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First published in: 30 Grad Magazine, Issue 2021/1
Text: Bettina Homann
Photo: Ricardo Wiesinger

The Craft of Smelling

Karl-Heinz Bork is one of a small number of perfumers in Germany. He created scents for big labels such as Joop, Boss and Paloma Picasso. Now retired, he only realises projects that are dear to his heart – such as creating perfume for Mühle’s new Beardcare series.

Mr Bork, being a perfumer is a very unusual profession. How did you get into this line of work?

In the late 1960s, I did an apprenticeship as a druggist, a profession that no longer even exists today in our age of drugstore chains. My teacher at the druggists’ academy sent me to Holzminden. When I entered the building of the perfumemakers Haarmann and Reimer, a sort of chemical laboratory that emanated an exceptionally fine fragrance, I made up my mind pretty much on the spot. That’s it, I said to myself, I want to be a perfumer! And I want to be one here.

Most people have heard of the city of Grasse in southern France, but they haven’t heard of Holzminden.

And yet the city has a great tradition when it comes to perfume. The Haarmann and Reimer company, which is part of Symrise GmbH these days, has produced fragrances and flavours since the 19th century. In 1874, chemist and company owner Wilhelm Haarmann developed vanillin, the world’s first nature-identical fragrance and flavouring.

Are raw materials for different perfumes still produced at Symrise today?

Not only the basic ingredients. In fact, all of the world’s great perfumes, including those made by the major fashion stores such as Dior, Gucci and Hermès, are developed at companies like Haarmann and Reimer. The only exception to this continues to be Chanel, which has its own perfumers.

So you were an apprentice at Haarmann and Reimer?

I was at the company for 33 years. The apprenticeship lasted over four years, and I had to commit to staying on for another three. I was party to many secrets by that time after all.

Karl-Heinz Bork regularly creates individual fragrances for private customers and friends, which are then carefully bottled and packaged

Perfume formulas?

Precisely. Developing perfumes is a very complex business and the formulas cannot be patented. That’s why you have to tread very carefully here.

How exactly do you learn the craft of perfumery?

The most important thing is to learn the craft of smelling.

What does that entail?

It entails learning to recognise smells and developing a technique for yourself to remember them. You also have to learn about ingredients of scents.

How many scents do you have to know?

Two to three thousand.

It’s hard to imagine memorising all that lot!

That’s why the training takes so long.

From time to time the perfumer looks at the image of himself with a bouquet of lilies – Bork has fond memories of his time in Paris.

What was the first perfume you developed?

A violet scent. I roamed the woods for days sniffing violets, trying to tell what else I smelled.

Did the scent go into production?

Not really, but an issue of the “Göttinger Tageblatt” was sprayed with it…

You left Holzminden at some point. Did a time come when the town was no longer enough for you?

I was ambitious. I was acquainted with all the raw materials and I wanted to work with great perfumes.
I was entrusted with opening a creative studio in Paris for Haarmann and Reimer.

At the epicentre of the fashion scene.

We were based in the suburbs at first, but then we moved to Rue St. Honoré in the 8th arrondissement.

Not too bad.

Yes, we were situated right accross the street from Hermès.

The process of creating fragrances means experimentation. Essences are extracted, mixed and put into glass vials for further processing.

Did you develop a fragrance for Hermès?

Unfortunately, no. You have to work your way up the tree.

How did you go about that?

I started by hiring experienced marketing people who had the right contacts. Then I finally got to talk to Dior and we got our hands on a few little projects.

How did that work out?

There was a kind of briefing, we really rolled up our sleeves, and then I learned an important lesson in haute perfumery.

What sort of lesson?

I stood with my vials in front of a row of women who told me very politely that I had, to put it bluntly, “missed the point”.

What had gone wrong?

I so wanted to create something new that was really great, but I was being far too creative. The established players out there don’t want big deviations from the norm; every perfume has to have a sort of anchor that you recognise.

Does that mean that, unlike in fashion, when it comes to fragrances people prefer to buy what they already know?

Yes. Our sense of smell has the longest memory; it’s shaped in the womb. What we like tends to stay the same throughout our lives.

You got it right in the end.

Yes, I eventually worked with my team for many well-known companies, including L’Oréal, Paloma Picasso, Givenchy, Joop and Boss.

Is there a fragrance you’re particularly proud of?

Yes, my own perfume Sylt.

Karl-Heinz Bork is particularly proud of his fragrance creation “Sylt” – a homage to his favourite holiday destination.

With all your different preferences – are there any criteria for making a good fragrance?

First of all, it’s a simple truth that cheap raw materials unfortunately also smell cheap. So it all depends on the ingredients. And on the balance of the composition.

How did you go about composing the fragrance for the Mühle Beardcare series?

We first established the basic direction, what I like to call the “fragrance family”. We quickly plumped for the Fougère family. The fragrance is based on the astringent notes of wood and oakmoss. I built on this and developed the “Savane” fragrance with a floral heart note that contrasts with the warm oody base note. The top notes of bergamot and lavender add freshness and emphasise its cosmetic character.

Do you have a favourite fragrance?

I love Eau Sauvage by Dior, a particularly classic fragrance that I’ve used for many years.

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