As always, my posts are meant for those getting started on the perfumery journey in the hopes that I can help save some time and headaches, providing answers to basic questions most of us have when taking up such complex enterprise.  For the most part, those who are a bit more advanced will already know most of this, but in the beginning this is all new and confusing.  Perfumery can take many years to master, and it is an ever-learning journey, but it all starts with the first sniff.

During my first year, I had a tremendous amount of questions (I still do and I’m sure always will), but rather than push my way into every forum and blog asking people for answers, I stood back, watched, listened, researched, read all I could, and realized the answers to many of my questions were available with some basic effort  — and sometimes not so basic.  And other questions were answered by hands-on practice and experimenting.  Because I am an introvert and I am not generally a joiner, I was not about to go friending everyone I could who was involved in perfumery so that I could get quick answers. Also, as a long-time professional musician working in the music industry, I have had my share of people willing to cut corners at my expense, so I was not about to do that to someone else.  I sometimes see people join perfumery groups and within the first hour lambast everyone with basic questions for answers that a little effort could have gotten them elsewhere (in fact, most answers to those basic questions can actually be found here on my site, and on my posts).  Because of this, many professionals, or those who have been doing this for a long time, get jaded and no longer bother to respond and some, if they do, can be rather caustic.  In fact, some have started charging a subscription service for the information you seek.  Some are reputable and knowledgeable, some others not so much.  I do link to a couple of these in my Useful Links page, but suggest you spend some good amount of time learning hands-on before jumping into all sorts of learning subscriptions.  Once you have a solid background established, you will benefit even more from these services, unless the services are for beginners, which not all of these are.

Perfumery is a long journey, with pitfalls, trials and errors, but also filled with much joy, especially for those who enjoy the journey rather than the destination.  The first steps in the journey are not unlike those of a baby, learning what everything is.  It can be overwhelming.  Terms like PEA are thrown around, leaving the novice wide eyed and confused.  In the beginning, you will probably write out Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol in full before attempting to go the abbreviated ‘PEA’ route, just in case tomorrow you cannot for your life remember what those three letters stood for!  Eventually, you won’t think twice about abbreviating half your aroma-chemicals. 

If, like me, you come into this with an aromatherapy background, prepare to be amazed.  All those essential oil constituents you heard so much about, you will now get to smell individually.  Constituents like linalool, ocimene, bornyl acetate, linalyl acetate, geranyl acetate, limonene, caryophyllene…’ve smelled them all, but not separately.  Lavender oil contains, among others, all of the above!  Working with perfumery, you learn to work with these molecules individually to create your own perfumes.  You can take Lavender, for example, to a whole other level by increasing amounts of linalool, adding molecules that can also sweeten, enhance, soften and round out this oil, one that rarely (I’d like to say never) is found on its own in perfumery.  Even perfumes simply called ‘Lavender’ will have at least a dozen other molecules in them like oakmoss, linalyl acetate, linalool, and some form of musk, among others.  Perfumery requires skill in determining which components will enhance others, and which do not play well together.  As you progress, the initial thing to remember is to be organized, because you will always go back to your notes for guidance, even years later. And every day you find out you have learned something new.

I mentioned in other posts about how working with perfumery requires patience.  Another thing it requires is organization.  You HAVE to be organized when you work with perfumery or eventually you will pay a price.  As you learn the craft, you will become a master at writing everything down and labeling even things you never imagined you’d be labeling.  Creating a perfume is something than can take weeks, months or even years, and several versions until you reach the desired fragrance.  Of course, sometimes you just do not get there and have to start again, but sometimes you do hit the jackpot.  And if, after months, you hit the jackpot and you somehow did not label your versions or write down your formulas in order of creation, you may never stop kicking yourself for it.

Because I came to perfumery from working with Aromatherapy for 25 years, and also being in the music industry as a musician for over 18 years, I learned to organize.  You cannot compose an album without each song in it having gone through many iterations, phases and versions.  And you better have kept all of them.  The same goes for perfumery.  A perfume you create will go through several versions until, hopefully, it gets to be ‘the one.’  To do this, you will have to have written down each component, to the 0.001 of a gram (as I mentioned elsewhere, perfumers work by weight).  And since generally you do not just add more of this and less of that in the same version, you have to start all over again if your first try did not turn out (and generally, it will not), and you need to keep each iteration written down separately.  I number and date mine. Below is a PDF you can download if you’d like to use the work sheet I created for myself, or as a template to create your own.

This is where labeling everything and keeping lists and formulas well organized will make your life easier, and it will make sure that once you do create THE perfume, you can recreate it with ease in the future, over and over again.  You will also guard those formulas with your life. I like to keep them on my computer, on a backup drive AND in hard copy format in file cabinets.

Other things you will write down and keep in files are lists and ‘briefs’ you make to create a perfume. I can guarantee you that once you create a perfume that worked out wonderfully, a year or two later you will look at the formula and be amazed that you pulled all those elements together into one perfume. I have gone over past formulas and gone, “Wow, how did I ever come up with using Isobutyl Salicylate in there?!”  The answer to my question is in all the notes I made when coming up with the idea for that particular perfume.  As you learn your molecules, you will get to know how they react with one another and some will become a favorite.  This can be good, or not so good. It’s like a musician liking a particular guitar sound and using it in all their compositions. It can get old.  However, you will notice composers have a ‘sound’ of their own that separates them from others.  So do perfumers.  It is a skill that develops on its own.  But regardless, a perfume, like a song or album, begins with an idea.

Perfume Briefs

That is what a perfume ‘brief’ basically is: brainstorming of ideas to help a perfumer come up with a perfume concept.  On a professional level, companies do with for their clients when they request a perfume to be created.  A great look into how a perfume brief comes to be is in the book The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside The Perfume Industry In Paris And New York, by Chandler Burr.  In this book, Burr describes the full process it took for actress Sarah Jessica Parker to create her first perfume, Lovely.  As I mentioned in other posts, when you first want to create a new perfume, you begin with an idea.  A Summer Afternoon on the Island can conjure up a gorgeous floral, while Fall Woods Eveningcan conjure up some lovely Fougéres.  As you start imagining all the things you want your perfume to smell like and what visions you wish for it to express, you start writing it all down.  You put into it all you want and all that comes to mind, and then start ‘cleaning it up.’   Flowers are nice, but put too many strong scented flowers in one bouquet and you’re in for a headache.  This is where you start combining things.  A Summer Afternoon on the Island can start the limiting process.  You can find out what flowers are in bloom in the summer on the particular island you have in mind.  A Caribbean island will have much different flora than Nantucket or Prince Edward Island. I live on Bainbridge Island, not far from Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest.  The flora here is gorgeous and a perfume I’d create based on this island’s feel will be influenced by what blooms here, and when.  I take notes of everything. And even after I finally achieve the perfume I set off to create, I will keep those notes neatly in my file cabinet.  I know I will eventually go back to it when creating another floral perfume that may contain at least one of the flower imagery I used before.  If my perfume included a Hydrangea note, I may want to go back to how I achieved that being that Hydrangea is a ‘fantasy’ scent.  Hydrangeas have little scent and when they do it is slightly green, cortex scent.

This leads me to the next point. Just because your Summer Afternoon on the Island perfume contains Lavender, Rose, Honeysuckle, Jasmine and Clover, this does not mean you will necessarily be using Lavender, Rose, Honeysuckle, Jasmine and Clover essential oils (if you find real clover essential oil, please let me know!)  For example, in place of Jasmine oil you may use Hedione, Benzyl Acetate and a trace of Indole, just to give the hint of Jasmine.  For Rose, you can use geraniol, citronellol and phenyl ethyl alcohol.  Linalyl Acetate and Linalool can fill in for Lavender.  You could add a small amount of actual oils, like Rose, finding the type rose that grows best in your setting (such as Centifolia or Damascena). A small amount of essential oils blended with the isolates adds realism to the scent, without needing to use too much.

Here is an example of a ‘Dewey Rose’ formula [1]. You can see how a small amount of actual rose oil was used for realism, as well as how many molecules are being used to recreate a fantasy type rose.

Dewey Rose
0.50ALCOHOL C-10
15.00GERANIOL 980 (IFF)
1.00NEROL 850 (IFF)
0.50ROSE OXIDE 10%
0.36ROSETHYL (IFF) 10%

As you can see, the sky’s the limit for your creativity and imagination. And again, you’d be writing all of your research down.  As you learn more, a year or two later, you will come back and look at your notes and formulas for this perfume and you will be amazed at how much you’ve learned since…and will be ever so glad you kept copious notes!

There is a lot to learn and master in perfumery, and a lot to remember.  Luckily, your brain, nose and organization will aid you in this ongoing quest!


[1] – The Good Scents Company

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