Perfumer Setup – what you’ll need
Note: Look for links to diverse items as I mention them. This will help you find where to buy things. You can also look at the Useful Links page for more. Needless to say, you will also need essential oils and aroma chemicals, but that is covered on the Creating page.
To make it easier for you, a complete list of items is featured at the end of this page.
• Work Area
Let’s begin with the most important: your work area. A perfumer, like any artist, needs a space in which to create. The difference with perfumery is, you will need two spaces: one is where you create and another where you store your aromatic materials. If you have ever worked with essential oils before and are used to that, welcome to a whole new world of scent — aroma-chemicals are way more powerful and will stink up your working space in no time. While I do keep a few bottles on my work desk, I learned early on that you can quickly develop olfactory issues keeping all this stuff around. The scent is so powerful that it comes right through the glass bottles and into your area of work, until you cannot smell anything else.
You will also need a work surface (desk) on which to create. Traditionally, perfumers use a type of desk called a Perfumer’s Organ (see image above). Good luck finding one. While you can make one, I do not find these practical unless you work for a perfume house. Instead, I use an oversized desk, which serves both as work space and office desk. I suggest you lay a glass pane on your desk’s surface. If you’re careful, you will not have any spills (though accidents do occur), but droplets from working will land on your desk and damage the desk’s surface. Glass is practical, easy to clean and does not retain aroma smells.
Because the desk I use is L-shaped, I have all my work stuff at my left (I am left handed) and my computer on the right. I wheel myself back and forth on my office chair. The reason I keep the computer within reach is because it is a major help in your work (see Database below). This is where you have information at your fingertips as you work. I also keep a small desk fan which I use to help ventilate the work area.
I will not go deeply into books here, as I will list them in the Useful Links page. However, for use alongside this site, the book I recommend you should get is The Formulation and Preparation of Cosmetics, Fragrances and Flavors, by Louis Appell. You will be using it daily and as ongoing reference. 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. They have a bit of a backwards way of ordering, but you won’t regret it. Follow the link above to get it.
All your work will be done in glass bottles. Like essential oils, aroma materials are susceptible to light and air and will oxidize with time and bad storage. Some aroma materials will need to be kept in a fridge. I recommend having a small fridge to keep the most susceptible aroma-chemicals and essential oils (i.e. citrus oils). For glass bottles, you need to use color glass, such as amber or cobalt, which filter out damaging light. The sizes of bottles you use will depend on what you end up doing. However, I generally work with 15 ml, 2 Dram, 1 oz, 2 oz, 8 oz Boston Round, and LabStock Amber Boston Round 4 oz bottles. Amber, Cobalt or green, all work. While these links are practical, so that you see what I am speaking of, do look around for better pricing for quantity. You’ll need a lot of these. Here’s why:
• 1/2 oz amber bottles: I generally use these to create a perfume. While most perfumers will share formulas in 1000 gram weight, I prefer to create a perfume in 10 gram weight until I have a final perfume, then I make a large batch. (I will cover weight next).
• 2 Dram Amber Bottles: I use these to dilute certain essential oils and aroma-chemicals in. Sometimes a material is very strong and you want to use it in a dilution (often 50%, 10%, but sometimes even as low as 1%). The 2 dram bottles are the perfect size for these dilutions. I started out using 1 dram bottles and quickly realized I had to make more dilutions sooner than expected.
• 1 and 2 Ounce Amber Bottles: I generally use these to dilute larger amounts of material (such as Aldehydes in 10% alcohol — Aldehydes are among the fastest to oxidize, so I prefer to dilute large batches and keep them in the fridge and they’ll last quite a while). I also use these bottles to store larger amounts of certain aroma-chemicals that I use a lot of. I even use 8 pounce bottles for some of these. These bottles are also good to store the perfume compounds as finished perfume, once diluted in alcohol, and before you bottle them in nicer perfume bottles. As you grow in knowledge, you can make these decisions based on your work methods. We each work differently and as you go along, you will develop what works for you. Start small, then go big later.
• Labstock Amber Boston Round 4 oz: I use these to store aroma-chemicals which come in the form of powder, crystals and sometimes even chunks.
Did I mention weight? I did. If you have worked with essential oils before, you are probably used to working by the drop. Toss that out the window (along with the essential oil bottle droppers) right now and welcome to a whole new way of blending: by weight! When I discovered this, my blending life changed forever. Now, I cannot even remember what it was like to blend by the drop — nor do I want to. You’ll learn to love it too, and here’s why. With weight, you get accurate results, every time. With drops, 2+2 does not equal 4. A drop of Lavender oil is not the same as a drop of Labdanum. Volume is not the same, either, as 15ml of Lemon Oil will occupy different space in a bottle than 15 ml of Benzoin.
Perfumery is all about accuracy…to the .001 gram! Let’s say you dilute Oakmoss Absolute in a 50% solution with perfumer’s alcohol or DPG (more on that later) so that you can later add this diluted version to your formulas. You want to make sure that next time you mix another 50% batch, you have the same, exact quantity. Or say you need 1.200 grams of Lavender oil in your beautifully created perfume. Next time you make a new batch, you want your perfume to come out exactly the same, right? Weight will do that for you.
OK, all this talk about weight, but how do I weigh oils and aroma-chemicals then? With a scale. But forget your kitchen scale, you need something more accurate and professional. Here you enter the world of scales, another potentially expensive maze. Luckily, I have done the work for you and can recommend a scale that has worked incredibly for me for the last few years. However, you will need TWO of these scales. Yeah, I know…but here’s why.
Professional scales used for perfumery weigh down to the .001 gr. That is an insanely small amount your kitchen scale will not go down to. One DROP of essential oil or aroma-chemical will generally weight about .020 gram (depending on oil or dilution, remember what I mentioned above?). A few grains of powdered or crystallized aroma-chemical can even go down to .005 or .010 gram. This is a perfectionist’s dream, let me tell you! No longer will you be at the mercy of the unreliable drop.
But here’s the catch. Many of the more affordable scales that weigh down to the .001 gram will only weight to 100 grams. Unless you spend a mortgage payment on your scale, that is. If you’re like me, then you will generally create using the 10 gram limit, which sometimes means measuring down to the .001 gram. However, once you have your perfume compound and you love it, you’ll mix this in perfumer’s alcohol. At that point, you will quickly reach 100 grams and your scale will go crazy with EEEE (error) messages because you reached the limit of what that scale can handle. The solution is to have two scales: 100 gram and 200 gram (or higher, if you wish). The 200 gram scale will not weight down to .001, but rather .01. It makes a big difference when you’re weighing smaller amounts. If you need to weight .030 of a material, you need to be able to go down to .001. You’ll find that many scales will go high, but not all will go that low. Those two scales will suffice. At least until you become a master perfumer and need to start blending batches of 1000 grams! At that point you’ll have outgrown your scales…and my website….. There are some scales that weigh much higher, but the reason you want to go low is price and accuracy. When weighing to an extremely low point, you want to make sure there’s accuracy.
The scales I use (and many perfume enthusiasts use), are the iBALANCE scales. The ones I have are the iBALANCE 101 and iBALANCE 201. I linked to Amazon for you to look, but I paid way less for mine, so look around. Though on Amazon the prices seem to change daily. Again, you want to make sure one of your scales weighs down to .001 (not .01).
Pipettes, Beakers and Glass Rods
The next thing you’ll need to blend with are Pipettes, Beakers and Glass Rods. The pipette sizes can get confusing, so let me make it easier for you: use these two basic sizes and you’ll be fine. The 3 ml Graduated Transfer and the .02 ml Graduated Transfer. These come in large packs of 500 and even 1000, more or less, and you generally can pay anywhere between $6 to $15 for packs of 1000, so check around. You’ll go through these quite a bit as, unfortunately, you throw them out when used. It is unavoidable. Once used, you’ll never get the scent out. Some people use glass, which gets complicated and can lead to cross contamination of your materials. Once you stick the pipette into one bottle, you never use it in another. Ever. Also, if you put glass into your dishwasher after you used these with aroma-chemicals, your dishes will start tasting of aroma-chemicals. I am not kidding! When I mentioned earlier that aroma-chemicals are way stronger than essential oils, I meant it.
Your plastic pipettes will become your new droppers. They are way more accurate than the droppers essential oil bottles come with, and you’ll start getting rid of the bottle droppers you already have. I ended up removing all of the droppers from mine. Perfumers do not work with bottle droppers and your aroma-chemicals will not come with one.
I use beakers for various purposes, and have 2 of each of three sizes: 50 ml, 100 ml, and 250 ml. One set of 3 will run you about $9 on eBay. Here is a link, but being eBay, it may or may not be there when you check. However, they have been selling these for years. I use these when I blend my compounds. I line a 100 ml one with a paper towel and insert each used pipette into it as I work. This keeps my area clean and gathers the pipettes so that I can dispose of them when I am finished. To dispose of the pipettes so as not to stink up the trash bin, I first wrap the whole batch (paper towel and all) in plastic wrap, then toss the batch away. The beakers, when you need to, wash easily.
I use Glass rods to blend the perfume compound into alcohol, but also if when I blend my compounds into bath gels and other bases. These glass rods are reusable and I wash them by hand, dry them on the spot and put them away until next use. They’re sturdy, but they’re made of glass, after all. Taking care of your equipment will make sure you’ll have these things for quite a long time.
Silicone Spatulas and glass measuring jars are also handy, especially when you are creating bath gels and lotions that you’ll transfer into a container. Aroma-chemicals will quickly impregnate the spatulas with scent and it is not easy to get rid of, so you want to make sure you have a set that you will only use with your perfumery and not in your kitchen. The glass measuring cups for gels and lotions can be easily washed either by hand of dishwasher, so I do not use a special set. Spatulas and measuring glass jars are readily available in any kitchen store or supermarket, or on Amazon.
Paper towels are also a must. You need them every time you create a perfume. I keep a roll handy. You’ll also need a trash bin under your desk, although you won’t be throwing away your used pipettes there or you’ll stink up your work area. For more about this, look at the Creating page on this site. Also, an electric kettle, if you don’t have one, can come in handy. Some aroma-chemicals and essential oils are solid and they need to be placed in hot water to make them more easy to use. Again, I will cover more about this on the Creating page.
Round Color Labels have been indispensable for me. Not to get into too many aroma-chemical details right now, as I will do so in the Aroma Starting Kit page, but I can say that color labels placed on the bottle caps help me instantly distinguish an aroma-chemical or essential oil by perfume family (more on this in the Aroma Family/Database page). When you end up with 600-plus perfume materials, it becomes impossible to find something quickly. By using color labels, for example, a quick look at my many aroma-chemicals organized by perfume family quickly helps me identify Florals by the color fuchsia, Ambers by the dark gray, Ozonic by blue, etc. The link above is to the labels I use, which also come with oval labels I never really found use for. However, the variety of colors on this set was ideal for me.
A Database is something else I find that I cannot live without for my work in perfumery. It has become one of my most utilized tools. I urge you to consider this as you get started, because once you end up with a few hundred aroma materials, the task becomes daunting. I will cover more on setting up an on-line database in the Aroma Families/Database page, but I wanted to mention it here because of what an important role it plays in my creations. Having all your aromatic materials classified in a database can help you cross reference quickly what you need, where it is and what is is used for. For example, let’s say I want to create a Rose base. I can quickly reference this in the database by finding the character of each aroma-chemical and essential oil used to replicate the scent of Rose. I can quickly see that Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol, Geraniol and Nerol are ingredients I will probably want to use. The database also tells me a lot as to how each ingredient is used, the shelf life, what certain authors say about it, in what perfume family I need to look to find it (which brings me back to the color labels I mentioned above), etc. This is the on-line Database company I use.
Smelling Strips, no perfumer can do without these. You will use them for various things, among which the most important is to test your perfume materials and finished compounds. I also fold them and use them to scoop the powder and crystalized aroma-chemicals into my mixes. One day I’ll get around to buying something else to do that, but until then, the smelling strips have come in very handy and I have seen other perfumers do the same. The picture you see here is of the smelling strips clipped on a perfume strip holder I have. Unfortunately, the holders are not easy to find and this one was gifted to me by a Grasse perfumer. The other item in this image is a creation pad I developed and had printed in tablet form. This is where I write my formulas as I compose them. This is also something not readily available and you will need to device something similar for your use. I will cover more about this on the Creating page.
Once your finalized perfume has matured for several months in alcohol, you will most likely need to filter it before bottling it. Some aroma materials leave an unsightly waxy residue at the bottom of the bottle. You cannot use coffee filters to filter your creations, because the mesh is too large. You need a professional filter and matching funnel. The funnel I use is the 13cm Dia. (5.1″) Filter Funnel, Buchner Style and the filters are the Whatman 1001-125 Qualitative Filter Paper Circles, 11 Micron.
To surmise and make is easier to remember all these materials, here is a complete list that includes all the items I mentioned above:
- Glass Bottles
- Small Fridge
- Glass Rods
- Silicone Spatulas
- Glass Measuring Jars
- Paper Towels
- Trash Bin
- Round Color Labels
- Smelling Strips
- 13cm Dia. (5.1″) Filter Funnel, Buchner Style
- Whatman 1001-125 Qualitative Filter Paper Circles, 11 Micron