Copying the Great Perfumes of the Past

One of my favorite books, Perfumery: Practice and Principles, by Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephen Jellinek, discusses the basic structures of some of the best-known classic perfumes. The authors give a rough idea of what’s in the perfumes, but no formulas.

I sent away for tiny vials of as many of the great classics as I could find—Shalimar, Oscar de la Renta, L’Air du Temps, Ma Griff, Arpege, Chanel 5, etc.—and have set about copying them.

My first project has been L’Air du Temps, first released in 1947. Jellinek describes it as the origin of a distinct family, based on an accord between eugenol (cloves) and benzyl salicylate (vaguely floral). 

I constructed a base note with a powerful vetiver compound combined with methyl ionone, a long-used chemical that smells of violets. When I got these two in balance, I added musk ketone, an old-fashioned musk with a distinct personality that’s especially noticeable in the drydown. I smoothed the mixture with sandalwood.

The eugenol accord is reinforced with ylang ylang, rose, and jasmine. I used my own complexes which contain much of the real product and added orris for good measure (it never hurts), a little damascone beta for a trace of fruitiness, and some extra natural carnation and jasmine to add finesse to the synthetics.

Last, the top note is one used in many perfumes: bergamot and rosewood (naturals) combined with linalyl acetate and linalool (synthetics), all of which add freshness. 

When I thought the preliminary sketch finished, I added aldehydes and was again amazed by the ineffable sparkle they gave to my blend.

I did surprisingly well even if my version was but a crude interpretation of L’Air du Temps. More on how I did it in the next post.