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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Unnatural acts with natural ingredients: experiments in perfumery

By Linda

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.

Decisions, decisions.

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!

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Blogger tmp00 said...

So when you get it to full fruition can he get some? Please?

12:17 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Linda,
Welcome on board! It's great fun, isn't it? We'll have to share vials of our creations sometime.
Sounds like you're making some wonders! (Or should we have Marina try our potions???)

12:26 AM EDT  
Blogger Bryan said...

I tried this years ago, and I have to say, I quickly became obsessed...what a shock...but alas, life got in the way of my dreams and I moved around a bit...and well, fell out of it. I'm interested in getting my hands on some fabulous floral absolutes...can you point me in the right direction...and can I purchase some of your fab. creations...they sound intoxicating....

1:12 AM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Wow, Linda, your combinations are so creative! Carrot & vanilla? I am so there!

I imagine must indeed be daunting to possess such beautiful essence and then wonder what to actually do with them - I think it takes a certain bravery to plunge ahead. I am eager to hear more about your projects as they evolve!

1:48 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Linda!!
I tried blending stuff a year and a half or so ago . Like you I decided to start off with natural raw materials as it seemed an easier place to start but quickly became more than a little obsessed with collecting eos and
I made a couple of 'perfume-like' blends and the one that I was closest to being happy with was a woody, incensey, slightly spicy jasmine that I made for my mom. As soon as I had blended it (and before the blend had matured) I decanted half of it for my mom so I could keep and experiment with the other half. The only problem with that was that my mom got more of the prettier (jasminey)stuff and I was left with a heavier, more woody perfume. it was almost like neither half smelt exactly like it was intended to smell..:(
You inspired me to check on some of these blends that I'd tried almost a year back but which I had dismissed as not being as good as i wanted them to be...Re: my half of the jasmine one: While in the beginning the base was predominantly patch, now I can smell a lot of the sandalwood and clove..This is sooo much fun isn't it? I love how the scent evolves on the skin(only problem is that my blends evolve too fast..:D)

What medium do you blend in? I use jojoba oil as it was the easiest medium for me to get started with. I'd love to use alcohol but it seems more difficult to obtain organic grain alcohol in smaller quantities.

Your blend sounds absolutely stunning!!! The candanian fir balsam that you mention- are you referring to fir absolute? Isn't that just yummy smelling?

Phew! this was a loong comment but I get a little too excited when i read about perfume lovers who blend as a hobby...:))

P.S I need to start blending again..I hate the cleaning up part,

P.P.S thank you for the lovely post

1:52 AM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

Hi everyone! Big day at work today so my stops by will be infrequent, but I will try to answer everyone.

Tom -- yes! It unfortunately sweetened further upon sitting, and I think it needs some more tweaking. That hasn't stopped me from wearing it frequently, but I am well aware that I have a bit of a sweet tooth.

Marla -- I would absolutely love to exchange ideas and examples with you. I will brew up a larger dose of each of the promising scents and/or bottle samples -- for you and for Marina, too. My test runs are pretty small.

Bryan -- haha, I will happily supply them once I am pleased enough with them to release them for wear. In the meantime, I can recommend White Lotus Aromatics and the Essential Oil company as sources. You can find the former at and the latter at I am sure there are many great places to buy, but these are the two that have impressed me with their speed, excellence of product, and wonderful customer service. Thanks for the encouragement, and I hope that you get back to your hobby!

Flora -- thank you so much. The first part of every session involves laying out my tools and conquering self-doubt as I sniff the beautiful essences in their unaltered states. I can only say that a sense of humor is necessary. I am blessed to have two extremely honest critics -- my partner and my brother -- who sniff with fascination (and sometimes horror) anything put before them. They help rein me in before I get too enthusiastic about a combination just for the sake of its weirdness. Carrot and vanilla IS gorgeous -- and I'm cheating, because I have a juicer and fresh carrot juice is the creamiest, sweetest, vanilla-lovingest item to prepare, so I've flavored it before with vanilla simply as a food item. :)

Lavanya -- yes, the scents DO tend to evolve too quickly on my skin. I wonder if that's a problem with the natural medium? I am typically using alcohol now, but the two times I have used jojoba I have been very pleased indeed with its warmth and the wonderful way it develops... without changing the scents so much as does alcohol. I have been considering switching entirely to jojoba. Yes, if you don't have any fir balsam absolute, do sniff some -- I will send you a bit if you wish. Also... your jasmine sounds divine!

Anyone experimenting with creating perfumes who wishes to work together: why don't we all trade email addresses and set up an exchange/scent hobbyists' group? My address is linda at wegotgame dot net, and although I am a rotten correspondent, I am very excited about trading observations!

10:28 AM EDT  
Blogger AnyasGardenPerfumes said...

Linda - congratulations on catching the DIY bug with naturals. Now bow your head and mourn the rapid depletion of your bank account as you experiment ;-)

May I offer a suggestion that will save you money and give you a quicker idea of how your perfume will wind up smelling? Dilute your EOs and absolutes down to about 10%. Galbanum and really intense stuff? Down to 1-3%. That's the way many professional perfumers conduct their accord and perfume mods.

You might want to join a huge Yahoo group I host - over 1600 like-minded souls. We truly have the greatest repository of info on natural perfumery on the planet in the form of files, links, downloadable antique books on perfumery, and tens of thousands of searchable messages in the archives. Over 1000 messages posted just in the last month. Here ya go:

10:49 AM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

Anya -- thank you for the generous and exciting advice, and for the offer to join your group! You are an inspiration to me and I have spent happy hours prowling your site. Thank you so much for the suggestion to dilute the scents -- I will do so right away and may learn to like some of those that have puzzled me so far.

12:19 PM EDT  
Blogger Vireo Perfumes said...

I have to say I deeply admire your ability to keep it simple. I cannot resist reaching for more notes!
I might have to lock all but three away.

At this moment I with hand on my heart promise not to:
Speed my way through the Jasmine and Sandalwood thinking they will "make it all better"
Go mad on the spices.
Put woody oils in creations as if I were clear-cutting.
Keep thinking that Labdanum and Bergamot are the enemy.

This is a serious and money hemorrhaging addiction!

1:13 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Linda- Yes I have sniffed fir absolute (bought a sample from Eden botanicals) and the stuff is yummy- jammy but green. It is a little difficult to work with though..

I would love to trade observations..(I've been dreaming about stuff i want to blend- I need to gather the resolve and time and do Will email you..:)I need to make up larger batches of some of my better experiments- but each time I sit at my table I feel like blending/trying something new..

And I totally get the decisions and 'should I or should I not tweak this' that you speak about in your post..:)

8:13 PM EDT  
Blogger TrippleJN said...

I relate to "all this used to be orange fields". *sigh* Insert "cherry orchards" for me, although the scent wouldn't be would be grasses, cherry wood, and dusty limestone and dry soil.

I like your post.


9:30 AM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

Sorry 'bout the delay, folks. Things went berserk at work.

Knidonovan -- hee hee! I can't take that pledge with you... it's too much fun being naughty.

Lavanya -- yes, write to me! I can't wait. :)

Jenny -- that sounds heavenly. The oranges are pretty overpowering when they're in bloom or dropping overripe fruit, but I also crave the hot tar of the roadway separating orchards, the dust, and... well, look, the other crops that used to be here were strawberries (bitter green, dust, cilantro-scented sweat of the workers, berry sweetness) and BROCCOLI (sulfurous plant fart.) Of all of them, the orchards are the least earthy. ;)

10:31 AM EDT  

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