations is staggering…you can always create something individual and unique.
How to you go about designing a signature scent for spaces?
AW: Basically the same way as with other scents. What’s added is the analysis of the dimensions and the layout of the space. The situation should be assessed on location to see the structure of the ventilation, which appliances you can use to diffuse the scent, how much of the scent you’ll need, and so on. The demonstration of the scent also is done with the actual equipment used in the end, but it’s normal procedure to make a few adjustments after implementation.
How are signature scents ideally distributed across a space?
AW: It varies, and sometimes it depends on local regulations. In Switzerland, for example, a ventilation system can only conduct air and heat from the outside to the inside, which means that you have to install a device behind the exit shaft of the ventilation system. You can also distribute a scent through cleaning products, for example for floors, and we also collaborate with producers of cleaning products. Or you can use scented soap the staff use to wash their hands…there’s no gold standard. The final choice depends on the space and of course also the wishes of the client. Some want it to be more dominant, others prefer something more subtle.
How do you keep your nose in shape? Are you doing anything in particular?
AW: No, I don’t have to do anything special. The cells in the nose renew themselves every two to three weeks, and my noise also is «only» the quality control for my creations. My work is mainly based on my imagination…I am capable of imagining very precisely what components A and B will smell like when put together with component C, and which proportions are needed to get the desired result. If I think of a keyword like «transparency,» I can immediately think of countless components suited to such a scent.
Let’s glimpse into the future. What are you working on right now, and where will we be able to get a whiff of Wilhelm Perfume’s next creations?
AW: The «Museum of the Future» opens in Dubai this autumn. We developed three scents for the collection. One is meant to smell like the earth when humanity returns after an absence of 2000 years. It’s called «Scent Zero» and smells like fresh air but is also cool and green. It also contains linalool, which lowers the heart rate, as mentioned.
Images: © niro.graphy, Ardit de Niroo
Get a Noseful in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse
Andreas Wilhelm designed a signature scent for Genesis Motors, which was implemented in the company’s flagship store in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, among other places. Dobas also has been active on the famous shopping street. Learn more