Unlocking fragrant careers: International Master in Fragrance Formulation with University of Florence

2024 . 06 . 13 | written by Ermano Picco

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The pivotal role of Catherine de Medici in spreading the Art of Perfumery from Tuscany to France is universally acknowledged, along with her perfumer Renato Bianco and his aromatic legacy. Traditionally, aspiring individuals in the fragrance industry had to relocate to France for formal perfumery education. However, in recent times, Italy has witnessed a positive shift, with the emergence of education centers focusing on perfumery. Last June marked the beginning at Essencional for a series of articles aimed at shedding light on these institutions, offering valuable insights for school-age youth and more generally for individuals passionate about pursuing a career in perfumery. The inaugural feature spotlighted the Italian Perfumery Institute in Milan, emphasizing the growing opportunities for education in this aromatic realm within Italy itself. This signifies a noteworthy evolution, as Italy begins to carve its niche in perfume education, widening the possible training paths historically relying on French institutions. For our second insight in the world of Perfumery Schools, let’s go straight to Catherine de Medici’s birthplace: Florence.

The International Master in Fragrance Formulation represents a unique opportunity in the Italian academic panorama, for it is a Master Program focused on the theoretical background and practical aspects of fragrance formulation for both industrial and scientific applications. The Course is managed by the research and high education agency PIN S.C.R.L. (https://www.pin.unifi.it/en/) under the patronage of the University of Florence, specifically by the Department of Chemistry “Ugo Schiff”, and finds its roots in the long Tuscan tradition of perfumery and fragrance manufacturing, from the Renaissance up to the present time.

But who is the educational program aimed at? The course of studies is well suited for graduate students interested in fragrance formulation, particularly those who seek a high- level, specific knowledge in this field for possible future employment. The program is also intended for all the professionals, from employees to operators, managers, and R&D scientists involved in cosmetic, textile, cleaning products and foods industry, in which fragrances play a key role in the formulation of commercial products.

To better understand the International Master in Fragrance Formulation educational offer and how it is going to implement it, I dropped an email to the founder and School Program Director Professor Pierandrea Lo Nostro, and the manager of the training program Dr. Duccio Tatini. They both kindly agreed to have a call and answer my questions.

Prof. Pierandrea Lo Nostro
Dott. Duccio Tatini

Dear Professor. Lo Nostro and Dr. Tatini thank you for giving us this time. Let’s head on to the questions.To get the ball rolling and better get acquainted, could you tell me more about the International Master in Fragrance Formulation starting from you and your connection with the world of perfumes? In a nutshell, how did you get into perfumes?

Dr. Tatini: What personally has always fascinated me so much about fragrances is the gap between their emotional side and the more scientific aspect of them. This gap is still to be filled even from a research point of view: though few steps have been done in understanding how smells are sensed through olfactory receptors, on a molecular lever there’s still a grey area. During the last century, scientific research has brought so many discoveries and changes in many areas, so it’s unbelievable to think olfaction, and hence perfume still involves lots of uncertainty, and personal judgment. There’s a universe still to be explored underneath the emotionalism, and I think it’s a mesmerizing challenge.

When and how did you get the idea of establishing a University Master Program focusing on fragrance formulation?

Prof. Lo Nostro: Everything started 6 years ago as a challenge while collaborating with a Cosmetics Company in the Florence area about a new point of view on the world of fragrances. Usually the fragrance aspect is upon the role of the perfumer composer, while the basic chemistry scientific notions are mostly bypassed or they are treaded perfunctorily because the focus is different. Duccio (Tatini, Ed.) attended the first edition of the Master, so along with his class he served a bit as lab rat but let me tell you everything went fine as later he joined me as a teacher.

Let’s go on to the course study. Who’s the ideal candidate the course is particularly suited for?

Dr. Tatini: Actually we don’t like to draw a line as in the past we used to do, for we realized it’s hard to figure out a specific candidate. Through the years we had people coming from different backgrounds; some were fresh out of a chemistry faculty, and they had excellent results, but the same happened with people already working in the perfume industry or in other industries where smell is involved, like the white goods industry for example. What we ask as a requirement is the knowledge of the basics of chemistry, as this is the main aspect treated in the course. Anyways we decided to evaluate case by case any application we get because maybe a candidate is not graduated but comes from a meaningful experience in the industry, so again there’s no strict rule.

Can you tell us a little more about how the course is structured, and notably which professional roles it is going to train in principle?

Prof. Lo Nostro: First let me tell you the online training program covers the period May- November for this is the less busy period of the year with university teaching for both me and Duccio. We are physical chemists, so our approach is really based on the physico-chemical properties of the substances like volatility and interactions with different substrates first, and then all the properties that are part of the quality-control aspects (refractive index, density, etc.) and of the fragrances' performances (e.g. trail, bloom, radiance, persistence, and so forth).

So also everything concerning stability tests, etc?

Prof. Lo Nostro: Yes, exactly! Then we also focus on properties bordering on organic chemistry that deals above all with the synthesis of new materials, for what we want to channel is the future aspects of perfumery. For example there are many raw materials our colleagues in organic chemistry still haven’t discovered yet, therefore nobody can tell a priori how fragrances in the future will be. Analytical Chemistry instead aims to take fragrances from the market and analyze what they contain, and this of course deals also with regulatory aspects. There’s also a learning unit on packaging because a flacon is not just something pretty to see and grab with a functional use. A flacon is made of a certain material; the interaction between the container and the liquid is crucial, and this material must be suited for being filled with perfume.
Moreover we have a small module about toxicology, and another about the botany of plants used in perfumery. Design and marketing, there’s a smattering of them because at this level the goal is to give a 360-degree overview on the subject. Then of course anyone willing to dig this deeper on a professional or a personal level will be able to do that on his own.

I had a sneak peek at the detailed course outline and there’s quite a solid learning unit in Chemistry, as well as about toxicology, regulatory aspects, and the basics of Neurophysiology of Olfaction. Is there anything that you recently added to the training path?

Prof. Lo Nostro: Since the last year, we introduced a learning module on stenches and bad smells as they are as important as good smells, if you think about that. The Swedish Manufacturer Electrolux last year sent us the application of an employee because for them this is a crucial issue, way more relevant than a blotter dipped in jasmine essence. This year we’re going to add a special treat, a few words on Eastern perfumery, and of course on sustainability.

Though by now in some cases is plain green-washing, sustainability is going to become a pillar of the perfumery of tomorrow. So it’s great to hear you're on the right track for the future. Bravo! Let’s dig now more into specific historical background. How important is for a perfumer nowadays this aspect and how is it covered?

Prof. Lo Nostro: Unfortunately the teaching schedule on historical aspects has been considerably reduced, because switching the training course language from Italian to English left us without history teachers. So I am currently taking care of this part myself with a few hours dedicated to perfume in ancient Greek and Roman culture. Then I’ll have to jump straight to the XX century to talk about a few modern classics like Chanel No. 5. Many people think digging the historical aspects of perfumery is a cultural salon quirk, but it isn’t true because for example perfume vials found in the Etruscan tombs gave us lots of information, but they also had an impact on trends, etc. with subsequent commercial outcomes.

Now that’s interesting for a perfume history teacher like me; let’s talk about that later! Can you tell us more about the training on perfume formulation and the creative side of it?

Prof. Lo Nostro: The course relies on two pillars actually: the first one is scientific, and the second is sensorial. At the end of July, Duccio will oversee teaching the basics like olfactory families by using the training kit we provide each student with that includes 100 raw materials, pipettes, blotters, etc. Then right after the summer break in August, there’s a two week training unit with Jorge Marcelo Grimaux (currently consultant for IFF and formerly Principal Perfumer at Firmenich, Ed.) about smell and analytical description of raw materials, followed by an introduction to formulation.

Dr. Tatini: My module and Marcelo’s one are pretty complementary. Usually we split the raw materials in two chunks: I present the first part, while it’s his turn to talk about the most irksome materials, not least for the great experience he has gained in his extraordinary career.

Marcelo Grimaux, IFF consultant, and former Principal Perfumer at DSM-Firmenich

Heh, you know you had the question coming, I guess. Would you please give me an example of an irksome raw material?

Dr. Tatini: Even only understanding the difference between certain natural and synthetic raw materials, understand their kaleidoscope of facets that only a trained nose can detect requires a certain expertise. So I feel more confident to talk about more familiar raw materials as an introduction for who’s never ventured in these aspects, and I let Marcelo deal with the advanced training.

Raw materials from the training kit

I imagine during this module you also will talk about extraction techniques for they are tightly related to chemistry.

Prof. Lo Nostro: Actually it’s me in charge of the unit about the extraction and distillation processes, up to the most recent techniques like ultrasounds and supercritical extractions.

Florence is well known for its tradition and for events in the field like Pitti Fragranze. How does the connection with industrial partners like IFF, DSM-Firmenich, Symrise, Muller & Koster, and Eurofragance play a role in the training of future professionals?

Prof. Lo Nostro: These partnerships have strengthened during the past years, and since a couple of years IFF joined as well. Symrise and IFF provide us the raw materials for the kits, while Firmenich supports us in teaching regulatory affairs, ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance), and sustainability. Muller & Koster will take care of the Quality Control aspects, and they also offered a few internships in the past. This year we signed an agreement with Eurofragrance that will provide a supplementary kit with more raw materials, plus they will provide training on Middle Eastern perfumery and on bad smells.
Year after year collaborations may change according to different needs though. For example this year we have a student that’s going to do her graduation thesis in cooperation with a local company dealing with cannabinoid rectification from terpenes.

Università di Firenze established the International Master in Fragrance Formulation (formerly known as Florence Fragrances School) back in 2020, and soon in early 2024 is going to start its fifth edition. Despite these tough years, how was the feedback from students, and the reception to call for applications so far?

Dr. Tatini: I myself joined the teaching staff after attending the first edition of the master, and it’s been a really great growth experience. The online training program was so well received in Italy that we thought “why not to extend it to a wider international audience?” So in 2023 we decided to deliver the entire course in English, and we got a great response. We can’t manage large numbers, but at the moment we’re happy with this more human scale as it also allows us to have a more personal engagement with the students along their path.

Just to better understand when you talk about a more “human scale”, how many students per year we’re talking about?

Dr. Tatini: Currently we consider applications for a limited number of 50 places.

Prof. Lo Nostro: After the the pandemic broke out in March 2020 while we were going to start the lessons we were forced us to shut down everything. It seemed like everything was over, but we had the “lucky intuition” to turn everything into an online course, for everybody smells with his nose no matter where he is. Many people though still don’t get that and see this as a hurdle. So we’re thinking of doing maybe follow-up live sessions as well to meet these requests (fortunately not so many), let’s see.

You know, despite staying in Florence does not come cheap, I guess foreign people look forward to visiting it…

Prof. Lo Nostro: And we welcome them with open arms. But again, you likely can’t do smelling sessions all day long, so after a couple of hours you need a break.

Dr. Tatini: To get done with your question, every year various students are hired by companies in the field, depending also on their skills, attitude to relocate etc. so definitely the course gives access to the perfume industry.

Last but not least, what’s next? I mean, which are the plans for the future to broaden and improve the training offer related to Perfumery at Università di Firenze?

Prof. Lo Nostro: We like to think about the next year’s program at the end of each course. Things have changed a lot from the beginning, not only for the introduction of the online course. For example in 2020 everybody was forced to stay home, so online courses were flooded with submissions, also from candidates. Let me tell you we had a few students thinking the program was watered-down so when they faced the chemistry part, we had to find the right balance not to bore students with a solid chemistry background. Now things have changed again but well, this surely taught us to adjusting things year by year.

Thank you for your time dear Prof. Lo Nostro and Dr. Tatini, it’s been a great pleasure to talk with you. The constantly updated and detailed training program you put together covering both the more scientific aspects as well as the sensorial, creative, and product related side of fragrances, along with solid connections with the industry really represents a gem in the Italian University landscape, and a great opportunity to build a future career in perfumery. You can find more information about the International Master in Fragrance Formulation at the following link International Master in Fragrance Formulations (fragranceschool.eu)