Learning perfumery can be akin to unraveling a mystery. Part of that mystery is set by secrecy, trends and perfume promotion aimed at disguising perfume materials in order to sell a perfume. In other words, Phenethyl Alcohol does not sell a perfume, but Rose does. One of the most important steps to selling a perfume is publicity, better known as ‘PR.’ Sometimes, PR is almost more important than the perfume itself! Millions of dollars go into selling a perfume, from the actual fragrance development, crafting of the bottle and finally the marketing hype. As with any art, the final product may sink or swim, but not for lack of PR. And above all, one should never know who the perfumer was, instead the consumer believing the creator was the designer for whom the perfume was created.
Before going further, I thought it important to mention that the term ‘Perfume Note’ applies to the combination of perfume materials that smell like something, such as ‘White Narcissus,’ but also applies to the Scent Pyramid. This post refers to the former. I covered the scent pyramid here.
When beginning to learn perfumery, oftentimes one can be derailed by the PR hype. Some people get into perfumery, starry eyed, and eagerly want to replicate their favorite perfume, only to become frustrated at perfume notes that stand for something that does not exist in nature, or something that is not even present in the perfume. In the perfume’s description one may read something like Apple Martini, and then, not finding an oil to fit the need, desperately try to find a fragrance base to add it to their perfume creation. Here’s the thing: perfumers do not use fragrances. Secondly, perfumers often create their own bases unless the fragrance house they work for has developed their own. Oh, and something else…there is no such thing as Apple Martini Essential Oil. Professional perfumers often work with specific bases created by the perfume houses they work for, which they then take into different directions. They can, for example, begin with a specific White Flowers base, and then take that into a direction of their own liking, to create a (hopefully) best-selling perfume.
When talking perfume notes, the phrase that comes to mind is, “I don’t know what it means, but it’s forcing me to believe it!” People read a perfume description that promises figs and, sure enough, they smell figs. Reading perfume reviews on websites like Fragantica can go from nicely informative to downright hilarious. “I immediately smell the figs” one says. Never mind that this individual most likely never smelled a real fig. And I can pretty much guarantee that there are no real figs or fig leaves in that perfume, but rather perfume materials like Stemone and Gamma Octalactone, maybe Maltol thrown in for good measure (and heavy sweetness) if you’re looking to recreate the ripe fruit.
If you worked with aromatherapy as I did for many years, you already have a clue as to what oils and absolutes exist and which ones do not. Technology can over time change that, but generally it is pretty static. There was no Lily of the Valley absolute 100 or 50 years ago, and there is none now. Soon enough, like many, I had to figure many things out by myself or, whenever possible, when someone much more knowledgeable was willing to share their knowledge (not often, and not always graciously).
Among the things to figure out was finding out what molecules stood for notes not accessible in nature. Some things were a bit obvious, especially when having worked with aromatherapy. If your Martini is made with Gin, Gin is made with Juniper Berries — the first clue as to what an Apple Martini note in a perfume could entail. I am guessing a Vodka Martini note could be fun if you consider some vodkas are made from potatoes. Could be interesting. After all, some of the strangest materials have been used in perfumery. Civet and Skatole come to mind. But Apple Martini is what is called a ‘Fantasy Note’ and fantasy notes often follow the fantasy of the perfumer’s interpretation.
The Fantasy Note
Learning perfumery, almost immediately one begins to learn about perfume notes and before you realize it, you’ve also turned into detective Sherlock Holmes. It is all about clues and more clues, which lead us to the perfume note. And among those notes, we find the ‘Fantasy’ perfume notes I mentioned above. These are the perfume notes based on plant materials that either do not exist in nature, or for which there is no raw alternative. The Martini note mentioned above is such a note. Fig is another note. So is Mirabilis. All of these exist, but not in oil version. Lily of the Valley is another note recreated by the perfumers, as there is no such oil. Gardenia is another. While there is such as thing as Gardenia absolute, which is rare and often made by the enfleurage method, it is not generally used in perfumery and the flower scent is recreated in a lab. Other notes, which encompass various materials rather than one, are things like ‘Marine Notes,’ ‘Precious Woods,’ ‘Blond Woods,’ ‘Green Notes’ and ‘Metallic Notes.’
To complicate matters, sometimes even scents of plants actually available as oils are not always featured in a perfume. Just because a perfume description states it has Lavender in it, this does not mean it does. Dihydromyrcenol and Linalyl Acetate can stand in for Lavender. Patchoulol can supplant Patchouli and Vetiverol can take the place of Vetiver. Lily of the Valley, one I mentioned above, is a note perfumers recreate using materials like Hydroxycitronellal. One could ask, “If I can use Lavender Oil, why not just use that?” The answer is that sometimes a perfumer may be looking for a specific scent imparted by Lavender, but may not want the camphoreous or other notes attached to it. Same goes for other oils like Patchouli or Vetiver. Also for perfumers, the matter of allergens also comes to play. If using a synthetic isolate, which is one material, to stand in for an Essential Oil, which is complied of hundreds of potential allergens, it becomes a no-brainer.
It’s about reduction
Something to keep in mind is that when working with perfume notes and bases, perfumery materials will often overlap. Materials such as Citronellol and Phenethyl Alcohol are used to reproduce a Rose note, but also Lily of the Valley. Your task as a perfumer is to make choices and reduce, to put together a concise formula that harmoniously represents several notes, many using the same materials. And when you use a base you’ve created, that base may already contain heavy doses of some materials you are planning to add to your perfume. If you’re using a base high in Linalool, you may not really need to add a lot more Linalool in your perfume formula. It can get tricky, and it can also become overwhelming until your formula is three pages long and you realize that you just went too far. Hence the word: reduce. Some perfumers like Jean-Claude Ellena prefer simplicity. He has been known to create a perfume using 10 materials (although one being a base, which has more materials in it). As he has stated in his books and interviews, he eventually ended up working with just a finite list of materials of about 200 from which to choose, and he rarely gets through all of these. Then again, like a master chef who through the years has learned to perfect cooking and can make a delectable dish out of three peas, an egg and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, Mr. Ellena has mastered Perfumery to do more with less. I can say I am far from there yet, both in perfumery or cooking! However, he does give me a lot to aspire to. Less is more should always be one’s motto when creating a perfume — or pretty much when it comes to everything else in life…
As a musician by profession, I approach perfumery in much the same way as I do music. I was also an actor by profession in my early years, so that comes into play as well when I create perfume. When I work with perfume, the materials speak to me like music or acting. So, for me some materials are like violins, and belong in a special place of the formula. Others are the brass section, while one special material is the concert piano; the main instrument. Some are shrill, some are soft. Some materials are the landscape (or, ‘background’ in acting) the other materials will play on, and some the main character. Some are character actors, which add spice to the story but are not the starring role. In music, this could be the triangle or bells. They add something lovely, but too much and you spoil the piece. I also ‘hear’ a perfume and sometimes can feel it is too ‘high pitch’ or too ‘bassey.’ Combining perfumery materials and notes becomes an art. And as with music, too many instruments and we end up with chaos. A full orchestra rarely has all instruments playing at the same time. However, in a perfume everyone does indeed play at the same time, so great care is needed.
Perfumes usually have several notes working together such as Rose, Sandalwood, Lily of the Valley, Paper Narcissus, White Peony and the likes, but this does not mean all are the starring note. This is where a perfume brief can help, before you even select one aroma material. If you want to build a perfume around Sandalwood, you have your star right there — except, like an in-demand celebrity Sandalwood will demand quite a fee for the performance, so perfumers have found alternatives due to both pricing and environmental issues. But a ‘Sandalwood Note’ would be your starring note. However, you’ll soon find that there are about 20 other materials supporting the star. On the other hand, most perfumes are not as centered on one note. Jasmine, Lily of the Valley, Rose and Lilac can be all contributing notes in a perfume. This is where I like to say ‘think like a perfumer.’ If you want to create a perfume based on a Summer Meadow, you will have several notes working together, from flowers to woods and sometimes even marine.
Imitation, the sincerest form of flattery
Many who start learning perfumery often try to imitate perfumes they know. I do think this is a great way to learn perfumery, as long as it is not the only way nor your means to an end. Learning from well-known perfumes, or established formulas, can help you figure out how others work. There are many talented perfumers out there one can learn from. But one should never aspire to learn perfumery with the aim of copying other people’s work. If you use established perfumes to help in your learning, but eventually set off on your own, then this is great. We are all individuals, and each of us has their own flair. As I mentioned before in various posts, I originally learned by working with dozens of formulas, many provided in the Louis Appell’s book, which I recommend. Finding those particular perfumes on various websites and looking at the notes that comprise them, I started to also learn what materials stood for what notes. And, of course, actually sampling various perfumes gave me a focus. I spent a few years learning my materials in this way. I also found out what materials listed as a note were NOT in the perfume. A ‘Peach’ note does not mean there is peach in the perfume, but rather Aldehyde C-14 or any of the dozen materials that can stand in for peach.
I remember early on in my journey reading a book by Jean-Claude Ellena, in which he spoke about creating a formula in his mind, while sitting on a plane. I remember thinking at the time, “How amazing, that the scent of hundreds of materials can be ingrained in one’s mind like that, without even having to sniff them.” Lo and behold, years later, I found myself being able to conjure up the scent of materials just by thinking of them. And it all happened organically as I grew in the craft. Cis-3 Hexenol, Coumarin, Linalool, Phenethyl Alcohol, Lavender France, Lavender Absolute, Ambroxan, Phenyl Ethyl Acetate…name any one of those to me and I immediate ‘smell’ them in my mind. Eventually one also begins to understand the differences between butyrates, Phenyls, Acetates, Acetones, Alcohols and Aldehydes, and many more materials. If it’s Phenyl Ethyl-something, it is roses. Rereading many of these books years later, I realize just how far I’ve come.
Putting it together
I crated a list with a few of the most common notes you’re likely to find. Keep in mind that these are not perfume bases, but rather ‘notes.’ That means that you use a few of these materials to add a hint of that particular note to your perfume compound, which will also contain other notes along, standing in for other materials. For example, if you wanted to add a fig note to your perfume, Stemone and Gamma Octalactone could suffice, providing other materials in your perfume augmented it (depending on how you wanted your fig to smell). But Stemone can also stand in as part of a ‘green note.’ If you wanted a Rose note, you’d use Geraniol, Phenylethyl Alcohol, Citronellol and maybe a Damascone. Whether that rose is red, white, Eglantine or other species, would alter the materials for the note. Damascone can also stand in for a ‘fruity note.’ Need some smell of green? Cis-3 Hexenol can add a little green grass to your formula.
Below are materials that can help comprise various notes. Not all the materials listed below for a note need to be present to add that specific note to your perfume, but I mention several per note as a tool to use. Also, the materials listed for each note do not comprise an exhaustive list, but simply give you a quick idea of what can create the specific note.
Some common perfume notes
Almond: Benzaldehyde, Vanillin, Maltol
Amber: Labdanum, Vanillin
Amber: Ambergris replacer, Ambroxan, Ambrox Super, AmberExtreme
Apple (Red): Nectaryl, Fructone, Allyl Caproate,
Blond (also ‘blonde’) woods: Cashmeran, Ambrox
Cedar, Red: Cedar Virginia
Clover: Amyl Salicylate, Coumarin, Ethyl Benzoate, Nerol
Fig/Fig Leaves: Stemmone, Gamma Octalactone
Green Notes: Galbanum, Cis-3 Hexenol
Gardenia: Aldehyde C-18, Methyl Anthranilate, Styrallyl Acetate (Gardenol)
Hawthorne: Anisaldehyde, Coumarin, Ionone, Methyl acetophenone,
Heather: Flouve absolute, Elemi
Honeysuckle: Linalool, Nerol, Cinnamic Alcohol, Oranger Crystals (Methyl Naphtyl Ketone)
Hyacinth: Benzyl Acetate, Benzyl Salicylate, Cyclamen Aldehyde, Hydratropic Aldehyde Dimethyl Acetal
Hydrangea: Amyl Salicylate, Cis-3 Hexenol, Michelia Alba Leaf Oil, Linalool Oxide
Incense: Bois d’Incense (Robertet), Elemi, Frankincense
Jasmine: Benzyl Acetate, Hedione, Indole
Juniper: Juniper Berries, but ‘Juniper’ can also stand for Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginiana).
Lavender: Linalool, Linalyl Acetate, Lavender Aldehyde
Leather: Saffraleine, Okoumal, Ebanol, Pyralone
Lilac: Alpha Terpineol, Anisealdehyde, Heliotropin
Lily: Benzyl Salicylate, Methyl Anthranilate, Phenethyl Alcohol
Lily of the Valley: Cyclamen Aldehyde, Hedione, Hydroxycitronellal
Mango: Aldehyde C-18, Cassis Base (or Blackcurrant absolute), Ionone
Marine: Ambroxan, Calone (a.k.a. Watermelon Ketone), Helional, Seaweed Absolute, Floralozone
Metallic Notes: Aldehydes
Mushrooms: Amyl Vinyl Carbinol, Cis-3 Hexenyl Tiglate
Narcissus: Amyl Cinnamaldehyde, Cinnamic Alcohol, Indole, Isoeugenol, Phenethyl Alcohol
Orange Flower (Neroli): Aurantiol, Oranger Crystals, Petitgrain
Orchid: Amyl Salicylate, Nerol, Phenyl Ethyl Formate
Pineapple: Allyl Amyl Glycolate, Allyl Hexanoate, Ethyl Maltol
Pistachio: Benzaldehyde, Gamma Octalactone
Peach: Aldehyde C-14, Damascone Beta
Pear: Aldehyde C-14, Fructone, Hexyl Acetate
Precious Woods: Cedar, Iso E Super, Coniferan, Patchouli (technically, not a Wood), Sandalwood, Tobacco, Vetiver, Vertofix
Red Cedar: Cedar Virginia
Rose: Citronellol, Gernaiol, Phenetyhyl Alcohol (a.k.a. Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol, or PEA)
Sandalwood: Javanol, Dreamwood Base (Firmenich), Sandalore
Tobacco: Ebanol, Eugenol, Okoumal
Wallflower: Para-Cresyl Methyl Ether, Heliotropin, Amyl Salicylate
Wet earth: Geosmin
White Flowers: Benzyl Acetate, Benzyl Salicylate, Indole, Methyl Anthranilate
Yellow Flowers: Ionone beta, Linalool, Osmanthus Absolute