This is a question most of us ask ourselves when we embark on the world of perfume creation. I find that the answers are as varied as the people you ask. For me, one of the answers is that since I was a child scent has always been strong for me. I used to recognize unique scents in people’s homes, which later my memories utilized to characterize them. In my mind, the scent of the home and the person seemed to become one. For most of us, scents trigger memories. For me, it was always just much more intensely so.
Later, in my early 20’s, I discovered Aromatherapy. It was scent heaven! By then I also had an assortment of perfumes I had acquired. This was during the period between the late 80’s and mid 90’s, when perfumes were experiencing a new style of scent. For men, perfumes like Menotaur, Safari, Farenheit, Tzar, Polo, Drakkar Noir…. Iso-E-Super and Dihydromyrcenol permeated just about every perfume on the market. Some new, some reformulated, these perfumes were all the rage. But, much like today one can say “This music sounds so 80’s,” the same goes for perfume, and those scents smell of their time as much as vintage perfumes smell of early to mid 1900’s, greatly influenced by molecules like aldehydes and Musk Ketone. Fast-forward to today, where perfumes are either overly ambery and peppery, oud laden, or a bomb of vanilla, musk and whatever the new dessert trend is. The term ‘gourmand’ is in.
Having worked with Aromatherapy for so many years, it is no surprise I’d move into the field of perfumery at some point. That point came when I wanted to recreate a vintage perfume for my mother. The perfume was Zibeline, and it had been discontinued about a decade prior, but she loves it. That experience opened the door to a whole new world of scent. I learned to work with vintage perfumery creation first, then moved all the way to modern perfumes, which brings me to whole new reason for why some of us choose to create perfume.
Six years after creating the vintage perfume for my mother, if you asked me now why I create perfume, the answer would be “Because I am tired of everything available out there smelling the same.” I want specific scents, with depth, and cannot usually find that out there. I also love to create scents that are not limited by business demands.
Currently, the model seems to be to create perfume with less and cheaper ingredients, and charge more. The market, demand and trend dictate what perfumes we can purchase. Further, regulations dictate what the perfume will smell like (reformulation). Even further, price fluctuation and material availability dictate quality. Sandalwood is such an example. In the last two decades, the price of Sandalwood has skyrocketed. Where once perfumes used this material abundantly, alternatives are now being used due to cost and eco reasons. Creating my own perfumes allows me to use such materials if I need to, because I only need a fraction of what a perfume house would, therefore making it more affordable or I can choose alternatives based on what I like my perfume to smell like. I can also find ethically harvested materials, which cost more, but can afford in lesser quantities.
Because of this, one reason to create our own perfumes is the financial aspect. Many perfumes you can buy in a store that boast materials like Sandalwood, rose and jasmine rarely contain any and, if they do, it is in very small amounts. This is because if they use large quantities of these materials, the cost of the perfume would be prohibitive. However, when making your own, you can afford to use these depending on budget. Since you’re not going to be making gallons of a given perfume, the amounts of oils you would use are actually feasible. In that way, you end up creating a perfume that if you were to purchase in a store would cost you several hundred dollars, but can make it yourself at a fraction of the cost. Aside from materials, a store bought perfume price tag also includes expertise, research, overhead and the marketing failure of other perfumes the successful one has to support. None of that applies to your own creations.
This is not to say that perfumery is an inexpensive or easy enterprise. It is not. It is a costly one. However, when you undertake any hobby or profession, you find out none are really cheap. I know someone who loves model trains. Expect to pay! Someone else I know is a fellow musician who has spent more on one Oboe than I have for half of my perfumery ingredients. You like watercolors? Good quality brushes and paints will set you back a bundle. Perfumery is no different. But, as with anything else one starts slowly and builds up as you go. Eventually your perfumery palette reaches a point where you have most of what you need, and then you only acquire specific ingredients you may lack, or that are more specific to your needs at the time. Things like Linalool, Citronellol, Geraniol, Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol, various Ionones, Coumarin, Ethylene Brassylate, Galaxolide, Geranium, Lemon, Bergamot, Ylang Ylang, to name but a few, are items you use over and over again. Thinks like Muscenone and Boronia are more specific. There are things you’ll rarely use, but you will need for a specific perfume. Those items you acquire much later, as you grow in knowledge. My aroma starter kit page gives you a good starting list to look into.
Sometimes you may fall in love with a perfume only to find out a few years later that it gets reformulated and smells different. Or worse, as it happened with the perfume I recreated for my mother, the perfume you adore is discontinued. A company may choose to discontinue a perfume for various reasons, but one of the main culprits is regulation. If many of the materials contained in that particular perfume are heavily regulated or banned, recreating the perfume would be nearly impossible and so, it’s gone. I used to love Crabtree & Evelyn’s Classic Lavender, a scent based on a traditional Lavender fougère. By the mid 2000’s, it was completely reformulated to something I did not care for. But it is no wonder it was reformulated. The original contained heavy doses of Musk Xylol (banned) and the now heavily regulated bergamot, eugenol, coumarin and oakmoss. However, if you have a formula, you can recreate it at will. And so, I have recreated C&E’s Lavender for my own use. This was another reason making my own perfumes worked for me. I can create a perfume today and make it the same way in a few years. I am not subjected to the same perfumery regulations that a perfume house does. Often, a perfumery material that is heavily regulated may be dropped by perfumery houses and replaced with newer ones, but these same materials will still be available for niche perfumers to use. Musk Ketone is such a material. Other materials such as Lilial and Lyral, gorgeous floralizing molecules, are becoming more and more regulated, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many floral perfume made to-date without them.
I like to sample perfumes to see how other perfumers like to express things like jasmine, gardenia or lily of the valley. However, what I often find when sampling these perfumes is complete disappointment. Recently, I was excited to get a sample of a Jasmine perfume created by a renown brand. I was curious how the noses behind this perfume chose to express their vision. I sprayed this on a scent strip and my immediate reaction was, “That’s it?” What I got was a mild semblance of an ambery-jasmine sitting on a vanilla-musk bomb. The latest trend being overly sweet. Not that these elements are not great in a perfume, but when a scent is ‘too much’ or goes from top note to musk in 10 minutes, I am dismayed. As I go from sample to sample, from one brand to another, I seem to smell the same, over and over.
I do not usually like trends, so I find many of these perfumes uninspiring. I can read marketing descriptions of a perfume, making it sound gorgeous, then sample it and walk away thinking, “pepper, musk, amber, oud….what’s new?” Sometimes I cannot smell much difference between one perfume and another. Someone has a hit perfume, everyone else must copy it, and it seems people demand little of perfumes these days to want anything trailblazing. Granted, there are regulations and trends to follow when creating perfumes for a large fashion house. Cost and revenue are — and have to be — the bottom line. However, none of these issues matter when creating perfumes for yourself. Once you make perfumery a business, however, you begin the ongoing battle between what sells, what does not, how much you make and what you really want to create. Any professional artist goes through this and I have experienced it in the music industry for years. Artists have faced this dilemma for ages: staying true to your vision as an artist versus making money to pay the bills. In a sense, this is also another reason why I create perfume. It is art I create for the sake of art after years of creating art that has to sell.
Many niche perfumers start making perfumes to get what one cannot get from a department store perfume counter and then find themselves around people asking to buy their creations. Some like the idea of using materials now banned, or heavily regulated. You may say, “If it is regulated or banned, why use it?” The answer to that question is that just because something is banned or regulated, this does not mean it is ‘bad.’ Yes, some things being regulated can be a good thing and can protect many species of flora and fauna, and your health. Overregulation, however, is rarely a good thing. Consider bergamot oil, which is heavily restricted due to it potentially causing photosensitivity for some people. I venture to say if you live in places where you don’t see much of the sun for more than half of the year, why care? However, I use bergamot and oakmoss (another heavily restricted material) freely in my creations and am yet to have an issue. In fact, in working with aromatherapy I have used bergamot generously for over 25 years, and some of those years I lived in Florida, THE sunshine state. I have never had an issue with it. This is not to say someone else may not have an allergy. I can eat peanuts whereas someone else may have a deathly allergic reaction to them. If I made food to sell, I’d have to abide by regulations concerning the use of peanuts and the labeling thereof. At home, I can have them at will. And thus, bergamot remains a choice material for me.
I am not knocking regulation, mind you, and this can be a heated subject in various perfumery forums and groups, so I generally do not get into it, especially when the subject of IFRA (the International Fragrance Association) comes into the debate. I stay clear of the debates. What I am saying, however, is that one of the reasons some of us choose to create our own perfumes is because this allows us the freedom to express our creativity and come up with perfumes of a quality that one cannot often get in the marketplace, unencumbered by regulation and trend pressures. In this way, I can create whatever I want, not what the market dictates. I am a musician by profession. I have spent nearly 20 years in the music industry and one of the things I fought when creating music was being overburdened and limited by trends. With music trends, overuse is a problem and what was once new and exciting quickly becomes tired. Frankly, I find most music today completely recycled and tired….but that’s another post. The same goes for perfume. Creating your own allows you to be as original and unique as you want to be.
Of course, as I have mentioned before, creating perfume is not easy and not something learned overnight. However, if you have patience and do not mind hard work, trial and error, eventually you will find many rewards in perfume creation. A while back I sampled a vintage bottle of Revillon’s Detchema. It is a gorgeous perfume, and I set off to recreate it. The result, involving several tries and much research, is a beautiful rendition, which contains actual oils of rose, patchouli, neroli, bergamot, jasmine, ylang ylang, angelica root, orris, benzoin, coupled with a host of other perfume materials. As always, when I hit the mark with a perfume, it brings me feelings of great satisfaction and accomplishment.
Not all your creations will be successful. I venture to say many will not. But each attempt will enrich your journey. I can even say perfumery has enriched my aromatherapy practice as well. Through the years, I learned a lot about esters, alcohols and other essential oil components. However, working with these isolates separately was a whole new world for me. Rosewood Oil, for example, is extremely high in Linalool. I remember early on in my perfumery journey when I first smelled Linalool. It was pure rosewood! The first time I sampled Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol it was definitely a rose scent. I knew that the scent produced by roses are composed of, among other things, Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol, Geraniol and Citronellol, but to smell these separately was a delight. Through the years, I have tried to create several types of rose perfumes. Many did not work out, yet a few turned out lovely and became keepers. During the process, I learned a lot about roses. Who knew that a touch of Benzaldehyde (the 99% component in Bitter Almond Oil), would add a special hue to a rose scent? As with many things in life one may not be happy about, I like to say, “They’re all growing experiences….” I see any perfume trial that did not pan out as something that has taught me how to make one better. As long as I enjoy the process and the results, it works for me. And I do, tremendously.
Learning perfumery, as with any other forms of art, can be very rewarding. I love the process of discovery when I set off to create a perfume. The journey is as exciting as the destination. As with all of us working with perfumery, you too will find your own, unique answers to the question why create perfume.