One of the questions I'm asked most is how I got into studying perfumery, and how one might find themselves a student of the subject. It's true, finding perfumery classes is hard. It seems like almost every craft has a host of classes in any city you could join, except this. The industry is just such that most perfumes are made at large corporate companies by a handful of fine fragrance perfumers. For those of us out here doing our own thing, we've either followed an untraditional educational path or are self-taught.
For my part, I started my perfumery education by taking natural perfume and aromatherapy classes in NYC. In this way I got to know the essential oils and absolutes of flowers, bark, leaves, and other plant parts. I'll never forget the first time I walked into a natural perfume class. Small glass bottles were lined up along an organ, and as we opened each one and inhaled it was like a whole world was being conjured in my mind. That evening quite literally changed my life.
Craving a more structured and traditional perfume education, I eventually applied to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, one of two independently-operated training programs for aspiring perfumers. But not everyone is at a place in their life where they can move to another country for a year or more, so for those of you, I am sharing my advice on how to get started along the path of perfumery, such a magical art and science.
There are three books I recommend:
Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent illuminates the inner workings of the corporate perfume industry by following the ideation to launch of two big fragrances: Hermes's Un Jardin sur le Nil and Sarah Jessica Parker and Coty's Lovely (which I secretly love).
Mandy Aftel is a San Francisco based natural perfumer. She so lovingly writes about the wonder of natural ingredients in Essence and Alchemy and you get totally swept up in the amazing history of perfume she evokes. I don't know if I read this in her book or not but this is as good a place as any to share. Cleopatra would douse the sails of her ships in perfume so that you could smell them coming along the wind long before you could see them. Queen!
The third book is by Jean Claude Ellena, the former in-house perfumer at Hermes. His minimal approach to perfume and expertise really shine in his book, simply titled Perfume. It's nice to read something by a perfumer, as it helps you realize that perfumers are very much artists.
In addition to reading and taking classes where and when you can, I recommend studying perfumes on the market. I love going to stores and smelling what's new, then coming back and reading reviews. With practice you'll be able to pick out the notes yourself. In a specialty shop, there may be someone there who can give you background on the perfume. It's all about passion. Where there is passion, knowledge will come.
Photos from my time in Grasse, France.
One chilly night a couple of months ago, the gorgeous Padma Lakshmi came by our studio to get a crash course in perfume making. Tazo is debuting a new chai tea latte and who better to be their spokeswoman than Padma, who grew up drinking her grandmother's chai every day. We smelled everything from Japanese yuzu citrus to fresh jasmine together, talking about how flavors and scents meld to concoct fragrant recipes. Take a peek at our video above!
Recently David Plotz from Slate came by to interview me for another installation of his series "What do you do all day?". I was nervous to listen at first (isn't it nerve-wracking to hear your own voice?) but I have to say, I'm proud! I kept my cool. Thanks Slate for coming in and asking such interesting questions about small-batch perfume making. Give a listen below:
It's been a while but we're back with another installment of the Perfumery Lesson series (here are lessons 1, 2 and 3). We've had so many requests for classes and we're hoping to host some later this year. I think I may have found a venue!
In the meantime, someone asked: I am starting to build a "library" of perfumery materials. What do you recommend in terms of building a good base of natural raw materials?
A lot of perfumers can agree that natural materials are the starting point and inspiration behind a fragrance. Perfumes are always described in terms of their natural ingredients, and copywriters rarely romanticize synthetic ingredients (have you ever heard anyone wax poetic about calone or ethylene brassylate?).
Building your own library of materials is a hobby akin to collecting. I think it's nice to gather materials a few at a time, smell them and live with them, and then purchase more and repeat this process. Each natural ingredient is so completely different and remember too, that the country of origin or species can be a huge factor (take as examples Haitian vetiver vs Indonesian vetiver, or cedarwood from Virginia, Texas and Morocco). It's important to be able to distinguish the subtle nuances between each smell, as this familiarity with the raw materials is what starts you on the path to becoming a perfumer.
My advice would be to get your hands on as many natural ingredients as you can. Eventually you will have your own particular palette, culled from your favorites. But keep in mind too, that beyond the initial gut reaction of "I like" or "I don't like," that each ingredient is a tool, and can be used in your formulations to enhance, spike and change an overall impression.
Here are some raw materials to get your mind jogging: vanilla absolute from Madagascar, French basil, birch tar oil, Iranium galbanum, Indian jasmine, cinnamon from Ceylon, Brazilian pink pepper oil, ginger CO2, Australian sandalwood, lemongrass, lime essential oil, Bulgarian rose, American peppermint, Iris butter, Italian neroli, Egyptian geranium, coriander seed....
Top photo: MCMC Fragrances studio / Bottom two photos via Strange Invisible Perfumes
Imagine the way all of those roses smell when the bags have been opened. The sweet honey smell must be so utterly overwhelming!
Bulgarian rose is one of the main ingredients in MAINE. We use an absolute - a thicker, more concentrated version in which the oil gives it a waxy texture. There are some lemon-y top notes to the Bulgarian rose and I prefer this rose to others because of the powdery finish and soft trail it leaves.
Olfactive families are groupings of ingredients into broad categories. There are about 1,500 ingredients that a perfumer can choose from, and grouping them into olfactive families helps to identify, memorize, and understand them.
There are a few different models of olfactive classifications, and the one I learned is by Jean Carles, a perfumer and director of the first big perfume school, Roure, in the 1940s. Jean Carles sorts scents into 26 main categories:
CITRIC / ALDEHYDIC / ANISE / WOODY / SPICY / FRESH / AMBERY / FLORAL BALSAMIC / HONEY / SEA / JASMINE / MINTY / ROSE / VIOLET / ORANGE / GREEN leaves / GREEN aquatic / VANILLA / POWDERY / GREEN / MUSK / FRUITY aldehyde / FRUITY / ANIMAL / MISCELLANEOUS
Under each of these would fall all of the ingredients. For example, cedarwood essential oil, vetiver absolute, cedramber and bacdanol would all fall under Woody. Peppermint, menthol and menthone under Minty. And ambergris, civet, and indole (mothballs!) under Animal. Both naturals and synthetics can be categorized in this olfactive family chart.
Photo of perfumer Edmond Roudnitska from The Perfume Magazine.
When I first got started in perfumery, I set up a mini makeshift lab at home. I really didn't know what I was doing so I guessed at a lot of things. It makes me smile to think back on those days - for the most part my intuition was pretty good. But there were also some big mistakes I was making. What follows is a list of a few tools needed for setting up your own simple lab at home so that with just a few easily found things, you can start dabbling in perfume! Some of these might not make total sense yet - that's okay. Soon I'll do a lesson on a creating a basic mixture and this equipment will come into play.
Pipettes / Though it's not the most environmentally friendly option, I do recommend disposable plastic pipettes. You'll use these when you're mixing a formula. Use one pipette per ingredient. Dipping into one ingredient and then using the same equipment for another will contaminate what are really delicate pure raw materials.
Digital scale / Digital scales are not very expensive and way more accurate than counting drops. I recommend one that has a readability of 0.01g for when you want to be really precise. Ohaus is a reputable brand and is available through Lab-Depot.
Perfumer's Alcohol / Perfumer's Alcohol is very high proof - 190 or 200 proof to be exact. This will give your formula the greatest clarity of scent, and help to preserve it. Though you'll need a special permit to purchase large amounts, Save on Scents offers Perfumer's Alcohol at a reasonable price for the hobbyist.
Glass bottles / Each mixture that you make should be contained in a fresh and brand new glass bottle. For practice, I use clear 1 oz bottles like the ones offered at SKS.
Fragrance strips / To test each fragrance you make.
Raw Materials / This is the technical term for ingredients. I believe there are about 1,500 raw materials potentially available to the perfumer. Gathering ingredients to play with represents the biggest investment into perfume. I recommend starting with 20 ingredients, then building to 50, then 100, then 300, and eventually 500. Don't worry though, as you can take this at your own pace. 20 ingredients is more than enough to start a complex mixture, and anyway, you'll really want to memorize these scents as you go along.
There are natural and synthetic raw materials. Natural ingredients can be steam distilled (essential oils), hexane extracted (absolutes) or CO2 extractions. Synthetic materials can be found originally in nature, or made entirely in a laboratory. Natural materials can be cheap (sweet orange essential oil) or expensive (Bulgarian rose absolute). Same with synthetics.
For your first 20 ingredients, try to think across the olfactive families - meaning choose from florals, spices, green notes, musk, aquatic. Peruse the natural raw materials at Liberty Natural or Eden Botanicals and see what suits your fancy.
Photograph by Robert Brevdad
I'd like to start a new section on this blog here dedicated to teaching a bit about perfumery. When I was first becoming interested in the subject I found it so hard to learn about, and it's important to me that it not be such a privately held art and craft. Having gone down the path myself, I truly believe perfumery can be learned, and like painting or cooking, a little bit of talent and a lot of practice can go a long way.
When is the best time of day to smell?
Your nose is most responsive in the mornings, so if you can, try and practice smelling in the a.m. What does it mean to "practice" smelling? Your nose can be developed and trained, and when you smell something again and again, you can start to catch inflections and nuances. Be sure to use words to describe what you're smelling - is there a sensation of hot or cold, is it slightly metallic or flat, or is the smell bright and yellow? Another benefit to just sitting and smelling is that you'll begin to memorize the ingredients. When you begin blending, you'll be able to conjure in your mind the scents of ingredients, and you can reach for them automatically to incorporate into your mixture, rather than pulling out all of the ingredients and choosing (though you should do this too).
Hope this is helpful. If you have questions of your own you'd like answered, please email me at email@example.com.
Photo of Anne smelling freshly picked pink peppercorn in Mexico by Jose Serrano-McClain.