Sandalwood: Multi-faceted, Enigmatic, Irresistible

When I was a boy, I played with a fan my grandmother got in India in the 1920s. It was made of sandalwood and had an entrancing smell, woody and very dry. When I first smelled sandalwood essential oil, I was surprised it didn’t smell like the fan; it smelled better.

In our first edition of Sandalwood, I wanted to use the best Mysore sandalwood from East India. So, I set about ordering sandalwood from suppliers all over the world, many who claimed to be selling the authentic stuff. When I had 20 different samples, I selected the best example for my perfume. Because it was so outstanding, I assumed it was the real stuff. Now, I don’t think it was.

As I’ve smelled a lot of different sandalwood, I’ve become more discerning. One of my samples, especially, has a dimension the others don’t have. It’s a little medicinal with a reverberating center, wild, but enigmatic and difficult to define. It is extremely complex, green, and lactonic at the same time. 

Pure sandalwood’s smell is understated and best appreciated up close. Synthetic imitations, while some are very convincing, never replicate the beautiful shimmering magic of the authentic oil.

My Sandalwood contains a ruinous amount of sandalwood, sandalwood I now think is from Indonesia. While it isn’t Mysore, it’s made from the same species and is very beautiful; it’s just a bit more direct than Mysore. To reinforce the impression of sandalwood—especially the greenness—Sandalwood contains a good amount of fragrant Indian vetiver. The vetiver, as well as a gorgeous balsamic frankincense, reinforces the sandalwood associations and underlines the woody aspects. There are also spices—fenugreek is especially good—and musk. 

Because sandalwood has so many effects, I’ve represented it more than once on the last of our Paul Jellinek-inspired Odor Effects Diagram.



Oud: Complex, Spiritual, Infinite

Other than the greatest wines from the early half of the 20th century, I’ve smelt nothing as complex as the finest oud. Great wine expresses itself through the medium of fruit; oud expresses itself through the medium of wood.

Like wine, ouds vary enormously in price. None is inexpensive and some are extraordinarily dear—I’ve experienced ouds ranging from $30 to $500 a milliliter. The greatest leave one in a daze, almost a trance.

The wild trees (less-expensive ouds are made from farmed trees) are rare. They must be at least 40-years old and attacked by a fungus that turns the wood black. They are found in increasingly remote areas in India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Borneo, only reached after days of hacking through the jungle with machetes. 

When looked at through the lens of Dr. Jellinek’s Odor Effects Diagram, oud has a unique profile. Depending on the oud, it may smell like everything in the diagram. The finest ouds constantly change and continuously present a new odor profile. 

Oud is exalting because it’s woody (near the stimulating corner of the chart) and, at the same time, erogenic. It is known to have a “Roquefort cheese” note. It is often balsamic (narcotic) and may even have floral notes. 

Fine oud offers a seemingly endless complexity of odor and of odor effects. Like very fine wines, it has terroir, a phenomenon described in many ways. I recognize it by a peculiar sense of having smelt the aroma in the distant past, as though in a past life. Images float in front of me. There’s a strange familiarity and sense of place. 

Brooklyn Perfume Company’s Oud presents much of the same odor profile, and while I can’t claim to have replicated the complexity of wild oud, Oud is made like a perfume from many years ago, rich in natural materials that often are, like the oud I include, very rare.  



The Truth About Musk

There are two kinds of musk: natural and synthetic. Natural musk comes from a small Himalayan deer, which is now endangered. I remember my mother reeking of it, but that was the 1950s. It may be the most delectable smell that exists.  In later decades, natural musk has been replaced with synthetic musks, sometimes called “white musks.”

Unfortunately, synthetic musks smell so little like natural musk that I suspect many perfumers have never smelled the real deal or anything like it. In addition, many people are anosmic to synthetic musks—they just can’t smell them. 

When I put together my Musk, I used a large combination of synthetic musks so that people who are anosmic would be more likely to smell it. While artificial musks are immediately recognizable as such, no two smell the same in my collection of 30 or so.

Much synthetic musk smells like clean laundry or is so very smooth that, again, it reminds me little of mother’s post-party aroma. Here, again, I suspect that those who make these perfumes have neither experienced deer musk or are afraid of offending the public with crude and, sometimes, fecal odors. 

I don’t want to put off everybody, but anything that makes a strong statement is likely to offend at least some. So, I put animalic stuff—phenylacetic acid and its esters—in the perfume to make it funky and pheromonic (one friend asked me, bewilderedly, if I were wearing some kind of “attractant”). The result is something that shimmers between the delicate and the forceful, between clean laundry and animals in heat.

It’s not for everyone.

Here, I’ve used Jellinek’s chart as the basis for my own analysis of the perfume and to illustrate how it is structured. It involved a bit of guesswork, since each musk has its own aroma profile and I wasn’t able to find information about the odor effects of a specific musk. I simply arranged them in a row from least erogenic to most so. 

You might even find yourself wanting to smell this beast.


Amber and the Odor Effects Diagram

When I compounded my current line of perfumes, I knew nothing of the Odor Effects Diagram. I went by smell alone.

Curious to arrange my own perfumes on the diagram, I first chose Amber as I know it has enjoyed recent complimentary interest within the online community.

The perfume demonstrates nothing purely anti-erogenic and, in fact, there are no head notes per se—the whole thing just comes out and grabs you. As you continue to smell it, though, further complexity emerges.

There are contrasting effects, especially between narcotic and stimulating. The central thematic material, burnt amber, is powerfully stimulating in the manner of birch tar oil. Notice that, while there is a cluster of materials occurring together at the stimulating corner of the chart, they contrast greatly in odor, but not in odor effects. (Think of the difference between acrid burnt amber and sweet vanilla; these odors contrast, but both stimulate.)

Some of the stimulating materials share an exalting or a fresh character. Spice oils can go either way. Here, the spices lean toward the anti-erogenic. Frankincense, while clearly stimulating, also shares an anti-erogenic, lemony top note.

The perfume contains plenty of exalting materials—those that both stimulate and exhibit a bit of funk. Oud is the most erogenic and, along with castoreum, provides the necessary animal and dissonant sexiness.

Sultry ingredients are both erogenic and narcotic. Blond tobacco is sweet, but has complex animal tonalities that push it toward the erogenic. Dark tobacco, the kind used in French cigarettes, is both stimulating and erogenic, hence exalting.

Atlas cedar is a narcotic ingredient with a little funk pulling it in a sultry direction. Benzoin Siam, being balsamic, is also decidedly narcotic.

I don’t know where Jellinek places sandalwood, but my guess is that it’s soothing. It has elements of the narcotic—a sweet gentleness—and yet has an anti-erogenic freshness. Sandalwood, spices, and frankincense all demonstrate anti-erogenic effects.  

The chart leaves me wondering if Amber might have benefited from an anti-erogenic ingredient such as something citrus. I’ll experiment, but I will not change the formula.


Black Iris, Again

Last Sunday, Kate came over and smelled some of my new experiments.

I asked her to smell a version containing hydroxycitronellal. The results excited me because the perfume had gotten more lift and persistence. I had added coriander, thinking of it as a spice to balance the floral aspects. As it turns out, the aroma of coriander seeds is almost pure linalool, a volatile alcohol that’s not considered stimulating like most spices, but, rather, narcotic. The big problem, and one that Kate immediately perceived, was a shifting in the color of the iris. I saw it as white; Kate saw it as green and white. Whatever it was, it wasn’t black.

Kate also mentioned a persistent and annoying “mintiness.” I hadn’t added anything in the whole caravone family so it must have come from the coriander. Sometimes I wonder if I’m working at cross purposes in that I’m trying to take what is essentially a rather somber substance (orris) and make it project and even have sprightly top notes.

I’m now building on an earlier version. Fourteen test tubes sit on my counter, each one containing 20 drops of my last Black Iris base (pre-hydroxycitronellal) and one or two drops of another material such as frankincense, calone, ambroxan, patchouli, cognac, and extra orivone. One amazing material, isolongifolanone, gives real radiance. Kate liked the tube with the calone, which in a way surprised me because it’s so marine. But marine, if used discreetly, can boost florals.

I’m now building on an older accord by adding more irivone, irival, and orisone. Next are the erogenic components, made with an accord between indole (stinky stuff found in feces) and Musk, my own musk interpretation.

My hope is that these notes ground the composition and give it longevity, adding sexy notes along the way.

Now, it’s back to the lab. Perhaps a little heliotropin?

How to Use the Odor Effects Diagram: Back to Black Iris

While I admit to deep skepticism about this whole odor effects thing (see last week’s post), as I continue experimenting, it seems to pan out.

I want to make Black Iris work in the same way as Coty’s Chypre. I don’t mean to make it smell the same way, but I want it to be both sultry and exalting. Black Iris now includes floral aspects (narcotic) and woody/spicy notes (stimulating), creating tension as these two are directly opposed on the Odor Effects Diagram, but it contains nothing erogenic.

To create the sultry effect, shown on the line between narcotic and erogenic, I added costausol, a substitute for costus root. Costus root alone smells like wet dogs and, while it doesn’t appeal to me, I appreciate how it provides a useful animalic note. It also has a peculiar root-like aspect that goes well with iris. Unfortunately, it’s banned in the E.U. so costausol—a costus-like synthetic—it is. 

The costausol energized the perfume and gave it depth. I added a trace of coriander (stimulating) which stretched some of the iris character into the top notes. Iso-eugenol, which smells like cloves, also came to mind. I added a trace.

I added ambergris, which gives vibrancy and finesse and adds another erogenic note. Thinking of an aldehyde to add sparkle, I referred to Poucher’s second edition of Perfumes Cosmetics & Soaps (my latest acquisition) in which he says that aldehyde C-10—listed in the book as erogenous—is the best for iris compounds. 

Jellinek lists few exalting substances, just several aldehydes, two aroma chemicals, and three naturals. Given the paucity of such ingredients, the best approach is to build up the erogenic and spicy elements to create the exalting effect. 

More about those mysterious exalting substances in a post to come...



Chypre de Coty: A Study in Odor Effects Contrasts

The perfume style referred to as “chypre,” was first embodied in Coty’s Chypre de Coty at the beginning of the 20th century. Deconstructing this perfume provides a good illustration of how to use the Odor Effects Diagram from my last post, which I included again below. 

I’ve never smelled Chypre de Coty—few people have—but deducing from the materials it contains, I would think it would include mossy, citrus, musky, floral, and spicy notes. It would have notes of authentic civet, ambergris, and musk. It would, of course, contain jasmin.

Jasmin absolute is perhaps the most important ingredient in all of perfumery, special because it contains intrinsic contrasts that amplify many perfumes and perfume ingredients. 

Jasmine contains jasmone which, to me, is slightly woody with an apricot aspect. In any case, it is considered stimulating. Indole is a strange off-putting aroma found in feces that the plant uses to attract insects. It is highly erogenous. 

Jasmone and indole create an exalting tension between the stimulating and the erogenous corners of the diagram. 

Jasmine is also sultry because it contains narcotic materials such as methyl anthranilate and benzyl acetate, which form a line to the erogenous indole, natural musk (artificial musks are considered narcotic), and ambergris. These last two are added to augment the erogenic nature of the perfume. 

To heighten the stimulant effect, Coty includes oakmoss, which reinforces the exalting quality of the perfume. He also includes spices, vetiver, and patchouli to enhance the stimulating effect of the oakmoss.

Coty also used a large amount of bergamot for Chypre de Coty. It’s an anti-erogenic citrus fruit as it contains terpenes, along with lynalyl acetate and linalool—both narcotic. This creates a line between anti-erogenic and narcotic that produces a soothing effect. 

Notice how these two lines that Coty forms—soothing and exalting—are in opposite positions. These complexes, both inherent in the flower, contribute to jasmin’s usefulness as a perfume material.

Coty’s great Chypre de Coty is a supreme example of how opposing odor effects create excitement and tension in most any creation. (See the illustration below, inspired by Paul Jellinek’s book, The Psychological Basis of Perfumery.)




Exaltation: Odors and Odor Effects

So-called “exaltants” amplify other smells. Truffles do this by enhancing the flavors around them—an egg cooked with truffles tastes more like an egg.

The same thing happens with mature ambergris tincture when it amplifies the smell of the finished perfume; it gives life and vitality to almost any blend. Civet makes flowers smell more like flowers and castoreum gives erogenic gravitas. While most synthetic musks are considered narcotic, natural musk has a strong erogenic component and an ammonia-like element. It improves almost anything.

Odors and odor effects are often confused. My favorite perfume author, Paul Jellinek, created what he calls the Odor Effects Diagram (shown below), which demonstrates the effects of aromas, rather than odors such as woody or floral.

Notice on the diagram that exalting aromas exist along the line between so-called “stimulating smells” and “erogenic smells.” Stimulating smells are resins, woods, and spices. As the line of exaltants approaches the erogenic pole, the smells get funky and animalic. Components with these characteristics are said to “exalt” the perfume by amplifying it.

Above all, it’s imperative to have contrasts—not necessarily contrasts of odors, but contrasts of odor effects.

As Jellinek mentions, citral, vanillin, and vetiver all have the same stimulating odor effect, but very different odors. The reverse is also sometimes true. Geraniol, phenyl acetaldehyde, and para-cresyl acetate are all considered floral aromas, but their odor effects are different. Geraniol is narcotic, phenyl acetaldehyde is stimulating, and para-cresyl acetate is erogenous.

Any classical French perfume should produce all four major odor effects: anti-erogenic, stimulating, erogenic, and narcotic. This creates powerful contrasts within the perfume that attenuate or amplify the ingredients.

Some special ingredients contain the necessary elements within themselves. Without these indispensable ingredients, perfumery as we know it would not exist.

More about them coming soon...

Odor Effects Diagram

Odor Effects Diagram

Fixation III: The Big Bummer

Often when confronted with a new problem, I suddenly get sleepy. I thought this was a defense and just a way of procrastinating, until I realized that during a 15-minute nap, I get a lot of work done. I’ll often awake with solutions to problems or at least possible avenues for experimentation.

This afternoon, slumped over in my chair, I dreamt about the new perfume when it struck me that I had been working with more concentrated tinctures than I had realized. I went over my notes and saw that I had marked everything as 10%—the usual concentration for my experiments when, in fact, one of the tinctures was 15%, several tinctures were 25%, and a couple were 30%. My perfume that lasts so long is more concentrated than it’s supposed to be.

As I floated up toward wakefulness, it was clear that all the tinctures were going to have to be made the same concentration before they could make their way into my next perfume experiment.

So I set to work, diluting or concentrating the various complexes and tinctures until they came out the same concentration as the most expensive finished perfume I can make without going under.

Now that it’s down to a lower concentration, it doesn’t last long enough; it’s not strong enough.

While I’m back to thinking of fixatives I might use to get Black Iris to last longer, it’s important to remember that fixatives, if too strong or if used in excess, mute aromas and cause them to project less. This happened when I experimented with frankincense: it lasted forever but I could hardly smell the perfume.

For many years, perfumers perceived this as an inherent contradiction—it was one or the other. But, then, we must consider exaltants—compounds and naturals that cause a perfume to both project farther and last longer.

What I need now is a substance that both helps the perfume project and gets it to last longer...

Fixation (continued)

True iris, called “orris” by perfumers, has long inspired me with its lovely root-like, earthy, and floral aroma. While it is this delicate fragrance I’m striving to attain, I haven’t just promised iris, I’ve promised black iris. Because a black iris is more fantasy than reality, I’ve decided to include other aromas than just the orris accord to make up the dark part of the perfume. 

The gorgeous iris accord opens soon after the top notes evaporate--in a minute or two--but after an hour or so, starts to fade. As my deeply-animal, faux-natural musk creeps in, the iris goes from purple to black. After about two hours, the musk takes over and the iris is barely noticeable. 

I still want the iris to last longer.

Older perfume formulas often call for concretes. A concrete is extracted from plant matter with hexane, which is essentially very pure gasoline. When the hexane is evaporated off, there remains a concrete, usually a solid. An absolute is made by extracting the concrete with alcohol and evaporating off the alcohol under vacuum. Because concretes contain large amounts of waxes and other high boiling point materials, they act as fixatives. The obvious thing was to track down some iris concrete. This was not easy as few people use concretes and they’re rarely sold. 

After my tiny sample of concrete arrived in the mail, I combined it with my iris accord. The perfume smells great, projects reasonably well, and most of all, lasts for hours on the skin. There is only one problem: iris concrete is outrageously expensive, though a small amount normally goes a very long way. However, I need to find out if I’ve made the perfume too exorbitant. Whether people will pay for this loveliness, I don’t know. 

My next step is some number crunching.



It’s frustrating to discover a fragrance, get all worked up about it, put it on the skin, and have it disappear in 20 minutes. Perfumers describe this phenomenon as caused by a lack of “fixation,” the idea being that certain ingredients, known as fixatives, “fix” the perfume and get it to last longer. Typically resins, woods, or persistent molecules, most fixatives have high boiling points and evaporate slowly. The accepted wisdom is that fixatives combine with the rest of the perfume and slow its volatilization.

While this can be true, many times I have noticed that only the fixatives persist. The fixatives fail to bring the other ingredients with them, causing the perfume to shift from whatever prevails in the beginning (the more volatile components), to the aroma of the fixatives alone. In the 1950s, my mother often came home late from parties, wreaking of natural musk, the other aromas in her Vol de Nuit long gone.  

There is certainly no inherent problem with a perfume shifting character from the beginning to the end, provided it is pleasant during its entire duration. However, if the perfume promises to smell like something, it shouldn’t change and end up smelling like something else. A rose perfume can’t gently fade into tuberose. But a perfume with a name that’s more about a fantasy—Opium, say—may be perfectly lovely as it changes over time.

So, where does this leave Black Iris? I might be in a pinch. I’m promising iris and if the stuff doesn’t smell like iris the whole time, then it’s no longer iris. But what if—just as with opium—the public doesn’t know what iris, much less black iris, smells like?

Soon, more about the difference between an iris and a black iris.

The Top Notes: Will They Behave?

It’s one thing to make a satisfying combination of top notes, but it is far trickier to coordinate it with the underlying facets in a perfume.

After working on a top note combination of grapefruit and pink peppercorn essential oils, I added aldehyde C-11 enic. for sparkle and edge. Koavone and spices brought complexity and intensity. The top notes smelled good together. I was encouraged.

The next day, my carefully composed top-note combination just smells like grapefruit. I added more of the other stuff until the grapefruit receded. I then added a small amount to the heart/base combination and was surprised that the top note aromas became subtler and integrated with the whole. The grapefruit gives a freshness to the opening, but is barely recognizable as grapefruit—the kind of effect I was looking for. The top notes have brought the heart and base more to the forefront. The top note accord gives the perfume vibrancy, freshness, and a new greenness.

Suddenly, a tiny citrus sparkle seemed like a good idea.

Lemon is unstable and I don’t like lemon chemicals like citral and limonene. I decided to use litsea cubeba, which smells strongly of lemon and is a tad cleaner. The stuff is strong, so I worked with a 1% solution instead of the usual 10%. A few drops of this 1% solution to the remaining top-note mixture was about right. I added this to the base/heart complex, and it indeed provided a miniscule twinkle.

It seems I might be onto something.

Since the perfume and I need a break from one another (my nose is tired and the perfume needs to “marry”), it now sits overnight. I’ll let it sit a week or so and readjust again as it’s sure to change. After a month, I’ll re-adjust one more time and let the perfume do what it’s going to do.

Time usually makes perfume better, but one can never be sure.

Top Notes and Black Iris

Top notes—the most volatile and evanescent compounds in a perfume—give an immediate impression and help sell the product. Whether you like them or not, the top notes in today’s fragrances are incredibly smooth.

However, the top notes may not smell like the heart notes, which may cause disappointment once the customer gets the perfume home. To prevent this, I avoided most citrus for the Black Iris top notes, and looked for substances that wouldn’t clash.

To create top notes that lead right into the beautiful heart after some seconds, not minutes, I started with an accord of pink pepper and grapefruit. Grapefruit is, of course, citrus, but it’s subtler than say, lemon, and it forms an accord with the pink peppercorns that smells hardly of citrus at all. Pepper in a perfume acts almost as it does with food—it immediately heightens our perceptions and magnifies the flavors, or in this case, smells.

The top note combo is great, but it still isn’t smooth like a modern perfume. I tried helvetolide, a musk that works in the top notes, and while it did smooth the surface, it was almost as though the perfume was coated with something foreign—like a layer of polyurethane—that muted its effect.

A trace of saffron gives a tiny spicy accent that livens up the entrance a little. I added a trace of Aldehyde C-11 enic which gives sparkle and sophistication.  

In another attempt to smooth things off I added cabreuva oil, which seemed to work. I tried coronal, which master perfumer Arcadi Boix Camps loves, but smells like every perfume out there. Koavone, on the other hand, gave the top-note-complex a touch of wood and smoothed it. I suspect it will help the head notes meld with the rest of the perfume.

Next, how to add my pretty top notes to the perfume without ruining everything

Wine, Sauces, and Perfume: My Olfactory Education

I pilfered my first glass of wine when I was 7 years old. Parents and guests seemed to enjoy it so, and since it was forbidden, it was essential to try. I diligently cleared the table, taking away unfinished bottles to the kitchen, to be sipped and analyzed on the sly. 

Years later, as part of a professional wine group, I drank many beautiful things—pre-war Burgundy comes to mind--now only obtainable by the ultra-rich. Other than training my nose, I recognized the subtle interplay between artist and nature--the careful taming of accident that brings about a new creation. 

I went to France in 1975. There, after being blown away by a chicken with tarragon poached in cream, my destiny was sealed and I became a cuisinier. I worked in the finest restaurants, ate in the finest restaurants (requiring most of my meager salary), and wrote about the finest restaurants. 

After returning from France in 1979, and opening a French restaurant, I wrote a book, Sauces, that delves into the interplay of ingredients and how this engenders something new and entirely original, much like a perfumery accord.

After gaining a basic understanding of technique it’s possible to create, often from a very limited pantry, sauce accords of extraordinary originality. Guests at my restaurant wanted the mysterious recipes when, in fact, I invented them, without thought, on the fly. The state of mindlessness that arose in such a fast-paced kitchen, where there was no time for the slightest rumination, left room for sudden and unpredictable discovery. 

Whether these experiences will help me become a perfumer, I don’t know, but the creation of accords is very similar. So is the joy of an entirely new aroma.

Most of all, I never stop being amazed at olfactory beauty--beauty sometimes so revealing and rich, that I’m left in tears.

Sandalwood III: Faking It, Continued

I want to see how Serge Lutens solves the problems of longevity and projection in his fabulous perfume, Iris Silver Mist.

The opening iris accord is much like mine and, like mine, evaporates sooner than I, and apparently he, would like. Lutens creates another series of accords that kick in once the orris accord wears off, leaving us with a floral perfume, but one, that, unfortunately, no longer smells of iris. I’m trying a similar approach, but with woods and sandalwood in the drydown instead of flowers. Since sandalwood alone would be too dear, I’m planning on using my sandalwood accord and combining it with plenty of the real stuff before adding it to the iris blend.

To accomplish this, I’m going to continue to rely mostly on synthetics. My main source of information about synthetics, a book I want to explore more in depth in another post, has been Perfumery: Techniques in Evolution, 2nd Edition, which came out in 2009. The book is quite expensive—$100 as of now—but it’s a helpful compendium of articles and interviews written or recorded by or about Acadi Boix Camps in 1978, 1985, 1999, and 2004.

Since the whole list of the ingredients in my sandalwood is rather long, I’ll give some highlights.

I included Javanol, which is very long-lasting and will help prolong the drydown. Iso e super contributes an almost violet (methyl ionone) note which will help link the woods with the iris accord. Bicyclononalactone adds creaminess. At one point, when the accord got too soft, I lowered this. Pistachio CO2 adds a nutty quality while Oud adds a note of precious wood. Damescenone smooths the mixture and lends a subtle fruitiness. Patchouli lends depth and background. A little Cedar Atlas contributes its woody tone. Vetiver and Vetiveryl Acetate give a needed tang; they also increase longevity.

Next, we combine the accord with the main Black Iris accord.

Sandalwood II: Faking It

Early in my perfumery studies, I set out to replicate sandalwood, not realizing that perfumers had been at it for centuries. Sandalwood oil is virtually impossible to replicate. Because few people have smelled the authentic distillate, much less the legendary oil from Mysore India, many sweet, chemical fakes are sold as the real thing. Now that the authentic oil has gotten so expensive, the effort to make a viable copy has intensified. 

While years ago, I was working with exciting combinations of immortelle absolute and green vetiver, I’ve since gotten more sophisticated. Having spent a small fortune on compounds and naturals, I now have hundreds of ingredients and yet still struggle to make an accurate sandalwood. But, while I probably will never be satisfied, I have finally composed a replica that pleases me. At least for the moment.

Now, we get heavily into synthetics.

 The experiment began with mysantol—woody and resin-like, soft and accessible, unlike some sandalwood chemicals that quickly tire the nose. Mysantol has a delightful green note, like that of the natural wood, but the note dissipates quickly, revealing the mysantol’s long-lasting underpinnings.

I added an extravagant amount of santalol. Santalol is distilled from the actual sandalwood heartwood, but is composed of a different arrangement of isomers than the classic oil. It is more expensive than even some sandalwoods, but less is required for an equal effect.

I’ve got to smell sandela the first thing in the morning—it must be well diluted—before it makes my nose go blank and I can’t smell anymore. It’s somewhat sweet, with traces of ambergris, while being slightly floral, soapy, and a little spicy (cumin?). I added it, not only for its fragrance, but because it is a long-lasting fixative. 

Mysore wood, a synthetic not to be confused with “Mysore sandalwood,” has a distinct creamy component that recalls the same milky facets found in real sandalwood. In it went...

There is more than a bit about sandalwood yet to come.


When I was a little boy, I found a sandalwood fan my grandmother got in India in the 1920s. It had a special, very dry, and not completely pleasant aroma impossible to describe. The fan has long disappeared. I haven’t smelled or even seen sandalwood—the actual wood—since.

While sandalwood perfumes abound, few of us have knowingly smelled authentic sandalwood oil, which is distilled from the wood. When I smelled the oil for the first time, I was struck by completely different notes I remembered from the fan. Of course, sandalwood smells like wood, but is also so complex as to include almost every aroma category. It has a special greenness that shimmers over a bed of wood. The wood seems lightly coated with a creaminess and a series of delicate floral notes. It also has citrus notes. It is irresistible.

The best sandalwood is said to come from Mysore, in Eastern India. Sadly, the trees were driven almost to extinction and the production of oil is now tightly controlled. Most trees are cultivated as few, if any, of the wild trees remain.

Although there are many suppliers of so-called Mysore sandalwood, most are fakes. This is not to say the oils we can find, from such places as Indonesia and Hawaii, aren’t plenty delicious—they are—but they lack the complexity of authentic Mysore. They’re missing a beautiful medicinal quality I find in the real thing.

Few of us will ever work with or even encounter Mysore sandalwood. Even if we could find it, the price would be exorbitant.

It has taken me many years just to recognize authentic Mysore sandalwood. I have a collection of over 20 examples of sandalwood from around the world and only two convince me they are the real thing. One, from the 1930s, is from a trusted supplier; the other is from an expensive and highly reputable source. Contrastly, two were junk and smelled of rancid oil after about a year. This would seem to indicate that they were adulterated with vegetable oil.

Next, I’m going to work to emulate this glorious substance with naturals and aroma compounds.

Wish me luck.

Oud Revisited

In 2016, I got a letter from The Art and Olfaction Awards informing me that I was nominated for a prestigious award for my first edition of Oud. Blown away with excitement, I found out a day later that, no, it wasn’t nominated since we had released it during the last week of 2014 and not 2015.

Given such encouragement, it would seem obvious that we should keep producing the first edition of Oud. But again, no, each edition of Oud is based on different ouds, ouds so rare that they must be snatched up immediately before collectors buy them out. We could, of course, acquire so much of the stuff that it would take years and years to run out. This, however, would mean laying out a serious investment in inventory—resources that poor little BPC isn’t, at least at this point, capable of handling.

 Because of all this, I have begun to work on the fourth edition of Oud while the third is still on the market.

 Composing an oud perfume involves a seemingly infinite number of details. I work with tiny oud samples until I find one oud, or a combination of ouds, that has the impact I need, before I invest the scary funds necessary to make a blend. Some ouds are too delicate, or too aggressive, or too expensive, or too funky. I must be careful not to obscure any facets of the natural oud, including that particular ethereal quality that hits one deep, well behind the sinuses.

 Once I’ve established an oud base, I build on it, amplifying each of its aspects with naturals and aroma compounds until it comes into focus in an intense combination more powerful and long-lasting than the original oud itself. Next, the perfume must rest for several months. Only then do I smell what I’ve composed—for better or for worse.

Power and Presence

Sometimes, my experiments don’t project enough, or fade too soon, or don’t have enough power. I get discouraged.

But my recent seminar with Mandy Aftel has given me pause. For her, the sensual interplay of complex natural ingredients is more important than the ability of a perfume to fill a room. Her scents are discrete and may need close inspection to reveal their secrets, but they are no less beautiful, no less affecting. 

There is a difference between “power” and “presence.” Mandy’s perfumes have psychological power. They have presence, nobility, and terroir.  

The other night, I showed my young friend, Ricky, the latest iterations of Black Iris. I had deconstructed the perfume into three test tubes, in which were separated the perfume’s top, middle, and base accords. We got to the base-note complex, and Ricky yelled, “This is it!” I smelled the accord again and more carefully. The complex is almost of violets, except with orris’s ineffable depth, of roots, fungus, and loam. The perfume is discrete. It doesn’t project very far. It doesn’t last for many hours. But it has beauty. It has presence.

It is the orris I’ve been looking for.

What do I do now? Dare I release a perfume, an expensive one at that, that doesn’t hit you like a dose of Poison? I must ask myself whom is the scent is for? A cluster at a cocktail party? A lover? One’s self?

There is much left to be done. I must track the accord’s aroma during all phases of evaporation to make sure that at no point it smells weird or unpleasant. And, it must project and last at least somewhat.

Orris is a divine thing I have wanted to share with many people. Perhaps, though, this is not its nature. It may lie in a sphere of the ineffable, of the evanescent. After all, it is orris.

More Weird Ways to Choose Perfume

A favorite book of mine, Perfumery: The Psychology and Biology of Fragrance, edited by Steve Van Toller and George H. Dodd, is a rather technical tome that dwells heavily on the relationship between perfume and personality.

In one chapter, by Mensing and Beck, the authors ran experiments with groups of women, and analyzed which fragrances they liked most. Not only did the research establish that personality had a profound effect on fragrance choice, it correlated personality and color preference. This led to the Mensing color-wheel, which predicts, with 80 percent accuracy, a subject’s favorite fragrance family.

This saves a lot of time sniffing around to the point of olfactory overload. After consulting the chart, the salesperson can bring out two or three fragrances, instead of having to go through a dozen or more.

At 1:30, more outgoing, “emotionally stable,” people, while drawn to chypre notes, deep and mossy and grave, like their fragrance a touch floral and even a trace fruity.  A customer, on the more introverted side, might like her perfume a little aldehydic. She wants her fragrance to be a touch floral, but discrete, with subtle floral tones running through the base. Those who are attracted to the 3 o’clock position, which corresponds to fresh and green scents, are extroverted and like being with people. At 4:30, those who are “emotionally ambivalent,” but lean to being extroverts, are most likely to choose florals with fruity aspects.

At 6 o’clock, we find the capricious, who, while, often changing their fragrance, tend to be drawn to not-too-sweet florals. At 7:30, a group, again described as emotionally ambivalent, but this time more introverted, is, again, drawn to florals, but this time, with “oriental” qualities. In the 9 o’clock position, are the oriental scents; rich, complex, with plenty of funk and used by introverts who enjoy their own company.

As I said, these experiments were done with women. I have never read whether men fit into this paradigm, or into any paradigm at all, but it might be worth the research.

After all, I want to play, too.