Sunday, 2 March 2014

Adventures In Scent At 4160 Tuesdays: Day 2, A Chypre Perfume Making Workshop

 The archetype, Coty's long gone Chypre

I was lucky. Not only had I made it to a scent making day, but I’d made without catching a nose immobilizing cold. February half term is often spent with whatever virus has been troubling the students at my school since Christmas. I work with kids with learning disabilities who aren’t proficient at the ‘hand over mouth during sneeze’ routine.

And so, nose on top form, I joined my fellow (and significantly more sophisticated) students to be taught about the form of chypres by the highly engaging Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays. Our mixed cohort included a keen novice fumie, two long term fumies, an admirable obsessive with a vast collection and myself (insert your assessment of compulsion here).

We began with an introduction to the structure of the chypre. The chypre genre is widely acknowledged to be ‘perfumey perfume’, characterised by a distinctly classic French feel and a slightly snooty dry temperament. I love them, possibly because I’m not snooty. Possessing a more ‘dappy spaniel’ character, I like the fact that a chypre transforms me into a  ‘graceful greyhound’. They are the polar opposite of a warm-hearted oriental or a cheerful fruity floral.

Sarah delves into a vintage Eau Sauvage for our sniffing pleasure

The Queens of the genre could be said to be Guerlain’s Mitsouko and Dior’s Diorella. Both of which Sarah proffered for a sniffing from astoundingly well preserved vintage bottles. As we sat around the grand desk together, we amassed hoards of smelling strips, studiously comparing variations on the theme. With the majority of the examples dating from a time pre- IFRA regulations, we smelt the real thing. My favourite of which was The Edmond Roudnitska creation for Rochas – Mousseline. I’d never heard of it before, but this heart breakingly cool madame was the mossiest thing I’d ever smelt, aside from actual moss, which doesn’t smell of much unless it’s been raining and you have stuck your face to the ground in a wood (I have of course done this, as I imagine have some of you). To add to it’s appeal, it was packaged in a beautifully minimal and art deco reminiscent yellow box. Although it was created later than the deco period (in 1946), it both smelt of and looked like the liberated masculine habits of those women lucky enough to be wealthy and socially mobile in the 1930s. A round of golf chaps?

The marvelous Mousseline

Another Roudnitska marvel was passed around, the citrusy classic Dior masculine – Eau Sauvage. Chypres marketed at men tend to incorporate abundant citrus and herbal notes, making them hugely appealing to my personal taste. I successfully wore Chanel’s Pour Monsieur, another classic citrus chypre with a soapy accord, for some years without growing a moustache or a fondness for football.

After sampling some classic chypres came the table-top scientist part, about which I was wobbly with excitement.  Time to smell some ingredients.

Sarah’s first offer was oakmoss, the ‘bones’ of the chypre, which we smelt at a 20% dilution. It was symphonic. By this, I mean that there was a multitude of sensations to associate with it’s scent. As I look back to my notes, I see that I wrote; multifaceted, woody, earthy, whole. It was utterly whole, indeed I wish I’d have ‘made’ a perfume containing solely oakmoss, such was it’s complexity. I’d imagined it to be an olfactory challenge as natural notes often are (white birch on it’s own can tear my nose to broken pieces) but it wasn’t. It was everything I love about the outdoors bottled, delivered with sensitivity and gentleness.

We went on to sample the other natural chypre bones; patchouli, cistus labdanum and bergamot, each familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in aromatherapy and regularly haunts the isles of Holland and Barret. This was followed by less familiar synthetic smells, a real treat for hardcore fumies; Exaltolide and Fixolide (two musks, the first of which smelt like Body Shop - White Musk), ISO E Super (wood for wizards), Hedione (used to bring radiance to florals and citrus, used heavily in Van Cleef & Arpels – First, smells to me disgustingly like Cystitis salts – Cystopurin-a-go-go), Suederal (a beautiful soft leather) and several others including a peculiar crème brulee plus strawberry note used to great effect in Sarah’s own ‘The Great Randello’. I was most bewitched by two synthetic violet notes – Alpha Ionone and Ionone Beta, the first of which radiated the rubbery tyres and sugar side of violets that was instantly recognisable in BVLGARI Black and Midnight In Paris. The second presented a more woody interpretation.
Brilliant stuff to play with in bottles

The final smell of the morning was Sarah’s curious ‘seaside’ accord, a mixture of Calone (melon/cucumber/water) and Verimoss (moss, akin to seaweed) which smelt unerringly like the beaches of my childhood holidays in North Wales.

Tired noses headed off to a local café for lunchtime resuscitation.

Upon our return we had about four hours in which to become perfumers. You’d think this would be a laughable amount of time in which to create our personal desires but one of the students was markedly thrilled by his creation which he deemed complete in far less time. For me, it was more difficult.

Wrists soaked, I move progressively up my arm for a skin test

Before the day I vowed to keep an open mind about my ingredients, and focus upon the never before smelt synthetics which are really hard to get access to if you’re an amateur enthusiast. The studio at 4160 Tuesdays was chock full of bottles to play with but I found myself drawn back to the leather and violet notes that I sampled in the morning. My initial mixture contained oakmoss, both violets, Exaltolide musk and Suederol (which dominated the blend). This excited me. I planned to later brighten it with citrus in a kind of homage to Cartier’s Eau de Cartier Essence du Bois. The studio however was filled with scent and a ‘used smelling strip mountain’ so upon Sarah’s advice I took it outside to experience it in the open air. It smelt overtly powdery and smothering. A rethink was required.

Whilst I’d been outside Sarah had produced refreshments of delicious blackcurrant and coffee cordial. This aromatic drink spurred me into pursuit of another of my favourite themes – the hedgerow. Sarah talked me through a few relevant ingredients, this time three picturesque natural accords – raspberry leaf absolute (curiously jammy and tart), cassis (astringent green blackcurrant, bordering on cat pee but unfeasibly beautiful) and buchu (a heady and herbal feeling blackcurrant). With just five students, she had plentiful time to assist each of us, helpfully delving into the stash of materials to find potential interpretations of our olfactory ideas.

Notes a-plenty

I combined my berries with small amounts of other naturals (see the photo of recipe), a great mass of oakmoss and ISO E Super. The unscientific measurement is listed on my recipe as ‘shed loads’ of ISO E Super. Roudnitska would have been appalled.

The process of creation involved using tiny drops of our selected notes and building it up judging quantity by nose alone, an intuitive process that required methodical recording and a fair bit of maths. My records were (typically for me) a little slapdash and I found myself losing count. Care is required. As I peruse my notes tonight I can still smell the lovely patches of accidental drips, a souvenir of the day.

My final creation is without doubt, a hedgerow bordering on a forest. Only six days old, it still needs time to continue to mature but I like it. It’s hints at a drier, leafier version of YSL’s In Love Again (although obviously nowhere near as professional). The 4160 Tuesday’s brand is all about conjuring places and memories, olfactory experiences rather than perfumey perfume. With this in mind, I’m pleased that I made something that echoes the character of the brand. I am unlikely to wear my perfume regularly but I am sure that I will lie in bed on drizzly urban nights and let it transport me to the countryside of my youth.

My finished creation, entitled "Could It Be Mossier?"

What I gained from the event was more than just the creation of a bespoke perfume. It was more significantly about the fun and camaraderie of the day. As you’d expect, we fumies talked each other to death and eagerly absorbed Sarah’s chypre education with delight. As a true perfume geek, I already knew a lot about the genre but I learnt a great deal of fresh information, with the exploration of ingredients being of particular interest to me. This combined with the opportunity to smelt unknown pleasures such as the Mousseline and Miss Dior as it was intended to be, was in itself worth the trip to London. Sarah is an enigmatic teacher. Warm, witty and hugely knowledgeable. She manages to pull off a serious olfactory presentation with a friendly informal atmosphere. Instruction is personally tailored and given frequently or you can withdraw into your own world of pipette heaven and suit yourself. It would be unlikely for a newbie to feel out of place.

The day closed with a sprawl on the sofas with lemon cake and champagne. A chance for us to ponder our creations and a much needed rest for our exhausted conks.

Sarah’s perfume making workshops run once a month throughout the year. Upcoming genre themes include such treats as florals, citrus, watercolours (think Jean Claude Ellena for Hermes) ambers and abstracts (the last of which I imagine it will be tres Comme De Garcons). For more information, take a look here:

Thank you Sarah for a truly wonderful couple of days at the perfumery. In suitably Northern style I can only say – It was bloomin brilliant!


  1. Riveting account of a groundbreaking day in your fumehead 'j***ney'. Well, literally 'groundbreaking' no doubt, to fetch up all that moss in 'Could It Be Mossier'. Loved every detail of your account, especially the 'shedloads of ISO E Super', hehe. I bet I would have lost count of my proportions. I used to be an associate for The Perfume Studio, and chucked away a good few concoctions for people because of a moment's inattention. How does your latest scent compare with Odiferess and the caramel one you showed me? I agree that the fact it is in keeping with the brand ethos of evoking place and memory is a nice touch.

  2. Hi Vanessa,
    I'm not really sure how it compares with the earlier home made ones as I think I over diluted it with the 'shed loads' of ISO E Super at the end, if I could make a second attempt I'd have amped up the oakmoss even more. So yes, it certainly 'could be mossier'.
    The earlier coffee/incense creation has been fridged for about 5 months now, it smells marvelous. That said, it's hard to reach for it first when my perfume cabinet contains Calypso, Fille En Aiguilles, Mitsouko and Chanel No. 5 Elixir Sensuel!
    Really, the best thing about both of my days at the perfumery was the company of Sarah and the other perfume nuts, we had a lot of fun. Of course experiencing the vintage scents felt like meeting movie stars.

    1. I can well imagine that the companionship would have been a big part of the fun, along with the experience of sniffing Sarah's vintage collection. May I also say that I like her Orla Kiely-style sleeve pictured above. ;) And it was funny how your testing progressed up your own arm in the other photo.

  3. How much fun was that. And in the end you get your own little bespoke that's all yours! Why did you have to mention how wonderful Mousseline was. Of course I had to check eBay and there's a bottle for sale... and I am having a hard time resisting buying it!

    1. Ooh Mousseline will be REALLY old. I hope you can get some still pleasantly whiffed and intact. If so, please send some to me! It was, a lot of fun indeed..