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

Wine, Sauces, and Perfume: My Olfactory Education

I pilfered my first glass of wine when I was 7 years old. Parents and guests seemed to enjoy it so, and since it was forbidden, it was essential to try. I diligently cleared the table, taking away unfinished bottles to the kitchen, to be sipped and analyzed on the sly. 

Years later, as part of a professional wine group, I drank many beautiful things—pre-war Burgundy comes to mind--now only obtainable by the ultra-rich. Other than training my nose, I recognized the subtle interplay between artist and nature--the careful taming of accident that brings about a new creation. 

I went to France in 1975. There, after being blown away by a chicken with tarragon poached in cream, my destiny was sealed and I became a cuisinier. I worked in the finest restaurants, ate in the finest restaurants (requiring most of my meager salary), and wrote about the finest restaurants. 

After returning from France in 1979, and opening a French restaurant, I wrote a book, Sauces, that delves into the interplay of ingredients and how this engenders something new and entirely original, much like a perfumery accord.

After gaining a basic understanding of technique it’s possible to create, often from a very limited pantry, sauce accords of extraordinary originality. Guests at my restaurant wanted the mysterious recipes when, in fact, I invented them, without thought, on the fly. The state of mindlessness that arose in such a fast-paced kitchen, where there was no time for the slightest rumination, left room for sudden and unpredictable discovery. 

Whether these experiences will help me become a perfumer, I don’t know, but the creation of accords is very similar. So is the joy of an entirely new aroma.

Most of all, I never stop being amazed at olfactory beauty--beauty sometimes so revealing and rich, that I’m left in tears.

Sandalwood III: Faking It, Continued

I want to see how Serge Lutens solves the problems of longevity and projection in his fabulous perfume, Iris Silver Mist.

The opening iris accord is much like mine and, like mine, evaporates sooner than I, and apparently he, would like. Lutens creates another series of accords that kick in once the orris accord wears off, leaving us with a floral perfume, but one, that, unfortunately, no longer smells of iris. I’m trying a similar approach, but with woods and sandalwood in the drydown instead of flowers. Since sandalwood alone would be too dear, I’m planning on using my sandalwood accord and combining it with plenty of the real stuff before adding it to the iris blend.

To accomplish this, I’m going to continue to rely mostly on synthetics. My main source of information about synthetics, a book I want to explore more in depth in another post, has been Perfumery: Techniques in Evolution, 2nd Edition, which came out in 2009. The book is quite expensive—$100 as of now—but it’s a helpful compendium of articles and interviews written or recorded by or about Acadi Boix Camps in 1978, 1985, 1999, and 2004.

Since the whole list of the ingredients in my sandalwood is rather long, I’ll give some highlights.

I included Javanol, which is very long-lasting and will help prolong the drydown. Iso e super contributes an almost violet (methyl ionone) note which will help link the woods with the iris accord. Bicyclononalactone adds creaminess. At one point, when the accord got too soft, I lowered this. Pistachio CO2 adds a nutty quality while Oud adds a note of precious wood. Damescenone smooths the mixture and lends a subtle fruitiness. Patchouli lends depth and background. A little Cedar Atlas contributes its woody tone. Vetiver and Vetiveryl Acetate give a needed tang; they also increase longevity.

Next, we combine the accord with the main Black Iris accord.



Sandalwood II: Faking It

Early in my perfumery studies, I set out to replicate sandalwood, not realizing that perfumers had been at it for centuries. Sandalwood oil is virtually impossible to replicate. Because few people have smelled the authentic distillate, much less the legendary oil from Mysore India, many sweet, chemical fakes are sold as the real thing. Now that the authentic oil has gotten so expensive, the effort to make a viable copy has intensified. 

While years ago, I was working with exciting combinations of immortelle absolute and green vetiver, I’ve since gotten more sophisticated. Having spent a small fortune on compounds and naturals, I now have hundreds of ingredients and yet still struggle to make an accurate sandalwood. But, while I probably will never be satisfied, I have finally composed a replica that pleases me. At least for the moment.

Now, we get heavily into synthetics.

 The experiment began with mysantol—woody and resin-like, soft and accessible, unlike some sandalwood chemicals that quickly tire the nose. Mysantol has a delightful green note, like that of the natural wood, but the note dissipates quickly, revealing the mysantol’s long-lasting underpinnings.

I added an extravagant amount of santalol. Santalol is distilled from the actual sandalwood heartwood, but is composed of a different arrangement of isomers than the classic oil. It is more expensive than even some sandalwoods, but less is required for an equal effect.

I’ve got to smell sandela the first thing in the morning—it must be well diluted—before it makes my nose go blank and I can’t smell anymore. It’s somewhat sweet, with traces of ambergris, while being slightly floral, soapy, and a little spicy (cumin?). I added it, not only for its fragrance, but because it is a long-lasting fixative. 

Mysore wood, a synthetic not to be confused with “Mysore sandalwood,” has a distinct creamy component that recalls the same milky facets found in real sandalwood. In it went...

There is more than a bit about sandalwood yet to come.



Sandalwood

When I was a little boy, I found a sandalwood fan my grandmother got in India in the 1920s. It had a special, very dry, and not completely pleasant aroma impossible to describe. The fan has long disappeared. I haven’t smelled or even seen sandalwood—the actual wood—since.

While sandalwood perfumes abound, few of us have knowingly smelled authentic sandalwood oil, which is distilled from the wood. When I smelled the oil for the first time, I was struck by completely different notes I remembered from the fan. Of course, sandalwood smells like wood, but is also so complex as to include almost every aroma category. It has a special greenness that shimmers over a bed of wood. The wood seems lightly coated with a creaminess and a series of delicate floral notes. It also has citrus notes. It is irresistible.

The best sandalwood is said to come from Mysore, in Eastern India. Sadly, the trees were driven almost to extinction and the production of oil is now tightly controlled. Most trees are cultivated as few, if any, of the wild trees remain.

Although there are many suppliers of so-called Mysore sandalwood, most are fakes. This is not to say the oils we can find, from such places as Indonesia and Hawaii, aren’t plenty delicious—they are—but they lack the complexity of authentic Mysore. They’re missing a beautiful medicinal quality I find in the real thing.

Few of us will ever work with or even encounter Mysore sandalwood. Even if we could find it, the price would be exorbitant.

It has taken me many years just to recognize authentic Mysore sandalwood. I have a collection of over 20 examples of sandalwood from around the world and only two convince me they are the real thing. One, from the 1930s, is from a trusted supplier; the other is from an expensive and highly reputable source. Contrastly, two were junk and smelled of rancid oil after about a year. This would seem to indicate that they were adulterated with vegetable oil.

Next, I’m going to work to emulate this glorious substance with naturals and aroma compounds.

Wish me luck.

Oud Revisited

In 2016, I got a letter from The Art and Olfaction Awards informing me that I was nominated for a prestigious award for my first edition of Oud. Blown away with excitement, I found out a day later that, no, it wasn’t nominated since we had released it during the last week of 2014 and not 2015.

Given such encouragement, it would seem obvious that we should keep producing the first edition of Oud. But again, no, each edition of Oud is based on different ouds, ouds so rare that they must be snatched up immediately before collectors buy them out. We could, of course, acquire so much of the stuff that it would take years and years to run out. This, however, would mean laying out a serious investment in inventory—resources that poor little BPC isn’t, at least at this point, capable of handling.

 Because of all this, I have begun to work on the fourth edition of Oud while the third is still on the market.

 Composing an oud perfume involves a seemingly infinite number of details. I work with tiny oud samples until I find one oud, or a combination of ouds, that has the impact I need, before I invest the scary funds necessary to make a blend. Some ouds are too delicate, or too aggressive, or too expensive, or too funky. I must be careful not to obscure any facets of the natural oud, including that particular ethereal quality that hits one deep, well behind the sinuses.

 Once I’ve established an oud base, I build on it, amplifying each of its aspects with naturals and aroma compounds until it comes into focus in an intense combination more powerful and long-lasting than the original oud itself. Next, the perfume must rest for several months. Only then do I smell what I’ve composed—for better or for worse.

Power and Presence

Sometimes, my experiments don’t project enough, or fade too soon, or don’t have enough power. I get discouraged.

But my recent seminar with Mandy Aftel has given me pause. For her, the sensual interplay of complex natural ingredients is more important than the ability of a perfume to fill a room. Her scents are discrete and may need close inspection to reveal their secrets, but they are no less beautiful, no less affecting. 

There is a difference between “power” and “presence.” Mandy’s perfumes have psychological power. They have presence, nobility, and terroir.  

The other night, I showed my young friend, Ricky, the latest iterations of Black Iris. I had deconstructed the perfume into three test tubes, in which were separated the perfume’s top, middle, and base accords. We got to the base-note complex, and Ricky yelled, “This is it!” I smelled the accord again and more carefully. The complex is almost of violets, except with orris’s ineffable depth, of roots, fungus, and loam. The perfume is discrete. It doesn’t project very far. It doesn’t last for many hours. But it has beauty. It has presence.

It is the orris I’ve been looking for.

What do I do now? Dare I release a perfume, an expensive one at that, that doesn’t hit you like a dose of Poison? I must ask myself whom is the scent is for? A cluster at a cocktail party? A lover? One’s self?

There is much left to be done. I must track the accord’s aroma during all phases of evaporation to make sure that at no point it smells weird or unpleasant. And, it must project and last at least somewhat.

Orris is a divine thing I have wanted to share with many people. Perhaps, though, this is not its nature. It may lie in a sphere of the ineffable, of the evanescent. After all, it is orris.

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.

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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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B.O.

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.

BlackirisEDTflat.jpg

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.