How I Make Perfume

Mandy Aftel taught me to start out small. Instead of adding one ingredient after another in a desperate dash for some irresistible accord, it is better to take two substances—only two—and smell how they interact. 

There are many ways of choosing the two ingredients. I often grab two off my shelves, without looking, or select two I find so irresistible on their own that I must know how they will intermingle. I try to stay observant and open to the odd chance occurrence while keeping in mind that it has been the unpredictable accident and the serendipity of discovery that have inspired, challenged, and directed me. 

Several months ago, thinking I was done with Green Iris, I had my husband try a little on. He was wearing BPC’s Musk, and commented that they went well together. Realizing Green Iris had no musk I experimented until I found out that ambrettolide, an expensive artificial version, gave the perfume gravitas and an underlying complexity it lacked before. 

To begin my appraisal of the two substances, I dip the end of a 3-inch-long strip of paper—my homemade smelling strips—in two of my 10%-solutions. I wave both strips around about 30 seconds to burn off the alcohol and then bring them, one in each hand, arms extended in front of me, slowly, to my nose. I’m careful not to overwhelm my nose with one or the other so as not to prejudice my perception. As I bring the strips closer, and begin to smell one or the other, I pull back on the one that’s most apparent. I move my arms to and fro, trying to gauge the potency of the substances in relation to each other while noticing anything interesting happening with the strips. If I end up holding one far away and one close to get them to balance, then one is obviously much stronger than the other. 

This gives me a sense of how to blend them when it comes time for the next step: working in test tubes.