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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Joys of DIY

By Marla

My last addition to this worthy blog was a rant about the “meh-ness” of this year’s avalanche of perfume debuts. I’ve tried about 50 more since then, and still, have only purchased one, Guerlain’s crispy-bitter Laurier Reglisse; I bought this one because it’s refreshing on hot days, because I was at Heathrow and very bored, and because it’s a sister scent to the discontinued Anisia Bella. I was really excited to try Jardin Apres La Mousson, but it should have been called Monsoon of Melons. Don’t like melons. That’s it. Nothing more to write about.

But what’s the use of a good rant if it doesn’t help one look toward a solution? I’ve been using this blah perfume year to learn more about perfume ingredients and have been making a few of my own. In light of Europe’s penchant for making natural ingredients increasingly illegal (bergamot?? lemon?? Get real, Brussels-People!) I’ve begun collecting essential oils and absolutes of forbidden goodies like citrus, oakmoss, and angelica. This stuff rocks! It’s taken about 2 years of experimentation but I’ve finally got about five homebrews that fill gaps in my collection and that I’m proud to wear. If I use excellent ingredients at the highest concentration for eau de parfum, I only spend about $19 per 30ml, or 13 euros for a small bottle. Simpler concoctions without expensive flower absolutes are condsiderably cheaper. And I’ve discovered a fascinating and peaceful hobby that so far has not offended my family (much) or taken over more than half our living space. In fact, they’ve started tinkering, too. So I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned in case someone wants to follow in my anarchic footsteps.

First, there are some good groups of people out there if you’re not a lone wolf in the world of DIY. Yahoo has an online gathering in Europe, Ayala Moriel has begun teaching basic natural perfumery, and Basenotes has a large DIY community. Mandy Aftel and Anya’s Garden are great resources, as are the ladies of White Lotus Aromatics. A serious aromatherapy handbook, or licensed aromatherapist, can tell you which ingredients are toxic and should be shunned, and which have caused allergies from time to time. For example, never put cinnamon essential oil on bare skin…you just sort of learn these things as you go along….Easier to get a good book than to learn by personal experimentation! Any of the people or companies mentioned will have loads of safety info for you.

Second, quality ingredients are everything. I’ve found great quality ingredients with Liberty Natural and Eden Botanicals. There are others online. Most larger cities have aromatherapy shops, which are a good place to start sniffing ingredients and learning all those latin plant names. For synthetic aromachemicals, the GoodScents Company has good deals and lots of information for the newbie. Don’t use fragrance oils- just the pure aromachemicals, essential oils, absolutes, and attars. At the more expensive end, Bulgarian Rose absolute costs about $20 for 0.12 oz (this amount will last ages), and at the cheaper end, a fabulous grade of frankincense absolute will only set you back about $7 an ounce, which should last you several lifetimes.

The only equipment you need are glass droppers, small glass bottles, with either caps or sprayers, some blotting paper for testing, tiny funnels, and perfumer’s alcohol. Snowdrift Farms sells several varieties in the US; apothecary and chemist’s shops often sell it in Europe. Buy some basic essential oils and absolutes in small quantities at first. Absolutes are generally more expensive but mellower, longer-lasting, and smoother than the EOs. A good example is frankincense (boswellia carteri). The EO is sharp, medicinal, bracing, and makes a good top note, while the absolute is pure church and lasts about a century. I like to use them together.

Try simple recipes first, maybe combining just one top note with one heart note and one base note. Take notes on your combos as you may get unexpected results. Your concoctions will change over the first few weeks, as they mingle and age. Sometimes, as in the case of a promising fougere I was working on that turned dill pickle on Day 8, this is not a good thing. Sometimes it works, though! If there’s a combo you love in your existing scented products, such as orange, vanilla, and patchouli, try a few drops in about 5ml of alcohol and see how it works for you. You might find you like your own version better than the commercial one. I love L’Artisan’s Safran Troublant but something in it turns skanky on my skin. I made my own version using natural ingredients and I’ve had no problems. If you love a certain type of scent but wish it had more (fill in the blank), try making it yourself. A girlfriend loves orange with bitter chocolate, so I made a perfume for her with bitter orange, tonka, frankincense, and cacao absolute.

If you’d rather not wing it at the beginning like I did, try Amazon for some beginning perfumery manuals, or sign up for an online class, or a real-world class if you’re blessed to live in a megalopolis that has those sorts of things. And the ratio of successes to failures is about 1:10. Really. And some failures will be truly spectacular. So just make 3-5mls of a good idea before making up a whole bottle! I guarantee that DIY will not only banish the perfumista blahs you will encounter from time to time, but that you’ll also be able to drive your friends and families nuts after dabbing them for the gazillionth time with your latest experiment. And hey, what’s wrong with that?

The drawing is by Marla.

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Blogger Sylvia said...

great post! ive been meaning to try my hand at DIY, but i havent really gotten around to buying the oils/can't afford them when i think about it. soon though!

12:57 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sylvia, you'll have a great time, I guarrantee it.

1:22 AM EDT  
Blogger Gail S said...

That sounds awesomely fun!! Now I have two plans for my retirement, making lampwork glass beads and my own perfumes :)

7:02 AM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Earlier this year I bought a phenomenal amount of aromachemicals, absolutes, etc. from The Perfumer's Apprentice (read about it on Perfume Journal and it turned out to be a brilliant place)in part to just have an olfactionary to learn to better identify notes in scents, but also w/ the idea of playing around w/ creating some scents for myself. *Still* have done nothing w/ it due to lack of time, but you've inspired me to go get them out of my closet in the near future and actually start to experiment.

8:31 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You go for it, Elle! I know you'll create something original and beautiful!

9:35 AM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

Hi Marla,

I have just gone down the same route and am indeed having a marvelous time. Kudos on a delightful and encouraging post!

Indeed, some of the failures are spectacular (I JUST started this a month ago), but you learn so much from one of them that it's almost more interesting than a success. Either that, or I'm sick in the head. At any rate, your advice to keep it simple at first is first-rate: it's amazing how fast an appealing blend can turn into a monster if you overcomplicate it.

I went into this with ideas about what I would create. The ingredients will possess you if you start down this road, and inspire you. Some of them are heartbreakingly lovely in their own right.

You didn't mention the difficulty in care and feeding of absolutes: they are sticky and difficult to measure and will not always incorporate properly with a perfume base (alcohol, or if you don't mind perfume oils, jojoba). Not to worry: dilute them beforehand.

You will need an ARMY of bottles, but they are cheaply available. For heaven's sake, don't forget labels.

...And now I know what I'm doing tonight. :)


10:18 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds like something I could really become obsessed with in a hurry! It would be so great to make special scents for all your loved ones and they'd smell like no one else. Thanks Marla I really enjoyed this.

11:08 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this. Thank you so much. By the way, the original artwork is great, Marla! I'd been staring at it, intrigued, and then reading at the end that it was yours, I was very impressed :)


11:08 AM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...


I think you've set up my next personal great frontier!

11:50 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words, Anthony. "Green Man" is one of my favorite prints.

12:05 PM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Love the artwork!

Great post, too. I've been experimenting along these lines, too. Less with the hope of making anything wearable than with the ideas of sharpening my ability to detect and understand notes in my perfumes, which has worked beautifully. I can never get over how 1+1+1 equals ever so much more than three...

12:24 PM EDT  
Blogger Existentialist said...

Thanks for the informative article. This will surely help a lot of us get started with what is probably the natural progression of perfume obsession. I can see myself now, coming up with all kinds of bizarre new smells! Neat drawing, too.

1:54 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hee. I am an inside-out person, apparently...started first with aromatherapy and creating my own personal scents, and (after some time out) came to perfumista land. When you have the time and the inclination, tinkering around with scent-sual alchemy is a marvelously entertaining enterprise. I whole-heartedly endorse your recommendation to try it, for those who find themselves more than curious.

It does take time, and money, and supplies...but then, so does decanting, right? And when you do it, you can say you "speak" your own "bespoke" scent. :)

2:31 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came to perfumery via the aromatherapy route, too. Though they are as different as raquetball and tennis, there is overlap, and I enjoy and use both.
And my lavender/frankincense combo really does help me sleep! ;-)

2:42 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post!!..I went the same route too- collected a whole bunch of EOs and absolutes..Tried to make a couple of blends- one of them really stood out- a jasmine based perfume for my mom. Owing to time constraints I seem to have stopped experimenting, but I really need to get back to this- Its so relaxing and satisfying..Thank you for the reminder..:)
Nice artwork too..

3:58 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Marla, for some inspiring ideas! I know of several places where I could get the building blocks of perfume locally, as well as by mail order. I would really like to have a collection of essences both for experimenting and just for the pleasure of smelling them when the need strikes.

It would really be nice to have a hoard of bergamot, oakmoss etc. as you do, as a bulwark against all these ridiculous bannings and restrictions. I have been picturing the chemical companies rubbing their hands together in glee as natural substances are banned and perfumers both large and small have to make do with nothing but synthetics...

4:25 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved this post. I've just started blending, and have to agree with all that this is a very rewarding, enjoyable and intriguing practice (obsession is just around the corner, I'm sure).

I've had very pleasant transactions with Liberty Natural Products and the Perfumer's Apprentice (both sites mentioned by other posters here).

The incredible scents of individual notes are just as pleasurable to experience as the sophisticated blends offered by my favorite commercial perfumes. Instead of having my nose glued to the inside of my wrist, I now walk around waving scent strips in front of my face.

9:11 PM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

I've also had luck with White Lotus Aromatics and with The Essential Oil Company -- stellar service and exquisite products.

11:14 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

White Lotus Aromatics has an online newsletter complete with info on natural ingredients and recipes that I've found very enjoyable.

2:31 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done, Marla
Like you and the other commentators, I've been doing the same informally, using essential oils + a good aromatherapy book:-) Quite the best answer to too many "meh/blah/so what?" fragrances is just what you say - figure out what individual scents you like, concoct your own and learn ...

More power to your mixing arm!

4:09 PM EDT  
Blogger Vireo Perfumes said...

I am so glad you wrote about "DIY".

I have well spent every extra penny I have on oils this year. I found great pleasure and madness creating perfumes. I have learned and am still learning the preciousness and precociousness of scents. How one drop too much of ginger or pimento assassinate my work. How one's mans trash may be another's treasure when mixed well.
Cognac can frankly smell like fresh bar vomit at first then settle intoxicating as lilac wine.

The guilt of ruining a blend and thinking of the care that went into capturing the jasmine that now is being poured with other nobility in the trash.
"If I had just restrained!" I flagellate.

People that love scents to an almost spiritual level want to get closer to all that magic that makes a beautiful creation
They can really ascend by becoming familiar with the symphony of notes and how they are obtained.

8:42 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it's really very much like watercolor painting, isn't it? Like watercolor, once you put that color on the paper, there's no going back. When it works, it's brilliant, and when it doesn't, oh the pain!

12:29 AM EDT  

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