More About How I Make Perfume

Sometimes two substances have no affinity and simply clash, but often something comes about that neither of the ingredients hinted at on its own. 

One such example is vetiver and patchouli. Vetiver has a lovely grassy-green, woody quality while anyone who remembers the 60s and 70s will know the warm, slightly cloying scent of patchouli, often reminiscent of leftover wine. 

To balance the two on smelling strips, I had to hold the patchouli strip at arm’s length and put the vetiver almost up against my nose. As I moved the strips slightly back and forth, something unexpected emerged: The mixture smelled like dark chocolate.

Once I find a couplet that piques interest, the next step is to quantify the mixture using larger vials or, what I prefer, test tubes.

I don’t use tiny vials or the amounts will be so small that the results will be thrown off by the absorption of the paper strip. A plastic test tube rack is just a few dollars and a hundred test tubes, scarcely more. Corks (always buy the very best you can find) can be a bit pricy, but nothing crazy. I leave mine out to aerate and reuse them.

I combine my mixtures by weight with a milligram scale I found for about 300 dollars.

When working by volume, which is much more onerous, don’t just count drops—calculate amounts in milliliters because drop size is influenced by the viscosity of the substance, the size of the opening from which it drips, and the temperature of the substance and of the environment. Always use the same funnel or pipette and work in a room kept at a constant temperature so you can pin down how many drops of a given material provides a milliliter of liquid.

Vetiver, for instance, takes about 20 drops to make a milliliter while ethyl alcohol takes 40, under my conditions. Of course, I keep careful notes of my calculations. In this way, I can make much larger quantities without having to count out conceivably thousands of drops.

 

How I Make Perfume

Mandy Aftel taught me to start out small. Instead of adding one ingredient after another in a desperate dash for some irresistible accord, it is better to take two substances—only two—and smell how they interact. 

There are many ways of choosing the two ingredients. I often grab two off my shelves, without looking, or select two I find so irresistible on their own that I must know how they will intermingle. I try to stay observant and open to the odd chance occurrence while keeping in mind that it has been the unpredictable accident and the serendipity of discovery that have inspired, challenged, and directed me. 

Several months ago, thinking I was done with Green Iris, I had my husband try a little on. He was wearing BPC’s Musk, and commented that they went well together. Realizing Green Iris had no musk I experimented until I found out that ambrettolide, an expensive artificial version, gave the perfume gravitas and an underlying complexity it lacked before. 

To begin my appraisal of the two substances, I dip the end of a 3-inch-long strip of paper—my homemade smelling strips—in two of my 10%-solutions. I wave both strips around about 30 seconds to burn off the alcohol and then bring them, one in each hand, arms extended in front of me, slowly, to my nose. I’m careful not to overwhelm my nose with one or the other so as not to prejudice my perception. As I bring the strips closer, and begin to smell one or the other, I pull back on the one that’s most apparent. I move my arms to and fro, trying to gauge the potency of the substances in relation to each other while noticing anything interesting happening with the strips. If I end up holding one far away and one close to get them to balance, then one is obviously much stronger than the other. 

This gives me a sense of how to blend them when it comes time for the next step: working in test tubes. 

 

Perfumes, Wine, and Olfactory Fatigue

Olfactory Fatigue, Perfume, and Fine Wines

 

I’ve noticed in my experiments that certain substances tire my nose more quickly than others. Usually, repeated smelling of one compound decreases the nose’s sensitivity to that compound only, but some ingredients shut down the nose almost entirely. 

This well-recognized phenomenon—known as olfactory fatigue—is usually a nuisance, but there are times when it can be put to our advantage. 

When we evaluate fine wines and perfumes, they should constantly pique our interest as new aromas unfold. A fine old wine may exhibit a hundred different smells in one glass. Beautiful perfume should enchant us as it constantly evolves.

All of this begs the question: Does the perfume or wine change as we sniff and snort or is it our ever-changing sense of smell? Perhaps when one layer dominates, our nose soon tires of that specific aroma and puts it in the background, rendering it less visible to the nose. As the layer disperses into the background, a new layer emerges and so on. 

Using such an approach, the original perfume is first “sketched” or “roughed in,” with the perfume’s most dominant aromas. This sketch is then sniffed just long enough to fatigue the nose and the original is sniffed immediately after. Those components in the original sketch will end up in the background (because the nose has tired of them) and as-yet-unidentified aromas will come to the foreground. This process is repeated by constantly adjusting the sketch and bringing it progressively closer to the original perfume.

I keep this in mind and keep all smelly things—used smelling strips, bottles of ingredients, test tubes,etc.—covered so I don’t prejudice my nose by smelling up the room. I started doing this when I became stuck in the development of Green Iris, and had my breakthrough with it only after my nose was allowed to rest.

Copying the Great Perfumes of the Past

One of my favorite books, Perfumery: Practice and Principles, by Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephen Jellinek, discusses the basic structures of some of the best-known classic perfumes. The authors give a rough idea of what’s in the perfumes, but no formulas.

I sent away for tiny vials of as many of the great classics as I could find—Shalimar, Oscar de la Renta, L’Air du Temps, Ma Griff, Arpege, Chanel 5, etc.—and have set about copying them.

My first project has been L’Air du Temps, first released in 1947. Jellinek describes it as the origin of a distinct family, based on an accord between eugenol (cloves) and benzyl salicylate (vaguely floral). 

I constructed a base note with a powerful vetiver compound combined with methyl ionone, a long-used chemical that smells of violets. When I got these two in balance, I added musk ketone, an old-fashioned musk with a distinct personality that’s especially noticeable in the drydown. I smoothed the mixture with sandalwood.

The eugenol accord is reinforced with ylang ylang, rose, and jasmine. I used my own complexes which contain much of the real product and added orris for good measure (it never hurts), a little damascone beta for a trace of fruitiness, and some extra natural carnation and jasmine to add finesse to the synthetics.

Last, the top note is one used in many perfumes: bergamot and rosewood (naturals) combined with linalyl acetate and linalool (synthetics), all of which add freshness. 

When I thought the preliminary sketch finished, I added aldehydes and was again amazed by the ineffable sparkle they gave to my blend.

I did surprisingly well even if my version was but a crude interpretation of L’Air du Temps. More on how I did it in the next post.

 

Clarifying: From the Kitchen to the Perfume Lab

Ambergris production has been rolling along smoothly except for one thing: the seaweed absolute turns the perfume black and murky. The absolute, when mixed with alcohol, is clear but very dark. 

Setting out to eliminate the dark hue, I bought a centrifuge and spun the stuff for two hours, thinking that whatever is causing the murk would settle to the bottom when subjected to massive g-forces.

Since this didn’t work, I did some reading about clarifying mixtures. I decided to approach the issue as I would a new recipe to develop. I’ve clarified plenty of consommé in the kitchen using egg whites, so I gave that a whirl, but the egg whites immediately curdled because of the alcohol. It turns out that finely powdered clay (bentonite) can be shaken with the mixture before being allowed to settle. After settling overnight, it is then filtered through a very fine filter, finer than a coffee filter. The mixture came out clear, but still dark.

I tried adding a little vinegar to shift the pH balance and noticed the mixture clouded. It occurred to me, though, that it’s the water in the vinegar that’s causing the clouding. I added a little water to the mixture and sure enough, it clouded.

Well, it turns out that cloudy mixtures are more likely to separate in the centrifuge. So, I’m spinning away and coming out with a liquid that is clear and golden.

My concern is that I’m having to add too much water to the absolute to create this effect and that when I add the absolute containing water to the rest of the perfume ingredients, that it will cloud the whole mixture. 

I must run tests. One problem so often leads to others.

 

Making Dinner and Making Perfume

In the 1970s, I went to Paris, eager to learn classic French cooking and new methods that were evolving along with la nouvelle cuisine.

After much study, emulation, reading, and dining, my confidence grew. None of this mattered, however, compared to one insight that not only taught, but inspired my approach to everything olfactory-related: Respect the ingredients, keep cooking and processing to a minimum, and use only the finest products. I don’t depend on recipes but instead, improvise based on what I have and what grabs me in the markets. 

Expert perfumer and teacher Mandy Aftel recommends taking one ingredient and becoming familiar with it. Only then should it be combined with another substance and their interaction carefully explored. When making Green Iris, I wanted to magnify the subtle aroma of the best orris butter. After building up a base of natural orris butter and synthetics, I decorated it with ancillary ingredients and aromas. These, in much the same way as side dishes for a dinner, bring the main course into relief.

While cooks don’t describe them in these terms, sauces are constructed with bottom, middle, and top notes. When a sauté pan is deglazed with shallots, wine, and herbs, the mixture is reduced and becomes the base accord for the sauce. Meat or seafood glaze is added to give body, savor, and complexity. More herbs, spices, truffles, mushrooms, or other ingredients become the heart note. Butter and/or cream are often added to hold the sauce together and give it texture. Last, the head notes are added—quickly volatilizing mixtures such as Cognac, fines herbes (chives, parsley, chervil, tarragon). The sauce is seasoned and served immediately.

Cooking is a study in contrasts, dissonances, and harmonies. Flavors and textures interact. Some support each other and others take away. Nothing stands alone; all contribute to the whole.

Perfume, in this way, is just the same.

Wine and Perfume

How awful when someone shows up at a serious dinner wearing strong scent. As most of us know, perfume interferes with a wine’s aroma. Despite this, they share many characteristics in common.

Like perfume, wine has top notes, middle notes, and base notes. Wine can be infinitely complex in the same way as perfume and, when a special bottle is being served, needs to be approached with the same close attention.

Wine does have certain qualities not shared by perfume. As wine ages, its heart becomes more volatile and presents itself sooner. In younger wines, the heart may hide, at least until the wine has been aerated by being allowed to breath or by being decanted. If an old wine is aerated too long, its heart may volatilize and evaporate like a top note. If you don’t smell the wine quickly, the heart is lost and the wine is said to be faded. 

When the wine touches our tongue, we may first notice tannin, alcohol, or acid. These three constitute the structure of the wine, a sort of frame that contains the wine’s fruit, where the heart notes are found.  

Acid in wine is analogous to greenness and tang in perfume. Tannin, which feels rough in the mouth, evokes base notes, especially very dry materials, sometimes described as “choking.” Animal notes are often found within the fruit of the wine. These correspond with musks and leather notes (think castoreum and tobacco). 

Like perfume, wine can smell like virtually anything, even rank things. But strangely, even normally-repugnant smells, when discreet, can be appealing if balanced with other aromas and if they enter into the wine’s or perfume’s total complex. 

Oud is one of the most complex-smelling ingredients we know. Complexity in wine is etched into fruit; complexity in oud is etched into wood. 

Adding Musk to Green Iris

As I wrote in my last post, I decided that my Green Iris needed a little more gravitas and intrigue.

I took my 21 musks and combined each of them, separately, with about 20 times the amount of Green Iris and let them dry down on smelling strips. Muscone, which started out promising—it has a definite animalic note—lasted too long such that it was the only thing left when the perfume had evaporated. The same happened with Musk Ketone.

Ambrettolide, a suave and sophisticated musk, turned out to be perfect. Its dry down rate matched the rest of the perfume so it was present until the very end, but not after.

But, my main concern was Kate. She had warned me: “Don’t funk it up.” Some musks would indeed funk it up (natural musk in a glorious way), but Ambrettolide is clean and safe. It adds a note of sophistication and depth to the perfume with its smooth sweetness that isn’t cloying. I’m thrilled with the addition. Kate came over this past weekend, and as I waited nervously for her to finish sniffing the smelling strip, she concurred. She liked the musk, with its added mystery, and without hesitation, agreed it should go in.

Now, I must move on and add the Ambrettolide to a larger batch. I’m adding a small amount at a time in case the stuff emerges in a day and takes over. I’m going to let the mixture settle and develop complexity and, in about a month, release it into the world, making it vulnerable to criticism and hopefully praise.

It does contain an accurate depiction of iris—in fact, it reeks of the stuff—dressed up with naturals and aroma compounds. It’s my baby, getting ready for its first day at school.

Final Tweaks to Green Iris

The other night my husband came up to the lab and was fooling around with some perfume samples I had sitting around. Of course, I asked him to put on a bit of Green Iris, which he completely approved of. As he was trying on other stuff too, he made an interesting comment.

He had put a little of my musk next to the spot where he put the iris and said how well they went together. This struck me, because earlier in the day, I was thinking about how Green Iris doesn’t have any musk.

I put some ambrettolide (a very refined musk reminiscent of ambrette seed) on a smelling strip and juxtaposed it with a strip with Green Iris on it. I knew I was onto something so I asked my friend Megan, who was visiting from the Berkshires, to compare iris without musk and iris with. We both agreed that Green Iris by itself has a lovely freshness, but that the version with the musk was a little more mysterious and intriguing.

Naturally, I won’t just settle for adding a little ambrettolide, but will experiment with adding ambrette seed (made from hibiscus flowers and outrageously expensive) as well as other musks in my collection of 21.

I’ve started out with a 40:1 dilution of Green Iris to musk. Initially, this is quite subtle, but I want to see how these musks present on the dry down. According to one of my favorite authors, Arcadi Boix Camps, muscone is one of the compounds occurring in natural deer musk, and while it smells completely different, according to him, it lasts just as long (which is very long). This might be a way of making the perfume more persistent.

Once I’ve had a chance to smell the smelling strips, I will have a full report.



Sandalwood

Ten years ago, I had a midlife crisis and bought a powerful motorcycle. Instead of slowly building my skills and becoming comfortable with the machine, I’d ride the bike on the FDR drive, the highway that runs along the east side of Manhattan. As I clenched the handlebars desperately, at the average speed of about 80 mph, drivers constantly weaved between lanes. The road had plenty of cracks and pot holes. After 6 months of terror, I gave the bike up.

I took the same bold approach when it came to perfumery. Within a month of beginning my passion, I set out to create an artificial sandalwood, unaware that this has been the quest of perfumers for at least a century.

Most sandalwood calls itself “Mysore,” the city in India that is (or was) the source of the best quality. It came from wild trees, of which now there are few, if any, left.

I have 20 different samples from around the world and only one smells like genuine Mysore, with a subtle, almost medicinal complexity, that runs through it. I would be happy to duplicate any sandalwood, provided it comes from santalum alba, versus the less-charming Australian species, santalum spicitus. Recreating the exact aroma of Mysore sandalwood has never, as far as I know, been done.

BPC's Sandalwood is made bold with vetiver and frankincense. In addition to acting as fixatives, these rest over a sandalwood-like substructure and allow the aroma of the wood to emerge as the perfume dries down. This substructure is frightfully complicated, but it provides an authentic sandalwood note because it contains a fair amount of the real stuff. It also contains santalol, a distillate made from sandalwood itself, but more assertive.

Of all my perfumes, only Sandalwood lacks aphrodisiacal funk. It is clean and robust and starts or ends the day with a note of bold freshness. It lasts long on the skin. It draws commentary, especially when one is kissed on both cheeks, à la française

“What is it you’re wearing?”

Green is the New Black II

The base for what we originally called Black Iris, has now been transformed into Green Iris. Lovely as it is, the perfume still needs a top note.

I feared citrus would interfere, but grapefruit has aspects I thought might keep it from being too domineering. I added pink peppercorn absolute to balance the grapefruit and when I added the top-note mixture to the base/heart mixture, it popped right out, giving the iris a moment to emerge while the top note evaporated. 

Excitedly, I showed it to Kate who loved its clarity and brightness. The only thing she thought, was that it needed a spicy note. So, I experimented with iso-eugenol (clove) and cinnamic alcohol (cinnamon), but they distracted from the central theme rather than enhancing it.

On her next visit, she suggested cardamom. I tend to avoid the stuff because it can be aggressive and asserts its own character too strongly, but, bless her heart, the cardamom gave the top note punch, and the requisite spiciness. 

Never one to let things alone, I decided on a couple more experiments. 

I added musk, but I neither wanted to add my musk, which is funky and would get me in trouble with Kate, nor any of the modern musks typically used these days. I tried musk ketone, one of the oldest synthetics, and while it helped the persistence and gave the perfume a vintage style, in the end, its own character dominated the dry down. Had this been natural musk, that would have been fine, but this musk left me with unpleasant associations with other, less opulent, perfumes.

Last, I’ve added sandalwood. It‘s hard for me to smell sandalwood in a powerful mixture, but I can perceive what it does—it smooths things out and lends a particular elegance, as though there were a beam of light shining through the perfume.

Excited, I went over to The Twisted Lily, a high-end perfume boutique that just happens to be just up the street. They were very busy and hadn’t much time to spare, but the first person to smell it, exclaimed: “It has iris in it, a lot of iris!” 

Bingo. 

Green is the New Black

Last week, I came up with something persistent, bright, and reeking of iris. Kate and I concur that it’s green, not black, and considering it’s spring and the stuff is so knockout, I’m going to go ahead and call it Green Iris. Kate warned me, “Now, Jim, don’t funk it up,” she, knowing my proclivity for adding smelly animal things.

Having read that certain aldehydes quickly breakdown, I bought new ones and diluted them to 50% with alcohol to preserve them. Then I started experimenting. At first, they seemed overwhelmingly powerful, but as the fragrance accords sat, the aldehydes went in and sort of disappeared, but they gave the perfume a new dynamism, boldness, and clarity. 

A few other things helped too. I used costausol for the first time as a substitute for the now-forbidden costus root. I was surprised that it reinforced the iris. I added a tad of a violet complex as a way of providing ionones in a well-balanced way. 

At this point I felt that the perfume had lost some of its iris character, so I reinforced it with a small amount of carrot seed and vetiver. Then, at the risk of making the stuff too pricey, I added a bunch of orris (iris) concrete, some violet leaf concrete, and some frankincense.

The stuff smelled great, but I was confronted with the age-old problem of fixation—getting the perfume to last on the skin.

Frustrated, I did some research and hit upon benzoin absolute. As it turns out, I had always confused “plain” benzoin with benzoin Siam. Benzoin Siam has a pronounced character and couldn’t be used in anything more than in minute traces. But, benzoin has so little aroma that I was able to use a fair amount of it. I am excited to finally have a strong base for my new iris fragrance. 

Next post: the top notes and a few final manipulations.


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Seductive Amber

The word “Amber,” tells little of how such a perfume will smell. Sometimes spelled “ambra,” the word means one of three things: ambergris; an accord based on labdanum (which many say smells like ambergris; I fail to see the connection) and various balsams. In W.A. Poucher’s 1925 edition of Perfumes, Cosmetics & Soaps, he includes labdanum, vanillin, musk (ketone), oakmoss, benzoin Siam, tolu balsam, civet, jasmine absolute, rose otto, clary sage oil, patchouli, and frankincense. 

BPC’s amber is different. It is made from fossilized amber, the kind worn for jewelry. The golden material (not the expensive orbs, but the trimmings), while being distilled, oxidizes and becomes acrid and deeply aromatic. Because it has animal facets, it draws me (and others) right in. 

I made my first accord by combining the burnt amber with tobacco (dark tobacco, like for French cigarettes) and vanilla, an expensive CO2 from Madagascar.

A week later, I took a vial with me to a lunch date with a French couple. Near the end of our lunch, I brought it out. As I had hoped, they caught on to its many animal notes, and went rather wild. They cancelled their afternoon plans and went back to their hotel.

Because I wanted a fragrance that was deep and rich, I added powerful ingredients to balance the acridity of the amber and the backbone made with that original accord. Patchouli, combined with woody elements (sandalwood, kephalis, and oud) and castoreum fleshed it out and underlined its animal character. 

The perfume is powerful and persistent and, as it fades over 12 hours or so, it changes and shimmers as each element comes into focus.

At the end of the drydown, there remains a subtle and hard-to-resist erotic note.

To quote a close female friend: “If I ran into a guy who smelled like that, I’d wrap my thighs around him so fast…”

What are Eaux Fraîches?

We’ve all been exposed to a great number of perfumes, usually made from complicated formulas, and often consisting of chemicals alone. While some of them can be fantastic, pure naturals can inspire us even more. A whiff of authentic vanilla, the scent of herbs and spices, of truffles, of ambergris, move us with their sensory beauty.

It occurred to me, a couple of years ago, to celebrate single natural fragrance ingredients without altering them in the lab. The perfect medium seemed to be an eau fraîche.

Eau fraîche is French for “cool water.” There are many ways of interpreting this, but I took it literally and decided to create a line of natural sprays that have the cooling effect of water sprayed on the body and in the air.

To do this, I include water in the formula, creating the effect of a splash from a fresh stream and not the burning heat of pure alcohol.

The sprays are intense, cleansing, and evanescent. For three, I chose the greenest ingredients I know—vetiver, galbanum, and violet leaf to create an olfactory tang. Vetiver smells like fresh grass, galbanum a bit like gin, and violet leaf a tad like cucumber.

The fourth ingredient stands out because it’s not green at all. It’s orange, but not orange juice or orange rind, rather, orange flowers. It is neroli, distilled from orange blossoms, with a scent that’s floral and citrus at the same time. 

The sprays wash over us, each its own natural aroma. They leave us fresh. There are those who purchase the whole set and experiment with various combinations. 

Eaux fraîches are great for after the shower, after a shave, and for a splash of cool scented water near the end of a tiring day.

 

My New Ambergris

I’ve been at a loss to describe Ambergris, my latest eau de parfum. One of my perfume friends could only exclaim, “This stuff is weird!” So, Kate has gotten on me for a more thorough description.

The opening has the classic aroma of isopropyl alcohol, which is like saying Romanée Conti opens like wine. This is special isopropyl alcohol, beautified, rendered elegant and sparkling. Even perfumers, who think of ambergris as a base note, forget that it also has this incredible delicate top note. 

Within 30 seconds, this note passes and we enter an aquatic, air-like phase. There’s the ocean and a smell of ozone, like just after a lightning storm. 

The background resonates with various sea plants, which leaves it full of complexity and reminiscent of the sea—spray, sand, and the aroma of water itself.

After about an hour, while some of the ozone remains, we move into a primordial kind of impression that's rather indescribable, but resonant and grave. It’s dark and alluring; it brings complexity and intrigue. 

Over the hours, as these various marine aromas fade, there emerges the smell of pure, natural ambergris. The ambergris, having outlasted everything else in the perfume, leaves behind a beasty smell, between hair and bear: beasty, maybe, but impossible to resist. 

While I set out to make a perfume that amplified ambergris’s natural aroma, I soon realized I was laboring against an inherent contradiction—how does one take a delicate melody, in a minor key, and amplify it into something big and stentorian? 

I’ve included a lot of ambergris and other natural and aromatic compounds to bring into focus many of the facets that typify the authentic product. 

The perfume presents natural ambergris, but also the idea of ambergris, what we expect of it, be it the sea, the salty air, or the decomposing vegetation on the shore. 

Soon, people will react to it. What will they smell? What will they say?

Olfactory Fatigue

Don’t panic if when working with perfume, you suddenly lose your sense of smell. It happened to me last week.

Completely freaked out, it took me awhile to realize that I was surrounded with intense aromas. I had just opened a new vial of Rose C02; smelling strips from a bottle of aged ambergris tincture were sitting on the counter, and I had also been sniffing some rare ouds. My head was spinning.

The next day, my sense of smell was better, but my heart wasn’t into my usual smelling routine. My nose had had it. So had my brain; I was exhausted. 

I set about concealing aromatic sources in the lab. I now keep all my working materials—some test-tube racks and bottles in various trays—in a covered box when I’m not using them. My “organ” of little bottles now resides in covered drawers. I don’t leave anything out except ethanol. When I’m done with my smelling strips, I seal them in one of the tin boxes we use for sending out samples. 

Kate says the smell has lessened. My sense of smell is coming back, but my brain needs a reset, a short period of rest to regain needed points of reference and a bit of distance. I need a fresh look.

To further reduce the olfactory muddle filling the room, I want even purer air. It’s too cold in Brooklyn to open the windows this time of year. A hood would help, but that’s complicated and expensive.

I bought an ozone generator, but haven’t used it yet, because it scares me. Having ozone float around my old books and other prized possessions leaves me a bit unnerved. 

I’m taking a break from working on Black Iris, I need to see it from afar. I need a little objectivity— and a little more air.

What Started Me On Ambergris: Part II

When my tinctures started smelling like isopropyl alcohol, panic moved in. My first thought was that tincturing in the light had been a mistake and that I had bleached the ambergris and made it worthless.

Desperate, I searched around and landed on Wikipedia. Then I saw this: “However, it acquires a sweet, earthy scent as it ages, commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol...” 

Wow. I went back to my bottle of isopropyl alcohol and, while yes, there was a resemblance, the ambergris was deep and complex without, as Wikipedia says, “the vaporous chemical astringency.”

So, where has this left me? First, I realized that ambergris has a top note, something I’d never heard about before. When it’s in a perfume, it hits you with the weirdly appealing rubbing alcohol nose and then mellows down to a faint earthy smell that reminds me a little of unwashed hair. The earthy smells last many hours on the skin. While at no point is the aroma terribly grand, like most pheromones, it’s impossible to resist going back for another whiff.

Ambergris gives a particular radiance to floral fragrances. In marine perfumes it lends finesse, complexity, and ineffable nuances of the sea.

While I’ve never seen a discussion of whether to tincture ambergris in the light or dark, tincturing in the light works faster. I have smelled years-old tinctures that have much less aroma than those I’ve tinctured for six months. 

Ambergris needn’t be terribly expensive, usually from $30 to $50 per gram. But, consider this: Ambergris is typically used in concentrations of 3%. 1% of this tincture is the usual amount added to a perfume. Hence, 1 gram of ambergris makes 33 ml. of 3% tincture, enough to tincture 3300 ml. of perfume.

Without irony, a bargain. 



What Started Me on Ambergris: Part I

Eight years ago, I didn’t know what ambergris was.

It all started with a book from the fifteenth century, entitled De Honesta Voluptate translated into English as On Right Pleasure and Good Health, published in Latin with an English translation on the facing page. In it, Platina describes scenting rooms with burning ambergris.

I sent away for some, to New Zealand.

It arrived looking like a cross between a truffle and a rock.

First, I put it in cold water to make sure it floated; if I doesn’t float, it’s fake. Next, I took a pin, heated it red-hot on the stove, and jabbed it into the lump. It slid in easily and left behind a waft of resinous smoke. The smoke made me think of the rosin they use during soldering. I could well imagine a room smelling so good, but at what cost?

Sperm whales, the only source of this treasured substance, vomit (or do the other, no one’s sure) a black vile-smelling substance that floats on the sea for no-one-knows how long, becoming pale and aromatic in the salty sea. Maybe, because there were many more sperm whales in those days, ambergris wasn’t so rare.

Ready to move on to the next phase, I put my 10-gram lump in a large test tube and poured over 90 grams (about 115 ml.) of ethyl alcohol for a 10% tincture. I considered heating the test tube to dissolve the lump, but I noticed it began to dissolve almost immediately (this was easy to see by the thin, translucent threads that formed in the alcohol).

By the next morning, the lump was gone and a thick murk had formed in the bottom of the test tube. I set the test tube in a rack in the sunlight and let it sit. (Many people tincture in the dark, but I get more aroma when I leave it in the light.)

After a month, nothing had happened.

After four months, nothing had happened.

After six months, a peculiar aroma developed. The bottom of the test tube cork smelled like isopropanol. How lovely, I had recreated the scent of rubbing alcohol.

Would more waiting help?

 

L'Air du Temps: Talking about Head Notes

A perfume’s top notes evaporate fast — within 15 minutes or so there’s little left of them. This makes them no less important to the finished creation. They are the first aromas one smells and, in fact, are often experienced by those who wear them and no one else. But this overture to the perfume is often what sells it, such that, in today’s marketing-oriented environment, top notes have become so smooth and suave that they are sometimes more interesting than the heart notes.

But when we go back to the classics—to pick an arbitrary date, say perfumes from before 1970—there are typical ingredients that were (and still are) used to top off a perfume. Bergamot, lavender, and rosewood were almost ubiquitous. Rosewood and bergamot, both used in L’Air du Temps, are sources of linalool and linalool acetate. These were probably reinforced by those two compounds, both of which impart freshness.

Distinguished perfumery authors Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek reiterate that real “richness and quality” come from jasmine and rose absolutes. They emphasize the importance of “trace” amounts of materials that “have a remarkable effect on the performance and aesthetic quality of the fragrance.” They point out that Aldehyde C11 undecylenic adds impact while styrallyl acetate acts as a bridge between the top notes and the rest of the perfume. Tiny quantities of orris, heliotropin, and vanillin give polish and character to the carnation complex. 

They go on about how vanillin acts like salt and pepper in that it brings out other components of the perfume. It must be used carefully as a tiny amount can work wonders by “smoothing out the roughness of a composition, and adding a touch of sweetness, without greatly altering the essential character of the perfume.” While they laud its value in perfumery, they warn of its treachery as a trace too much ruins a composition.

Thank you, Misters Calkin and Jellinek.

 

 

L’Air du Temps, Deconstructing the Heart

Perfumery: Practice and Principles, by Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek describes the “heart” notes, also known as middle notes, of L’Air du Temps.

A floral bouquet builds on the base notes (see last post), and becomes the heart and central theme of the perfume. Heart notes usually show up 15 minutes or so into the perfume’s evaporation. They should last at least several hours.

I was a little disconcerted when I saw the compounds going into this assembly of flowers. Once, I prepared the mixture and it just smelled like a bunch of chemicals; perhaps it needed more time to age. But as the authors make clear, in 1948, when the perfume was first released, it would have contained a far higher percentage of naturals—especially jasmine and rose—than it likely does today.

Each flower in the bouquet is represented by a single compound: terpineol for lilac, styrallyl acetate for gardenia, phenylethyl alcohol for rose, hydroxycitronellal for muguet (lily of the valley), and benzyl acetate and amyl cinnamic aldehyde for jasmine.

A compound used in large amounts in perfumes, Terpineol does have a subtle—yet distinct—aroma of lilacs.

Unfortunately, styrallyl acetate has little to do with memories of my mother’s gardenias, in a pot near my rear window. I first smelled it at 10% concentration and thought it too chemical. I diluted it to 1% which gave it a bit of a gardenia note. Perhaps a little vanilla and a trace of ylang ylang?

The phenylethyl alcohol is extraordinarily volatile and seems to fill the room before the top gets off the bottle. It’s clearly rose-like, but rather like a wan rose—one without flesh and blood. In classic rose perfumes, phenylethyl alcohol would be balanced with geranium (or geraniol) and citronellol, preferably l-citronellol. A rose fragrance in 1948 would have contained plenty of rose otto and rose absolute.

Next, our dissection continues with the head notes.