Joanne Halev and The Art of Perfume

“A perfume is like a piece of clothing, a message, a way of presenting oneself, a costume…” Paloma Picasso

Last June, Joanne Halev made her successful New York Cabaret debut with Like a Perfumed Woman, its title a double entendre. The entertaining show is built around scent ineluctably affecting memory. Apparently olfactory sense bypasses memory itself, connecting directly to emotions felt when memories were made.

Halev just stepped down from a long term position as Vice President, Fragrance Sales at one of the world’s preeminent fragrance companies. (She remains a consultant.) It was professional kismet. To this day, she remembers her grandmother wore Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, her mother, Guerlain’s Shalimar. Perfume was her third career.

Joanne sang all through her twenties. She started a theater company with other NYU students and performed, ultimately deciding the lifestyle wasn’t for her. Personable and stylish, the young woman then began selling advertising space for a series of prestigious magazines (like The New Yorker and W). Her specialty became the beauty and fragrance industry. “People would show up with bags of samples!”

Perfume Trend Board

One day, Ann Gottlieb, with whom she’d been friendly since the mid 1980s, aware that Joanne was unhappy in her job, suggested she work at a fragrance house. Gottlieb had been mentored by Estee Lauder, going on to become a marketing head, then helming her own fragrance development consulting firm. Halev secured a position at one firm and was headhunted by another where she spent 15 years.

“Before I was connected to the industry, I liked fragrance, but was clueless about it…I didn’t necessarily have a particularly responsive or educated nose,” she says. “It took work to learn to smell well.” When it became clear that she was a serious candidate (at the first company), Halev was given a smelling test to see whether she could differentiate between fragrances, recognize change in formula strength, and identify certain frequently used ingredients. “It was nerve-wracking, but apparently I did quite well,” she says.

We meet at her former company’s calm, contemporary offices peopled, it appears, by central casting. Everyone we pass on our tour is tastefully dressed, carefully groomed, and seems to have wonderful skin. Accents abound. Fragrance is absent. Only upon entering the lab did I catch the specific whiff of something in proximity. Personnel are asked not to use and/or wear anything scented; bare arms are used to test.

When high level personnel engage in business outside, however, they often wear appropriate fragrance. At a breakfast meeting with Gottlieb, then consulting with Calvin Klein, one executive dabbed on something the firm was developing for the brand. Gottlieb had a positive reaction to his scent which became, with a few modifications, cK1 (notes of bergamot, cardamom, pineapple, papaya, amber, and green tea). “It was launched in 1994 and still sells like you can’t imagine,” she says.

A Library of Scents

“We are all human and our senses are quicker to prompt us than our reason…Scent tells you how to act before your head does.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn The First Circle

Even those of us aware that scent can be a signature, likely take its creation for granted. Fashioning a fragrance begins when such companies as Coty (Marc Jacobs/Calvin Klein) or LMVH (Dior) have a new idea. Their marketing team then creates image boards or a short video “to bring that side of the brand to life.” They invite competing fragrance houses, and, often with someone like Gottlieb at the table, describe the scent’s emotional direction and target consumers.

In-house, the fragrance company then discusses trends and concepts.  What is the market feeling, where is it going? “Many perfumers work on the project at the beginning with fragrance development managers and account executives – like me,” she says. “Then we share the ones we like best with Ann. She narrows down and we continue to work.”

Here’s where, I assumed, a perfumer chooses from a library of ingredients, combining them in a beaker. Instead, initial formulas are shaped on computer. The perfumer has so much experience with scent recall that he/she starts with written equations. These are sent to lab technicians in a pristine warren of cubbies filled with walls of ingredients and grouped glass vials.

Perfume is water, alcohol and 15 to 30 percent fragrance oil combined in prescribed proportion. Eau de parfum and perfume differ in intensity. Fragrance houses make and sell the oil (they own the intellectual property) which is then delivered to and bottled by a client who adds the other two components.

In the Lab

Directly outside the lab, there are shelves of liquid formulas arranged by internal names for scents in progress: Toasted S’Mores, Paradigm du Soir, Glow Job, Run Like Hell, Last Tango, and Ms. Behave are a few.  Halev particularly enjoyed writing these internal names as part of her responsibilities. 

Variations arrive on a perfumer’s desk in liquid form. Offices brim with small vials bound together by origin recipe. Amazingly, professionals are able to work on the design of several fragrances simultaneously. I ask whether there’s a trick to clearing the olfactory palette. “We tend to smell clean arm skin,” she says. “It’s kind of a neutral environment.”

This goes back and forth until three to five are submitted to Ann. She chooses each company’s best and together they submit ideas for the first round. Unless there’s a eureka moment, it’s back to the drawing board. Eventually, one is chosen.

The process can take up to a year and a half  or can be very quick with financial rewards worth the investment. Once a project is “won,” formulas are altered for soaps, creams, or whatever, each of which has to be tested. There might be three different ancillary products, or 15. “It’s a challenge to make the scent remain stable in the various bases (= stay the same),” she says.

“We give our clients what’s known as the notes that form top, middle, and dry down (settling on the skin), as well as a description that can help explain ingredients and the overall feeling of the fragrance,” she says. “This helps them share information with both retail executives and the women and men working at the counters. The aim is to awaken emotion. (Evocative description is enticement to sample.) From the moment you get up and into the shower with soap and shampoo, scent is in your life.”

Ann in Madagascar Putting Scent on One of the School Children

“Just like men, perfume is never perfect right away; you have to let it seduce you.” Jean Patou

What goes into perfume might surprise you. Natural elements include such as vanilla, sandalwood, patchouli, rose, and jasmine. Cassis, the blossom of a blackcurrant bush, has an intensely fruity and exotic smell that Halev compares to “cat pee,” but, combined with other ingredients, adds freshness and clarity to perfume. This firm sources 170 natural ingredients in 40 countries.

Most fragrances are not entirely natural because they’d be both too expensive and too strong. Halev tells me the process would also be ecologically unsound. Natural ingredients are therefore mixed with fragrance “molecules.” Musk, for example, which creates a “base note,” making scent last longer, used to be obtained from a gland of the male musk deer. The strong, rich, woody odor is now mostly achieved by synthetic molecule. There are 350 olfactory receptors in the nose! A perfume company endeavors to understand how we discriminate odor to create positive emotion.

“It’s not just about delighting the customer but doing it in a responsible way,” she says. The company at which Halev has spent her career goes a step beyond, purchasing natural products in a way which is ethical and sustainable.  Having been over-harvested in India, sandalwood is now obtained from Australia, while a joint venture in India watches over harvesting of jasmine and tuberose, among the most prestigious elements in perfumery.

Joanne in Debouchette, Haiti with Vetiver Farmers

In Haiti, its source for vetiver (a root that smells like potato skins and is often used in men’s fragrances as a complement to woody notes), the company built a school for the farmers’ children. In Madagascar, they dug wells so the farmers had fresh water. In Uganda, the firm helps with micro-financing.

“Banks are notoriously corrupt in these remote areas,” Halev says. “The system we helped set up has weekly meetings that allow people to take money from their `husbands’ and put it in a `Savings and Loan’ program/box which has three locks. The box is sent home with one woman to guard until the next meeting. Three other women each secretly have a key.

“Meetings start with a ceremony and a song that speak of joint pride and progress,” she continues. “Then they call up each person to make an investment in the `bank.’ Requests to borrow from that bank might subsidize visiting a sick parent or attending a sibling’s wedding, otherwise unaffordable. Then they slowly repay the borrowed amount.”

Micro-Financing – the Green Box in Uganda

Farmers are enormously appreciative. They’re paid well and fairly for crops guaranteeing livelihood even when harvest is affected by weather. Workers and their families have no contact with finished fragrances. “I doubt they have deodorant or skin care of any kind,” she says. “There’s probably a bar of soap shared amongst whole families. There were places with no electricity or running water until wells were built.”

She adds: “I was at first quite taken aback by these communities, but I soon realized that the simplicity of their lives is in some way a blessing- if they have food to eat and clean water. There seems to be a peacefulness and an acceptance of life as it is.”

Halev also traveled to help pitch and develop scents. Every nationality has its predilections. “Once we worked on what was supposed to be a global skin cream and shampoo for Dove,” she says. “Every market tested well except Japan where they found it too strong. It was a matter of ‘don’t invade my space with your fragrance.’ We had to start from scratch.”

Farming Vanilla

China and the U.S. evidently have more similar olfactive taste. In Brazil, Portugal, and Spain, they love tropical, fruity notes. In India, there’s a sandalwood variant in almost everything; also a vegetal note like green pepper, rosemary or basil. France loves rich, warm, sensuous scent, especially that which is unique. They don’t want to smell like the next person. The French have really diverse scent wardrobes. In Germany, preference is for sweet and creamy. Middle Eastern women wear five to seven layers of different perfume at the same time. Fragrance is part of their identity.

“It’s very individual,” she says. “A lot of women are confused by it today. We try not to encourage too many launches. Young women are experimental till they get older, then they tend to choose…” Halev is an exception. She adores Marc Jacobs Decadence for elegant affairs. Daytime she might apply Narciso Rodriguez Essence “for a nice green scent” or Oscar de la Renta’s Something Blue which is “beautiful and summery.”

Joanne Halev and Ann Gottlieb

Today, globally, women make quite a high percentage of the creative force behind fragrance in all categories – fine fragrance, body care, etc. Apparently about 30 percent of perfumers and 75 percent of development managers are women.

I myself wear First by Van Cleef & Arpels. It’s advertised as: A floral, woody combination of femininity and pure elegance.  Top notes: blackcurrant buds, mandarin, and bergamot (the last is an essential oil produced by cells inside the rind of a bergamot orange); middle notes: French jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, hyacinth, and iris; base notes: sandalwood, vetiver, vanilla, and amber. Little of this makes any difference until/unless you smell it on my/your skin.

Joanne Halev plans to continue as a consultant in the art she’s grown to love, but also to return to music – something she put aside to raise a family. Whatever she creates will undoubtedly be original and aesthetically pleasing.

Joanne Halev at Birdland Theater

“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will.  The persuasive power of odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.” Patrick Suskind Perfume

Opening Photo of Joanne Halev by Nomi Ellerson
Photo of Joanne Halev performing by Natalie Fisher Photography
All others Courtesy of Joanne Halev

About Alix Cohen (690 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.