Unnatural acts with natural ingredients: experiments in perfumery
As some of you have heard, like Marla, I have launched myself into DIY perfumery. I am neither as experienced, nor as well educated as Marla with respect to ingredients, and am relying entirely on natural fragrant components (essential oils and absolutes) rather than sallying forth into the world of synthetics. This limitation to natural perfume ingredients is not yet an ethical commitment if ever it will be: so far, it is just my way of dipping a toe into the pool.
The prettiest single materials are also the hardest to work with, like prima donnas of the fragrance universe. Jasmine grandiflorum, high-altitude Grasse lavender, Canadian fir balsam, tarragon, and hay absolute are so magnificent that it seems almost a shame to mingle them with lesser glories, and those experiments that do not pay off are really heartbreaking when they do not live up to the heightened expectations that their raw ingredients promise.
Most of my experiments are little more than accords of three to five elements, which will be cannibalized and altered when I build more complex fragrances. Nine-tenths of my experiments involve me spoiling the potential of two or more exquisite aromas by harnessing them to one another in unappealing ways. The other tenth are the lucky, simple combinations that really work together, such as carrot-and-vanilla (my signature if there is one, so far), or immortelle-and-fenugreek.
However, I am fiddling with a few more sophisticated combinations that I think will be quite wearable when they are finished.
Floral absolutes in particular are shockingly easy to be inspired by. A simple dilution of a floral absolute would be sufficient perfume for any occasion where a soliflore would do: provided that you like the flower from which they are produced, they are magnificently lovely. Accordingly, I have been playing largely with absolutes of jasmine and orange blossoms.
I have one perfume that is nearly finished: I made alterations to its balance last night and am waiting for it to mature before I adjudge how finished it really is. I am a big fan of facetious working titles, and its working title is “all this used to be orange fields”– which is what I say when I'm feeling or pretending to be querulous about changes in the world, since I have returned to the region of coastal California where I was raised and found it very much altered.
As one might predict from the playful working title, it's a fragrance based on the magnificent contrast between birch tar (breathtakingly smoky, slightly tarry), juicy tangerine (which is a stunningly pretty citrus, even on my citrus-hating skin), and orange blossoms (sweet, creamy, divinely fragrant, with a sappy bitter green undertone). My goal has been to connect, unify, and magnify these disparate aromas, but it was a hollow contrast until my partner suggested I balance it with an austere touch of spice. Even before maturation, it was breathing with new life last night, and wears beautifully on the skin, drying down into cuddly, slightly incense-like warmth only barely kissed by smoke, and clasped by the ghostly trace of soft orange blossoms.
I am pleased, but it almost certainly needs a little more work. Overall, if I were to change it, I might give it a woodier and drier aspect to offset its sweet creaminess. Yet there is something tender about that very sweetness, and I am loath to lose that mood.
The other promising scent I am working on is the "bold black vertical slash" built to emphasize the sizzle of black pepper that I have described elsewhere. It was inspired by my stylish friend Jes and her love for things antiquarian and unconventional. (Also, she asked if perfume could be based on black pepper – inspiration doesn’t get more direct than that!) I cannot wait to bring this scent to its full potential, as the preliminary rough blend is pleasingly dry and vivid. Rooty vetiver is the center of this composition; I am doing my best to emphasize its wild and earthy depths, rather than to favoring its more usual aspect, the ethereal, almost citrus-zest freshness that I love so much in Sel de Vetiver. We shall see. For now, it’s very early to tell how this one will develop.
Perfumery is an easy hobby to love, and one that intrigues (and sometimes horrifies) one’s friends. I am having the time of my life. Like all my favorite hobbies, it is best taken in intense, relatively brief doses, punctuated by frenzies of washing-up, and separated by hours of obsessive brooding and daydreaming. Scents are my passion, as I know they are yours, and I hope to create something really beautiful. Wish me luck!
Image source, casavella.co.uk.