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When first coming into perfumery, one quickly realizes it is a maze and, as with any maze, you can get lost in it. If you have read some of my posts and perused my site, you may have already figured out this is not an easy craft and, above all, that there are definitely no shortcuts.  If you take a shortcut, you may soon find out you wish you had not. But as it goes with perfumery, you find this out weeks, months or even years later, once you have spent countless hours and much money into developing a formula. The beauty of perfumery is indeed that it DOES take time, patience and work, and because of it, one can appreciate the results much more.

Perfumery can conjure up images of sweet flowers, exotic woods and gorgeous perfumes.  Because of that, one of the mistakes some people initially make when setting off into the world of perfumery is to take the ‘base’ shortcut to get immediate gratification.  A base is a formula created to represent a note in a perfume.  For example, you can create a Dewey Rose base, or a Jasmine-Freesia base, that you will later use in a perfume, or even expand that base (hence the word) to create a perfume from it. There are also perfume bases such as Chypre, Oriental and Fougére, which are later extended into a perfume of that family.  The shortcut some take is to look on a seller’s website and find that unique Pink Scottish Gardenia (is there such a thing?) base they just HAVE to have. They buy it and eagerly await its arrival.  Once they get it, they open it, take a whiff and are immediately in love.  So much so that they go on to spend hours, days and even months creating a perfume around it.  And then it just happens that they hit the mark and end up with the best perfume they have thus far created. (It may happen….) 

Humour me for a bit and let’s just imagine, for the sake of it, that after several years you become a great niche perfumer and start selling your products because people around you have started to ask to buy from you.  And that perfume you created is a top seller for your business.  It is now a few years down the road and you have hopefully learned much and now have created quite a few Gardenia bases yourself.  However, your hit perfume is running out and you need to make more.  You return to the seller that offered that beautiful Pink Scottish Gardenia base and, horror of horrors, you find they no longer sell it (or worse, the seller has gone out of business).  Of course, you never knew what was in that base, because rarely will a seller give out a formula.  Your options are now limited.  If you still have some of the base left, you can have a GCMS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry) done from it to approximate the compounds, but you will still not have the exact replica.  One ingredient off and it can change the entire scent of your perfume.  You’re basically up the proverbial creek with no paddle.

Lancome’s TRESOR

From the start, I always wanted to create perfumes as independently as possible.  This is, of course, not always possible and you will indeed use bases in your work. But when you do, I recommend the bases generally created by major perfume houses like Givaudan’s Sampaquita base. Not to say that independent sellers don’t offer nice bases (some actually superb), but an independent seller may go out of business, or retire the base, whereas major perfumery houses have been around for a very long time and their bases are likely to be available, possibly even longer than you will be alive. OK, I may be exaggerating, but hopefully you get my meaning. The Sampaquita base has been around for decades, and Givaudan way longer.  I am thinking there would be a collective gasp should Givaudan’s Sampaquita be retired!   These bases have been around for years and are likely to remain available – reformulation and regulations notwithstanding.  Some other examples of popular bases are Rose Givco, Rose Wardia and Robertet’s Bois D’Encense.  The list is long. Major perfumery houses use their own bases to create perfumes for their clients. For example, Crabtree & Evelyn’s Gardenia was built around Givaudan’s aforementioned Sampaquita base.  Commercial perfumes are often built utilizing these bases and accords, such as a the wildly successful Grojsman Accord, created by Sophia Grojsman for her Lancome’s Tresor perfume and built around Iso-E-Super, Hedione, musks and ionones. This accord has found its way into many other perfumes since. Another famous accord is the Mellis accord, built around Benzyl salicylate, Eugenol, Patchouli, Hydroxycitronellal, and Coumarine and found in such perfumes as Youth Dew, Opium and Coco Chanel.

Some of the perfume houses’ bases and ingredients are captive, meaning that they are not for sale, but many others eventually are made available to the general market. On the other hand, if you developed a relationship with a particular independent seller who promises you the formula should they ever go out of business or discontinue that particular base, why not go ahead? I have personally been given formulas by such sellers.

Recently, on a perfumery forum there was a post about a flower ‘isolate’ someone had purchased and raved about. An ‘Isolate’ is a component of a larger scent. For example, Eugenol is an isolate — or compound — derived from Clove Oil (as well as as other oils such as Nutmeg). Many beginners in that forum flocked to that post and all the collective thumbs went up, and stating that you should definitely buy that from the seller and use it in your perfume creation. As I read more information on that thread, I realized it was not an isolate that they were speaking of at all, but an actual base. I pointed out some of what I am writing on here, about the ephemeral availability of such a base from small indie sellers, and was quickly shown the error of my ways – as it can often happen in on-line forums and groups. I backed off and let people find out for themselves eventually why they will most likely wish they’ve looked into this further. I am generally not into arguing with people, especially those whose minds are made up. Time eventually takes care of teaching us and uses our mistakes to do it. Let’s face it, the journey of the perfumer is sometimes one spent alone, figuring things out by making mistakes. While I do believe in learning from those who have been doing this for quite some time, especially if they wish to share their knowledge of perfumery (not many do), sometimes making our own mistakes teaches us more. The post in that forum, however, was what got me into writing about this here, so hopefully I can save you some headaches.

Various constituents in Clove Oil
Fougére Royal by Houbigant

Even more importantly, I do find that making your own accords and bases is a superb way to learn about plant material, essential oils (EO’s), aroma chemicals (AC’s) and perfume families.  As you start to learn, you discover that an essential oil contains hundreds of various chemicals, some which are isolated as AC’s.  Bitter Almond is 99% Benzaldehyde.  Benzaldehyde, in trace amounts, can add a distinctive note to a perfume. Rose oil contains great amounts of Geraniol, Citronellol and Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol.  Want a Rose note in your perfume? Add these three compounds and you can get away with it. And what is an Oriental without Patchouli, or a Fougére without Oakmoss?

As you create bases, you learn more about those particular scents.  Spend time creating a White Flower base and you will learn much about what constitutes white flowers. And as you create various White Flower bases, you learn what components are the common denominator.  For example, one realizes a compound generally appearing in white flowers, such as Jasmine and Gardenia, is Indole. Same goes with Roses. You can create many Rose bases and as you do, you learn much about what creates scent in Roses, but also about the differences in various Roses. You find there are common denominators, like citronellol and geraniol, but other compounds can make it a White rose, a Pink rose or a Dog rose.

“a compound generally apparent in white flowers, such as Jasmine and Gardenia, is Indole.”

The book The Formulation and Preparation of Cosmetics, Fragrances and Flavors, by Louis Appell, is an excellent source of base creation formulas.  You can easily spend months just creating bases following his formulas.  While the formulas in the book are vintage, it is an amazing way to learn about compounds and how they work with others to create scent.  It is also a wonderful way to learn the differences between vintage and modern perfumery!  I spent the first couple of years on this journey creating bases. I also worked on various perfumes, a couple that turned out well, but many that did not but taught me much.  And a few years later, I remade a few of my early perfume attempts to greater success.  It showed me how much I had learned, and how much there was still to learn.  But I was thankful that the bases I used were formulas I could make again or bases I could still obtain.  I did buy a few perfume notes from sellers, the scent that I could use to guide me in the creation of my own.  Heather base was such a case.  Based on the acquired note, Gas Chromatography analysis, Safety Data Sheets and much research, I was able to create my own that I could use.  And that taught me much as well.

Since I mentioned ‘accords,’ I think I should speak about this as well.  An accord is a blend you make, much like a base, but often this is a term used for a base you make for a specific perfume.  For example, one way to create is to make various accords which together will make a perfume.  You start by creating your Base accord (base meaning not as in the ‘base’ I have been writing about, but as the base of the perfume pyramid, which is divided as base, heart and top), in which you slowly combine two ingredients in various amounts until satisfied, then you add a third ingredient and formulate again, then a fourth, etc.  Once your Base accord is created, you repeat the procedure with your Heart note accord and then your Top note accord.  This is also called the Jean Carles method.  While it is not a method that has worked for me, I urge you to try it out and see how it works for you.  Many successful perfumers have been trained in this way.

It doesn’t help that the terms Base and Accord are used interchangeably. Depending who you ask, you’ll get a slightly different answer. For me, personally, a base and an accord are the same thing, just used for different purposes. What matters to me is that I understand what I am doing and what I am using, and go from there.

One final note (no pun intended) about bases. If you are a perfumer complying with IFRA regulations (and also your own country’s regulations), using bases from individual sellers may complicate your task unless you have a safety data sheet to accompany that base, which would include all compounds that must be disclaimed. Even if you do not follow IFRA regulations (you still must follow individual country regulations), you may want to know what potential allergen you’re including in your final product. This is a much larger, and often controversial, subject I may cover at a later day when I feel like getting pummeled by a slew of detractors on either side of the issue. Did I mention I do not like getting into arguments?

I hope this blog post has helped you in some way and shed some light on what bases are, why they are used and the best approach for using them. Needless to say, there is much more about bases and accords than I can write in one post, and I may revisit this at a later time, but for now, hopefully it is enough to get you to look at bases in a different light and with much appreciation. There is quite a bit of material out there about this subject, enough to help you find your own way.

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