Monday, June 9, 2008

Exploratory thoughts on making (natural) perfume

I received my various laboratory equipment and fragrance ingredients, and have tinkered around with two scents now by way of exploration. While I would certainly be jazzed if they had turned out magnificent, probably the most valuable thing about this process is the making of mistakes; finding out what screws up a scent is the most worthwhile part of my self-education.

Here are a few fledgling observations for other newbies to benefit from, and for experienced veterans to laugh at.

1. Don't overcomplicate it. Five or six essences may play nicely together, provided that they smell nice together... more than that becomes murky even if they are great together. It is possible that some of these "essences" can be accords (i.e. amber, etc.) but I haven't tested those limits yet.

2. Some scents grow shockingly in the bottle. Birch tar (the sticky black soul of smoke) is one of these. So is oakmoss (a subtly deep fungal scent).

3. Dilute absolutes first, and then add them to a scent. The resinous or semi-solid ones may never mix with the carrier completely. And they are stronger than they look; a dilution will allow more freedom to add them in minute quantities.

4. If they say it's therapeutic, you don't want it all over your hands. Wear gloves or accept that these oils will alter your health. After spilling a wee bit of Scotch pine on my hands, my heart raced (and not from the romance)... so I won't curl my lip up at the notion of "aromatherapy" anymore.

5. Don't take anyone's word for it when you are considering how to compose a fragrance. I have been following Mandy Aftel's plan of base notes, then heart notes, then top notes -- and using her proportions. Upon reflection, I don't like MY compositions following HER formulae... she is awesome using it, me less so. I need to cut way, way back on base notes and balance things according to my own drummer, I think.

6. Denatured alcohol smells like bad breath and petroleum products. Why? Because it IS... grain alcohol + smelly ketones (yuck) + petroleum products. This is because they are rendering drinkable alcohol undrinkable for tariff and labeling reasons (and probably others). If it's undrinkable, it's unsniffable. (Think wine in your cooking: you want to add only wines you would drink to foods.) Unspeakable, in fact. And it reacts with other fragrances in unpredictable but utterly nasty ways.

7. What smells great to you, or on you, might smell horrible on other people, and vice versa. On my husband, my brother, and me, any given scent reacts in three radically different ways. The first formula I tried, I put on each of us -- on me, it was interesting, spicy, citrusy (which isn't ever good: citrus hates my skin), with immense (intolerable) lasting power. On Pat, it was rubbery, dank, horrid, with a much more interesting spice undertone. On Robert, it was all bright and alien -- Scotch tape with a twist. Gross on all of us, but differently gross.


8. Have guinea pigs handy. Have BRUTALLY HONEST guinea pigs handy, in fact. You will want their opinions (if you ever come up with something YOU like, first.) You can all laugh together at the monstrosities.

9. Surrealism, not naturalism. I am trying to compose a scent that evokes my adored central coast of California, its wilderness and flora. I have a good many essences that are a big part of that -- fir balsam, jamlike and beautiful; oakmoss, deep and throaty; hay absolute (a really uncooperative absolute!), complex, green-gold and gorgeous; birch tar absolute, woodsmoke incarnate; orange blossom and jasmine absolutes, divine floral crown; golden exquisite immortelle, evoking deer's tongue weeds in the dry hills; eucalyptus, cool and somewhere between clean armpit sweat and mint; candy-red strawberries, zesty lemons, sweet clover, drowsy calamus. To assemble all of these together is to truly, truly get a dose of what I want (with OMG too much oakmoss and birch tar, as they growgrowgrow in the bottle), but it's too much, too busy, too complicated. Next, I will sketch my lovely hills and woods rather than painting them in dripping detail. We'll see how that goes.

10. Perfumery conventions for fragrances are not identical with the originals. Almost any immortelle scent is enhanced with lemon, anise, hay, to pick up its various gorgeous facets. You will hardly find a commercial vetiver without grapefruit. When you build a fragrance, build based upon what you have -- not what you imagine based upon typical conventions.


Anonymous said...

I've recently discovered natural perfume as I have family members who are sensitive to synthetic scents and chemicals. Nice to know there is an alternative to the usual types of perfumes, especially when it's available without the alcohol as well.

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