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.

My Favorite Perfume Book

Perfumery: Practice and Principles, by Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek, is my favorite perfume book. First published in German in 1954, it came out in English 40 years later. I use it so much, my first copy fell apart and I’ve had to order another.

Chapter 12, “Selected Great Perfumes,” breaks perfumes into families: Floral Salicylate Perfumes, Floral Aldehydic Perfumes, Floral Sweet Perfumes, “Oriental” Perfumes, Patchouli Floral Perfumes, Chypres, and A New Style of Perfumery. Each of these sections includes about five perfumes. We see how they’re related and how they’ve descended, one from another.

The chapter opens with an analysis of the floral salicylate perfumes, starting with the great classic, L’Air du Temps, which they describe as “one of the most important perfumes ever made.”  Calkin and Jellinek break the perfume’s aroma into accords starting with a carnation accord, which forms the heart of the perfume and “dominates the perfume throughout its evaporation.”

The accord contains eugenol (cloves), isoeugenol (stronger cloves), ylang ylang (sweet, tropical flowers), and a trace of vanilla. Benzyl salicylate, a classic floralizer, which doesn’t have a very strong smell of its own, completes the accord.

The base note is comprised of methyl ionone (violets), vetiveryl acetate (like vetiver, but less broad, more focused), sandalwood (a deep, but subtle green woodiness), musk ketone and musk ambrette. Musk ketone is rarely used anymore because it collects in the environment; musk ambrette is forbidden. I’m not sure which musks are used in newer versions, but they give the perfume a different character. The original version would no doubt have been made with natural musk. It must have been unimaginable.

Jellinek and Calkin emphasize that the original version contained naturals such as jasmine and rose absolutes, in amounts that would horrify a modern CFO.

Next, we’ll talk about the middle and top of the perfume and how it all comes together.

Sniffing the Transcendental: Wine and Oud

When I was a toddler, things smelled very strong. Vegetables were revolting—cauliflower smelled like vomit, Brussel sprouts like something long dead. 

It wasn’t until my twenties, that I used this sensitivity for more pleasurable effect. In the 1970s, when I was learning to cook, I was also learning about wines. 

One afternoon, I ran into a friend who invited me along to a wine tasting. I was introduced to a dozen very serious wine professionals. Intimidated as I was, I still remember that first tasting—1966 Classified Growth Bordeaux. We each pitched in about 15 bucks—a little more for the First Growth Bordeaux and the Champagne tastings—which now, for a tasting of such wines, is laughable. Each week would be something new—1971 Mosels, Vintage Champagnes, Burgundies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, Sauternes from the ‘20s. Our standard wines to bring to dinner with friends were La Tâche, Romanée Conti, or Échezeaux. A sniff of a 1953 Chateau Margaux was like walking into a tropical garden filled with fruits and flowers that never existed. And there was the Le Montrachet from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti that was so rich it smelled like a red. The oldest thing we tasted was an 1834 Malmsey Madeira.

It’s been years since I have tasted such wonders; what I used to buy at the corner wine store is now more likely to appear at Christie’s. But there is oud. Nothing I know, other than wine, exhibits the same complexity of aroma. Oud isn’t cheap, especially the existential stuff, but it doesn’t go bad once you open the bottle. I don’t even use mine; I just think of it as part of my olfactory library and smell it when I need a whiff of the transcendental.

All of this may sound like I have a fantastic nose, but Kate reacts to something three feet away that I need to smell straight off the blotter. Of course, one needs to smell, but olfactory memory and the ability to make distinctions, are far more important. 

And, as in any art form, there must be a vision. I want to recreate the style of perfumes from the 1950s that my mother would wear for a party—perfumes that were rich, opulent, and scented with natural musk. I want to make a perfume as complex and beguiling as a ’47 Lafite.



Sandalwood: Multi-faceted, Enigmatic, Irresistible

When I was a boy, I played with a fan my grandmother got in India in the 1920s. It was made of sandalwood and had an entrancing smell, woody and very dry. When I first smelled sandalwood essential oil, I was surprised it didn’t smell like the fan; it smelled better.

In our first edition of Sandalwood, I wanted to use the best Mysore sandalwood from East India. So, I set about ordering sandalwood from suppliers all over the world, many who claimed to be selling the authentic stuff. When I had 20 different samples, I selected the best example for my perfume. Because it was so outstanding, I assumed it was the real stuff. Now, I don’t think it was.

As I’ve smelled a lot of different sandalwood, I’ve become more discerning. One of my samples, especially, has a dimension the others don’t have. It’s a little medicinal with a reverberating center, wild, but enigmatic and difficult to define. It is extremely complex, green, and lactonic at the same time. 

Pure sandalwood’s smell is understated and best appreciated up close. Synthetic imitations, while some are very convincing, never replicate the beautiful shimmering magic of the authentic oil.

My Sandalwood contains a ruinous amount of sandalwood, sandalwood I now think is from Indonesia. While it isn’t Mysore, it’s made from the same species and is very beautiful; it’s just a bit more direct than Mysore. To reinforce the impression of sandalwood—especially the greenness—Sandalwood contains a good amount of fragrant Indian vetiver. The vetiver, as well as a gorgeous balsamic frankincense, reinforces the sandalwood associations and underlines the woody aspects. There are also spices—fenugreek is especially good—and musk. 

Because sandalwood has so many effects, I’ve represented it more than once on the last of our Paul Jellinek-inspired Odor Effects Diagram.



Oud: Complex, Spiritual, Infinite

Other than the greatest wines from the early half of the 20th century, I’ve smelt nothing as complex as the finest oud. Great wine expresses itself through the medium of fruit; oud expresses itself through the medium of wood.

Like wine, ouds vary enormously in price. None is inexpensive and some are extraordinarily dear—I’ve experienced ouds ranging from $30 to $500 a milliliter. The greatest leave one in a daze, almost a trance.

The wild trees (less-expensive ouds are made from farmed trees) are rare. They must be at least 40-years old and attacked by a fungus that turns the wood black. They are found in increasingly remote areas in India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Borneo, only reached after days of hacking through the jungle with machetes. 

When looked at through the lens of Dr. Jellinek’s Odor Effects Diagram, oud has a unique profile. Depending on the oud, it may smell like everything in the diagram. The finest ouds constantly change and continuously present a new odor profile. 

Oud is exalting because it’s woody (near the stimulating corner of the chart) and, at the same time, erogenic. It is known to have a “Roquefort cheese” note. It is often balsamic (narcotic) and may even have floral notes. 

Fine oud offers a seemingly endless complexity of odor and of odor effects. Like very fine wines, it has terroir, a phenomenon described in many ways. I recognize it by a peculiar sense of having smelt the aroma in the distant past, as though in a past life. Images float in front of me. There’s a strange familiarity and sense of place. 

Brooklyn Perfume Company’s Oud presents much of the same odor profile, and while I can’t claim to have replicated the complexity of wild oud, Oud is made like a perfume from many years ago, rich in natural materials that often are, like the oud I include, very rare.  



The Truth About Musk

There are two kinds of musk: natural and synthetic. Natural musk comes from a small Himalayan deer, which is now endangered. I remember my mother reeking of it, but that was the 1950s. It may be the most delectable smell that exists.  In later decades, natural musk has been replaced with synthetic musks, sometimes called “white musks.”

Unfortunately, synthetic musks smell so little like natural musk that I suspect many perfumers have never smelled the real deal or anything like it. In addition, many people are anosmic to synthetic musks—they just can’t smell them. 

When I put together my Musk, I used a large combination of synthetic musks so that people who are anosmic would be more likely to smell it. While artificial musks are immediately recognizable as such, no two smell the same in my collection of 30 or so.

Much synthetic musk smells like clean laundry or is so very smooth that, again, it reminds me little of mother’s post-party aroma. Here, again, I suspect that those who make these perfumes have neither experienced deer musk or are afraid of offending the public with crude and, sometimes, fecal odors. 

I don’t want to put off everybody, but anything that makes a strong statement is likely to offend at least some. So, I put animalic stuff—phenylacetic acid and its esters—in the perfume to make it funky and pheromonic (one friend asked me, bewilderedly, if I were wearing some kind of “attractant”). The result is something that shimmers between the delicate and the forceful, between clean laundry and animals in heat.

It’s not for everyone.

Here, I’ve used Jellinek’s chart as the basis for my own analysis of the perfume and to illustrate how it is structured. It involved a bit of guesswork, since each musk has its own aroma profile and I wasn’t able to find information about the odor effects of a specific musk. I simply arranged them in a row from least erogenic to most so. 

You might even find yourself wanting to smell this beast.


Amber and the Odor Effects Diagram

When I compounded my current line of perfumes, I knew nothing of the Odor Effects Diagram. I went by smell alone.

Curious to arrange my own perfumes on the diagram, I first chose Amber as I know it has enjoyed recent complimentary interest within the online community.

The perfume demonstrates nothing purely anti-erogenic and, in fact, there are no head notes per se—the whole thing just comes out and grabs you. As you continue to smell it, though, further complexity emerges.

There are contrasting effects, especially between narcotic and stimulating. The central thematic material, burnt amber, is powerfully stimulating in the manner of birch tar oil. Notice that, while there is a cluster of materials occurring together at the stimulating corner of the chart, they contrast greatly in odor, but not in odor effects. (Think of the difference between acrid burnt amber and sweet vanilla; these odors contrast, but both stimulate.)

Some of the stimulating materials share an exalting or a fresh character. Spice oils can go either way. Here, the spices lean toward the anti-erogenic. Frankincense, while clearly stimulating, also shares an anti-erogenic, lemony top note.

The perfume contains plenty of exalting materials—those that both stimulate and exhibit a bit of funk. Oud is the most erogenic and, along with castoreum, provides the necessary animal and dissonant sexiness.

Sultry ingredients are both erogenic and narcotic. Blond tobacco is sweet, but has complex animal tonalities that push it toward the erogenic. Dark tobacco, the kind used in French cigarettes, is both stimulating and erogenic, hence exalting.

Atlas cedar is a narcotic ingredient with a little funk pulling it in a sultry direction. Benzoin Siam, being balsamic, is also decidedly narcotic.

I don’t know where Jellinek places sandalwood, but my guess is that it’s soothing. It has elements of the narcotic—a sweet gentleness—and yet has an anti-erogenic freshness. Sandalwood, spices, and frankincense all demonstrate anti-erogenic effects.  

The chart leaves me wondering if Amber might have benefited from an anti-erogenic ingredient such as something citrus. I’ll experiment, but I will not change the formula.


Black Iris, Again

Last Sunday, Kate came over and smelled some of my new experiments.

I asked her to smell a version containing hydroxycitronellal. The results excited me because the perfume had gotten more lift and persistence. I had added coriander, thinking of it as a spice to balance the floral aspects. As it turns out, the aroma of coriander seeds is almost pure linalool, a volatile alcohol that’s not considered stimulating like most spices, but, rather, narcotic. The big problem, and one that Kate immediately perceived, was a shifting in the color of the iris. I saw it as white; Kate saw it as green and white. Whatever it was, it wasn’t black.

Kate also mentioned a persistent and annoying “mintiness.” I hadn’t added anything in the whole caravone family so it must have come from the coriander. Sometimes I wonder if I’m working at cross purposes in that I’m trying to take what is essentially a rather somber substance (orris) and make it project and even have sprightly top notes.

I’m now building on an earlier version. Fourteen test tubes sit on my counter, each one containing 20 drops of my last Black Iris base (pre-hydroxycitronellal) and one or two drops of another material such as frankincense, calone, ambroxan, patchouli, cognac, and extra orivone. One amazing material, isolongifolanone, gives real radiance. Kate liked the tube with the calone, which in a way surprised me because it’s so marine. But marine, if used discreetly, can boost florals.

I’m now building on an older accord by adding more irivone, irival, and orisone. Next are the erogenic components, made with an accord between indole (stinky stuff found in feces) and Musk, my own musk interpretation.

My hope is that these notes ground the composition and give it longevity, adding sexy notes along the way.

Now, it’s back to the lab. Perhaps a little heliotropin?

How to Use the Odor Effects Diagram: Back to Black Iris

While I admit to deep skepticism about this whole odor effects thing (see last week’s post), as I continue experimenting, it seems to pan out.

I want to make Black Iris work in the same way as Coty’s Chypre. I don’t mean to make it smell the same way, but I want it to be both sultry and exalting. Black Iris now includes floral aspects (narcotic) and woody/spicy notes (stimulating), creating tension as these two are directly opposed on the Odor Effects Diagram, but it contains nothing erogenic.

To create the sultry effect, shown on the line between narcotic and erogenic, I added costausol, a substitute for costus root. Costus root alone smells like wet dogs and, while it doesn’t appeal to me, I appreciate how it provides a useful animalic note. It also has a peculiar root-like aspect that goes well with iris. Unfortunately, it’s banned in the E.U. so costausol—a costus-like synthetic—it is. 

The costausol energized the perfume and gave it depth. I added a trace of coriander (stimulating) which stretched some of the iris character into the top notes. Iso-eugenol, which smells like cloves, also came to mind. I added a trace.

I added ambergris, which gives vibrancy and finesse and adds another erogenic note. Thinking of an aldehyde to add sparkle, I referred to Poucher’s second edition of Perfumes Cosmetics & Soaps (my latest acquisition) in which he says that aldehyde C-10—listed in the book as erogenous—is the best for iris compounds. 

Jellinek lists few exalting substances, just several aldehydes, two aroma chemicals, and three naturals. Given the paucity of such ingredients, the best approach is to build up the erogenic and spicy elements to create the exalting effect. 

More about those mysterious exalting substances in a post to come...



Chypre de Coty: A Study in Odor Effects Contrasts

The perfume style referred to as “chypre,” was first embodied in Coty’s Chypre de Coty at the beginning of the 20th century. Deconstructing this perfume provides a good illustration of how to use the Odor Effects Diagram from my last post, which I included again below. 

I’ve never smelled Chypre de Coty—few people have—but deducing from the materials it contains, I would think it would include mossy, citrus, musky, floral, and spicy notes. It would have notes of authentic civet, ambergris, and musk. It would, of course, contain jasmin.

Jasmin absolute is perhaps the most important ingredient in all of perfumery, special because it contains intrinsic contrasts that amplify many perfumes and perfume ingredients. 

Jasmine contains jasmone which, to me, is slightly woody with an apricot aspect. In any case, it is considered stimulating. Indole is a strange off-putting aroma found in feces that the plant uses to attract insects. It is highly erogenous. 

Jasmone and indole create an exalting tension between the stimulating and the erogenous corners of the diagram. 

Jasmine is also sultry because it contains narcotic materials such as methyl anthranilate and benzyl acetate, which form a line to the erogenous indole, natural musk (artificial musks are considered narcotic), and ambergris. These last two are added to augment the erogenic nature of the perfume. 

To heighten the stimulant effect, Coty includes oakmoss, which reinforces the exalting quality of the perfume. He also includes spices, vetiver, and patchouli to enhance the stimulating effect of the oakmoss.

Coty also used a large amount of bergamot for Chypre de Coty. It’s an anti-erogenic citrus fruit as it contains terpenes, along with lynalyl acetate and linalool—both narcotic. This creates a line between anti-erogenic and narcotic that produces a soothing effect. 

Notice how these two lines that Coty forms—soothing and exalting—are in opposite positions. These complexes, both inherent in the flower, contribute to jasmin’s usefulness as a perfume material.

Coty’s great Chypre de Coty is a supreme example of how opposing odor effects create excitement and tension in most any creation. (See the illustration below, inspired by Paul Jellinek’s book, The Psychological Basis of Perfumery.)




Exaltation: Odors and Odor Effects

So-called “exaltants” amplify other smells. Truffles do this by enhancing the flavors around them—an egg cooked with truffles tastes more like an egg.

The same thing happens with mature ambergris tincture when it amplifies the smell of the finished perfume; it gives life and vitality to almost any blend. Civet makes flowers smell more like flowers and castoreum gives erogenic gravitas. While most synthetic musks are considered narcotic, natural musk has a strong erogenic component and an ammonia-like element. It improves almost anything.

Odors and odor effects are often confused. My favorite perfume author, Paul Jellinek, created what he calls the Odor Effects Diagram (shown below), which demonstrates the effects of aromas, rather than odors such as woody or floral.

Notice on the diagram that exalting aromas exist along the line between so-called “stimulating smells” and “erogenic smells.” Stimulating smells are resins, woods, and spices. As the line of exaltants approaches the erogenic pole, the smells get funky and animalic. Components with these characteristics are said to “exalt” the perfume by amplifying it.

Above all, it’s imperative to have contrasts—not necessarily contrasts of odors, but contrasts of odor effects.

As Jellinek mentions, citral, vanillin, and vetiver all have the same stimulating odor effect, but very different odors. The reverse is also sometimes true. Geraniol, phenyl acetaldehyde, and para-cresyl acetate are all considered floral aromas, but their odor effects are different. Geraniol is narcotic, phenyl acetaldehyde is stimulating, and para-cresyl acetate is erogenous.

Any classical French perfume should produce all four major odor effects: anti-erogenic, stimulating, erogenic, and narcotic. This creates powerful contrasts within the perfume that attenuate or amplify the ingredients.

Some special ingredients contain the necessary elements within themselves. Without these indispensable ingredients, perfumery as we know it would not exist.

More about them coming soon...

Odor Effects Diagram

Odor Effects Diagram

Fixation III: The Big Bummer

Often when confronted with a new problem, I suddenly get sleepy. I thought this was a defense and just a way of procrastinating, until I realized that during a 15-minute nap, I get a lot of work done. I’ll often awake with solutions to problems or at least possible avenues for experimentation.

This afternoon, slumped over in my chair, I dreamt about the new perfume when it struck me that I had been working with more concentrated tinctures than I had realized. I went over my notes and saw that I had marked everything as 10%—the usual concentration for my experiments when, in fact, one of the tinctures was 15%, several tinctures were 25%, and a couple were 30%. My perfume that lasts so long is more concentrated than it’s supposed to be.

As I floated up toward wakefulness, it was clear that all the tinctures were going to have to be made the same concentration before they could make their way into my next perfume experiment.

So I set to work, diluting or concentrating the various complexes and tinctures until they came out the same concentration as the most expensive finished perfume I can make without going under.

Now that it’s down to a lower concentration, it doesn’t last long enough; it’s not strong enough.

While I’m back to thinking of fixatives I might use to get Black Iris to last longer, it’s important to remember that fixatives, if too strong or if used in excess, mute aromas and cause them to project less. This happened when I experimented with frankincense: it lasted forever but I could hardly smell the perfume.

For many years, perfumers perceived this as an inherent contradiction—it was one or the other. But, then, we must consider exaltants—compounds and naturals that cause a perfume to both project farther and last longer.

What I need now is a substance that both helps the perfume project and gets it to last longer...

Fixation (continued)

True iris, called “orris” by perfumers, has long inspired me with its lovely root-like, earthy, and floral aroma. While it is this delicate fragrance I’m striving to attain, I haven’t just promised iris, I’ve promised black iris. Because a black iris is more fantasy than reality, I’ve decided to include other aromas than just the orris accord to make up the dark part of the perfume. 

The gorgeous iris accord opens soon after the top notes evaporate--in a minute or two--but after an hour or so, starts to fade. As my deeply-animal, faux-natural musk creeps in, the iris goes from purple to black. After about two hours, the musk takes over and the iris is barely noticeable. 

I still want the iris to last longer.

Older perfume formulas often call for concretes. A concrete is extracted from plant matter with hexane, which is essentially very pure gasoline. When the hexane is evaporated off, there remains a concrete, usually a solid. An absolute is made by extracting the concrete with alcohol and evaporating off the alcohol under vacuum. Because concretes contain large amounts of waxes and other high boiling point materials, they act as fixatives. The obvious thing was to track down some iris concrete. This was not easy as few people use concretes and they’re rarely sold. 

After my tiny sample of concrete arrived in the mail, I combined it with my iris accord. The perfume smells great, projects reasonably well, and most of all, lasts for hours on the skin. There is only one problem: iris concrete is outrageously expensive, though a small amount normally goes a very long way. However, I need to find out if I’ve made the perfume too exorbitant. Whether people will pay for this loveliness, I don’t know. 

My next step is some number crunching.



It’s frustrating to discover a fragrance, get all worked up about it, put it on the skin, and have it disappear in 20 minutes. Perfumers describe this phenomenon as caused by a lack of “fixation,” the idea being that certain ingredients, known as fixatives, “fix” the perfume and get it to last longer. Typically resins, woods, or persistent molecules, most fixatives have high boiling points and evaporate slowly. The accepted wisdom is that fixatives combine with the rest of the perfume and slow its volatilization.

While this can be true, many times I have noticed that only the fixatives persist. The fixatives fail to bring the other ingredients with them, causing the perfume to shift from whatever prevails in the beginning (the more volatile components), to the aroma of the fixatives alone. In the 1950s, my mother often came home late from parties, wreaking of natural musk, the other aromas in her Vol de Nuit long gone.  

There is certainly no inherent problem with a perfume shifting character from the beginning to the end, provided it is pleasant during its entire duration. However, if the perfume promises to smell like something, it shouldn’t change and end up smelling like something else. A rose perfume can’t gently fade into tuberose. But a perfume with a name that’s more about a fantasy—Opium, say—may be perfectly lovely as it changes over time.

So, where does this leave Black Iris? I might be in a pinch. I’m promising iris and if the stuff doesn’t smell like iris the whole time, then it’s no longer iris. But what if—just as with opium—the public doesn’t know what iris, much less black iris, smells like?

Soon, more about the difference between an iris and a black iris.

The Top Notes: Will They Behave?

It’s one thing to make a satisfying combination of top notes, but it is far trickier to coordinate it with the underlying facets in a perfume.

After working on a top note combination of grapefruit and pink peppercorn essential oils, I added aldehyde C-11 enic. for sparkle and edge. Koavone and spices brought complexity and intensity. The top notes smelled good together. I was encouraged.

The next day, my carefully composed top-note combination just smells like grapefruit. I added more of the other stuff until the grapefruit receded. I then added a small amount to the heart/base combination and was surprised that the top note aromas became subtler and integrated with the whole. The grapefruit gives a freshness to the opening, but is barely recognizable as grapefruit—the kind of effect I was looking for. The top notes have brought the heart and base more to the forefront. The top note accord gives the perfume vibrancy, freshness, and a new greenness.

Suddenly, a tiny citrus sparkle seemed like a good idea.

Lemon is unstable and I don’t like lemon chemicals like citral and limonene. I decided to use litsea cubeba, which smells strongly of lemon and is a tad cleaner. The stuff is strong, so I worked with a 1% solution instead of the usual 10%. A few drops of this 1% solution to the remaining top-note mixture was about right. I added this to the base/heart complex, and it indeed provided a miniscule twinkle.

It seems I might be onto something.

Since the perfume and I need a break from one another (my nose is tired and the perfume needs to “marry”), it now sits overnight. I’ll let it sit a week or so and readjust again as it’s sure to change. After a month, I’ll re-adjust one more time and let the perfume do what it’s going to do.

Time usually makes perfume better, but one can never be sure.

Top Notes and Black Iris

Top notes—the most volatile and evanescent compounds in a perfume—give an immediate impression and help sell the product. Whether you like them or not, the top notes in today’s fragrances are incredibly smooth.

However, the top notes may not smell like the heart notes, which may cause disappointment once the customer gets the perfume home. To prevent this, I avoided most citrus for the Black Iris top notes, and looked for substances that wouldn’t clash.

To create top notes that lead right into the beautiful heart after some seconds, not minutes, I started with an accord of pink pepper and grapefruit. Grapefruit is, of course, citrus, but it’s subtler than say, lemon, and it forms an accord with the pink peppercorns that smells hardly of citrus at all. Pepper in a perfume acts almost as it does with food—it immediately heightens our perceptions and magnifies the flavors, or in this case, smells.

The top note combo is great, but it still isn’t smooth like a modern perfume. I tried helvetolide, a musk that works in the top notes, and while it did smooth the surface, it was almost as though the perfume was coated with something foreign—like a layer of polyurethane—that muted its effect.

A trace of saffron gives a tiny spicy accent that livens up the entrance a little. I added a trace of Aldehyde C-11 enic which gives sparkle and sophistication.  

In another attempt to smooth things off I added cabreuva oil, which seemed to work. I tried coronal, which master perfumer Arcadi Boix Camps loves, but smells like every perfume out there. Koavone, on the other hand, gave the top-note-complex a touch of wood and smoothed it. I suspect it will help the head notes meld with the rest of the perfume.

Next, how to add my pretty top notes to the perfume without ruining everything