Marine Aromas: The Smell of the Sea

I’ve always wanted to smell like the beach, not a crowded beach with its overtones of suntan lotion and salt water on skin, but a solitary beach with a scent like steamed mussels and freshly cracked oysters. On top of this irresistible sea-fresh quality I would find complicated aromas of assorted creatures in various states of decay combined with seaweed, and the smell of salt itself. (Salt is odorless. Its smell comes from assorted minerals and organic matter.)

This interplay of smells, constantly shifting, has me searching for information on how to smell like the ocean.

Much of what I have learned has come from my own experiments. I started out by going through my collection of naturals and aroma chemicals to find those that smell of the sea or some component thereof. Before I began combining these aromatic materials, I put each (in a 10% tincture) on a smelling strip and noted the length of time for the aroma to fade. My goal was to create a basic frame that would persist long enough for the final mixture to be considered a perfume while using more delicate materials up front such that they fade at differing rates, leaving the perfume’s final aroma to change and intertwine just like the odors on the beach.

Seaweed absolute is the most obvious material for such a beachy accord. Seaweed absolute is expensive, but goes a long way and is rather divine in that most examples (mine comes from Eden Botanicals) are truly representative of the real thing. The smell reminds me exactly of konbu, the dried seaweed that Japanese cooks use to prepare dashi, the base broth for innumerable soups and stews. The odor is complex and deeply sea-like. It is one of those things you smell on a stroll along the seashore. It smells like ambergris, not the tincture, but the actual material.

Ambroxan (also called Cetalox) is one of the most useful aroma chemicals for sea-like accords. It’s such an appealing substance that a perfume has been made featuring it alone. The molecule is one of the components of ambergris and is reminiscent of ambergris, but not really like the actual thing. It is very popular these days—I smell it everywhere—no doubt because of its austere yet oceanic feel. I use it along with ambergris itself because it reinforces the smell of the natural product.

Grisalva, which I associate with ambroxan, is subtler. Grisalva, too, has a sea-like note, but is also ever so slightly dissonant in that it contains a funky animal aspect. Next to ambroxan it is quite subtle, but provides another note. It reminds me a bit of hot sand.

Nonyl alcohol is a discovery that I’ve never read about. It has a distinct oceanic quality, is powerful and lasts a long time. It also lacks finesse. It has a coarseness which must be attenuated with more delicate compounds. It makes a good base note.

I’ve never thought of the ocean as aldehydic before, but cyclamen aldehyde has not only its own special aldehyde character, but a definite aquatic quality. It gives lift to my various experimental mixtures. It’s very clean and reinforces the impression of saltiness.

Calone is classic in marine accords. It is distinctly ozonic with a clean background. It works perfectly toward achieving the cracked oyster effect. It’s hard to imagine a marine accord without it.

At many points during my experimentation, I ran into situations where the mixture “needed something.” I don’t know how it occurred to me, but I added a trace of oud to my blend. When oud is used in small amounts—high dilutions—I can’t smell it, but rather sense it. It lightens and excites. It awakens the senses, especially smell.

There is, of course, ambergris. I’ve allowed myself to use up to 10% of a 3% tincture in my experimental marine blends. This is 10 times the amount normally used in classic perfumes.  Much is made about ambergris’s persistence—it is indeed persistent, but very subtle—and very little is said about the top notes it provides. When added in even trace amounts, ambergris gives a mixture a special punch right up front. The aroma is strangely like isopropyl alcohol—the classic rubbing alcohol nose—but with a magical finesse and complexity. It’s one of those ingredients, like musk and other animal products, that make it hard to pull your nose away.

One of the most fascinating marine ingredients is Helional. I was using it, with little effect, before realizing that my batch was old and had deteriorated. (Helional should be kept in small bottles with little air in them.) When I got a new bottle, the aroma I remember—the closest anything comes to smelling like water—was again there. It’s a wonderful substance and just what I needed for my blend.

Because so many ingredients come into play, I’m not able to mention them all now. I’ll discuss them in an upcoming post.

After a few months of daily experimentation, I had come up with a beautiful and elegant marine perfume that didn’t last long enough and barely projected. I was either missing a fundamental accord or I needed longer-lasting ingredients.

Frustrated, I looked for aromatic compounds that would last longer. The plan was to make another accord—almost its own perfume—that would stay on the skin as the more delicate and fleeting scents evaporated.  

I went on line in search of anything aquatic or ozonic and came up with a few things. The two most interesting were Azuril and Ultrazure. They both last a long time and have a powerful smell like the sea. Azuril has a slight animal quality while Ultrazure is cleaner. I might say that Ultrazure is like high tide and Azuril like low tide. Like nonyl alcohol, these ingredients lack finesse and must be attenuated with softer and more delicate compounds, perhaps naturals.

I blended my longest lasting ingredients—ambroxan, Ultrazure, and nonyl alcohol—to make a mixture that smelled enough like the sea that it would combine well with my initial blend. When I put the two together, the perfume opens with the ambergris and then comes out with the smell of a lonely beach. Natural compounds such as beeswax absolute, seaweed absolute, a trace of oud, and a drop of helicrysum smooth out the mixture and make it organic and natural smelling. Finally, the ambroxan-nonyl alcohol-Ultrazure accord takes over and the perfume dries down on the skin after about 2½ hours. Not as long as I would like, but the perfume is so inviting that I suspect most customers would put up with it.