Perfumers forever state that a well-made perfume has a synthetic frame, ultimately fleshed out with essentials, absolutes, and enfleurages, each derived from natural ingredients. I have nothing against aroma chemicals since most of the time they are the same compounds that occur in the flowers anyway. (This isn’t completely true; some molecules are mirror-images of their natural counterparts.) The agreed wisdom is that aroma chemicals persist more on the skin (they do this best when they form accords) than do naturals. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If the chemicals are the same compounds found in the naturals, one would assume they’d last the same amount of time. Empirically, however, it does seem to be true—to make most perfumes persistent enough, you need isolated compounds, synthetic or otherwise.
To go about learning how to make this chemical frame, I’m using charts from one of my favorite perfume books, by Stephan Jellinek and Robert Calkin from the early 1990s. In one section of the book (which I’ve copied to avoid wearing the book out) there is a list of “compounding notes” for certain well-known flowers. For example, under rose, in a left column is a list under “Basic Formula.” Listed on the right column are “Selected Variants and Modifiers.” While this sounds like giving away the game, keep in mind that no quantities are given. You must smell your way through the array until you get to a rose.
The first chemical listed is phenylethyl alcohol. This isn’t surprising since phenylethyl alcohol smells just like roses. (not really; if you hold it next to a real rose, it smells “chemical” and flat and has no complexity). So, I start with a base of 30 drops of that (why not?). The next chemical is citronellol. I added about 10 drops of that until it came into balance with the phenylethyl alcohol. I never would have thought of citronellol as being part of a rose’s fragrance—it’s used to repel mosquitos. Geranyl acetate, another nuance, is added next. I continued in this way, until I had put together 12 aroma chemicals. The result did, in fact, smell like a rose, if rather a clumsy one. It was a bit too green and sour. The two are separate in my mind. Green is of green things like crisp sugar snap peas snapped open (galbanum and violet leaf smell this way) and instantly sniffed. Sour is something tangy like clary sage.
After establishing the basic (clumsy) rose, I moved on to the variants and modifiers. Next to phenylethyl alcohol, Jellinek recommends pheylethyl acetate, “phenylethyl esters,” and phenoxyethyl isobutyrate. Keep in mind that an ester is the result of an alcohol combining with a carboxylic acid. For example, ethyl alcohol and acetic acid, when combined under the right conditions, form ethyl acetate, which has an aroma all its own. It’s good to keep this in mind when trying to figure out which aroma compound might work. If you’re working with linalool, for example, try linalool acetate. It has a freshness and a naturalness that augments and balances linalool itself.
Under “Other rose chemicals,” we find “damascones.” There is more than one, each with its own nuances, but the gist is fruitiness. They’re beautiful molecules that add a lovely freshness to a blend, provided they are used very discretely. A drop too much can ruin an experiment.
I tried something else. I added naturals to back up some of the compounds. I added geranium to geraniol, neroli to nerol, clove to eugenol, and orris (iris root) to ionone alpha (a violet-like compound) to give complexity and nuance.
At the very bottom of the list is an array of recommended naturals. Many are surprising in a rose: two kinds of chamomile, palmarosa (which smells like tarragon), carrot seed, guaiacwood, sandalwood, iris (orris), mimosa and benzoin siam. By adding a drop here or there, the rose moves in one direction or the other. Carrot seed is surprisingly effective in bringing out “rosiness.”
I did find it surprising that Jellinek doesn’t mention animal ingredients as he does for the other flowers. Perhaps it is because they distract from the rose itself, but I would certainly like to experiment with civet, ambergris, and musk.
Finally, I added a drop of 10-percent red rose otto. Since I was working with 10-percent tinctures, this seemed an appropriate starting point to add to a solution of about 200 drops. I figured I’d work up to four percent rose otto since this was the percentage typically used in perfumes up through the 1950s. Wrong. Very wrong. Rose otto is far more powerful than an absolute. My one drop transformed the whole thing. My clumsy rose, which now contained almost 40 ingredients, sparkled with subtle nuance. While no masterpiece, it had become a real perfume. It lasted on the skin at least a little while (an hour?); rose otto just evaporates.
Working with this list has familiarized me with more aroma chemicals and has given me insight into the relationships between them. I want to remember enough of them so I can think in them and construct my own florals, either duplications of natural flowers or fantasies of non-existent things.
From Perfumery: Practice and Principles by Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek, published by John Wiley
Basic Formula Selected Variants and Modifiers
Phenylethyl alcohol and esters
Phenylethyl alcohol Phenylethyl acetate
Rose alcohols and esters
Geranyl acetate Geranyl esters
Other rose chemicals
Orthomethoxy benzyl ethyl ether
Ionone alpha Beta ionone
Phenylacetaldehyde Phenylacetaldehyde dimethyl acetal
Methyl heptine carbonate
Violet leaf absolute
Methyl cyclo citrone
Aldehyde C11 undecylenic Aldehyde C8
Carbinols and their esters
Rosatol Phenylethyl dimethyl carbinol
Dimethyl benzyl carbinyl acetate
Dimethyl benzyl carbonyl butyrate
Ethyl phenylacetate Methyl phenylacetate
Cire d’abeille absolute
Additional base notes
Geranium Camomile bleue