Entering the world of perfume creation is like entering a maze, with a funfair hall of mirrors included! In the Creating page of my site, I discuss the process of creating a perfume, from start to finish. However, in this post I’d like to go a bit deeper about some aspects of perfume creation, based on questions I see in perfumery forums and groups, constantly being asked by people new to the craft, such as how long do I let a perfume compound mature before diluting in alcohol? What is the ratio of alcohol to perfume base? What is perfumer’s alcohol? Who sells it? The questions are endless. Granted, a little research can offer ample answers to these questions, but often I see some who want others to do the work for them and do not spend the necessary time to do research on their own. Many of these questions are quite basic, so some more advanced perfumers will not bother to answer them, because they have worked very hard to get where they are and expect others will do as well. So, in a sense, this is a post that can be found by someone doing exactly that: research and work.
Something to keep in mind is that perfumery is, above all, a waiting game. Patience is required for every aspect of perfume creation. There is often a “wow” moment when talking with people about perfumery and I tell them that creating a perfume can easily take a few years. I like to tell those learning perfumery to print out a large sign with the word PATIENCE on it, and put it somewhere in their working space where they can see it every time they look up. Perfumery is not something one can speed through. While I understand the reasons behind it, it always amazes me that perfumery is often taught to younger people, who oftentimes lack the patience that life experience brings (sometimes the hard way!). But it is part of learning perfumery, so they have to learn patience as well. Not always easy when young. I took up perfumery in my late 40’s, after working in the entertainment industry since I was young, 18 years of that in the music industry. I had also worked with Aromatherapy for over 25 years. By the time I finally delved into perfumery, some growth had already been done, and patience had been drilled in me by work and life. My nose had in many ways also been trained by Aromatherapy. Perfumery took it to a new level. Patience and waiting are part of the fun for me when it comes to perfumery. But why exactly do I say that perfumery is a waiting game? Let’s look into it.
It’s All Chemistry To Me
Perfumery is a lovely word, which conjures up images and scents. However, the word perfumery is really another word for chemistry. In fact, many perfumers have a degree in chemistry, and many were chemists before they became perfumers. Some became perfumers by choice, others by chance. Still, the motivation always has to be love for the craft. Some perfumers went into perfumery because they loved chemistry, and at some point in their career as a chemist they found perfume. I know a perfumer who is such a case. He worked as a chemist for years before being brought in to reformulate a perfume for a major perfume house. The issue was that the formula was not working well in a bath gel base and was changing color. So, this particular chemist was brought in to fix it, without changing the scent of the original perfume. He had found perfumery!
Why all this talk of chemistry? Well, because as I mentioned above, perfumery is really chemistry. Aroma-chemicals and essential oils are made up of molecules. When you start combining these molecules, chemistry happens. Some react well together, some not so well. Learning what works with what is really what perfumery is: the craft of combining molecules to create beautiful scents. When you combine molecules, the change that takes place takes time. A perfume base will evolve (mature) with time. Then, once combined with perfumer’s alcohol, more changes take place. More time. Let’s look at this a bit closer.
I will not go deeper into chemistry because a) I am not a chemist and b) we do not need to. I learned enough chemistry to work with perfumery and Aromatherapy. But I was pretty much born an artist, and like a great many artist I have ever met, I stink at chemistry, physics and math. For those like me, our artistic evolution seems to have favored the right brain process. I am also left-handed, so there’s more right-brain action going on for me. Not that one who is predominantly more right-brained does not use left-brain ‘analytics,’ just like my being left-handed does not mean I don’t use my right hand. On the contrary. Learning the balance is part of the process. Perfumery brings on that balance. I learned as much chemistry as I could handle to work with perfumery. I do know some who say that unless you learn chemistry, you should never create perfume. I have challenged that rather pretentious notion – which in this case came from a chemist. That is like saying that unless you know how to read and write music, you should never compose music! Some of the greatest musicians do not read or write music. I could also say that you may be a great chemist, but if you are not also creative, you should forget making perfume. After all, perfumery is an art. That may also be false, considering that AI is being looked into for the creation of perfume as I type this! A robot will not have the emotional creativity a human has, and could still create perfume. I am sure that is a topic for a whole other post…..
But, all of the above said, perfumery is chemistry, whether we like and understand chemistry or not. Eventually, if you study perfumery, you will learn some modicum of chemistry. And it’s not all that bad, really. If you love chemistry and are good at it, then you have won half the battle. As I stated above, perfumery is about mixing molecules. And the molecules you mix together will take time to create new molecules. Therefore, after you spend days and hours doing research to create a perfume formula, you then have to go through actually putting it together, mixing molecules. After you create the perfume compound (some call it the ‘juice’), it needs to sit for a month. This is actually the time most have found for a compound to reach full maturity, meaning that at that time your compound will smell as mature and final as it ever will. At that point, you then dilute your compound into your perfume base, generally perfumer’s alcohol. I generally use and prefer alcohol, but sometimes oil is used. So now, you’ve introduced your compound molecules into a whole new molecular process: alcohol. Your new dilution will now need to sit for at least 3 months to reach maturity. There are ways to cheat this, but I do not do it. You will be amazed as to how your perfume compound will take new life once in alcohol. I have been doing this for about six years, and I am still like a child on Christmas morning each time I dilute my compounds into alcohol. It is like magic, but one that takes time. What I smell when I first dilute my compound into alcohol is not the same thing I smell a week later, which is not the same I will smell a month, two months and three months into it.
Smelling The Future
A great example of this happened recently for me, and it reminded me of my music work. When you’re a musician composing an album, you have to hear the music being created as it will sound when completed. Unless you are used to this process, you can’t do it well. Playing it at that unfinished stage for those who are not used to hearing the future will be useless. They cannot generally hear what a professional can. Perfume is similar. As you put your formula together, you have to know – usually from experience – what the essential oils and synthetics you mix together will smell like when mature. Most aromatic elements will smell one way on their own, but change dramatically once added to a formula. And that can change depending on what you mix that element with. And then more changes happen with maturity. It is a complex process. And it takes time. The aroma-chemical Hedione smells almost like nothing, but when you add it to a formula, it transforms your perfume into something radiant. Civet smells nasty, but add a trace of that in a perfume and it is glorious. And that gloriousness develops over time. Because of this, you also learn to never throw anything away that you think did not turn out well. Leave it and, months later, you may change your mind. Unless you’re used to how perfume materials work over time, it is hard to smell the compound as it will smell when mature and diluted in alcohol. I call this smelling the future. On to my example.
In this example, I had set out to recreate a classic perfume by Crabtree & Evelyn called Sienna, no longer in production, and one that my partner has always loved. After acquiring a GCMS report (Gas Chromatography) to find out what was in this perfume, I ventured to recreate it – needless to say, not for sale. A GCMS report can only take you so far, especially if there are several essential oils in the formula, because the report will show the compounds in the oils, not the actual oils, and can only approximate as to what those oils are. You have to figure that out yourself. You also have to really know quite well the perfume you’re trying to recreate, and also know what you’re doing perfume-wise. I did four attempts to recreate this perfume. The first one was OK, but I overdosed one important aroma-chemical. I then did a second trial using a few different EO’s, which I estimated were in the original, but that one did not work out. I put it all aside. Two years later, I decided to go at it again, now with more knowledge and experience. I put together two slightly different trials. After a month of maturing, I had my partner smell the two samples. With trepidation he said, “I’m sorry, it does not quite smell like Sienna to me.” Enter the alcohol. I diluted the compound in alcohol and week later had him smell again. His face lit up. He asked, “Is this the SAME thing I smelled last week?” I said, “Yes, but now in alcohol.” He then exclaimed, “This is Sienna!” Three months should finalize the process. I tell this story to exemplify just how much alcohol changes what you smell in a compound, and how you have to know in your mind’s scent memory how to smell the future.
If you keep all of what I said in mind, then you start to realize why perfumery requires patience and experience. Since it takes a month for a perfume compound to mature, and then three months in alcohol to mature again, you’re now looking at four months. But I skipped over a step. Generally, I like to create a compound and then dilute it into alcohol, but I do not want to waste perfumer’s alcohol, so I dilute only a few milligrams for testing. I generally will test a compound in alcohol by creating a 2 ml. sample, which I put into a spray sample vial. In this case, should three months later the compound turn out not to be what I had in mind, I have not wasted too much alcohol and I can go back to work, reformulating my original compound. If, however, the perfume is what I want, then I dilute the larger, final batch. That takes an additional three months. So, now we’re looking at 7 months from start to finish. You’ve now just spent more than half a year on a perfume!
Patience, Work And Due Diligence Pay Off
In perfumery forums and groups, I have seen people new at this jump in and lament that their lovely compound no longer smells good in alcohol. Yet, they have only waited a month after they diluted their compound into the alcohol, and their compound had only matured two weeks instead of a month. Not enough time for either compound or perfume maturity. But I then see other people jump in with misinformation, such as: “You may want to reformulate it,” or “Have you tried to use oil as a base instead?” or “Have you tried a different alcohol, maybe yours went bad.” Based on the lack of information presented by all those who made suggestions without proper research, there goes the perfumer, tail between his legs, to reformulate what was possibly a well formulated compound to begin with. Some research would have saved the beginning perfumer some time and disappointment. The simple answer to his dilemma was: the compound was not mature enough and neither was the compound’s alcohol dilution. And much of the dilemma stemmed from lack of patience and research.
When I started studying perfumery, I spent the first year on research, learning my materials, learning procedure, keeping an open mind, and making mistakes. But because I did do a lot of research, looking back, I realize that I made less mistakes and saved myself from making more costly ones. If I look back now and ask myself ‘would I do it differently’ the answer would be: no. I took my time, did a lot of reading, research and experimenting, and also listened to those who knew what they were doing. And four years into it, with more than 25 years of Aromatherapy behind me, I still consider myself a beginner – the world of aroma-chemicals is a whole new world. But at this point I am able to say I have created several perfumes that have turned out lovely.
At the beginning of this post, I posed several questions. I have covered the one regarding the time it takes for a compound to mature, and then to mature once again after the dilution in perfumer’s alcohol. But what exactly is perfumer’s alcohol? It is actually a special formulation designed as a base for perfumes. You can find out more here, but let’s just say is it high proof alcohol with other ingredients added to make it undrinkable. In one case you can find perfumer’s alcohol to be 200 proof SDA 40-B, 99.88% Ethanol and .12% t-butyl alcohol. You can find resources in my Useful Links page, or in the USA get perfumer’s alcohol from Creating Perfume.
Another question at the beginning of this post was in regards to compound to alcohol ratio. I covered this in my Creating page, but I will add it here again. There is a basic rule as to what constitutes Eau de Cologne, Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, and Parfum. The concentrations (ratio perfume compound to alcohol) are as follows. These are by all means, not written in stone because it depends on what the compound is made up of:
Eau de Cologne (EDC): Has a much lower concentration of fragrance than other types of perfume. EDC generally has a 2% to 4% percent concentration of fragrance and a high concentration of alcohol. It is cheaper than other types of fragrance and the scent will only lasts for up to two hours.
Eau de Toilette (EDT): has a fragrance concentration of between 5% and 15%. It is cheaper than eau de parfum and is one of the most popular types of fragrances.
Eau de Parfum (EDP): the next highest concentration of fragrance. EDP generally has a fragrance concentration of between 15% and 20%. On average, eau de parfum will last for four to five hours. It is also generally less expensive that parfum. Eau de parfum is one of the most common fragrance types and is suitable for everyday wear.
Parfum: also known as extrait de parfum or pure perfume, has the highest fragrance concentration. Parfum will contain anywhere from 15% to 40% fragrance, however concentration is generally between 20% to 30% for most parfums. Of all scents, parfums last the longest; usually six to eight hours. Parfum generally also commands the highest price of all the fragrance types due to the high concentration of fragrance.
Perfumery is an amazing craft, and one worth the time and patience it takes to develop. I hope this answers some questions you may have, clarify others and encourage you to develop your own perfumes in a happy, positive way!