G-R-A-S-S-E. Six letters that mean the world to lovers of fine fragrances. In this town in the South of France between the Maritime Alps and the Mediterranean, first-class perfumers from the world’s oldest fragrance house have created two very special compositions. Grasse perfumers and Audi climate-control experts have come together to bring the fresh scents of the Alps and the sea into the new Audi A8 with two new fragrances for summer and winter.
Text: Lisa Först
Photos: David Breun
It’s early in the morning when Leslie Girard turns onto Avenue Sidi Brahim. A light breeze carries the scent of the city onto the road. Lavender, jasmine, iris and oleander mix with pine needles, rosemary and a salty pinch of the Mediterranean. For more than 170 years, this place around 300 meters above sea level has been home to the headquarters of the Robertet Group. Run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Maubert family, the fragrance house steeped in history has dedicated itself to processing natural materials and the production of aromas and perfumes. Today, in the historical factory buildings on Avenue Sidi Brahim, fragrances are composed for big names across the world, essential oils distilled and the purest “absolues” extracted.
Leslie Girard slips on a white coat and enters the lab. The room is lined with densely packed glass shelves, stacked to the roof with hundreds of bottles, pots, tubes and flacons. Each container is filled with a different scent – citrus extracts from orange, bergamot and lime; the woody aromas of patchouli, sandalwood and vetiver; floral fragrances like jasmine, ylang-ylang and iris. There are countless different types of rose alone available to Girard and her co-workers here for their creations. The petite Frenchwoman with a neat bob and red lips, who is a little evocative of Audrey Tautou in Amélie, almost disappears behind the precious collection around her desk. In front of her lie pipettes, small bowls and fans of scent strips. Spread out behind her is the old town of Grasse, picturesquely nestled in the southern foothills of the Maritime Alps.
Inspiration, creation, perfection – the work of the perfumer
However, Girard doesn’t even notice the beautiful panorama. The perfumer is working with total concentration on a very special composition. Her task is to create a fragrance that brings the fresh scent of the sea into a luxury sedan – or, to be more precise, into the new Audi A8. In her head, she already has an exact idea of the fragrance, and logs the component parts of the recipe on her computer. “This fragrance should be as aromatic as a sun-ripened lime, as light as a delicate flower petal and as refreshing as the Mediterranean at the height of summer,” says Girard, who herself comes just outside Montpelier. “The unique fragrances of the Mediterranean coast and its climate are a wonderful source of inspiration for me.” She mixes the individual components together in the lab, sniffs and perfects them. Again and again, Girard makes the tiniest of changes to the composition, adds a new element or replaces a scent. This is how, in close cooperation with Audi experts over many months, such a unique, top-quality fragrance comes into being.
Just a few meters away, her co-worker Serge de Oliviera is refining the second Audi fragrance – a winter composition with a woody base, a warm middle note and a fresh pine nuance in the top note. For the dark-haired Parisian with the distinctive glasses, the creation of the Audi fragrance is a very special job. Becoming a perfumer was the fulfillment of his childhood dream, yet, at the same time, he is also a total car guy: “When I close my eyes, I imagine myself driving along a mountain pass in winter. I see the snow-covered tree tops and breath in the fresh, crystal-clear air bearing a hint of pine needles and wood. At the same time, I feel the pleasant warmth of the leather seats.”
To be able to compose a fragrance so precisely, a perfumer must recognize and memorize several thousand different smells. “Our top perfumers have trained their olfactory memory over many years. It means they know exactly how to harmonize floral notes with oriental scents like vanilla, pepper or cinnamon,” explains Ulrich Jensch, Managing Director of Robertet for Central and Eastern Europe and the man heading up the cooperation with Audi on behalf of the perfume manufacturer. Jensch has travelled here today from Germany together with Audi developer Karsten Belz to test and approve the fragrances created by Leslie Girard and Serge de Oliviera.
Audi’s summer fragrance should be as aromatic as a sun-ripened lime, as light as a delicate flower petal and as refreshing as the Mediterranean at the height of summer.
Blossom, bread and bisous – the route to a super-nose
How did you become a perfumer?
Serge de Oliveira: Perfumery is my great passion. Even as a child, I sniffed at everything around me – every single flower, fresh bread. Just smelling what was on the table was all I needed for dinner (laughs). As a youngster, I then took internships at various perfume houses and knew – this is what I want to do, and nothing else. That’s how I came to Robertet, where I’ve worked for several years as an assistant to top perfumers like Richard Ibanez and Michel Almairac. Ultimately, both gave me the opportunity to do this job for myself because they saw my talent and believed in me.
Leslie Girard: I discovered my interest in perfumery while I was studying chemistry and took an internship in the perfumery sector. I liked it so much that when I did my Masters at the University of Montpelier, I specialized in perfumery and aromas. I joined Robertet in 2010, and spent the first two years working in China.
How do you train your nose?
Serge de Oliveira: As a perfumer, you have to be able to recognize and distinguish between an enormous number of aromas. And all you can do is smell, smell, smell. Every time I smell a flower, I think about what it is that it reminds me of and then try to reproduce these notes in the office. Gardenias, for instance, have a floral note, but they also remind me of coconut and smell slightly spicy. As a perfumer, you have to recognize all these elements and try to commit them to memory so that you can recall the constituent parts later on.
Leslie Girard: I train every day, too. First, you start with the natural scents and try to commit every aroma to memory, make notes. Then come the synthetic scents. The way my training functions, I try to associate all aromas with childhood memories, colors, objects and images. When I dip a scent strip into an essential oil and then sniff it, I think about what a scent reminds me of and note down keywords. Serge and I recently smelled rosemary oil and I said: “Hey, that reminds me of tomato sauce!” (laughs).
What is an absolute no-go for your nose?
Serge de Oliveira: When I still lived in my hometown of Paris, what bothered me most was the body odor on the Metros and trains. But I can handle it (laughs). Things are harder when I have a cold. Fortunately, we have the sea right outside the door, which clears the nose. But it’s more complicated to work when I’m sick. Luckily, you’re never alone on a project. I work a lot with Leslie – we complement one another. If one of us can’t keep working on a project, the other jumps in. But obviously, I still try to avoid colds if I can.
Leslie Girard: I’m the same. In winter, I avoid greeting people with “bisous” as a lot of them have colds. Also, I worked very early on to get rid of my allergies and underwent a desensitization process many years ago. That’s how I keep my nose fit.
From the rose flower to the essential oil
Almost perfectly timed with the arrival of Jensch and Belz comes a very precious consignment from the land owned by Robertet – blooms from the centifolia rose delivered in a white van. This very special type of rose grows only in the area around Grasse and is therefore also known as “Rose de Grasse”. “The centifolia is particularly valuable for us because it has a unique and enchanting fragrance,” says Jensch. Early in the morning, when the concentration of the fragrance in the blooms is at its highest, the region’s rose growers pick their buds and collect them in textile bags sewn into their aprons. The entire crop is harvested by hand – just as it was 200 years ago. The flowers are brought to Robertet in linen sacks and processed immediately: “The fresher the rose, the better we can conserve its fragrance.”
The flowers are placed in a tank of water. The closed tank is then heated and the resulting steam washes the fragrance molecules out of the blossom, rises to the top and is channeled into a second vessel, where it condenses. This process is repeated several times to wash the fragrance completely out of the flowers. The resulting condensate consists of water and the essential oil of the rose petals. As it cools down, it drops into what is known as the Florentine bottle, where the water and oil separate. The essential oil and the floral water or hydrolate can now be used in cosmetic products.
Watching how the fresh blooms are processed is a unique experience for Audi developer Karsten Belz, too, especially as the two Audi fragrances have a subtle rose note. The top note of the summer scent combines fruity substances with rosewood, while de Oliviera’s winter scent has rose blossoms in the warm middle note. “Our brand promise is also reflected in the quality of our fragrances,” says Belz. “It was especially important to us to select top-quality, fine essential oils and natural ingredients in order to give the Audi fragrances a unique signature. With a proportion of up to 18 percent natural substances, the Audi fragrances are on a par with a very long-lasting, highly concentrated, first-class fragrance.”
The centifolia is particularly valuable for us because it has a unique and enchanting fragrance.
“The Audi fragrances bring the Alps inside the car”
Karsten Belz has worked on the development of interior climate control at Audi for more than 20 years. He has already developed the ionizer, which generates in the vehicle’s interior the negative ions that would exist in nature, especially in mountain regions or by the sea – places we go to when we want to breathe deeply again and recharge our energy reserves. Negative ions can invigorate human cells, strengthen the immune system and thus have a positive effect on wellbeing. In closed spaces, however, there are generally no negative ions. The second-generation ionizer, used for the first time in the new Audi A8, artificially produces up to 40,000 negative ions per cubic centimeter – the kind of concentration you would find naturally only in the mountains or at waterfalls.
The invigorating effect of negative ions is further magnified by the Audi fragrances: “We want to use our fragrances to bring the Alps into the car, and make the freshness of mountain and sea air part of the interior experience,” says Belz. But they definitely won’t mask that typical new-car smell loved by so many customers. The compositions that Audi is developing together with Robertet are more like fine, complementary elements to the climate filter and ionizer. The two creations from Grasse each effect the driver’s wellbeing in their own individual way, and he/she can choose to switch between them as preferred while driving.
We want to use our fragrances to bring the Alps into the car, and make the freshness of mountain and sea air part of the interior experience.
The Audi Aroma Unit
Sheer driving pleasure
A typical European spends 90 percent of his/her time indoors. Pleasant, refreshing breezes like those in the mountains or at the ocean are a rarity. But that’s all set to change in the new Audi A8, with the Air Quality Packet, consisting of climate filter, ionizer and Audi Aroma Unit, delivering a relaxed feeling of wellbeing inside the car.
Climate filter, ionizer and fragrance for a fresh feel inside the car
The Audi climate filter has been used in the A1, A3, Q2, Q3 and Audi TT since 2016. It helps people with allergies by not only removing dust and harmful gases from the air, but also neutralizing a large proportion of all allergens. In the A8, the new ionizer and the Audi Aroma Unit provide additional freshness while driving.
The ionizer uses corona discharge to generate negative ions artificially then feed them into the vehicle interior via the air-conditioning system. Because ionization does not create harmful ozone, the function is completely harmless to the driver. If they select ionization via the operating concept, a blue cloud of dots appears on the HMI. Inside the vehicle, the ionizer’s e-box then generates a high voltage which is directed into the airflow on the driver and passenger side. There, two emitters with a maximum voltage of seven kilovolts send out negative ions. Ionization charges even the tiniest dust particles in the air, binding them and causing them to sink together to the floor, enabling the driver to breathe cleaner air. Not only does the ionizer improve air quality, it also affects the driver’s wellbeing. Negative ions in the vehicle interior can increase the driver’s vitality and ability to concentrate.
In a country like China, which, according to the WHO, suffers from among the world’s worst air pollution, the driver will, as of 2018, even be able to see the difference in air quality between inside and outside the car. The system uses Audi connect to link with various measurement stations that show the current air quality index in the area.
The Audi Aroma Unit “thinks” with you
In addition to ionization, the driver can also use the climate control to fragrance the interior with a pleasant summer or winter scent. In the new Audi A8, he selects the flacon symbol in the touch display, with activation confirmed by a cloud of red dots. The Audi Aroma Unit with the two fragrance flacons is installed on the left beneath the steering wheel and, like the ionizer, connected with the flow of ventilation air to the driver and passenger side. The scents are so highly concentrated that the intake air only has to be channeled over the selected (now open) flacon to distribute a subtle aroma in the vehicle interior via the ventilation nozzles. The intensity of the fragrance can be set to one of four levels ranging from “subtle” to “strong”, whereby Audi recommends the lowest setting.
The Audi Aroma Unit is equipped with a control unit to ensure an constant level of fragrance even by varying outside temperatures: “These sensors not only determine whether the air conditioning is running, they also measure the inside and outside temperature. On cold winter days, our mucus membranes are dryer than in spring and summer, our sense of smell is not as good and we can therefore use more fragrance,” explains Audi climate-control expert Karsten Belz. At lower outside temperatures, the air flow is therefore turned up accordingly and the time the flacons spend open extended slightly.
“Nose Team” work
Belz spent more than two years working closely with Robertet and the Audi “Nose Team” to develop the fragrances. The experts from Audi’s Quality Development make sure customers still get an untainted new-car smell from their Audi. And the customer can also choose to use the ionizer and Aroma Unit to add a pleasant freshness to the car while driving. When the engine is switched off, the Audi Aroma Unit continues to run for another two minutes. All traces of the scent then disappear from the lines and hoses so that the familiar new-car smell is there the next time the customer gets in.
“What also matters to the customer is that the Audi fragrances are absolutely harmless – both to the driver and to the car’s high-end interior trim,” says Belz. “This has been tested and verified by an independent institute.” The high demands placed on the fragrances in terms of their longevity and resistance were a particular challenge for the Grasse perfumers: “We worked with the engineers from Ingolstadt, around 850 kilometers away, to test the Audi compositions at -10 to +50 degrees Celsius, to ensure they can withstand the extreme conditions inside the car,” says Serge de Oliviera, laughing. “I must say: That was a real challenge, but at the same time, it was really inspiring to work with the Audi experts. For me personally, it was the most fascinating fragrance project I’ve ever worked on as a perfumer.”
The close bond between scents and emotions
The fact that scents have such a strong effect on people is also partly because, as one of the five senses, the sense of smell has a direct connection to the limbic system – the part of the brain that controls emotions, desire and instinctive behavior. This is also the location of the hippocampus, which is responsible for storing long-term memories. Smells thus stimulate emotions and memories before they are processed in the main mass of the brain, where conscious perception occurs. Merely the subconscious registering of a smell is enough to release the happiness hormones, known as endorphins, responsible for sensations of wellbeing. No wonder the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians used fragrances for therapeutic and ritualistic purposes.
A very particular effect is also attributed to certain substances in the Audi fragrances: “The top note of the summer fragrance contains lime, bergamot and rosemary, which have an invigorating effect and promote concentration,” says Girard, while she trickles a tiny amount of the fragrance onto a scent strip. “The cedarwood and amber in the scent’s base note, on the other hand, help to strengthen and harmonize.” The winter fragrance by de Oliviera combines fresh notes with warm, sensual ones. “Bergamot, lavender and sage in the top note evoke the fresh feel of snow and ice and, at the same time, can have a relaxing, stress-reducing and restorative effect. Rose and geranium in the middle note have a harmonizing effect and brighten the mood. I’ve added sandalwood to the fragrance’s base note. It can stimulate creative powers and fantasy and generate a sense of peace and satisfaction, which is why they have long been used in Ayurvedic teachings and traditional Chinese medicine.”
Traditional craftsmanship meets automated production
After their meeting with Girard and Oliviera, Belz and Jensch leave the building and drive a few kilometers west to where, four years ago, one of the world’s most modern perfume production facilities was built. At Robertet’s headquarters on Avenue Sidi Brahim, the raw materials are handled in accordance with traditional processes and meticulous craftsmanship. Here, in the new facilities, all the substances for a fragrance are then filled, mixed and packed by machine before being transported to the customer – 80 percent of these processes are automated. The strictest quality criteria apply – raw materials and the finished fragrances are subject to precision quality inspections on arrival and departure. The creative work done by the perfumer is just one part of the complex process of producing a fragrance. Before the olfactory agents can be used in a car, they have to fulfill strict regulatory criteria and pass a wide range of tests.
Monsieur Lamador is one of the inspectors with a trained nose who assures the olfactory quality of the products: “Every day, my colleagues and I smell between ten and fifty different fragrances each and compare them with the desired product,” explain Lamador. Has his nose not become neutralized over time? “Like with coffee beans, for instance?” asks Lamador, laughing. “That’s a pure myth. The nose of a true scent professional becomes more fine-tuned with every scent sample.” Smiling, he opens a bottle and dips a scent strip into it. He then leans back with pleasure and allows the scent of the Audi summer fragrance to drift into his nose.
Scent notes for China
The aromas of different countries are as varied and diverse as their cuisine. A classic German perfume will not necessarily be a big sales hit in Asia – and vice versa.
Leslie Girard worked for two years in China as a perfumer and knows what Chinese noses like: “I made good use of my time in China to understand the culture. The perfume preferences there had a major impact on me. The Chinese love roses, especially peonies and everything with a floral smell. Also very popular there are the scents of tea and citrus notes – anything fresh, light and transparent.”
One particular challenge for her as a perfumer was the air pollution in China, which, according to the World Health Organization, is among the worst in the world. Studies say that constantly breathing the high concentration of pollutants there is lowering the average life expectancy of the population by several years. As a consequence, it is particularly important on the Asian market that the Audi Air Quality Package keep the vehicle interior virtually free from pollutants with its climate filter and ionization. But do the Audi fragrances also fit to the Asian market? “My scent creations automatically include the experiences I had in China,” explains Girard. “The Audi summer scent is very fresh and aquatic. That will surely go down very well with Chinese customers.”
Fuel consumption of the model named above:
Audi A8: Combined fuel consumption in l/100 km: 7.8 – 5.6 (30.2 – 42.0 US mpg); Combined CO2 emissions in g/km: 178 – 145 (286.5 – 233.4 g/mi)