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May 1, 2009

"Millefleurs" By Luca Turin

"Millefleurs" By Luca Turin

A few weeks ago I was given a tour of the Henkel plant in Krefeld, a sleepy little town near Düsseldorf. Henkel is the largest German soapmaker and stands alone among its peers in having had a molecule discovery department that, in the eighties, famously stole a march on Firmenich and made Henkel’s very own Ambroxan.

The Krefeld site is a jumble of buildings, mostly lovely century-old brickwork with ample courtyards. The place is quiet, with few people visible and very little smell in the air. The plant manager showed me around, and was justifiably proud of his charge. He got a doctorate in process control and was immediately given by Henkel a chance to put company money where his mouth was, with impressive results: the place seemed to hum more smoothly than any I have seen.

We started at the beginning, where the drums of smelly stuff come in. On the principle of “trust is good, control is better” one in ten drums is sampled from the bottom (not-so clever suppliers sometimes put a layer of good stuff on top) and sent for analysis. The drums are then loaded into one of 700 vats of differing sizes from which they can be automatically dispensed under computer control to make perfumery mixes ranging from about a pint to a couple of tons.

This, among other things, means 700 stainless steel pipes running from room to room, each the size of a tennis court, while making right-angle turns right, left, up and down in formation. Thousands of valves direct the flow, and extraordinary scales weigh bathtubs full of fragrance to sub-gram precision. Everytime we moved from one building to another, giant vertical sliding doors shot up before us with a speed that made me feel important. I was taken to a room kept at the temperature of a hot day in Java, where the resinoids are kept to make sure they flow when needed. It felt like a hothouse in a zoo, as if those exotic ingredients might otherwise feel homesick.

The process is amazingly error-free and efficient: virtually the only surplus comes from the half-litre bottles of compositions that perfumers sample and then discard, because the automatic mixer cannot make a batch smaller than that. What happens to the leftovers? They get mixed into a big vat, thirty tons each year, and sold under the elegantly cynical name of Millefleurs. I asked to smell it and was offered smelling strips dipped in the last four batches, each randomly different. They smelled better than many things made on purpose.

Every company has its own Millefleurs, and each apparently has a house style. Who buys the stuff? North African soap makers, who pay € 1.50 per kg for it, i.e. at least twenty times cheaper than the cheapest proper fragrance. Henkel tried to up the price to € 1.80 recently and found no takers. It is a wonderful to think that the perfumery product most closely approaching an unrepeatable limited edition is also the cheapest.

Zu Duftnote -- Millefleurs - NZZ-Folio Do it yourself (05/09)

Da haben sich mir doch, eigentlich zum ersten mal, seit ich das nzz folio lese, die nackenhaare gesträubt. in dem artikel steht, dass "krefeld eine verschlafenen kleinstadt nahe düsseldorf" sei! daran richtig ist nur die nähe zu düsseldorf, krefeld ist aber nicht verschlafen und auch keine kleinstadt: krefeld hat ca. 240'000 einwohner ! (und beherbergt, nebenbei bemerkt, den deutschen eishockeymeister von 2003) die henkel-seifen-fabrik liegt im uerdinger industrie-/hafengebiet, dass dort dort geschlafen wird, kann ich mir auch nicht vorstellen. wie kann luca turin nur so daneben greifen?
Reinhard Wagener, Krefeld

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