Fooling Around with Jasmine

I’ve been playing a new game: I reconstruct flowers, working with a list of essential oils, absolutes, and aroma compounds, that gives no quantities. The challenge is to balance the amounts of these ingredients to come up with a viable replica of the flower at hand. Ideally, you have the real flower next to you to guide you. Second best, use a good absolute to provide a smell comparison. As a basis for my experimentation, I used a list of ingredients, grouped by class, in Perfumery: Practice and Principles by Robert Calkin and Stephan Jellinek.

            Benzyl acetate is perhaps the most classic of jasmine aroma chemicals, used in every formula I’ve seen. While its aroma does in fact resemble jasmine, it is coarse and industrial. Other benzyl esters—benzyl proprionate, benzyl valerianate, benzyl isobutyrate and dimethyl benzyl acetate—are used to modify the basic benzyl acetate aroma. Each has its nuances, some fruity, and some a little funky.

            The second grouping of compounds is based on phenylethyl alcohol with its distinct rose, but chemical, aroma. Phenylethyl acetate smells a little like wine that has evaporated in the bottom of a glass. Other compounds are phenylethyl butyrate, phenoxyethyl isobutyrate and phenoxyethyl alcohol. When combined with phenylethyl alcohol, these compounds contribute to the rosiness while attenuating the chemical finish of phenylethyl alcohol.

            Fool around with the rose compounds until you have a mixture you like and combine this mixture with the jasmine mixture. In the finished perfume, I ended up using equal parts of the benzyl acetate complex and the phenylethyl alcohol mixture, but if you do this at the beginning, the benzyl acetate mixture takes over. I started out with five times the rose mixture to the benzyl acetate mixture to achieve the right balance, but added more of the benzyl acetate mixture as I continued adding other ingredients to the perfume.

            After achieving a balance between the jasmine (benzyl acetate) mixture and the rose (phenylethyl alcohol) mixture, it’s time to experiment with muguet (lily of the valley). Three compounds—hydroxycitronellal, lilial, and lyral—are usually used for the lily of the valley aroma. This light and fresh mixture is added to the jasmin/rose mixture in about equal parts muguet, rose, and jasmine mixtures. The mixtures need to be evaluated to get the ratios right.

            Geranium, which is very rose like, is often used in floral perfumes. Its chemical backdrop is geraniol which in fact does smell like geranium, but without its richness and irresistibility. I used three parts geraniol to five parts muguet complex.

            Eugenol and iso-eugenol are essential to emulate the spicy, slightly clove-like character of jasmine. Be careful, but you may find that the formula calls for a considerable amount.

            Floral perfumes invariably contain linalool. Linalool has a unique freshness that most of us have encountered in hand wipes. Linalyl acetate, closely related, is subtler with an almost pine-like aspect. Be careful when using linalool and linalyl acetate; while they smell light, they can easily take over.

             Green notes come next and we encounter our first natural, violet leaf absolute. Violet leaf is very green with a distinct aroma of cucumbers. Our author also suggests hexenyl acetate as a green note. It’s not as green as the violet leaf, but lacks the cucumber aspect which, if you’re not careful, can take over.

            Many flowers contain cinnamon aspects as well as those of clove. In classic perfumery, the fallback cinnamon compounds are amyl cinnamic aldehyde, hexyl cinnamic aldehyde, and cinnamic alcohol. Amyl and hexyl cinnamic aldehydes are relatively subtle. If I want a distinct cinnamon note, I use cinnamic alcohol.

            Aurantiol and methyl anthranilate (both smell like Concord grapes) add a necessary fruitiness.

            Indol is one of the most important ingredients in jasmine and certain other flowers. It’s stinky at best, but is essential because it draws flies which the flower depends on for pollination. If you smell the indol alone, you’ll have a hard time imagining it in your perfume, but you may find that your formula requires a fair amount of it to bring the flower aroma into focus.

            Jellinek’s next suggestion includes the family of paracresols: paracresol, paracresyl acetate, paracresyl phenylacetate. At first sniff, paracresols smell to me a little bit like creosote, but with an intriguing animal aspect that goes well with florals, especially narcissus. There’s something dark about these smells; they make a composition veer toward a minor key.

            Last, Jellinek suggests using naturals to give vitality, freshness, and to smooth out the composition. Ylang and cananga are both on the list. These have very similar aromas, but cananga (which is sometimes used as a cheap substitute for yang), has a slightly vegetative aspect that works in this formula better than ylang. It should be added in very tiny amounts.

            I carefully sniffed my composition next to a good jasmine absolute and found that the jasmine had a wild non-floral aspect that reminded me a bit of hay. I added a tiny amount of hay absolute to provide these notes. Immortelle (an absolute of helichrysum) has a distinct aroma of maple and curry with a suave background. It added considerable finesse and smoothness.

            My last addition, before reinforcing the jasmine with jasmine absolute and the chemicals with naturals, was mimosa absolute. Mimosa, again, smooths out a composition and rounds out its subtle and complex aroma.

            Frankly, I’ve been amazed by the result. The potion really smells like jasmine. It’s not as voluptuous and hasn’t the same deep richness, but it might very well take someone in.

            The composition is finished with jasmine absolute to fill in the nooks and crannies that the chemicals and naturals didn’t reach. In commercial perfumes, there’s a trace of jasmine if you’re lucky. Vintage perfumes contained as much as 4% of the absolute. 

            If you’re making a fine perfume, you may want to reinforce the chemical aromas with those of naturals: rose for phenylethyl alcohol, rosewood for linalool, geranium in addition to the geraniol, clove with iso-eugenol, and cinnamon in addition to cinnamic alcohol. Be careful with these naturals—they’re very powerful.

            One interesting observation. I’ve always heard it said that chemical compositions of flowers and other fragrances last longer than naturals. That’s not the case here. The jasmine absolute lasted much longer on the strip than did the chemical mixture.