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Interning in Robertet

steam distillers
steam distillers

Today I was given a full tour of Robertet, the company with whom I have been an intern for the last 3 weeks. I’m not sure how many acres the whole plant takes up, but suffice to say that there is a collection of little scooters for employess to travel from one side of the property to another.  (*see notes at the bottom for some industry stats…)

We began in the main building, which houses the offices and laboratories (which was designed by Monsieur Eiffel, the man who designed the Eiffel tower) and then entered the more industrial sections where the extraction of the natural raw materials takes place. The first area is dedicated to the extraction of absolutes- ranging from musk ambrette to lavender to tonka. The machines here are smaller than the regular distillers and perform only part of the functions required to yield the precious pure absolutes.  (To outline briefly, once the plant matter has been washed successively with a solvent, and the solvent removed, the resulting semi-solid concrete is washed again a number of times with ethyl alcohol to separate the waxes from the material of olfactive value, or, the absolute. After every wash, the resulting slurry must be drained like cheese curds through a fine cloth tied over a large barrel. Or, depending on the absolute in question, a preferable method may be to strain the mixture through a cylinder containing perlite which acts as a purifying medium. Once the waxes are washed clean, the alcohol is distilled off in a vacuum and the thick syrupy and highly fragrant absolue is left. )

Next was the hydrodistillation and distillation warehouses where many huge stainless steel extractors were in action, despite the intense summer

heat, fed by and emptying into a complicated network of pipes and tanks on two levels. There was a semi-truck load pile of bales of mousse de chine (oakmoss) stacked outside, a heap of fresh verbena leaves, a mountain of large plastic bags of ground orris root; and ground fenugreek, all awaiting extraction.

Soon after, we entered a smaller warehouse and I was told that this was where the most traditional and basic equipment and extraction techniques were implemented to distill the fabulous orris butter from the sliced, dried and aged rhizomes of the Iris. Inside the aged old office, the wooden shelves displayed small stacks of the precious butter yielded after many hours of steaming the sliced rhizomes. Orris butter is a highly expensive product (due to a very low yield and the long time

required for the distillation) and is high in myristic acid, a large fatty molecule that causes the solid consistency of the product. The smell is fatty, slightly animalic, cool fresh and earthy, creamy pale green violet; unique and, in my opinion, very beautiful. Orris has a reputation as a fantastic fixative and soul note and contributes to a powdery rich body note in perfume.

Next stop is at the very bottom of the Robertet grounds, is a modest and rambling lab, complete with a plethora of amazing pyrex flasks and tubes and glass vacuum extractors and bubbling bottles and a stunning view out toward the mountains in the direction of Nice. Here, one quite young chemist, Dominique, is working to create new natural materials. I smelled some of the products, including a chilled vial of a molecularly distilled ylang ylang that is another product made exclusively for Chanel. It was exquisite! -very sweet and pure, without the slightly medicinal or ‘dirty’ aspects of normally distilled oil. This is one of the main reasons for molecular distillation, or even fractionated oils, where various fractions are separated out and only the best quality, olfactively, are chosen. The re-created composite oils are missing the less desirable notes but have not been manipulated with anything other than a bit of heat, and not even much of that because in a vacuum, the heat can be kept extremely low. Because

the respective boiling points of the various chemicals that make up an oil are different, they evaporate at different times that can  therefore be timed and separated.. After the most interesting ones can be chosen and blended in various proportions to yield a new product. This is another art form, I believe, and a form of perfumery in its own right. Co-distillations of raw materials, such as myrrh and cedarwood, are also being explored as a means of yielding unique olfactive notes. Such a fascinating realm of experimentation!

As for my work during the internship, the day includes an olfactory test twice per day, smelling 10 raw materials on blotter strips- synthetics in the morning and naturals after lunch. Otherwise, my daily experiences can range from touring the various GC labs, meeting the marketing people, or today, making a batch of toothepaste for the flavourist’s department to do trials with. I also am called upon to do translations periodically for emails and memos being sent to English speaking clients. And always, for everyone, testing, testing, testing. There is a room attached to our lab that contains 6 small rooms, each can be sealed and has a toilet inside. This is where many products are tested- deodorants, tile cleaners etc.. These are not active toilets, of course, but are used in simulation tests and each cubicle has its own ventilation system. There also testing rooms with rows of washing machines or dryers to test detergents and related products right down to what a towel smells like after a week, 2 weeks and so on after drying. Product development is a major part of the company’s portfolio- testing product stability under all conditions. A few days ago I was shown a room with ovens ranging in temperature from 37 to 60 degrees where products can be kept for up to a couple of monthes to observe what happens to the cream or shower gel etc so that all possible flaws in the formulation are found before the product goes to market. In the formulation lab across the hall from ours, the windows are lined on the inside with glass shelves where stacks of jars of samples can sit for monthes in the sunshine (it’s pure sun here ever day by the way…) just to test the effect of the UV and fluctuating temperatures. I had no idea so much time goes into the process of developing a product, but I have to admit, I’ve gained a lot of respect for the companies whose standards are so high.

To name some names, some of the companies that Robertet has created products for are Gucci, Escada, Dior, l’Occitane, L’Oreal, Armani, plus many many more. The products created for these name brands are created from beginning to end by Robertet (and other similar companies like Mane, IFF

etc) and more often than not includes the fragrance, cosmetic formulation (and testing of course), packaging concept, marketing etc. It’s an incredible process really and all carried out by a bunch of down-to-earth friendly, highly trained, not overly hard working, (being French and all) but dedicated, men and women.

* In 2006, Robertet generated 221 million euros in turnover with 50% of sales in flavours, 35% in compositions and 15% in raw mterials/ingredients. Sales are worldwide with the US taking 40% and Europe 38%.   And, in case anyone is interested in an purchasing raw materials from Robertet, the base minimum order per product is 500 euros .   This is a big company dealing with the big players in the industry. In the shipping area yesterday, I saw an order being prepared and included was a aluminum bottle of Rose Absolute of about two gallons in volumn….worth an absolute fortune!

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