Perfumery is a secretive craft. I learned this the hard way when I decided I wanted to become a perfumer. After sifting through dozens of Pinterest recipes for DIY perfumes and countless “Fumehead” review sites, my Internet search revealed a discouraging truth: to learn perfumery, you typically need to be born into a family business. Or you need to work at a huge, corporate cosmetic facility before you *maybe* show promise and get nominated by a colleague to train your nose.
With a little persistence, I discovered a movement of independent perfumers within the United States who were not trained in the classical tradition. Inspired by many stories of self-taught perfumers, I became determined to train my nose and learn how to make natural perfumes. I am indebted to the handful of independent perfumers who guided me through their transparency. In my first blog post, I’m going to explain the structure of natural perfume, and what makes it special.
It seems like there’s a lot of confusion about what is meant by top, middle, and base notes. More often than not, these terms are thrown around as marketing terms. “Chalky base notes of bones and minerals and an undercurrent of static electricity.”…sounds cool, I’d like to smell it.
But in practice, these categories are indispensable if you want to create a balanced perfume. In short, the three classes of notes refer to the size of the molecules and the speed at which they evaporate off your skin. Top notes are small molecules that burn off your skin quickly, typically citrus-y and spicy. Middle (or, more romantically, “Heart”) notes usually last several hours before disappearing. Florals are most commonly heart notes. The materials with the heaviest molecules are called base notes. They are the foundation of the composition, and become apparent much later in the game. Base notes come from trees, roots, grasses, seeds and sometimes animals. Ideally, you blend materials from these three categories to create an elegant, structured perfume that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Speaking of parts, there are a variety of ways to extract aromatic compounds from their source. Some of the materials I collect and work with are essential oils, tinctures, absolutes, resins, floral waxes, isolates, and hypercritical carbon dioxide extractions (a process where CO2 is pressurized and used as a solvent to pull the aromatic molecules from plant matter). I’ve dabbled with tinctures, but I typically leave the extraction processes to the professionals — I believe distillation is an art form in itself. It’s not uncommon for me to source two different extractions of the same raw material, say a black pepper essential oil and a black pepper CO2 extract. They smell and behave differently in a perfume composition.
THE EVOLUTION OF A PERFUME
Our culture has become so accustomed to aroma-chemical driven, mass-produced fragrances that we take it for granted that one spritz will do ya for an entire night out. Natural perfumes, even the best-crafted ones, are much more fleeting. Like my favorite fragile flowers, my enjoyment of natural perfume is elevated by it’s ephemeral spirit. Natural perfumes don’t typically have huge sillage (i.e., the wake/trail that perfume leaves in the air behind the person wearing it), nor do they last for hours and hours. Wearing natural perfume is a quieter and more personal experience. It invites you to be mindful and smell as the perfume evolves. Though sometimes I get impatient when I’m working on a perfume, and I wear it to the gym. The rise in body temperature makes the molecules evaporate more quickly, and I get to experience the perfume in fast-forward. It’s also privately satisfying to take a H.I.I.T. class and be rewarded with the smell of real tuberose absolute evaporating off your sweaty wrist.
The number one reason I’m drawn to natural perfume is because the materials are truly luxurious. That’s right folks, I’m a Taurus. It takes hundreds of rose plants and lots of labor to make real rose absolute; it’s a precious (and expensive) thing to behold. It’s much more convenient and cost effective for a big fragrance firm to create an imitation of rose by combining several aroma-chemicals, slapping Selena Gomez’s name on it, and calling it a day. But “laboratory rose” lacks nuance. Real rose absolute contains hundred of molecules in it, meaning its much more complex than any laboratory rose fragrance. It has the the essence, the terroir, if you will, of the place the roses were grown. Was it a dry or a wet growing season? Were the roses grown in Bulgaria or Morocco? These factors will affect the fragrance of the extraction.
I love that natural perfumes contain real imprints of the botanical ingredients that go into them. I also love the idea that when you buy a natural perfume, you are investing in the ingredients rather than on packaging gimmicks and laboratory research. I love that the aromatic materials react with human body temperature to manifest the finished piece of art. Perfumery is mysterious, technical, and everything I want in an artistic medium.
I could go on and on, but I’ll pause there. If you have questions about perfume that I haven’t covered, feel free to leave a comment. Cheers!
Image courtesy of Jeff Kelly Photography