Calese Becker: The Poetics Of Smell

by Thomas Beller

01/02/2001

E 50th St & Madison Ave, New York, NY 10022

Neighborhood: Murray Hill

These days, it is she who gets on her tip toes when we greet each other or say good-bye. But she still wears that same perfume for special evenings, and when I smell it I’m transported, without even being aware of it, not so much to a particular time, but to a feeling, that wondrous, excited, slightly worried feeling that accompanied by mother going out into the world without me.

The whole experience of scent is sort of barbaric that way–barbaric in that it bypasses all the rational, civilized filters through which we experience the world, and shoots straight to that part of the brain where our most primal feelings and memories are lying in wait. Of all the senses, smell seems to the one that provokes the most uncontrollable reactions–think of the times you have walked into somebody’s home and had a shiver of discomfort, not because the smell of the house is bad, or even particularly strong, but because it is so personal, so particular to who is living there.

Maybe because of this we live in a kind of smell denial. It’s the most shame provoking sense. You can tell somebody their hair is a mess, or that they need new clothes, but to tell them they smell bad is to risk their never again talking to you. Even our language conspires against it. You can say “She listened,” or “She saw,” or “She tasted.” “But if you say, “She smelled,” you’re halfway to a insult. And then there is that instrument of smell-the nose. Why is the nose faintly ridiculous? I don’t know, except that it most certainly is.

Calese Becker’s nose is straight and small and does not, at first glance, seem particularly remarkable. It was educated in France and moved, with her husband and two young children, to New York a few years ago.

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote Gertrude Stein.

A nose, however, is not just a nose, at least not in the fragrance business, where smelling is a highly specialized activity. Calese Becker is what is called “A creative nose.” It is her nose that is constantly sniffing different combinations of ingredients–sometimes hundreds of them–which compose a perfume.

This is different from a “marketing nose,” who comes up with the image around which a fragrance will be based, or a “translator nose,” who tries to calibrate the smell to the look. It’s safe to say their are an enormous number of noses sniffing around every developing scent, but it all starts with what the creative noses creates.

Calese is a rising star at Quest, one of the four major fragrance companies in the world who formulate and manufacture the majority of the available scents. I am introduced to Calese by two publicists who flutter around her like nervous hens who are worried someone will steal their golden egg. One is from Quest, and the other is from Avon, whose successful Woman of Earth scent Calese created.

I’m given a box of Woman of Earth. The bottle looks like a huge diamond; the color is an odd green–not the color of grass, not the color of an emerald; the smell is delicate, sophisticated.

“I tried to make something that was both assertive and independent and feminine,” says Calese.

At first it is crisp, but ten minutes after you’ve smelled it there is still a feeling of vague warmth to it.

The box is black and pink. Calese’s name doesn’t appear on it. Like all the perfumers who actually make the scents on which billions of dollars a year are spent, she works behind the scenes.

Eventually, with the reluctance of parents who can do nothing more to protect their child and must at last let her go on a date, the publicists leave.

“We’re very hidden,” she says when I remark on their behavior. “And very protected.”

Calese has soft full cheeks which are a bit red, as though she has just come in from playing outdoors on a cold day. Her hands are small and lively, and she is arranging and rearranging three small glass vials that sit before her, worrying them like rosary beads. This is not the most relaxing time for her.

“We’re in finals,” she explains in her heavy French accent. “When you are arriving in finals it means that the customer really likes your fragrance, but it means they really like someone else’s fragrance, too. It’ a problem of anxiety. We are making leeetle touches. It has to be a bit more blooming on top. The sparkle in the heart has to be less heavy, less sweet.”

Her desk is a dark red mahogany color; she looks almost childish behind it, like a prodigy. In one corner are several framed photographs of her two young children and her husband, who has the same bright blue eyes as she. The eyes of an optimist. A worried optimist.

“We’re on deadline. It’s all about deadlines. Every other day there is a customer coming.”

And what does this customer do?

“She is smelling,” says Calese, with heartbreaking earnestness. She doesn’t understand how the English language conspires against her profession. She doesn’t mean this as an insult.

“When you are in love with fragrance it is very difficult to make it better,” she adds.

There are different way of smelling a perfume. How it smells when you first spray it. How it smells on the skin in the first minutes, after an hour, after a day. The variables are nearly endless. I imagine the possibilities: How a perfume smells when a woman has been insulted. How it smells when a man tells her he really likes her but isn’t ready for a commitment. How it smells when a man says something really romantic and then wants sex right away. How it smells when a man is playing hard to get. How it smells when a cat is playing hard to get. Every emotional variable will effect the way a perfume will smell on your skin.

Calese calls a man into her office–white shirt, bad tie, drooping pants. He’s in accounting. He rolls up his sleeve and averts his eyes with the solemn and resigned expression of someone about to give blood. It happens all the time, he says. Every day. It’s part of the job. He doesn’t wear any cologne himself, because he needs to be neutral for such tests as these. “They need skin,” he explains. “Fresh skin.” **

She sprays some on his wrist. We each take a sniff. His duty done, he walks away, a plume of fragrance.

“It smells…nice,” I say. She shoots me a look. “Great!” I add quickly. There is something wonderfully expressive about Calese’ face. The last thing she needs is some uneducated nose casting doubt on the fragrance she has been working on for a year.

“I got the brief in the spring of 1998,” she explains. “They wanted something incredibly trendy, with a very high pitch, a lot of vibration. It’s for someone very ahead of things, a trendsetter with a lot of energy. If you had to pick a color it would be yellow. If you have to pick an age it would be 17-25. If you have to pick a style it would be more East Village than upper East side. They showed me some pictures of women. They found women on the street who looked the way they want their customers to look and took their picture. They just pick an ambiance. They say: ‘It’s not for a woman at tea time wearing lace. It’s for a woman jumping out of a plane with a walkman on her ears.’”

I had vaguely expected to find in my perfumer someone grandiose, eccentric, flamboyant, like a chef who sits majestically amidst his kitchen; a conductor who presides over his orchestra with disheveled grace; or a mad scientist amidst bubbling test tubes. Someone, in a word, famous, or at least with the aura of fame.

But the nature of perfumers’ work is much more private. The closest parallel with the perfumer is probably a writer–or more accurately, a ghost writer–someone working alone, tinkering with an idea, doing revision after revision on the same project for which they will get little or no credit in the public realm. (how much money do they make? They’re successes are someone’s else’s success, ad the same goes for their failures. She gets paid a flat rate. how much?

Someone came up with CK1, and it wasn’t Calvin. Someone invented Michael Jordan’s scent, and it wasn’t Michael.

There are four large companies who actually create and manufacture nearly every fragrance on the market, and every time a new fragrance is developed all of them engage in a tense competition against one another for who will get the contract. It’s the sort of arrangement that breeds paranoia, intrigue, and suspicion–that makes publicists reluctant to leave the office.

The tattered ledger at the edge of Becker’s desk turns out to be a record of every fragrance she has ever submitted to a customer. The entries start in April 1987 and are written out in small precise script. She treats it with great care, pulling the old cover open as though it were a secret map to treasure which, for her, it is. There is something heartbreaking and deeply likable about the vigor and energy and anxiety in Calese’s movements.

“I’ve been keeping this book since the beginning, since before I was married. Every try is here.”

Every few pages features an entry highlighted in yellow: A win. Since 1987 there have been about 3,124 submissions to clients, and for every submission Calese has made ten or twenty tries. From this massive number has resulted fifty seven wins.

” My very first win was a shampoo for Indonesia. They sent me all this Indonesian hair. It came in a box. We were washing this Indonesia hair and standing around smelling it when it is wet, when it is drying, when it has been washed a day.”

I notice something odd about her office. There are several hooks on the walls, sitting there, naked, as though someone had stolen the pictures that had been there the previous day.

“What happened to the pictures?” I ask.

She looks at me uncomfortably. “They took them,” she says.

They?

I find the hidden contraband behind the office door; several frames stand face forward to the wall. I turn one face out. It’s a big splashy poster for Tommy Girl, the Tommy Hilfiger Fragrance which, it turns out, Calese also created. Tommy Girl was the #1 fragrance this past Christmas, selling millions bottles in the U.S.

“Why are these being hidden?” I ask. The publicists, it turns out, are to blame.

She shrugs. “Maybe they don’t want to confuse things,” she says. And I see their point. It’s odd to think that one nose would create scents; a chef creates different dishes, of course, but it’s different, it’s all food. Fragrance, on the other hand, has associations that are miles away from what it actually is–a smell.

All that perfume marketing is, on some level, meant to distract the customer from that uncomfortable fact: this is a product for noses.

“People are educated to hear, to look, to taste. But not to smell,” she says. “It’s amazing how people are without vocabulary to speak about perfume. Even if there is a scent you like, you will wear it in a shy way unless you have a concept that reinforces the fragrance.”

There are hundreds of ingredients that a perfumer can choose from when concocting a scent. And more are developed all the time. Synthetic fragrances that smell like things that you wouldn’t think have a smell, such as sand.

I call Calese in the middle of the day.

“What are you doing?” I ask

“I’m meeting with a salesman who has a new ingredient,” she says. “Something I might want to use in one of my fragrances.”

“What’s the new ingredient?”

“Pink Peppercorn,” she says.

For days I wandered around wondering how pink peppercorn might smell on a woman’s neck.

Quality control is a major concern, and I am accompanying her on a visit the Quest factory in New Jersey. The huge bustling factory has forklifts shooting this way and that, industrial blue barrels are stacked high to the ceiling; the dull roar of activity is accompanied by the local rock station piped in through speakers. Calese strides into the place to the accompaniment of ACDC’s Back in Black.

The art of perfumery is, on one level, chemistry, but none the less no batch of perfume can be shipped to the bottles unless the original perfumer themselves has smelled it and approved.

The men wear white construction hats and protective plastic goggles. The smell is overpowering. It’s like every smell ever–Juicy Fruit gum, shampoo, cherry cough drops, perfume, a field of flowers, fabric softener, Windex.

“The gift of the perfumer is to take to take the thing that is unbeautiful and combine it with other things to make it beautiful,” Calese says, her hard-hat perched on her head, the protective glasses obscuring half her face.

It strikes me that the perfumer’s other talent is to discern from among the millions of smells around them those which are important, interesting, useful.

We are lead over to a wall where three huge steel tanks sit. I one they are mixing a batch of Surf liquid detergent. In another something called “Peach Caress.” And in the third, the precious fluid that brought us out here: Women of Earth.

John, the plant manager, calculates that there is enough Perfume here to make just under a million bottles.

Calese lifts the lid. It is heavy duty, industrial, almost military. She puts her heads down into the tank, disappears all the way down to her waist, and of course I worry she will fall in. She is, as she puts it, “smelling.”

It seems almost absurd to see such a rarified commodity, which one usually glimpses is precious little bottles, in such quantity, next to the Peach Caress Surf detergent. She lifts her head. It smells all right. The lid is closed, fastened, a few buttons hit, and the tank rumbles to life, churning this new batch of fragrance elixir.

On the way out one a man named Donny shakes her hand. He spends his days carefully following her recipes, moving up and down the long aisles of blue tanks, drawing the precise amount of fragrant liquid out of each one.

We chat for moment, and he tells me that the fruity, overpowering smell of the factory stays on him, his clothes, permeates his life. If he walks into a bar after work, everyone knows someone from Quest has walked in, just from his smell.

I’m reminded of a French word Calese explained to me: Silage. It refers to the effect in which a woman wearing a perfume will leave a kind of fragrance trail. “For a woman to wear a fragrance mans she will be present even in her absence,” Calese had said. And it strikes me that the Quest factory is a kind of memory factory, making this magic potion that gets into the air–and the imagination–and lingers.

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