Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thoughts on Natural Perfume Design

The Mystery of Musk project has given me much food for thought...especially about the challenges we face designing with naturals.
So I thought I'd share a few of them with you....

Botanical or Natural Perfumery is very different from conventional perfumery.
There is the more obvious point that we use natural ingredients as opposed to the artificial chemicals used in modern perfumer laboratories of course. And this tends to lend a depth and beauty to natural perfumes that simply can't ever be fully recreated by artificial ingredients....
But it also has a number of unique challenges that many newcomers to the art don't realize are there at first.  Keep in mind that these are my own observations from over 20 years of fiddling with natural scent ingredients...and they are my own opinions, which may differ greatly from what you will read in some of the books out there. There are many different approaches, and different things work for different people. Hopefully this will inspire some more discussion on the various perfumeing lists!

One of the biggest ones is that each ingredient used in botanical perfumery, is actually already a complete scent all in itself.
Each essential oil or absolute, is an extract of an incredibly complex botanical scent creation, custom designed by Ma Nature to entice and delight the senses of an incredible array of insects and mammals.
Modern perfume chemistry started by attempting to copy Mother Natures ingenious complexity, primarily for money reasons. It is far cheaper to create an artificial copy made with individual chemical components, than to obtain say rose otto by the time honoured process of growing the flowers, harvesting them, useing the time and tons of flower petal consuming process of enfleurage to then obtain only a few kilos of the precious substance....
But the chemical version is never as good. Ma Natures masterpiece is simply to complex and clever to be fully re-created.
But the challenge in natural perfumery comes from this very complexity.
In the over 20 years I've been playing with natural perfumes, I've mixed so many blends that looked lovely on paper...but that turned out to be muddy, unpleasant or even downright nasty messes once I'd actually combined the ingredients! And there's very good reasons for this:
When you start to blend say rose otto and jasmine absolute, you are combining not one or two scent molecules, but what amounts to two incredibly complex and complete perfumes!
Think about this for a minute......
Each time you add another natural ingredient to the mix, you add not one note, but a complete complex array of hundreds of scent layers, each with the potential to harmonise or clash with any of the other hundreds of scent layers already at play in the mix!
It's a bit like playing ultra-multi dimensional chess.
You have to understand and somehow keep in your mind, each of the many many scent layers each indivisual oil or extract is made up of, and see how they will combine and work with each other.
Add to that that once the ingredients are combined, they go through a further chemical combining process, and often change quite substantially as they interact with each other.
I've lost count of how many times I'd created something that smelled lovely...only to come back to it after a week or so to find that it had somehow morphed into something 'orrible!
The reverse can sometimes also be true of course, and sometimes you accidentaly create a beautiful scent that was not at all what you originally had in mind...But usually it's the lovely turning into crap that happens.

Top Middle and Base Note classification
This is one of the primary ways that scents are classified and designed nowadays. You will find mention of the concept in most perfume reviews and technical perfumery handbooks. and even the books on I have found on Natural perfumery contain lists that attempt to place all of the imany essential oils and absolutes we use in one of these three categories.

The problem with this (in my experience), is that it simply doesn't work.
As I said before, each and every ingredient we use in botanical perfumery, is in itself a complete perfume creation, with top base and middle notes all of it's own.
Some of course contain predominantly top notes, others more base notes, but this in itself is not enough information to be able to work with it. Realistically you need to understand and know the various top middle and base notes that each ingredients contains so you can marry them to the appropriate combination of top, middle and base notes that make up the other essential oils or absolutes you are useing.

Designing with Accords
This is another concept that is basic to conventional perfume design. The idea is to first create perfume notes or "accords", such as "Green grass", "Oriental" or "White Flowers" and then combine them to create a Smokey, Oriental perfume with a White Flower heart.
Sounds good eh? Trouble is, it often doesn't work. Once you have combined the three accords, you suddenly end up with either a muddy mess, or completely new sharp nasty notes sticking out at various layers which don't seem to have been present in the original individual accords!

There's two reasons for this:
Firstly with creating an accord. If you go back to what I wrote further up about complexity, you can see the difficulty this presents. Of course it's not impossible, but it can be a very involved and trial and error process.
And there are many "notes" that are close to impossible to create, simply becuase the individual ingredients are so complex that you cannot create anything "pure". For instance, I crave "Green Grass", which was a perfume oil favourite of mine as a teenager. You cannot buy "Grass" essential oil, and tincturing it doesn't seem to give you a real "grass" scent". And I have not been able to find a combination of other naturals that gets anywhere near the fresh cut grass scent I'm searching for. (At this point of course any number of other natural perfumers may chime in and tell me I'm wrong...I'm hoping they do! And that they will be nice enough to tell me how!!)
But it's a good example of the problem.
Realistically, you have to work with interesting notes, that do not fit clearly in any simple category because they are simply too complex to resemble any one clear note or accord. Your "White Flowers" may have many other subnotes to it that are neither white, nor very flowery...but still really pretty overall.

The second stage of the problem comes when you start to combine the accords you have created.

 Taking the White Flowers accord idea, once you combine it with another accord, you may well find that the woody acrid note that was originally just barely perceptabley in the the background, has suddenly become a totally in your face blast of burnt plastic. This will have happened because it ganged up with another sweet plastic note from the oriental blend that you didnt even know was there! Or maybe the slightly decomposing background note in the Green Grass accord that just added that touch of "natural" when you created it!
Often it would be just one oil or absolute that was destroying the plan...but the sheer number and complexity of the ingredients would make it almost impossible to track down which one it was.
I started out working with accords, but in the end I took a few steps back, and nowadays will usually add ingredients one by one, and take detailed notes on the effect they have on the overall mix. Which means I end up with a whole collection of trial blends of the various layers and stages of each perfume in tiny bottles!
My latest creation for the Mystery of Musk project is a perfect example! It's various stages fill up a whole shelf all on their own, not to mention the myriad of tables, notes and scribblings I wrote in the process.
(If you're interested in hearing more about this,  Monica Miller of Skye Botanicals will be writing more about the trials and errors in the botanical perfumeing adventure soon!)

Anyway, hope you enjoyed reading a bit about how I approach botanical perfumery....(And yes, I am writing a book on the subject...I'll be posting more bits and thoughts as it grows!)

Happy Sniffing!


  1. Very nice read, Ambrosia...we share some similar thoughts; in different flavors. :)

  2. Thank you for sharing these thoughts! I think it is a challenge, somewhat like spinning straw into gold?

    Perhaps though, if we walk quietly enough, we can hear Rumplestiltskin let us know his name...

    What I mean is that there are times when, we channel the plants, and they tell us their secrets.

    Or maybe none of this makes any sense, but to me alone. It's been a long day.

    I enjoyed reading it, and looking forward to more!

  3. I know what you mean about "channeling secrets" from the various plants....
    And I think that's probably the real secret to need to take the time to really get to know each ingredient (and the plants themselves)that you use...
    That's probably the biggest mistake newcomers to perfumery takes a LOT of time and practice and Real patience....
    Sometimes I think there is also a strong element of real channeling involved....Anya and I both created a "Pan" perfume, completely independently from each other (in fact we didn't even know each other at the time!)...yet they have so much in common it's almost spooky!

  4. Great post, insightful comments.
    Glad I'm not the only one to have created the smell of industrial plastic out of a few leaf & floral, all-natural 'building blocks'.

  5. Hi Ambrosia,
    You write about this process so well, thank you for sharing! I totally agree with you that patience and knowing your plants pays off with nice results :)

  6. I'm liking reading your blog more and more Ambrosia.

    I have a couple of quick questions that are not related to how and what you do as you create but about where you do your actual creating? And two, how does that particular area smell? Does it smell? Does hold scent memories, is that something that happens? I know nothing at all about such things.

    Do you have a name you call the space? I'm thinking you'll be telling us it's called the back verandah or by a name equally as exotic ;)

    I suppose it'd be interesting to learn a little bit about how the space/s have evolved over time?

    A book is a very good idea, keep us posted.

  7. Great post Ambrosia. The whole concept of top, middle, base notes can become so intermingled, especially with naturals, that it basically becomes a very thin guide line. To me it seems that all the "layers" tend to interweave and while there are some that go away very fast and some that hang on there is at the same time the harmonic chemistry of all those little molecules moving around each other that produce a whole other range of scents.
    I have been reading a lot of the classic perfume tech books of late(Poucher's three vol set and perfumery Technology by F.V. Wells) There is a lot about the use of synths because it is part of the business BUT they all say flat out that the natural ingredients always add a whole 'nother aspect and elegance to the mix. It is also interesting to note that there are quite a few essences that were available in the 20th century that are no longer possible to get and at the same time stuff that is produced now that was not really known then. Different tastes drive the market, maybe more then cost of production.
    Which reminds me, I think one of the toughest aspects of using naturals are the "top" notes and staying power, this became very obvious in the MoM samples. I am happy to report you seem to pull this off quite nicely :0 )

  8. Thanks Ross! (Big Grin!)
    One of the older essences I crave is violet! I'll be trying enfleurage myself later this year to see if I can make my own....

    Glennjf, I'll be putting some photos of my workshop up on the facebook page later today....
    It's a light, airy space with a large sliding glass door next to the workbench where I do all my blending which I always have open when the weather allows...

  9. Checked out your facebook photos. Nice nook. What struck me immediately was that "I" was expecting to see a lot more "stuff". I realised most of what you work with has already been refined before it reaches you, that's just me guessing by the way.

    If you were to do your own from wild to refined work it'd probably not be carried out in that area, guessing again. Trygve Harris shows a setup in Oman, distilling she does in her kitchen there.

    Trygve > Oh the Glamour of it!

    I asked after lingering scents as Anne at ORS has only recently posted there about a US product she used that works very at well at removing odors.

    ORS > A Review of Air Sponge – The Odor Absorber

    It may not be something you'd have a need for.

  10. You have no idea how much this post helped me... like reading my own thoughts (and I am just beginner so you can imagine how much sadness there is in errors haha).

    What do you do with "scents with error"? How do you use them?

  11. What I do with "scents of Error" is keep detailed notes of how they were created so I can avoid doing it again!!
    I also keep some of them as scent references....

  12. That is awesome that you are writing a book Ambrosia!!!