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Meet the Faces

Meet the Faces

Photo of Arthur Burnham

Careers

MEET ARTHUR BURNHAM, A PERFUMER, WHO DESIGNS NEW FRAGRANCES FOR LARGE COMPANIES, FASHION DESIGNERS, CELEBRITIES AND ROYALTY.

What is your job title and what are the main characteristics of your day-to-day work?

I don’t have a job title as such. I work for myself and would describe myself as a Creative Perfumer.

There are no “typical days” for me. Everyday is different.

Companies, designers and celebrities will come to me with a brief for a new fragrance that encapsulates a mood, feeling, lifestyle or person. I assess their requirements and write a precise fragrance brief. I then think about the fragrance until its components come to mind, which is often in the middle of the night! I have a 'gift ' for understanding and translating a concept into a fragrance and all it must convey about the person or brand. Once I have “thought’ the perfume, I communicate the brief to a chosen supplier and work directly with their perfumers to achieve the final result. I may well present the client I’m working for with a number of fragrances to select from, each accompanied by a written rationale.

"There are no "typical days" for me."

I specialise in developing concepts for new brands, introducing appropriate licensing partners to the brand. Licensing partners pay for research and development, manufacturing, packaging and distribution. In short, I source suitable components and manufacturers for new products.

What area of science (if any) do you use in your current job?

None

Do you work in a specific department – if yes, is there a mix of speciality staff?

Now I work on a freelance basis but in the past I worked full time in large companies and corporations. I was Managing Director of a major fragrance oil and perfume compound supplier for 18 years.

What other departments/professions do you work with e.g. production, marketing, sales?

I work with fashion designers, supermarket brands and high street chemists as well as celebrities and royalty. I match these people with appropriate licensing partners. I guide the fragrance out of this alliance.

What made you choose your current job and why in the cosmetics industry?

"It's a very artistic and artisan craft."

Like all good things, it happened by accident. When I finished my university degree, I was impoverished, as students always have been, and my father’s friend, who worked in the fragrance industry, asked me to see what he did for a living. I had no interest but it was too rude to say no. He offered me work in Grasse in France for 3 months and I thought it would be great to be paid to live on the French Riviera for the summer, especially when I had no money for a holiday, so I accepted. Soon after I started working there, I became enchanted in the process and I started a traditional 10-year apprenticeship. I was lucky to be one of the last generation to have such in-depth training, and such a comprehensive apprenticeship. I learnt about the business from every single part of the creation process to all the manufacturing, administration and commercial aspects. It was fortunate that I was already fluent in French as I learned entirely in French! The rules were very strict and I spent six months gaining hands-on experience in each and every department from distillation and extraction of essential oils to mixing and manufacture, while also studying daily under a senior perfumer. My lessons were rigorous and complex. Apprentices not only had to learn every single raw material and recognise them by smell alone, they had to commit to memory key accords and pairs, extraction techniques, evaporation tables and historic formulae, as well as drawing in detail every single piece of equipment used. Nowadays people can do a 6-month apprenticeship and it just doesn’t compare to the depth of knowledge I have.

"I have come up with a categorising method whereby all scents are fitted into a fragrance wheel in one of 4 categories."

What are the most exciting aspects of what you do?

I love the creating aspect when I think of the perfume. After I’ve talked with the client through the brief, I think of the perfume until a direction will come to mind, when I think that will work – it’s a very artistic and artisan craft. I have come up with a categorising method whereby all scents are fitted into a fragrance wheel in one of 4 categories. Any new fragrance starts in the centre of one of these categories and develops, working outwards from there.

 

Circle of perfume
the circle of perfume separates all smells into four different types of scent

 

Are there any smells or scents you don’t like?

No.

Is there anything you don’t really enjoy in your day-to-day work?

"I love what I do and never want to retire."

The time it takes to develop, from the initial approach to me to putting together the client and the licensee. It can take up to 10 years and that can be frustrating. I also get irritated with the English who tend to be very negative to new ideas. If I want to put two scents together that haven’t been mixed before, they struggle with the idea of doing something new and tend to find flaws, so they can take a long time to persuade. Working with Americans is very different, they love new ideas and have a much more positive attitude to trying something different.

Are there any specific skills that are essential to have in the job you do?

You need a good sense of smell but then most people have that and then you need to train that sense of smell. I think my 10-year apprenticeship really stood me in good stead.

Are you careful about what you eat to preserve your sense of smell?

I don’t watch what I eat although it would be stupid to eat a spicy, fragrant lunch if I have delicate smelling to do in the afternoon. I even used to smoke black tobacco (free of casings and flavours) as it helped to clear out the olfactory nerve, which gets over stimulated with smells if you’re sniffing lots of fragrances.

"The apprenticeship is very important."

Could someone come into your job straight from school? What skills/qualifications would they need?

I think it unlikely that someone could come straight from school but it’s hard to find apprenticeships. The apprenticeship is very important but there are so few. It is worth speaking directly with some perfume oil suppliers.

Did you receive any special training either before or during your first year of working in your current role?

No

Did your previous job prepare you for this one?

No it was more corporate

Is there anything you wished you had studied or done differently when you were younger?

No

At school what did you think you would do for a living? For instance, did you envisage your sciences being used in the cosmetics industry?

I thought I would go into literature or publishing.

What subjects are you glad you studied? Were there any that were not immediately obvious as useful to your career but now are proving helpful, e.g. languages?

I’m glad I studied languages, as I couldn’t have done my apprenticeship without them. The one thing you have to use is language and the more languages you have the better.

With your skills and qualifications, what do you hope to achieve next in your career?

I want to do more of the same – I love what I do and never want to retire.

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