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Interview: Robert Calkin, perfumer

08 April 2022

‘The smell of a rose contains more than 300 known chemical components, many of which are quite unpleasant’

Until I entered the perfumery industry, I had little or no interest in the sense of smell. I’d left university as a botanist with a bit of chemistry and a lifelong passion for evolutionary biology, and for playing the violin. With these qualifications, I was sent along by the University Appointments Board to be interviewed by the London-based company of Yardley, who were prepared to take me on as a perfumery trainee.

My training involved being sent to study in Paris and Geneva,
and, of course, the south of France, working almost entirely in fine perfumery. I was thoroughly spoiled. Eventually, I became the chief perfumer at Yardley, which gave me an opportunity to travel to many exotic places in the world, where perfumery ingredients such as rose oil and bergamot are produced.

It’s often thought that a perfume is just a mixture of nice-smelling materials.
Actually, for example, in the smell of a rose, the oil of which contains more than 300 known chemical components, many of these are actually quite unpleasant. They’re needed in a blend to form a unique and well-defined character. It’s a wonder to me that the wonderful fragrances in nature have been selected over millions of years by visiting insects in search of food, in return for which they carry pollen from flower to flower.

Today, much of perfumery is concerned with the perfuming of household products,
from loo cleaners to fabric conditioners. This presents us with technical problems such as the stability of the perfume in the presence of harsh chemicals. Cost is also a limiting factor there; so a high proportion of inexpensive but powerful aroma chemicals are used. Many of the resulting fragrances perform well in terms of strength and diffusion, but lack the aesthetic quality of a fine fragrance. Whether they add to the beauty of the environment is questionable, but they help to sell the product, and it’s the consumer who decides.

For the latter part of my working life I was involved in teaching,
mainly in Germany, which I enjoyed as much as the creating. Perfumery is a combination of discovery and creativity backed up by a working knowledge of chemistry. To become a perfumer takes many years of training and experience, and you need the enthusiasm and patience to get through the disappointment of not always succeeding in a highly competitive environment.

The foundation of the perfumer’s work demands a complete knowledge and olfactory memory
of the many hundreds of materials available to the perfumer, both natural and synthetic.

I was lucky to have started teaching at a time when it was becoming possible,
by means of chemical analysis, to work out the composition of the great perfumes of the past. In this, I was met with some hostility, in an industry traditionally bounded by secrecy. Today, such practice is a routine procedure.

All forms of art are subject to evolution.
What’s new today is often the forerunner of the success of tomorrow, but it’s as important for a perfumery student to study the basic composition of the great perfumes, such as Chanel No. 5 and L’Air du Temps, as it is for a classical musician to know the scores of Mozart and Beethoven.

As a result of this work,
I co-authored a book on perfumery which remains in print. I have much to be grateful for in my profession as a perfumer, although it sometimes worries me to have been part of what is, after all, a luxury fashion industry.

What I’m most proud of is the success of my students,
many of whom have gone on to hold important positions in the industry in many countries around the world, creating successful and fine fragrances. I was always more interested in the process of making perfumes than in the end product.

I was brought up in London during the war,
and some of my earliest memories are of the Battle of Britain being fought overhead and of exploding bombs shaking the foundations of the house. To escape this, I was sent away to a boarding school just outside Swanage, in Dorset. I was very happy there.

The beauty of the Purbeck coast, teeming with wild flowers and butterflies, made a lasting impression on me.
The smell of the wild flowers and of the sea must have influenced my later aptitude for perfumery. I went on to public school, which I loathed, though I did get enough out of it to qualify for university.

Today I live with my partner and a much-loved Schnauzer terrier in Hertfordshire.
Being within reach of the historic Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans with its fine music is a great joy.

As a child, I always hoped to become a musician,
a dream for which neither my talent or education would begin to qualify me. One of the things that still makes me angry is my own lack of any disciplined teaching at the age necessary to train as a violinist in both mind and body.

I like to think I’m still learning,
but really I need to go back to the absolute fundamentals such as how to hold the instrument, which I was never taught. My only contribution to music was to have hosted a series of concerts for young musicians when I lived in Surrey in a converted barn. I met many wonderful musicians there, some now at the top of their profession, and I like to think that the concerts gave pleasure to a great many people.

Cruelty and a lack of compassion towards sentient living things makes me angry,
particularly the shameful exploitation of donkeys as beasts of burden. At another level, I do get cross that the Church has never fully taken on board the implications of Darwinian evolution — that we are not, for example, created in the image of God.

I was brought up in a conventional churchgoing family;
so God has always been somewhere in the background, although I admit to numerous lapses of faith. In my late teens, I became interested in armchair theology, and remain so. I read a lot. I believe in the ultimate reality of a transcendent God, whose spiritual nature was fully revealed in Christ. We’re part of an amazing universe endowed with properties friendly to the evolution of conscious life. We were meant to be.

Although I frequently find myself praying about things,
especially for those I love, I don’t believe that we obtain answers to specific requests within the natural order of things. Or perhaps, as it was once explained to me, God answers all our prayers but sometimes he says ‘yes’, and sometimes he says ‘no’. But I do believe that prayer has an influence on our own spiritual life. In prayer, we open ourselves to the spiritual nature of God.

I inherited from my father a love of gardening,
and following my retirement I was fortunate to be introduced to David Austin, who was looking for someone who could bring some sort of descriptive narrative and classification to the fragrance of his roses. He was one of the finest people I have known: a poet and philosopher, apart from his contribution to the world of beauty. I now have a garden full of roses.

To have a favourite rose for fragrance it would have to be the very ancient Rosa damascena “Quatre Saisons”,
perhaps the rose associated with Cleopatra, and closely related to the rose grown for the perfumery industry. Although it’s not the best of garden roses, “if summer sunshine had a fragrance”, I once wrote, “this would be it!” One of my other favourites is “Lady Hillingdon”, to me the best of the tea-scented roses which really does have the character of a freshly opened packet of China tea. Of the Austin roses, “Gertrude Jekyll” is the perfect example of the quintessential old rose fragrance.

If I would have to be locked in a church with one person,
I’d like to be with the great violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler — of course with his violin. His music is full of humanity.

Robert Calkin was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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