north of neutral dialog

May 1, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Maurice Roucel, Master Perfumer, Symrise AG

This dialog starts on the 15th floor at the Manhattan offices of Symrise on 505 Park Avenue. Symrise is the fourth largest player in the global flavors and fragrance market and the man in charge, Maurice Roucel, is there to greet me.

His first word is “Angel”. I realize that this could be misconstrued by an outsider, but I know exactly what he is referring to: I am wearing my favorite perfume ‘Angel’ by Thierry Mugler. I have to laugh – this was a low-hanging fruit for Roucel, one of the most revered perfumers in the world (his level of mastery is also known as ‘le nez’ – the nose).

Since devouring Suesskind’s fiction novel The Perfume, in which the protagonist takes his ‘calling’ to a savage extreme, I had always been keen to learn about the real world of a master perfumer. Maurice Roucel has spent nearly 40 years in the fragrance industry, and has been recognized for his excellence through winning various accolades in the fragrance industry, including the Prix Francois Coty, the French and American FiFi, and the ‘Oscar des Parfums’.

The role

Creating a new fragrance begins with a vision – which typically starts with a brief from the client who specifies their objectives for the scent, including the target audience profile and the desired brand positioning. Roucel’s clients – such as DKNY, Gucci, Kenzo, and Roberto Cavalli – range from the everyday to the ultra-luxurious.

Roucel, as the master perfumer, adds his own ideas and distinctive nuance to client specifications – all of this still very much a “cerebral exercise”. He then translates this vision into a formula, a mix of individual scents recorded in different ratios on a technical sheet. This formula is subsequently mixed together in the Symrise laboratory, circled back to an evaluator and, finally, back to the perfumer. There often are a number of runs involved before the perfect scent is ready to be shared with the client.

While exclusive perfume creations are part of the Symrise portfolio, new fragrances are frequently developed for the broader consumer market. Hence the success of a perfumer (and his creations) depends greatly on the appeal of a certain fragrance to the consumer – this is assessed by the client through test runs. The perfume industry is highly competitive, however, and of the 700 new products introduced every year, over 90% flop…

In a world where perfume often evokes romantic images, I was surprised by how unromantic the process is. It can be broken down in to three phrases: analytic vision, technical process, and commercial viability. The words I would have anticipated following a tour of the perfumeries in Grasse (the perfume capital of the world, in the South of France) would have been more like: inspiration by nature, epitomized beauty, and sensuality.

Roucel laughs when I share my thoughts, “There are only a handful of companies of the likes of Chanel who still use high-end, natural ingredients such as rose petals. Most perfumers have started using artificial ingredients. However, if it is thought out and well executed, you can still have a magnificent outcome.”

What is the most fulfilling element of his job I ask, “The ultimate reward I get is when I walk the streets and all of a sudden I catch the scent of a person passing me who carries one of my fragrances.” Classic perfumes create legends, even if the individual consumer is not aware who the creator was. Roucel, a legend, can look back at over 50 fragrances he has created that are carried by major designer brands.


Maurice Roucel was born in Normandy, northern France, as one of two sons. His mother stayed at home and his father worked at a local garage. He remembers that, at the age of five, he wanted to become an explorer. His natural curiosity and interest in experimenting stayed with him and, when the time came for university, he majored in organic chemistry and gas chromatography.

Following his graduation, at the age of 23, he was hired as a chemist by Henri Robert, Chanel’s chief perfumer at the time, who was known for producing a string of classic perfumes, including Chanel’s famous fragrance ‘No19’. “Monsieur Robert was a wonderful mentor, he never told me what to do and even though he was known to have fired many people over the years, we worked well together during my six years with the firm.”

One of Roucel’s responsibilities at Chanel was building up the “chromatography” research (in essence a process used for breaking down mixtures by virtue of differences in absorbency). This allowed Chanel to benchmark against competing fragrances by ‘cracking the code’ of their rivals’ scents.

When IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances) offered Roucel the opportunity to change roles and make the move from chemist to perfumer, he was ready for the challenge. “This was a vastly different environment from Chanel. Perfumes were developed for external clients, not for an in-house brand; ingredients were inferior in quality; and the culture highly political.” When I ask Roucel why he stayed with IFF for six years, he says that while Chanel had been his introduction to the world of fragrance, IFF provided the training ground that taught him the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the business side.

Following IFF, Roucel joined Quest International where he stayed for twelve years, further developing his personal ‘brand’ and reputation as a perfumer. One of his legendary creations during this period is ’50 Faubourg’ for Hermès, which took six years to develop.

When Roucel decided to leave for Symrise in 1996, he was given an increased level of responsibility, including the opportunity to develop the firm’s New York office in 1999. This was when he decided to leave everything behind, except for two suitcases, and came to the U.S. At Symrise, Roucel is now a somewhat ‘éminence grise’ among the firm’s perfumers, and is much respected for his rich portfolio of experience and expertise.

Shift from a career to a calling: talent & 10,000 hours

1/Manage your talent creatively

Roucel had come to perfumery by coincidence, chemistry having been his first love. He was quick to discover common ground, however, with modern perfumery being for the most part chemistry – the science of matter and the changes it undergoes during chemical reactions. He realized that the world of perfume fed his need to explore, and stimulated his curiosity and his fascination with disentangling or developing the bond between (fragrance) molecules. Perfumery is complex (different evaporation rates, interaction with different skin types, thousands of possible combinations), and allowed Roucel to satisfy his desire to confront and to solve challenges.

However, classic chemistry or perfumery is not the only career that could have suited Roucel’s natural talents and abilities – he might have had a fulfilling and successful career as a pharmacist, forensic detective or a NASA scientist.

We tend to be linear thinkers when it comes to careers – a math student is bound to become a math teacher; a student of law a lawyer or judge. This can be a hurdle when it comes to maximizing one’s chance of finding professional fulfillment and meaning. Maurice Roucel was in touch with his natural talent and inclinations, remained open to opportunities that came his way, and was creative in the way he built his career.

2/Practice to reach peak performance

Roucel has never been privy to the more formal training that takes place nowadays at the elite ‘perfume schools’. To my surprise he told me that, “I’ve broken my nose and was a heavy smoker for many years.” It seems there must have been more than sufficient odds stacked in his favor (and plenty of talent).

A significant part of Maurice Roucel’s success was his relentless appetite to learn more about the world of perfume, which drives his remarkable work ethic. In addition to mastering the skills of a leading perfumer, Roucel would study professional publications for hours to learn more about the business. He read research papers on perfumery, he wrote his own book about perfume chemistry, and when others would be playing at the beach during a business trip to Brazil, Roucel could be found in the laboratory, developing a new fragrance.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, asserts in his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice and hard work on top of talent to produce world-class performance. Translated into years, Gladwell continues, this is roughly 4 hours a day of building skills and knowledge over the course of 10 years.

Thankfully for Roucel, the investment of time and practice is, for the most part, not a sacrifice, “I truly enjoy what I do.”

If I had to guess what Maurice Roucel’s particular signature strengths are, then I would cite ‘appreciation of beauty and excellence’, ‘love of learning’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘perseverance’. The key seems to be to carefully assess and apply your talent where your strengths are, so that the time investment that is a requirement of building skills and knowledge in your field is an activity that is an enriching part of what you do on a day-to-day basis. And if you manage this, and choose the right calling, then you should always come up smelling of roses…

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