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'74 SUNY Plattsburgh Chemistry Graduate Norman Appel Shares Life in the Fragrance Industry

From pizza to perfumes, Norman Appel knows how to make scents.

The 1974 SUNY Plattsburgh chemistry graduate is the vice president of Bell Flavors & Fragrances, a company that designs and produces scents and tastes for nearly anything imaginable.

He recently returned to campus to speak to students about his career and his industry.

“I was always fascinated in how things work,” he said. “I remember breaking a stick and putting the ends together, thinking to myself  ‘why, if they match, are they still broken?’”

It was that curiosity that pushed him into chemistry and, upon graduation, into an industry job where he worked as a chemist.

A Turning Point in His Career

He worked with radioactive isotopes at a chemical and polymers company.

Appel explained how critical it is to know the properties of the substances with which you’re working.  In the case of the isotopes, the materials had a short shelf life but were ordered in larger quantities by administration.

“By the time I needed to use it, it wasn’t good anymore,” he said, pointing out that those on the business side had little education on the chemistry side. “To me, that’s a disaster waiting to happen. We could be making Venetian wine, and they wouldn’t know the difference. That was a turning point in my career. I’d be more valuable to the industry if I could bridge the gap.”

It was that debacle that pushed him to pursue his M.B.A. and essentially into his role at Bell Flavors & Fragrances, his deep-rooted chemistry education from SUNY Plattsburgh being a ticket to his success.

‘I Wanted to Know Why the Leaves Changed Color’

“(The education) was really great,” he said about the college’s chemistry program, adding that the lab work and classes only accentuated his curiosity about the natural world.

“That’s what it was for me. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know why the leaves changed color.”

Now, at Bell Flavors & Fragrances, he works with perfumists to create scents and flavors ranging from smelly feet to lemons. Lemons, he said, can be made more than 300 different ways without using the scent of lemons at all.

“There are 2,000 different raw materials that a perfumer can use,” he said. “The choice of what to use depends on chemical knowledge.”

Often, the use of the company’s service is driven by marketing, like when a pizza box company sought them out to create a pizza-box scent to mask the smell of cardboard.

“The process is basically like an orchestra,” he explained. “The perfumer is the conductor; they know when the clarinets come in, the trumpets, the horn.”

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