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Creating A Perfume

Note: I will refer quite a bit to the Perfumer Setup page and urge you to look at that before setting out on this one.

As with anything one wants to learn, we start by gathering knowledge, but then there comes a time when we put the books down and we get hands on. There is the danger of always holding back until we know more. “If I get one more book and learn some more” or “I just need a few more aroma-chemicals before I can really start.” That’s a formula (pun intended) for never getting started…

The way I learn, which is not necessarily how others learn, is to gather as much knowledge as I can during a short time, to familiarize myself with the new territory, and then I jump in and continue learning as I go. Perfumery is definitely a hands on learning experience. Perfumery schools teach by first immersing the student in a limited set of aroma-chemicals and essential oils, so they can learn to recognize each to their fullest. Students can spend months and even a year learning about the aromatic materials before even mixing one base or perfume.

There are also tried and tested methods, like the Jean Carles method, which trains students by familiarizing them with the aromatic materials and having them learn by combining the materials following a 1:9 formula — 9 parts of A to 1 part of B, then 2 parts A to 8 parts B and so on, until the desired scent balance is reached. Then combining that blend with a third element, once again following the 1:9 rule. I liked the idea, but it did not work for me. For one, when you’re learning under the auspices of a perfume school, ample material is readily available to dispose of. When you pay dearly for your materials, throwing them out is that much harder.

The method I used was to get as many aroma-chemicals as I could afford at a given time, without overdoing it, and then learning their scent. Then, without waiting too long, I started following tried and tested formulas. The book I recommend you should get is The Formulation and Preparation of Cosmetics, Fragrances and Flavors, by Louis Appell. It is not an inexpensive book, but you will be using it daily. The only way to get this book at an affordable price is from Micelle Press in the UK, and they ship it to you to the US. Follow the link above.

Working with this book you will learn to follow vintage formulas, which is really the place to start. You get to familiarize yourself with some amazing aroma-chemicals not much in use today…which is why niche perfumers are all the rage now, as they are more free to create their perfumes than commercial perfumeries are, and the niche perfumes you get, while more expensive, smell the way a perfume really should smell. Louis Appell offers an array of wonderful formulas, and putting these together will help you truly understand how a perfumer’s mind works. You will also develop a sense for how aroma-chemicals work in a formula. You’ll will familiarize yourself with aroma-chemicals and essential oils through working directly with them in a perfume formula and develop your own sense of creating.

You also want to visit the Basenotes Perfume DIY Forum. Most everything you want to know has been asked and answered there. I do not necessarily recommend getting involved in the discussions, some which have gotten heated in the past, but read as much as you can. Think of what you want to know and put it in the search. You will find answers.

Base, Accord, Compounds and Perfumes

You will come across these terms quite a bit, so it is good to explain them early on. People who work with perfume, however, sometimes use these interchangeably.

• Base: This is a mix of essential oils and aroma-chemicals to recreate a natural, like a Rose, or a fantasy scent like Muguet. The aim is not to recreate a Rose but the idea of a rose, since the natural Rose Absolute is composed of hundreds of constituents and can’t be reproduced. The word ‘base’ is also used for what you will dilute your compound into. For example, alcohol or oil base.

• Accord: This is a combination of aroma-chemicals and essential oils that form the bases of what eventually can become a perfume. For example, mixing Bergamot, Patchouli and Oakmoss can create a Chypre base accord, which can then be enhanced to create a perfume. Many perfumers create bases which they have in had to later develop into a compound.

• Compound: While many who work with perfume will go back and forth in how they use all of these terms, compound is oftentimes referred to as the mixture of all your aroma-chemicals and essential oils which become a perfume. In other words, when you finally create your perfect perfume, but before you dilute it into your alcohol base, you have a compound.

• Perfumes: This is your compound diluted into alcohol (or oil or any other base)

How To Create a Perfume

When you mix two aroma materials together, you are in essence performing chemistry. The molecules of each individual aroma-chemical and essential oil blend to create a new odor molecule. In Aromatherapy, this is called a synergy. And this changes over time. The blend you just created will start to change within an hour, a few hours, days and even weeks, until achieving the final scent — although nothing is final, because perfumes do break down in time.

Perfumery takes practice and, above all, patience. Unlike with other art forms, where you can add instruments to a musical composition or add colors to your paintings and hear or see immediate results, with perfumery the results are long term, never immediate. You will learn to ‘know’ how something is going to smell as opposed to how it smells in its present form. It is a skill developed over time, after working with these aromatic materials over and over again and failing a few times. You will also learn that a specific material that smells bad to you on its own, will smell delightful in a perfume blend. Some beginners tend to not want to work with aroma-chemicals they dislike, not realizing these can create some of the most amazing effects in a perfume. Civet is an example of this. Alone, it smells pungent, fecal and to the beginner, downright disgusting. However, added to a perfume in trace amounts, it is magic.

So, creating a perfume means learning how to work this magic by appreciating the now as well as the what will be. If you have worked with essential oils before, you will now find a whole new dimension to these beautiful essences. In therapeutic aromatherapy, oils such as Oakmoss, Rose and Jasmine are not utilized, because of the trace amounts of solvent that remains after the extraction process. In perfumery, these oils are like gold. And now working with aroma-chemicals, you will find the balance required to create beauty in a bottle.

Cloves (Eugenia Caryophyllata)

An example of a simple Rose formula (from Louis Appell), follows. Each aroma material is linked to a database, which tells you more about each ingredient and supplier. The database is The Good Scents Company and this will become your go to place, so you may want bookmark it. In fact, you may want to create a bookmark folder called PERFUMERY. These names may sound alien to you at first, but eventually you will ‘smell’ them in your mind just by seeing their name. And some are not as strange as you think. Eugenol, in the formula below, comes from Cloves and that is what it smells like. The latin name for Cloves is Eugenia Caryophyllata, and Eugenol is one of the largest constituents of the essential oil. If you worked with essential oils before, I am sure you will recognize the name Geraniol from the list below as related to Geranium oil. As I mentioned in the Setup page, perfume is blended using a scale and the weight is the number seen on the left in the table below.

Basic Rose Formula

10.00phenyl acetaldehyde 10%
15.00aldehyde C-11 undecylenic 10%
125.00phenethyl alcohol
375.00geraniol
250.00citronellol
70.00alpha-ionone
5.00eugenol
125.00cinnamic alcohol
10.00phenyl acetic acid
15.00rose acetate
1000.00Total

As you can see, the formula (in grams) is set at 1000 grams total. As I stated in another page, I tend to create my formulas to add up to 10.000 grams. The simple solution here is to move the decimal point two points to the left. Eventually, you’ll learn to do this automatically without having to think about it. So, in this example, after moving the decimal point, your new Geraniol amount would be 3.750, Citronellol 2.500, Phenyl Acetic Acid 0.100, etc. If you looked over the Perfumer Setup page, the section on scales, now you know what I am talking about.

The reason perfumers use a rounded total amount, like 10, 100, 1000, is for ease of dilution into alcohol or other bases later. So, if a perfume they create comes up to 950 grams, they will add 50 grams of an unscented filler like DPG to get to 1000. I started working that way and eventually did my own thing. However, it helps when creating a perfume base to aim for a rounded number, because it keeps your ingredient amounts in check. If, for example, I want to create a Rose base and I know Pheyl Ethyl Alcohol (PEA) is a very large component of Rose, I may start with 3.000 of PEA. Since Geraniol is also a large component in Rose, I may follow with 1.000 of that. Then that would leave me with 6.000 to go to reach 10.000 grams. That keeps me from going all over the map with other ingredients. Eventually I may go over 10.000, but that will depend on how the scent develops. In fact, I recently created a gorgeous Rose perfume and that was how it started. In the end, I did not reach 10.000 but ended at 8.870 grams. If after full maturation the scent is exactly what I want, I may fill out to 9.000 using DPG or another material. As an aside, rounded numbers also make it easier to calculate percentages in case you are selling the product and need to abide by regulations.

Start Small and with direction

Starting small will allow you to slowly build your aroma-chemical stock. The Aroma Starter Kit will give you a list of the most used aroma-chemicals for you to consider and build from there. But you will quickly notice, when following formulas, that you’re always missing something. Eventually you will get to the point where you will have most, if not all, the required ingredients and then you will just add little things here or there. What helped me build my stock was following Appell’s formulas in his book. By the time I had followed many of his formulas, my stock had grown. Keep in mind that I had worked with Aromatherapy for 25 years, so I already got started with about 150 essential oils in my supply. As was the case with me, you may already have an array of essential oils.

Your Mind and Sense of Smell

When you begin training in perfumery, something interesting will begin to happen. This is something I do not hear much about, but it happens: your brain will change the way you perceive scent. As an artist working with music, I know that I hear things in a song that most people do not consciously perceive, yet their ears do. That is what can make or break a song. Same with painting and other forms of art. Perfumery is no different.

The only place our brain is in direct contact with the environment is through the nose and the olfactory bulb. If you worked with aromatherapy, you will probably know about the olfactory bulb and how it works. I could go deeper into how the olfactory bulb works through receptor cells, but this is information easily obtained anywhere, so I will just say that the way your brain receives scent messages is through this organ. The brain then processes the information, which can easily detect even as low as 8 molecules of scent in the environment. In other words, your brain is detecting scent you do not even realize it is perceiving.

So, as you progress in your perfumery journey, your brain will start perceiving scent differently. Do not be surprised if one day the perfume you always loved is no longer your favorite. You will no longer be smelling the perfume as a whole, but rather as many parts together. It comes with the territory, I am afraid. I can smell a perfume and quickly go: “I can smell the Linalool, Eugenol, some Geraniol…” and then the necessary “and I can smell something…I know what it is…oh..what is it? I know I have it among my aroma-chemicals!” This will happen and it will drive you up the wall, because unless you spent years with training and developing perfume, we’re no experts. The scene in the film Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter can smell Clarice’s perfume from inside his cell and describe exactly what is in it…and how cheap it is….there you go! A professional perfumer can actually do that.

Something to keep in mind, as we are speaking of the olfactory bulb, is Olfactory Fatigue. This basically means when your sense of smell has had enough and will no longer perceive certain scent molecules, because it becomes saturated. Musicians experience ear fatigue much the same way, when, after hours of working on a piece, you know there are violins in the mix but you just can no longer hear them. As a perfumer, this means you need to take a break and go outside and smell the air for a bit. Perfumers, however, use olfactory fatigue as a tool. When you smell a perfume repeatedly, olfactory fatigue will start shutting out certain smells. Therefore, you are then able to smell other components you could not really perceive initially. This is used to figure out what a commercial perfume has in it. Nothing you really need to get into right away…. However, you will experience olfactory fatigue often, so taking breaks is important or you will not be able to correctly smell your mix and will add more things in it than you would otherwise.

The Perfume Pyramid

If you have never heard of this, you will often from now on. The Perfume Pyramid is a basic structure of a perfume.

Pyramid featured in Fragantica

Technically, the pyramid also represent amounts. So, your top notes would comprise the smallest amount in your perfume, while the base notes the larger amounts. This is, however, a general concept and not all perfumes follow it, though it is a good idea to always keep it in mind. As you see, a perfume is divided into Top, Heart (Middle) and Base notes. It is not completely clear cut, because some aromatic elements like Lavender can move through the lines and become Top or Middle notes.

Top Notes: These are the elements that you notice first when you smell a perfume. These aromatic elements, like citrus oils, evaporate relatively quickly, leaving room for the middle and base notes to shine through. Crafty perfumers know how to work this to their advantage, knowing that when you’re in a store and smell a perfume, you’re not there long enough to get to smell the middle and base notes and they want you to make the purchase. I always say, if you want to buy a perfume, spray it on you and go home. If you still love it a few hours later, go buy it. Chances are you may not like it as much…or you may love it more. The store’s perfume strip is only so much help, but it also does not tell you the whole truth. Many of those perfume strips are made of a specific paper weight to also help the sales pitch.

Middle (Heart) Notes: These are the notes you smell after the top notes have faded. They comprise a large part of a perfume. Flowers generally are middle notes, as well as many spices and green notes.

Base Notes: The base notes will remain on you long after the other notes have evaporated. Base notes are heavier essential oils, like Patchouli, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Benzoin, and aroma-chemicals such as Musks and Woods. In music, this is literally the bass as well as cellos and other similar instruments that carry the music and add depth. When I create a perfume, I generally will see it as music. So, I find myself saying, “It has too many ‘highs’ and I need more bass in it.”

When creating a perfume, you keep all of this in mind, knowing that when you wear it, it will go through this notes life cycle. This is, in part, why creating a perfume takes a long time and your creation will go through different versions before you get to the final one, the one that works. Again, my suggestion is you follow Appell’s formulas in the book I recommended and create as many of those perfumes as you can, learning and understanding how and why these aromatic elements are put together. You will develop your own sense of what works and does not work for you and this will eventually lead you to creating you own original fragrances. But again, allow yourself the learning process and do not cut corners or speed through it. Take a good year working on those formulas and learning about your aroma-chemicals.

Perfume Families

This is another maze in itself. Originally, the perfume families breakdown was somewhat more basic, divided into Florals, Citrus, Chypre, Fougére and Oriental. The list has gotten more complicated as times changed. Also, new modern families such as Gourmand have come into the list. To make matters worse, each family has its subfamilies. Florals are not just florals. There are Floral Chypres, Woody Florals, Florientals…..the list is almost infinite. Below is a diagram to make you even more confused.

However, this also helps you decide the direction your creation will go, and creates a framework in which to work so you don’t go all over the map and end up with a mess. Which leads me to…..

The Perfume Brief

The history of perfumery is long and complex. However, as it stands today, most fragrances are created by a handful of perfumeries. If a perfume is released by, say, Tommy Hilfiger or Penhaligon’s, the perfumes themselves are not made by them (I believe the only houses that still make their own are Chanel and Guerlain). Instead, the perfumes are created by perfumers working for the leading perfume houses such as Givaudan and Firmenich. The cosmetic or fashion company decides what kind of perfume they want to release and engage the perfume houses to make the creations and try to win the account. A wonderful book detailing this fascinating process is The Perfect Scent, by Chandler Burr. The example he cites is that of actress Sarah Jessica Parker (a rare occasion in which the celebrity was actually involved in the creation process), who wanted to release a perfume and engaged the cosmetics company Coty for the project and what perfume house eventually landed the account — and all that went into it!

To create such a scent, a perfume brief is created. A long, detailed explanation of what a perfume brief is can be found here, but for our purposes, let’s surmise it by saying it is a blue print of what your perfume will be. In the book example, Miss Parker had a good idea of the perfumes she loved and what she wanted to convey. This led to many meetings with company executives and perfumers as the brainstorming eventually resulted in a perfume called ‘Lovely.’

When you want to create a perfume, you begin with an idea. So, let’s say you are inspired by the feel of a cottage in the woods. That is your starting point. You then brainstorm as to all that entails that cottage in the woods feel. Things like wildflowers, moss, trees, dampness, even some animal scent. Your perfume idea starts taking shape. You start thinking that the perfume should be slightly flowery, with woody undertones, a little green and animalic. From there, you begin to look for the aromatic elements that can potentially go into the perfume. In my case, I cross reference through my database as well as my experience with aroma-chemicals, essential oils and my previous perfume creation experience. Above all, my nose. Much like Pinocchio’s conscience was his guide, a perfumer’s nose is theirs. Your nose will guide you.

Putting It Together

Now that you read this far, this is where you put it all together. The aroma-chemicals and oils you amassed, your set up, the books, the forums….all of it leads to you creating a perfume. This is how I create a perfume once I have researched the aromatic elements I will need, created my own perfume brief and am ready to start.

While many will tell you to dilute every aroma-chemical you have in a 10% dilution of alcohol, I refused to do this from the start and I have never worked that way. The only dilutions I do are for those oils and aroma-chemicals that are actually used diluted. Aldehydes are such a case. But this also means you have to be extra careful with how you smell things, because many aroma-chemicals are so strong, they can affect your sense of smell and lead you to olfactory fatigue faster than you can say perfume.

The way I begin is by creating a list of all the potential aroma-chemicals and essential oils I want to use, knowing this will change as I go along. Once I have my list, I assemble my elements. My aroma-chemicals are in a separate room than the one I work in. This is because the scent of aroma-chemicals, especially when you have a few hundred, can be extremely overpowering, affecting your sense of smell and how you work (see Olfactory Fatigue above). I have a tray that I use on which I carry all the aroma-chemicals and oils I will need. My essential oils are kept in the room I work, because they are not as powerful and the scent does not seep through the bottles. This separates things nicely for me. I know if the material is an essential oil, it will be with the other oils, and if an aroma-chemicals, it will be in the other room. My database will also tell me if a specific aroma-chemical or essential oil is refrigerated (see Setup page). With time, you will know instinctively what is where.

Perfume Form sample

I created a Perfume Creating form. In it, I have a place to write down the perfume type each material is organized under (i.e. Floral, Animalic, Aldehydic, Ambery, Woody, Ozonic, etc…). This will help me quickly identify what I am looking for once I am standing in front of 600 aroma-chemicals.

When I get to where the aroma-chemicals are stored, I can quickly determine what I am looking for because I have all my aroma-chemicals set up in alphabetical order, divided by type. As I mentioned in the Setup page, each aroma-chemical is labeled with a round color label, making the identification process simple and quick.

Color coded bottles

Once I gathered all I need, I return to my work space, where I lay out all my materials in a row (or rows) before me, but away enough to allow me ample work space. At my left (I am left handed), are my two scales, for easy reach. Across the other side of my desk is my computer, with direct access to the database I created. My books are all kept at the back edge of my work area, for quick easy reference. I have a drawer container where I keep all my empty bottles (see Setup). I also have a spray bottle with cheap vodka for quick cleaning. I never use water, as aroma-chemicals and essential oils are not water soluble, and I never use perfumer’s alcohol, which is expensive. Vodka is a great cleaner. I also have a box on the floor by me with all my plastic pipettes handy, so I can reach for them one after another as needed.

Next, I put on some soothing music. I want music that will help me focus (so generally, instrumental), and nothing that will affect my mood. The point is to take my time, create a peaceful environment in which to work, and concentrate on what I am doing.

I recalibrate my scales to make sure they are accurate and then I get started. I start with the aroma-chemicals I know will definitely be in the perfume. Because I know what type of perfume I am creating, I know some of the aroma-chemicals that are mostly used and the amounts generally used. Iso E Super is a commonly used aroma-chemical, which has a lovely woody-ambery scent. And it is used in large amounts. I might start with that, since the perfume is a cottage in the forest. Among the essential oils, Bergamot is one used often and copiously, (although regulations have now curbed back the amounts allowed). I may follow with that. When I am using a large amount, I generally will go with the 3ml graduated pipette. When I need smaller amounts, and when the aroma-chemical or oil is more liquidy, I will go with the smaller pipette. Some aroma-chemicals and oils are thick and need the larger pipette.

Some aroma-chemicals or oils will be solid at room temperature and need heating up before using. I use an electric kettle to quickly heat water, and a pyrex measuring glass cup in which I will place the aroma-chemical or oil bottle. I release the bottle cap a little but not enough that it will come off the bottle. I fill half the length of the bottle I will place in it with cold water, then place the bottle and add hot water to the bottle neck, but NOT to the top. You do NOT want water to get into the bottle! As I pour the hot water in, I always feel with my finger so as not to get too hot, but hot enough. I leave the bottle in there for as long as the substance needs to liquify. Some take longer than others.

Back in my work space, my empty amber bottle is on the scale, which is tared to 0. Taring means resetting the scale to zero, after you place an item on it. This will give you the weight of the material you’re adding into the bottle, without the weight of the bottle being added to it. Using the pipette, I then add some Iso-E-Super to the desired amount and WRITE DOWN the amount on my form. You MUST do this every time or you will forget and never again be able to remember this.

When I am working with open bottles, I always want to make sure to firmly hold the aroma-chemical or essential oil bottle as I use the pipette to extract the material. Then I set the bottle down, away from my arm, and concentrate on adding, drop by drop, the material into the bottle on my scale. Once done, I immediately place the cap on the material bottle and place it on my tray. This prevents any accidental spillage and also lets me know I am done with that aroma-chemical or oil and I am not left wondering if I already used it. This, coupled with my accurately adding the material on my form, will keep me organized.

As I add the drops into the bottle on the scale, I keep in mind that the scales that measure down to .001 gram can take a few seconds to actually tell you the exact weight, so I add drops slowly and wait or I will quickly go over. Before I add my next ingredient, I once again tare the scale to 0. As the perfume takes shape, I decide what else I want to add. At some point I realize that is how far I can go for the day. I need to let the perfume sit a day before I can start adding other things, because the blend will change scent in an hour, a few hours and a day. As the perfume continues, and I add things in lesser amounts, simply to add a slight color to my mix and shape it in the direction I want it to go. It is important that I know what my perfume is smelling like. That takes time. The Rose perfume I just finished took me two weeks to put together, and I was still adding a tiny amount of ‘color’ to it still.

After I am certain I am done, I let the perfume compound sit for at least 2 weeks to a month. At the month point, it is pretty much as aged as it will get. At that point, I know whether I have something good or I need to go back to square one (often the case). However, if I am satisfied with my perfume compound, I will then dilute a small amount in alcohol, the amount depending on desired concentration (see below). Once I blend this, I will let it sit for at least three months. At that point, I will have a good idea what’s what. I will wear it, see how it evaporates, how long it takes and how is smells on me as it goes through the process. If I am satisfied, I have myself a perfume. Next is to let others try it out and get their opinion.

Perfume Concentrations

One question that many beginners have is the percentage of perfume compound to alcohol, and the response is a little daunting because no one seems to agree. In part, the disagreement stems from the fact that no compound is the same, some are stronger than others. However, 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 (but by all means, not written in stone):

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.

All the above said, it depends on your perfume compound. I have mixed perfumes at 20% that were massively strong while others turned out just right. Unless I am making an Eau de Toilette type, I generally mix at about 15%. If you use a base other than alcohol (such as fractionated coconut oil) then the results will be different. Alcohol encourages a perfume compound to truly shine, and it is an amazing experience to smell your compound once it is in alcohol, as it evolves through the first three months. It is not the same when you use an oil base. I have had to use higher perfume compound concentrations when using oil as a base, and only when requested by the person wanting the perfume. I generally prefer to use perfumer’s alcohol as a base, every time.

How to dilute In A Base

People often wonder how to dilute their compounds in alcohol so that they get a specific amount (i.e. 1 ounce of finished perfume). Many niche perfumers will tell you to simply mix and worry about filling your perfume bottles later. I generally will mix my compound into alcohol based on the amount of compound I have, regardless of the ounces it makes, then I bottle the perfume accordingly. I may have 3 ounces of perfume but may use 1 ounce bottles. To dilute my compound, I follow this rule:

Compound Weight × 100 ÷ Percentage of concentration = result

So, if your compound adds up to 9 grams and you want a 20% concentration, you’d do:

9 × 100 ÷ 20 = 45

I then empty my 9 gram compound into my mixing beaker. I then add perfumer’s alcohol to add up to 45 grams. So, I add 36 grams of alcohol to get to a 45 gram total. I always start with my perfume compound and add from there, rather than add alcohol to the beaker and then the compound to it.

Change the concentration number depending your desired result. If you want an Eau de Toilette, then you’d put 10 (or anything between 5 and 15) in your percentage, and so forth.