As a perfumer for the leading privately owned fragrance company in the world, Ashley Wilberding Balavoine ’90 creates scents that are in products most of us use every day: shampoos, soaps, candles, and fragrances. “Every day,” says Balavoine, “I get to travel with my nose.”
And what a journey it is. Balavoine works for Firmenich, a 120-year-old Geneva-based company with 6,500 employees scattered among 63 facilities around the world. Firmenich develops flavors and fragrances for everything from food and beverages to soaps, candles, and perfumes for multinational companies. Some of Balavoine’s clients include Mary Kay, Henri Bendel, Ralph Lauren, L’Oréal, and Crabtree & Evelyn. Balavoine recently developed a fall scent for Bath & Body works, blending florals, citrus, greens, and fruits make the best fragrance for their product line.
“There are a lot of similarities to creating music,” explains Balavoine. “You need to know how to make a chord, with top, middle, and base notes. We use a mass spectrometer during the process.” An artful operation that clearly has its scientific component, the job of perfumer requires not only a refined nose, but also years of training, including learning and being able to identify over 1,000 raw materials.
Balavoine also keeps abreast of the trends in fragrance, which are very connected to culture, and therefore vary from country to country. “Now woody scents are very prevalent—heavy, dark notes—as people are tired of concrete and want to escape into the woods,” she says, noting a proclivity of Americans to find comfort in their fragrances.
Balavoine has been using her own nose as a grounding force since she can remember. “I would put everything to my nose. When I was four I started making potpourri from my garden. I’d also never eat anything until I smelled it first!” she recalls.
With a father whose international job took the family overseas, Balavoine lived abroad for the majority of her childhood, calling Japan, London, and Saudi Arabia home, a lifestyle which regularly immersed her in a rich and exotic palette of smells. “I discovered countries through my nose. You could call me an ‘olfactive anthropologist.’”
While she says she is lucky to merge her passion with her profession, Balavoine notes that her job is not without its challenges, and that creation of a scent is not a simple endeavor. “Development can take anywhere from weeks to years. Making a fragrance for Procter & Gamble, for example, can take up to eight years,” she explains. “You have to be really resilient.”