In conversation with fragrance chemist, Dr. Philip Kraft

Reading about the chemical compounds in a scientific paper as a teen, Philip Kraft’s fascination with smells and fragrances was sparked. He went on to study chemistry, led by his desire to understand the rules and molecular connections that underlay scents, and now works for the German flavor and fragrance house Symrise. Despite developing new odorants and imagining the smells of tomorrow on the daily, Philip has maintained this initial fascination for every part of a scent. Philip is incredibly aware of the power that scents hold to evoke emotions and feelings, his nose being especially attuned to smells others might not even notice. We spoke to him about his relationship with certain fragrances, finding inspiration for new scents, and the nuances his nose notices.
27 87: What was the first scent you smelled today?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: The rosy scents of two candles I have put in my bathroom just above the toilet. They both smell nicely rosy, even when cold. At the same time, they smell very different from one another: ´This Smells Like My Vagina´ (Heretic x Goop, 2020) is an almost sterile and watery hygienic rose with soft-seedy ambrette-type musky accents, and ´Rose Prick´ (Tom Ford, 2020) is a deep, dark, spicy, complex powdery rose with elements of rose de May, Bulgarian and Turkish rose classically combined with patchouli.

27 87: Why are scents and our sense of smell so connected to emotions or evoke certain feelings?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: Because the limbic system sits right next to the entorhinal and the primary olfactory cortex in the brain. The olfactory bulb in a way extends from the limbic system. They represent the oldest parts of our brain and directly connect with each other.

27 87: Are there particular scents that evoke emotions especially strongly or scents that evoke certain emotions?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: Emotions look different for everyone. As a result, very few scents like vanilla and orange are liked by the majority of people. Every scent can evoke emotions depending on the situation in which you first smelled it.
27 87: What makes a scent particularly recognizable?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: Your memory and what a scent means to you. If it connects to a certain memory, you will recognize it. You also learn perfumery this way, by linking materials to certain situations or non-olfactory contexts.

27 87: Do you follow technical guidelines or your gut feeling when working on a scent?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: I do follow guidelines, just as they exist for driving a car. But ultimately, your gut feeling decides where the journey will go.

27 87: Given your profession, do you feel like you notice different scents in the world than others do?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: For sure, with my knowledge about odorants, you smell the world in a different way. And you pay more attention to odors in general. When I see a structural formula, I often immediately smell it imaginarily. To an extent where my imagination can even overrule the scent and trick me. When I smell the same blotter a day later without that structural information, it often smells different to me. Same for perfumes, you smell more analytically, more contemplative. You see meanings in things that others perceive as simple sensations only.

27 87: What is your favorite scent? Or one you connect with a happy memory?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: All sorts of musks belong to my favorite scents. They can smell very diverse, forming the skeleton of every perfume. When I was first compounding in my grandma’s basement bar, she would insist on me adding a musk before accepting it as perfume. Otherwise, she would say it just smells like a floral or whatever bouquet, not like a finished perfume. Musks make perfumes. In a good fragrance, the tonality of the musk base note matches the whole concept of that fragrance. It works like a perfume within a perfume. My second favorite scent relates to vetiver. It also is very versatile, opaque, and transparent at the same time, but magically woody-amber.
27 87: Which scents are mainly present in your day-to-day life?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: All sorts of perfumes. I try to follow all trends and smell all new launches. Then, of course, the odors of the molecules I just designed, that my technicians just synthesized, feel the most present. They guide my thoughts as in a game of chess.

27 87: Which scents fill your home?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: All sorts of luxury scented candles and perfume flacons. They are predominantly commercial brands, but some are my creations, paying homage to recent trends alongside weird concoctions that could spark new intrigue. Of course, from time to time also a milestone classic as I always discover new angles when smelling these anew.

27 87: What smells bad for you? Are there even bad smells for you or is everything interesting?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: There really are no bad smells. It all depends on the dosage as Paracelsus already knew for poisons: “Dosis sola facit venenum”. But we all react sensitively to different materials. The “poisonous dosage” of some materials may lie very low. For me these materials are amines, especially trimethylamine. I am also very sensitive to some sulfurous grapefruit notes, which I find the opposite of fresh and fruity.

27 87: As you are surrounded by smells, where do you look for inspiration?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: Basically everywhere. Each synthesis addresses a question about nature. And its answer inspires new thoughts. Endless combinations exist. Every molecule smells different from the others – while some diverse structures might smell similar.

27 87: Scents have accompanied you your whole life; is there any other profession you could imagine doing or would compare with your profession?

DR. PHILIP KRAFT: I don’t think so. Fashion designers or musicians use existing visual design elements or musical notes. Physics limits the possibilities for expression. In the audio analogy, the song ‘Oakey Timbre’ by Mojo Filtre featuring the Mighty Boosh would jocularly portray it. The protagonist made a breakthrough by discovering a new note between B and C. Still, in music as in vision you cannot escape the boundaries of physics. All music notes exist already, all colors are defined today. With fragrance chemistry, you can. You can truly invent new smells. You have endless possibilities.