Escentric Molecules perfumer Geza Schoen reflects on his uncanny instinct for finding single ingredients and making them sing
The thing about geniuses is that they often think they are normal. Geza Schoen, the perfumer behind Escentric Molecules, looks normal, acts normal, but he’s definitely not normal. He’ll take that as a compliment. We’re sitting in a bar in Shoreditch to talk about the upcoming launch of his fifth pair of fragrances. He is softly spoken, but gets agitated – which he does whenever he talks about his specialist subject: fragrance. He is casually dressed in dark jeans and a sweater; it’s elegant, because he’s tall and lean. So far, so normal. When he was 13, Schoen developed an obsession for fragrance. “In those days, perfume ads in magazines had addresses on,” he says. “I just started writing postcards asking for samples… and they sent them! I’d get home from school and there would be two or three packages. It was like Christmas.”
Where did the obsession come from? “My father was an art teacher, and while I was growing up, there were always fun people at our house – interesting individuals with interesting ideas.”
From a young teen, fast forward a few years: Schoen lands a job at Haarmann & Reimer, at that time the fourth biggest fragrance and flavour house in the world.
“I’d been in contact with them many times over the years,” Schoen says. “At the beginning of the 90s, I got an interview, and I told them I really needed to become a perfumer. By then, I had such a vast collection of fragrances, and I was able to talk about it like few other people. So, they agreed.” This is where Iso E Super comes in, a manufactured aroma molecule that was first invented in a lab in 1973.“I found it on a shelf in my office, just a few days in,” Schoen says. “When I smelled it, in isolation, I realised it was the common denominator in every fragrance I have ever loved. But it’s not about the smell of it. There’s a velvety attraction. It’s like a magic potion that only wizards have access to.”
Within a month of joining Haarmann & Reimer, he began testing the effects of Iso E Super, combining it with other ingredients in various quantities.
“A few weeks after I’d joined the company, I went for a drink with a mate, having put a drop of Iso E Super on each of us. Ten minutes later a woman came over and said ‘It smells so nice here!’ And it was just Iso E Super. On its own. It was like a magic drug.” For the next few years, Schoen gained a reputation in the fragrance industry, creating scents for many brands including Diesel, FCUK and Boadicea the Victorious. But he continued to experiment with the revolutionary molecule, concocting fragrances that contained it in huge proportions. He finally launched Escentric Molecules 01 in 2006, a pair of fragrances dominated by Iso E Super. The first contained an unprecedented 65% of the molecule mixed with other ingredients. The second contained only Iso E Super, a move perceived by the industry to be too radical. “Other perfumers said, ‘You look a bit stupid, mate. Show them something a bit more complex!’ By the time it launched, I was worried it would only appeal to freaks and outsiders,” he says. But they were all wrong. At its height, one bottle of Escentric Molecules was selling bottle every 15 minutes. In response, Schoen shortly followed up with his next pair of fragrances, 02 – and then 03, 04 and now 05. Each pair focuses on different aroma-molecules that have the character to stand alone. “I see 02 as a response to 01, because it isn’t particularly fresh,” Schoen says. “Ambroxan became the molecule, and I squeezed in as much as I could. Escentric 02 is probably our most successful fragrance because the freshness lasts so long. For 03, the story is all about roots. Vetiryl acetate is the best-smelling vetiver ingredient. Remove the smoky and leathery bits and you’re left with a beautiful, grassy wood note. I combined that with orris and ginger. In 04 the molecule is Javanol. It has a bit of a grapefruit note on top, also a rosy note, and then obviously a sandalwood character. And 05 grew out of Cashmeran. It has two facets – woody and musky – plus a really cool pine note. I don’t ususually like pine – it reminds me of bubble bath. I thought, How can I make it the star? Then it dawned on me that I could use pine in its dry, resinous state. There’s a place I go in Mallorca… the path from the beach runs through all these old trees, and the warmed resins make a specific woody atmosphere. That’s 05.”
Will the Cashmeran in 05 have the same magical qualities as the Iso E Super in 01? “No,” Schoen says. “It’s absolutely impossible. When we launched 01, in one of the first interviews I said that Iso E Super has a pheromonic effect. And then I hated myself for saying it, because everyone picked up on it and said, ‘Oh it’s all about the pheromones.’ But I had no proof. There was no scientific research behind it. Ten years later, I met Professor Hans Hatt, who runs the cell physiology department at Ruhr University in Bochum. He does research into how cells react to certain scents. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you try some cool ingredients, which are really different?’ Among them was Iso E Super. I didn’t hear back from him. Eventually I called him and said, ‘What happened when you put the Iso E Super into the cell?’ And he said, ‘The cells started to dance.’ He has since tested it more, and they found out that Iso E Super stimulates one of our five pheromone receptors. So, I’d said it had a pheromonic effect all those years ago, and it turns out I was right. “Iso E Super was the right molecule to start the series with. It’s the one that draws you in. It has a physical impact. The other molecules don’t have the same properties, but they retain the philosophy of choosing a single ingredient and allowing it to be the hero.” Are there plans to do another fragrance using Iso E Super? “Yes, we are going to take advantage of the science we’ve discovered since we first launched. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk openly about it, but it’ll be at the beginning of next year.” Which you’ll be launching in Harvey Nicks? “Ah, for sure, man… Where else?” Genius.