More Weird Ways to Choose Perfume

A favorite book of mine, Perfumery: The Psychology and Biology of Fragrance, edited by Steve Van Toller and George H. Dodd, is a rather technical tome that dwells heavily on the relationship between perfume and personality.

In one chapter, by Mensing and Beck, the authors ran experiments with groups of women, and analyzed which fragrances they liked most. Not only did the research establish that personality had a profound effect on fragrance choice, it correlated personality and color preference. This led to the Mensing color-wheel, which predicts, with 80 percent accuracy, a subject’s favorite fragrance family.

This saves a lot of time sniffing around to the point of olfactory overload. After consulting the chart, the salesperson can bring out two or three fragrances, instead of having to go through a dozen or more.

At 1:30, more outgoing, “emotionally stable,” people, while drawn to chypre notes, deep and mossy and grave, like their fragrance a touch floral and even a trace fruity.  A customer, on the more introverted side, might like her perfume a little aldehydic. She wants her fragrance to be a touch floral, but discrete, with subtle floral tones running through the base. Those who are attracted to the 3 o’clock position, which corresponds to fresh and green scents, are extroverted and like being with people. At 4:30, those who are “emotionally ambivalent,” but lean to being extroverts, are most likely to choose florals with fruity aspects.

At 6 o’clock, we find the capricious, who, while, often changing their fragrance, tend to be drawn to not-too-sweet florals. At 7:30, a group, again described as emotionally ambivalent, but this time more introverted, is, again, drawn to florals, but this time, with “oriental” qualities. In the 9 o’clock position, are the oriental scents; rich, complex, with plenty of funk and used by introverts who enjoy their own company.

As I said, these experiments were done with women. I have never read whether men fit into this paradigm, or into any paradigm at all, but it might be worth the research.

After all, I want to play, too.


How Does Hair Color Influence Our Perfume Choices?

As I delve into my ever-growing (and very expensive) library, a few things strike me as odd, eccentric, probably apocryphal, but fascinating nonetheless.

One is the theory that hair color influences, or should influence, women’s perfume choices and suggest which fragrances work best. Reading this, I assumed it had to do with our own biochemistry and the correspondence between how we smell and our hair; I have, indeed, seen discussions of hair color and body odor.

However, my whole theory falls apart when one author—Paul Jellinek—states that natural hair color is irrelevant when it has been dyed. It is the color of the dyed hair, the final appearance, that’s important.

Another theory: perhaps there is a relationship between hair color and a usually unconscious, synesthesia-sort of reaction in which color and odor are associated. I’ll have to ask Kate about this.

Jellinek discusses where on the diagram, shown below, the hair color affinities occur. Starting with blondes (who apparently have the least odor; Kate is consistent with this), perfumes along the line between anti-erogenic and stimulating, which is to say “refreshing,” are best. Less suitable for blondes are sultry (jasmine) or purely narcotic (rose) perfumes.

Exalting perfumes, which are on the line between stimulating (mossy and burnt things) and erogenic (fatty and decaying), are best for redheads. Meanwhile, calming perfumes (ranging from floral aspects at the narcotic end to green and watery aspects in the anti-erogenic zone) are the worst things a redhead could wear.

Our author distinguishes between brunettes, who have legitimately brown hair, and “brown-haired” women—the large majority—whose hair is a combination of black and blond. Brunettes should wear sultry perfumes, along the line between erogenic and narcotic. Fresh perfumes, between anti-erogenic and stimulating, are the worst for brunettes. “Brown-haired women,” because their hair is of two colors, can wear much of what blondes and brunettes can wear.

I’d love to know what women think about all of this.

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Anyone who has been trapped in a taxi, breathing in the aromatic complex formed by the air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror and the driver’s sweat, may appreciate that eaux de cologne, unlike perfumes, mask our odors rather than accentuate them.

Perfumes (extraits, eaux de toilette and eaux de parfum), on the other hand, usually contain substances reminiscent of the various odors of the human body, odors that, when unconsciously detected, are responsible for erotic stimuli.

In other words, we’re attracted to b.o.

While I wouldn’t want the cab driver’s scent to be magnified, there are times when such smells need to be carefully introduced into a perfume.

Perfumes contain much more than the fresh-smelling and so-called anti-erogenic compounds in cologne. Remember the clock diagram in a recent post? It has anti-erogenic odors at 12 o’clock; stimulating, often spicy, aromas at 3 o’clock; erogenic animal smells at 6 o’clock; and narcotic aromas, usually florals, at 9 o’clock. In the classic French tradition, examples of each of these should be included in a finished perfume.

Classic perfumers, including my favorite perfume author Paul Jellinek, take things further and describe several kinds of erogenic smells. He distinguishes between sweaty aromas, odors of the urogenital region and the anus (not a fecal smell, but of an almost-odorless lubricant), and the smell of the scalp. These odors can be evoked with animal ingredients such as ambergris, musk, castoreum, and civet.

Ideally, a classic perfume should contain aromas representative of all these three regions, but, as the wicked witch of the West once said, “These things must be done delicately.”

Next post: The difference in smell between blondes, brunettes, and redheads.

Iris Synthetics

Black Iris is making progress, but new bridges need to be crossed. Should the perfume evoke the smell of orris—the authentic aroma of iris root, or people’s fantasy of it? I fear few people recognize the smell of true orris and my hard work and extravagance may be for naught. 

I ordered 10 samples of iris perfumes and none, except Serge Lutens’s Iris Silver Mist, smells of iris to me. Most open with a citrusy top note with no relation to orris, and one contains maltol, which smells like cotton candy and lasts through the whole dry down. They all are smooth and have top notes that jump right out, but, except for the Lutens, no orris.

I want an orris perfume that projects and stays on the skin. Orris is soft-spoken and profound. It is reserved. It is not ostentatious. It is tenacious.

Because it takes a minute for the perfume to open, it needs a top note that doesn’t smell like a lemon. Carrot seed works some, but I must watch it. Nonadienal makes the accord greener and gets the other notes to pop while a trace of heliotropin underlines the floral aspects of the orris. Santalol, an expensive but powerful sandalwood isolate, provides a deep and woody resonance. 

My collection contains Irival, Orivone, Irisone, Iris O.A, and Iris Givco. To me, Iris Givco smells nothing like iris, but the others each have some orris notes. Combined and balanced, they form an amazing accord, which I finished with a generous amount of orris. The orris filled in the cracks and gave the composition a beautiful naturalness. Artificial musk, a little ambergris, and a touch of humane civet, add complexity, funk and longevity.

Kate and I put some on. She smelled like a smelling strip. I smelled like a baboon. 

Do Perfumes Have Gender?

In the 1970s, when it was still manageable for someone with a minuscule income to drink the world’s greatest wines, I was invited into a group of professional wine connoisseurs who met every week to drink rare and otherworldly vintages.

At the time (and presumably now) wines were often referred to as being either feminine or masculine. This is also true of perfumes, but usually in the sense of who more typically wears them, woman or man.

Kate, who’s an ardent feminist, and I, discussed this the other day.

I argued that these are relative terms and are in no way evaluative, but in the interest of taking social politics out of the equation, it seemed wise to fall back on two other terms—“hard” and “soft”—that carry the same meaning without the sexual connotations. A hard (or masculine) wine is less welcoming, more impenetrable, and less generous at the beginning; this is also a characteristic of younger wines. Softer wines, which are often more mature, are more opened, more delicate, and typically less tannic. In general, at least to the less experienced, softer wines have a more immediate appeal.

To apply these (relative) terms to perfumes, I would equate “hard” aromas that are sharper, perhaps more acidic (tangy), and, at least at the beginning, more monolithic and harder to deconstruct. An example of a hard ingredient might be violet leaf; it’s dry, acidic, and very green. “Soft” perfumes, may be balsamic (although not necessarily so), sweeter, and creamier. Ingredients that come to mind are the balsams, anything with –lactone at the end, and sweet flowers. Coumarin is also a good example.

Flowers have their own range. Immortelle absolute is soft. It is gentle, sweet, and less domineering, while narcissus, which is more reserved and less sweet, strikes me as harder.

Of course, these are debatable assertions and, whether “real” or not, offer us another paradigm for examining and remembering aromatic ingredients and perfumes.

Jim Tested, Mandy Approved

At the end of day two, Mandy gave us our final assignment: we were to take two—only two—ingredients to explore together and use them as the basis for a new perfume.

I went home (I was staying at my brother’s, right up the hill) and as I stared at the sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge, I came up with sandalwood and jasmine, two of the most voluptuous fragrances in perfumery. Each of these has a gentleness, a receptiveness, and yet a distinctive presence. They sometimes bring tears to my eyes. And anyway, I’ve been working on a sandalwood perfume since I first started this craziness and can never amplify the note, just obscure it. So, with Mandy’s approval of my two ingredients, I set out.

My base contained three ingredients; sandalwood (a beautiful aged Mysore), santalol (a powerful heart-note isolate; expensive), and a kind of agarwood that Mandy has in her collection that smells much like sandalwood. The base smelled good. I was off to a good start.

The jasmine went into the heart notes with a trace of rose otto. The rest of the heart note is made up of araucaria, a substance I had never heard of, but one with a gentle enough odor profile to make up most of the middle notes without taking over. Its purpose was to fill in the gaps and give me the needed 10 drops for the heart.

The top notes are black pepper, a trace of mimosa, and a great deal of Siam wood. I have Siam wood in my lab, but I’ve been using it as a base note (because it’s a wood), when I should have been using it as a top note. It was the perfect thing for carrying the sandalwood to the top. I wasn’t worried about the jasmine.

Mandy approved.

Practicing the Mandy Aftel Method

Once Mandy demonstrated her 30-drop method, she set us loose. The assignment was to construct a fragrance. We were allowed up to three different top notes, three different middle notes, and three different base notes. The exciting part is that the total number of drops in each category must not exceed 10. The total number of all the drops should equal 30, no more, no fewer.

She’s incredibly generous with her ingredients as I realized while measuring out drops of red champaca absolute into my mixture

Trying to kill two birds with one stone, I decided to come up with something that would underline orris (iris). For my base, I came up with a mixture of opoponax (2 drops), patchoulyl acetate (an isolate without some of the unwanted aspects of regular patchouli) (6 drops), and oud tincture (2 drops), for my total of 10 drops. For the middle, I used champaca, rose, and jasmine; and for the top, siam wood, orris (Mandy considers it a top note), and yuzu.

When we finished our concoctions, we passed them to the front so that Mandy could discuss them with the group. She asked questions of all of us, asking us to explain our reasoning, esthetic or otherwise, for including a substance. Usually she would pare down our ingredients, stripping our tinctures to their essentials.

She told me to take out the orris, which was deadening the mixture. Now, with fewer drops in the top notes, I had to find a substitute to make up for the removed drops. Often, when an aromatic substance is removed in this way, it is replaced with something of low odor intensity to fill in the spaces rather than contribute another facet to the finished fragrance. With this in mind I added a small amount of frankincense and increased the amounts of the other ingredients in the top note.

Next post: my final project.

Learning the Mandy Aftel Method

On day two, things got even more exciting. Mandy introduced a system I had never seen before and it completely blew my mind.

She works by adding drops of fully-concentrated absolutes or essential oils to 5 milliliters of ethanol. She starts out with only two ingredients—each added to the ethanol—and explores how they work with one another, elucidating areas of conflict and areas of harmony. She may do preliminary tests to explore the shifting relationship of each of the two ingredients and come up with mixtures marked 1:9, 2:8, 3:7, etc., to get a basic sense of how to proceed. Then she comes up with a plan.

Mandy searches out one or two ingredients that will convert the original combination of two into an accord, having a top, middle, and base note—like a triad in music. Usually she just picks one to achieve this, but two ingredients are added if the first two in the combination are in one category. In other words, if your first two ingredients are both top notes, then you’re going to need a drop each of a middle and a heart note

Now, what amazed me, is that each category—top, middle, and base—can contain only a total of ten drops of whatever the addition. In other words, the whole perfume can contain no more and no fewer than 30 drops of pure substance.  For amounts smaller than a drop, she wings it a little bit until she gets the odor nuances she needs. Clearly, if you wanted to be more precise, you could perform these processes by weight. But the critical thing is that the number of drops is prescribed—you get ten of each category, no more and no fewer, and that’s it.  

In the next post, I’ll detail what I came up with.

A Berkeley Weekend Continued

Mandy started us right off the bat by discussing how to look at ingredients. First, she described top, middle, and base notes in terms of how long they last on a blotter strip—an hour for tops, maybe four hours for middles, and longer for bases. She has her organ organized in this way, with each of the three categories given its own color-coded label. If nothing else, this is great training for remembering which compounds are which—the colors quickly adhere to the psyche.

Next, she discusses odor intensity. Obvious sounding, but not to be confused with volatility. A base note can be mild or intense as can a top note. Particularly interesting was her emphasis on the shape and texture of ingredients. She uses such words as “sharp,” “round,” “flat,” and “layered.” It reminded me of Kate’s synesthesia—when she sees aromas as colors. I found that by examining the ingredients in this way, it brought me closer to them and prepared me for a more emotional response.

Last, she discussed her ideas of “burying” and “locking.” Burying is the result of using an ingredient with too high an odor intensity next to one with a lower intensity. Her examples were cèpes (porcini) versus sandalwood, a little like Godzilla meets Bambi. It takes but a tiny trace of cèpes absolute to obscure sandalwood. Locking occurs when two ingredients enhance each other in an accord that’s more powerful than the sum of the parts. Mandy helped me with this effect when, later, I worked on a scent containing sandalwood.

Mandy also discussed filler notes—ingredients that fit into the interstices of the perfume and smooth off disparate ingredients. Not only did she discuss these theoretically, but she gave us a list.

The next day she gave us a system for arranging these ingredients into a viable structure.

A Berkeley Weekend with Mandy Aftel

Last weekend, I had the privilege of taking a 3-day class from perfumer, teacher, and writer Mandy Aftel.

Mandy lives in a lovely house right behind Chez Panisse. In the sunny front room, where she teaches her classes of eight, she has her “organ” of naturals and isolates. She works with full-strength absolutes and essential oils, whereas I use 10% dilutions. While the class is a bit of an investment, Mandy—who used to work as a psychologist—is profoundly generous, not only with her time and her beautiful substances, but with her spirit. She holds nothing back. The class was easily worth what it cost.

My big fear was that Mandy was going to hand out complicated mixtures and expect us to identify what was in them. Everyone else would know everything; I would know nothing. But it wasn’t like this at all. While there was plenty of practical information, this was not the most important thing I got out of the class. It was Mandy’s emphasis on the evocative and emotional character of perfume that led me to a fundamental insight.

In the 1970s, I spent years working in restaurants in France learning the technique and esthetics of French cooking. But it wasn’t these things that ultimately mattered. What was central to my learning to cook well was the realization that it’s all about the products I work with. 

The ingredients, which should always be the best, must be treated with love and reverence to bring out their natural qualities. If beautiful ingredients are approached without ego and without the need to “succeed,” they guide you and show you how to prepare them. The trick is to listen.

It is this spirit that guides Mandy’s classes. It is all about the ingredients and our relationship to them.

In my next post: Our first assignment.



Getting Ready for Berkeley

I recently took a big leap and decided to invest my money and time in a natural perfumery course given by Mandy Aftel in Berkeley.

The author of several important books about perfumery and scent, she has a classic Maybeck Berkeley home right next to Chez Panisse. When I asked her excitedly if there might be time to have lunch at the iconic restaurant, she said that everyone has lunch in her garden instead. It is easy to forget about the beautiful weather, even in October, on the West Coast. Will she serve lunch? I wonder what we’ll have...I have this fantasy of a big ripe tomato; it’s late in the season, but maybe.

It seems the class uses no synthetics, only naturals. I wonder if that includes animal products. It’s doubtful that Mandy is going to pull out deer musk for all of us to use. I’m going to bring along a little ambergris in case anyone needs it. From what I read on her website, Mandy has a museum of interesting perfume-related things including some aged ambergris I’m dying to sniff. This will finally resolve my question whether ambergris should be tinctured in the light, as I do, or in the dark.

My deepest fear is that I have no nose. What if I can’t smell or recognize anything?

Mandy puts a lot of emphasis on practicing note and substance recognition using her introductory workbook. I haven’t worked through the book, leaving me wondering if I’m qualified, but Mandy gave me permission to attend when I told her how long I’ve been doing this stuff.

So, it’s with great trepidation, that I set off Thursday from Brooklyn to Berkeley, where I’m going to visit friends and relatives, eat and drink well, and put my nose through the paces.

My Favorite Books VI

An Introduction to Perfumery by Tony Curtis and David Williams dedicates an individual page to each of a wide selection of naturals and synthetics. 

Each page starts with a measure of “Odor Intensity” scaled zero to six. In the center of the page is a big diagram of the molecule. To the right, is a column with a list of smells.  

At the top of this column is the “Primary Odor,” meaning that which strikes us first, followed by “Secondary Odor.” Below that, we find the base notes. Last in this column, are “Odor Characteristics.” These are qualities that describe characteristics of the scent that aren’t smells in themselves, such as diffusiveness and tenacity.

Last is a list: “Appearance” describes an ingredient’s consistency, color, and clarity; “Storage” tells of precautions we must take such as protecting from the light or heat; “Stability” tells us how the compound will hold up; “IFRA” lists any restrictions on use; and “Applications” describes how the ingredient is used in compositions, such as “used in fougères, in green perfumes,” 

It continues with “Occurrence” telling us where the compound is found in nature and where it is likely to be found in perfumes. I find the small section at the bottom, titled “Experiments,” to be the most exciting as here we see suggestions for experiments we can perform to familiarize ourselves with a substance and see how it interacts with other aroma materials.

I’ve been using the book to help me with Black Iris. The big bummer is the IFRA section, which tells me I can only use oak moss at a .1% in the final fragrance—at most a tenth of what I typically use. Opoponax is also restricted to .6% in a final fragrance. This poses less of a problem, but I still need to watch it. 


Black Iris Developments

Several years ago, I took a Photoshop workshop. The instructor told us not to work endlessly on an image, searching for perfection, but rather, to make a series of trials and finish by comparing them and, perhaps, combining them.

Following suite, I’ve taken the same tinctures and compounds I used to make Black Iris, and started from scratch without looking at my notes. Something new has evolved.


I left out the coumarin, because I thought the perfume was too soft when I wanted something leaner and greener.

I reworked the wood base complex. I wanted a forceful sandalwood note, so I used a combination of santalol (which is expensive and hard to find), siamwood, pistachio oil, exaltone, oud, kephalis, and ambergris. This is the best sandalwood reproduction I’ve managed yet—it smells like sandalwood, but it is more powerful.

Next, I attacked the root mixture. I started with the central accord between orris (iris root) and heliotropin, but then cut the heliotropin a bit to reinforce the root-like quality and pull away from its floral fruitiness (it’s often compared to the smell of cherry pie). I added carrot seed and angelica seed to further enhance the orris. The angelica seed also contributed a green note.

I added sandalwood to smooth things off and worked on the violet accord using methyl ionone and dihydro ionone beta. Dihydro ionone beta is one of my favorites because it links violet with wood.

I added vetiver and vetiveryl acetate, again to reinforce the roots and contribute green. For further green, came a drop of nonadienal. That did the trick.

This was all going great guns until I realized the composition has no tenacity. I worked in opoponax, which helped ground everything and make the fragrance last longer. More oak moss would have been great, but it’s so highly restricted now that I can hardly use enough to make a difference. Other moss-like compounds exist, but I haven’t tried them.

I shall continue working on longevity. I also need to finish the top note, something I always find a challenge.

My Favorite Books V

First published in 1994, An Introduction to Perfumery by Tony Curtis and David Williams, is a perfumer’s classic. Much of the large volume (778 pages) is dedicated to the business of large perfume companies. This holds little interest for me since Brooklyn Perfume Company is hardly on that level. But there’s plenty of interesting other stuff.

The book starts with a section about the chemistry of fragrances. I find it helpful—I have a background in chemistry—and think anyone can figure it out. It helps olfactory memory because there are generic characteristics of such things as alcohols, aldehydes, esters, and ethers. One, first example, might recognize the fruitiness of an ester or the harshness of an aldehyde, important hints as to the compound at play.

The two most important chapters for the perfumer are Aroma Chemicals and Materials of Natural Origin. There’s a rather lengthy introduction to these sections that explains the abbreviations used to describe smell. 


Another favorite are the lists of ingredients and how they function in a perfume. For example, the entry for Amylcinnamic aldehyde gives its odor strength on a scale of zero to six (it gets a two); shows an image of the molecule; lists its principle, secondary and background notes; describes its appearance; rates its stability; and shows where it occurs. Each entry discusses how and when the compound should be used.

What may be most useful for the conscientious beginner are the descriptions of experiments that can be performed with a compound or natural. For example, under “Mimosa Absolute,” we find a suggestion for experimenting with equal parts Lyral and l-citronellol. Further projects are designed to train the nose of the beginning perfumer.

The authors also included a section of floral “bases,” which are lessons in themselves and provide starting points for other interpretations. 

There follows a section, The Applications of Perfumes, that includes a section on emulsification—very useful if your scents contain water—and surfactants used to keep solutions clear. This whole section has been helpful for keeping BPC’s Eaux Fraîches, which contain water, from turning cloudy. The book also addresses skin-care products, lotions, creams and soaps.

Very soon, we’ll dig deeper into this fascinating tome. 

My Favorite Books IV

Dr. Jellinek leads us into a description of 14 aroma chemicals. Some are less important than others—they are familiar compounds and have been much written about—but I did find a couple of interesting comments.

One entry is about l-citronellol. Citronellol is a classic ingredient in rose perfumes, but many perfumers don’t recognize the importance of l-citronellol versus d-citronellol. (These two are mirror images of each other; the first one rotates light to the left, the other, to the right.) Our doctor recommends using “cheap d-citronellol” to make soaps and for other utilitarian uses, but, l-citronellol, he considers “one of the most important components of natural rose perfumes.” For those who have worked with rhodinol, he insists that rhodinol isn’t a compound unto itself, but rather a combination of geraniol and l-citronellol.

Methyl anthranilate is a chemical that smells to me exactly like Concord grapes, the kind used to make Welch’s grape juice. I sometimes use it in floral blends when I want a fruity note, but Jellinek mentions something new. He insists that methyl anthranilate, along with alcohols (which end in –ol) and esters (which end in –ate, -ite, or ‘-ide), is narcotic. But this is the line that caught my eye: “…a high indole content is always accompanied by a high content of methyl anthranilate.” So, of course, I had to try it out on Black Iris, which contains indole.

First, I added too much, not realizing how strong it was, and the perfume smelled tutti frutti. When I backed off a bit, I noticed the methyl anthranilate brought out the floral aspects of the perfume and gave them a slightly orange blossom quality; it seemed to make them more diffusive. I’m not including it, though, because I want to bring out the rooty aspects of Black Iris rather than the floral ones.

It’s something to think about. In a day or two, I’m talking about An Introduction to Perfumery by Tony Curtis and David Williams—truly one of my very favorites.

My Favorite Books III

The Practice of Modern Perfumery continues its discussion of the odor wheel. As we’ve seen, the lines between each of the points represent sultry, fresh, exalting, or soothing odor effects, while those points that are in opposition--anti-erogenic versus erogenic, and narcotic versus stimulating--create other odor effects. Anti-erogenic aromas suppress erogenic aromas and stimulating elements such as spices, burnt substances, and gourmand materials balance the tendency of the narcotic to intoxicate and put us to sleep when that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing at all. The opposition of the contrasting points introduces tension in the perfume and gives it power.

Mr. Jellenek discusses animal (erogenic) ingredients such as castoreum, civet, musk, and ambergris; and erogenic compounds of plant origin, namely costus root and ambrette seed. Last, there is the aroma chemical, indole. Indole forms part of the smell of certain flowers—jasmine, orange flowers, and acacia are a few. While indole is considered fecal, and has a distinctly dissonant aroma, these flowers wouldn’t be themselves without it. Other aroma chemicals with fecal nuances are phenylacetic acid and its esters (which also smell like honey), phenyl ethyl alcohol (which smells like roses, but has a gentle funky note), and the paracresols (which smell like creosote and tar; they get animal in a perfume). 

Now it gets interesting. While these odors are, according to Jellinek, fecal, there are also so-called sweaty notes. These notes are represented primarily by aldehydes, specifically those having from eight to 12 carbon atoms. He goes on to declare that both sweaty and fecal notes must be included together, with the obvious conclusion that any complex containing indole or any other fecal-like aroma, must also contain an aldehyde. This combination occurs frequently in plants, with various proportions of the two elements coming into play.

Now I’m experimenting with using aldehydes with Black Iris. I tried some C-12 MNA, an often-used aldehyde, and found that it focused the perfume and somehow makes it more perfume-like, more sophisticated. Further experiments ensue. 

Coming up, Jellenek’s discussion of some important aroma compounds.

My Favorite Books II

While ThePractice of Modern Perfumeryoffers a number of formulas, it’s the incidental stuff I find most exciting. 

Author Dr. Paul Jellinek categorizes aromas into four groups: 

1  Animal (fatty; waxy; sweaty; putrid)

2  Flowers and balsams

3  Terpenes and camphors (menthol-like; resinous; green)

4  Vegetable materials excluding flowers (roots, seeds, branches, and leaves; characterized as resinous, green, or acidic. Spices are also considered stimulating)

He discusses how each of these groups affects us and arranges them in a diamond showing how they interrelate. 


In the classic French tradition, perfumers use aromatic substances from all the main groups, each represented at a point on the diamond. Anti-erogenic compounds, at the top of the chart are known as fresh, minty, piney, or calming like eucalyptus. These compounds are the main ingredients in eaux de cologne. Erogenic compounds, at the bottom of the chart, are funky animal things like ambergris, civet and musk. They are aphrodisiacs and pheremonic. These two contrasting groups are often used together, with the anti-erogenic compounds balancing and disguising the erogenic aromas, which seem disgusting to us if too strong.

Contrasts also occur between narcotic and stimulating compounds. Narcotic ingredients are usually flowers, but various balsams and balsamic compounds also fit this description. These ingredients dull the senses and create a general sense of relaxation. Stimulating compounds include spices, burnt smells, roots (such as orris), seeds (such as Angelica), leaves (such as cinnamon), and branches (such as petitgrain). 

Between each of these main odor categories are sub-categories with their own odor effects. Honey-like odors, for example, fall between the erogenic and the narcotic. These aromas are characterized as sultry. Fruity smells are both anti-erogenic and narcotic. These are referred to as soothing. Minty odors have both a narcotic and stimulating effect. Smells that we describe as “powdery” (dusty, choking), are between stimulating and erogenic. They are considered exaltants, ingredients that enhance and bring others to the fore. 

It’s quite an amazing book and I’m certainly not done writing about it....

A New Blending Method

When I began blending perfumes, I added ingredients, drop by drop, into small vials. The results were getting skewed because the test strips were absorbing too much. If I were starting out with only a few drops, the absorption of a single drop was enough to shift the balance. I now blend larger amounts, usually by weight, in test tubes.

Until now, I’ve blended by beginning with an ingredient central to the perfume. I’d then add a second ingredient until the two come into balance or, ideally, form an accord. I continue adding compounds, bringing them into balance with the ingredients already there.

However, the ingredients and the accords formed at the beginning become diluted as new liquids are added; those substances added early are likely to be obscured. The ratios change and the relationship of the ingredients shifts.

Now, in a test tube, I combine two ingredients, balance them, and, hopefully, get them to form an accord. I choose a third candidate but, instead of adding it to the first mixture, I take a second test tube and combine it with still another, fourth, ingredient to form a new balance or accord. I continue in this way, making balanced sets of ingredients in fresh test tubes until I run out of ideas.

I may end up with two test tubes or twenty, each containing two ingredients, balanced together. I combine the test tubes, two at a time, and bring them each into balance to form a new mixture of four ingredients. I continue with these sets, combining and balancing a third time to create a balance of eight ingredients and so on, eventually ending with a blend of them all.

There’s no foolproof method, but at least now all the ingredients should be present and perceptible. The ingredients are coordinated, increasing my chance of discovering a new fragrance.

Tectonic Shifts

Brooklyn Perfume Company released its line of four eaux de parfum in 2014. The reception, was enthusiastic. Several who reviewed the perfumes said they were “original.” One said “I’m at a loss for words” and declared there were two aphrodisiacs in his life: BPC’s Oud and the smell of his wife. Another found them “odd.” My 94-year old mother-in-law wears the musk. A friend, who swore he would never wear scent, puts a different one on each day. A friend’s wife hates them all. 

I sent samples of all six scents—including the new Black Iris and Ambergris--to three important bloggers. One, again described the scents as original, and gave the oud a four out of five rating. From another one, someone took the time to write a full-page letter. The letter was devastating. The third blogger stopped communicating—emails not returned, nothing.

These are people whose opinion matters enormously, not only in determining Brooklyn Perfume Company’s future, but as critiques of my work. I am thinned-skinned. 

While this has been difficult, it forces me to sit back and take another sniff. 

I think I’m being objective, but then people come into my lab and say “Oh, it smells so good in here,” when I smell nothing. This “background smell” cannot help but influence how I perceive aroma. 

The four original scents—Musk, Oud, Amber, and Sandalwood are what they are. I’m not going to change them. But the new scents, my beautiful Black Iris, hated by all, and Ambergris, smelling like chemicals, must be reevaluated. 

To learn, I smell others’ iris perfumes. While I have not found one that reminds me of orris, they all have top notes, some lovely, that pop out immediately. They pull you in. At the risk of sour grapes, I like none.

I shall continue my search for a convincing top note. For now, the heart and base seem ok.


Para Cresols

Para cresols smell like the creosote painted on pier supports. While this sounds weird, cresols are essential for some flower scents, especially narcissus and lily. I sometimes use para cresols along with another funky compound, indole, which in many flower fragrances provides the needed dark notes.

Don’t be too perplexed by the use of both “cresol” and “cresyl.” There is a difference—it seems that cresyls are derived from cresols—but I’m not certain how important it is; I just smell them on their own merits. 

While there are many cresol derivatives, I only use four. Para cresol, the starting point for the others, smells like a medicinal cross of creosote, phenol, camphor, and coal tar. When diluted 100 or more times, it smells floral.

Para cresyl acetate—while clearly related to para cresol—has an almost fruity aspect and a bit of licorice, along with the dissonant tar quality. If you hold the top of the bottle far enough away from your nose, you can imagine it as part of a flower. The traditionally recognized aroma is of horse urine, which I don’t get, probably because I don’t hang around stables. It’s more powerful than para cresol.

Para cresol methyl ether has an almost peppermint aspect, but is pungent and powerful. Again, it gives nuances to florals such as jasmine and lilac. 

My favorite is para cresyl phenyl acetate. When I stick my nose into the jar of pure powder, I get a relatively mild, funky, almost natural musk quality, and a general animal smell. I like combining a trace of para cresyl phenyl acetate with artificial musk. This brings out a natural funk that reminds me of real deer musk.