Saturday, January 26, 2013

Challenges for a new perfumer - sourcing and blending

Natural Appreciation 

Lucky for me to be a teenager when I first encountered natural perfumes.Jasmine was my first passion - in steamy Key West in the mid 1970's we wore it neat, day and night. Patchouli blended with sandalwood took a very close second. There was real magic happening when the perfume oil and flushed skin came together in that tropical humidity. 

Though my mother loved commercial scents like Estee Lauder Youth Dew I never smelled one I really liked, so in my young adult years I owned maybe three or four bottles of perfume; of what, I couldn't say except Jovan Musk. There were rare opportunities to wear them since perfume is strongly discouraged in medical settings as well as in group gatherings such as meditation and other studies.

Amber finally woke the sleeping dragon of two decades of olfactory languor, though I cannot remember how I first got a whiff. It brought me to full alertness, penetrating like a brilliant torch in a deep dark cavern, a scent that I instantly recognized but could not place and the enigma would not let me rest again. Never mind that it took years to fully appreciate what "amber" really is and is not, it did the job. I still hoard little boxes that I acquired in the 1990's from Auric Blends  and that amber is a potent reminder of an intense period of personal growth and transformation at the turn of the millennium. 

Follow the scent trail

My search for genuine rose oil for personal skin care -- just rose and not other oils -- compelled me to make my own products in 2007, and finding a good source for "amber" was part of that quest. Eden Botanicals had great information and materials for their amber products although they discontinued their amber soap making line in 2011. They are my go-to supplier for rose absolutes and otto, orris butter, ambrette, plus many more ingredients. Their orders get to me faster than any other supplier, no matter how big or small the order is ($$-wise, that is).] They always provide sample vials that helped broaden my palate, if not flat out tempt me to get out that credit card again, and with Eden I began a small collection of common oils and absolutes.

When I read A Scented Palace, given to me as a gift from a stranger in 2010, I exited what probably would have been the end of the scent trail for the potential perfumer in me. The book was a real stretch, definitely nothing like it in my library; if it had not been such an unexpected gesture from the universe I might have simply used it to decorate. At first I didn't get it at all; but slowly it dawned and I had the epiphany - "perfume" was only made from natural ingredients in the past, many of which I already had, therefore I could also make perfume. The myopic perspective on scents and natural essences I possessed up to that point, suddenly transformed from a clinically linear representation of (molecule-> olfaction-> limbic system) into a holistic, if not romantic, appreciation of the aesthetics of perfume and everything associated with perfume. 

So began the quest for building a complete collection of perfume making ingredients.The past two to three years have been a boon for indie and home perfumers, others like me who started off using essential oils therapeutically and have started blending natural perfumes. Looking at blogs I can see posts from 2005 until now where we all ask the same questions - where can I buy xxx?? 
Here are some new spray and roll on bottles I got from Nemat

Here is a list of suppliers: 


Absolutes and essences, plus much more
Quality, but small and limited quantities
Absolutes and essences; wooden containers for amber
Fast, reliable, high quality
Absolutes and essences
Their Kailash is an a.ma.zing blend, was a generous sample; many informative monographs and recipes. Also Lapsang Souchong CO2 select, "Smoked Green Tea" – most incredible but now OOS
Absolutes and essences; copper distillation equipment
The source for Palo Santo
Absolutes and essences; supplies for bath & body products
I purchased their last 4 oz of Linden Blossom CO2, now OOS
Essential Oils
Another source for Holy Basil (tulsi)
Absolutes and essences
Source for cape chamomile
Perfume bottles of all kinds
They don’t like to do “one-sies” but OK with small multiples and also have incredible Indian perfume line
Droppers, vials, jars
Never questioned the size of an order and they give 1 free sample of almost everything offered, just select
Animal and Ambergris La Via del Profumo   Ambergris Essentials Both suppliers are easy to work with


My perfume organ is nicely filled in with at least a few drops of most notes, but there are a few things I have not been able to acquire as samples yet, such as boronia, perilla, tea (green and black, not smoked).  Perhaps someone will chance upon this and give a girl a hand... And if I find new sources I'll update the chart and repost.

Learning the notes

Natural Perfume is a very different scent experience from smelling commercial perfumes and perfumed products. Mandy Aftel talks about the way natural perfume is best experienced in this linked article. Sandalwood is one of the few notes that stays true throughout its dry down; the notes change as they diffuse, so Mandy teaches the beginner to take a single note and examine it thoroughly, then follow its evolution over time, attending to how the scent changes in time on the skin.  In her Level 1 Workbook, the steps are carefully laid out and one has to record all the impressions, a precise method of learning some basic notes. Another way that I become familiar with the notes is to select one before going to bed, apply it to my wrists, then smell it as I'm going to sleep. This eliminates much of the judging, categorizing, and labeling that goes on in the other method, in a way that deeper aspects of perception can form a relationship with the essence.What I'm finding with this method, however, is that I don't have a way to describe the note, just that I can recognize it more readily.

There are a few twists to learning to appreciate even a single note, more for an accord or a final perfume, because everyone's nose is different. How sensitive is the schnozz?  According to my husband, I have a very sensitive nose and can smell far more than anyone else he knows; but the more I do this, the more I suspect that I don't have "a NOSE." I suspect I'm one of the 50% who cannot smell musk ketone, for instance.

There's also a limit to olfactory endurance, both in how many scents the apparatus can handle and for how long. Mine is only reliable for about 6 notes in a session, 90 minutes to 2 hours, even with rest breaks and coffee sniffing, although I almost always push beyond (and without any benefit whatsoever). In contrast, my daughter Rachel kept going for hours and seemed to be able to sample everything without any apparent olfactory fatigue.

And finally, we don't all smell the same thing. I absolutely adore Aftelier's Poplar Buds, straight up, in the bottle, on skin, however I can get it. To me it smells like a juicy new piece of bubble gum, and I've drooled on occasion. Yum yum yum! It's so wonderful to me and I couldn't wait to share it with my sister Carol. On that special day, though, she told me she smelled --- wait for it --- sauerkraut. Yes, that's what I said!

Blending is --- risky

There are many great musicians who don't have perfect pitch; in the same way, I'm sure many great perfumes are made by semi-deaf schnozes, too. As soon as a newbie has enough material to start blending, the possibilities for blending are endless. It's beyond temptation, the urge to get crazy and try every idea. Fortunately, though, the cost of many of the ingredients is so high that we have to really sit with those precious drops for a good while before we're willing to take risks. I have to like an accord or blend very much before I'll add Organic Bulgarian Rose Otto (~$34 for 1.8 ml, almost $1 per drop).

So when it comes to blending, you might think that good ingredients means a good end product by default. So not true! It only takes one drop of the wrong ingredient to ruin a perfectly good blend. So say the experts, and so Rachel and I discovered when she was here at the first of the year. Our first 5 ml accord was "perfect," until we added the little bit of bergamot "it just had to have," to top it off. Gak! Like many of my discards that are too precious to toss (this has ambergris and jasmine CO2 to name just two pricey ingredients) it will most likely scent an overnight lotion, since I go through quite a bit of lotion. And I will like it.

A few weeks ago I went through all the little bottles of "mixtures" that I've concocted over the past few years (I don't even want to call them perfume or accords, some were so bad). Only a couple are keepers - one is a blend that Tu says smells just like a Saigon evening. To me it smells like something with green olives, but it has enough merit to play with it more. (Even though it has tansy in it and tansy and I don't get along.) One mixture had to be flushed down the toilet, it was so wrong. No amount of aging can fix a blend that sucks from the start.

Pleasing Harmony

Sometimes it's worth it to take risks and just go for it. I hastily made a blend as a gift for a friend (DPR) a few months ago, and while it opens boldly with a pungent blend of citrus and smoked green tea, it has a short if not intriguing and sweet floral middle that captures the imagination and a long musky ambrette dry down. It's an olfactory feast, even if it is not a perfume, per se.


One of the perfume samples from Nemat is a blend that the perfumer is said to have worked on for 18 years. It's exquisite on so many levels and sets the bar for what I can strive for, for my own creations.

There's a lifetime of blending pleasure ahead with that as a goal.


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