Sunday, 15 September 2013

Make Your Own Scent - The Magnificent Perfume Making Experiment! Part 1

I’ve a damn good nose. Or so I think..

Having always been utterly obsessed by the scent of things and places, I imagine that given the chance, I could be a perfumer. This is a dream shared by so many of us, especially after the BBC televised a three part series about the industry several years ago. One episode in particular was enthralling, as Jean Claude Elena was shadowed at work with his fortunate apprentices. No one could forget the sight of this strikingly handsome fellow with his nose pressed to the metallic edge of his patio doors, inhaling deeply and speaking of the conceptual scent of ‘cold and smooth’ in his mellifluous French accent.

JCE at work, sniffing an asthma inhaler?

When researching my article ‘The Scent of British Spirit Part 3’ (click here to read it), I encountered Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays. As a more or less self taught perfumer, Sarah creates a splendid range of quirky but wearable niche fragrances that prove that you don’t need an extraordinary amount of scientific knowledge or years as an apprentice churning out flavours for laundry detergents, to create a fragrant delight.

Think about your existing knowledge, if you’ve been using Fragrantica and Basenotes for years you’ll already know many of the notes that form the top to base structure of a perfume. If you use aromatherapy essential oils at home you’ll have experience of which fragrances blend together harmoniously. The experience of years of sample smelling will have taught you what works and what doesn’t, both in terms of personal taste and generic success.

If we assume that we have a little talent, what we are really only lacking is access to the enormous range of ingredients that make up the ‘perfumer’s organ’ (which appeals enormously to my puerile sense of humour..), the masses of money that pays for endless revisions to our experiments and minutely accurate scientific measuring equipment. There is no way around any of these immense problems so we’ll just have to accept it and try to make something less complex than the professionals.

So, I’ve decided to have a go at making my own scent. As I’m hugely impatient, slapdash and overly optimistic, this could be a pit-falled adventure. It’s already gone dreadfully wrong with the spillage of a little aldehyde C11 on my fingers, queue copious gagging at the extraordinarily tenacious scent of undiluted plasticky whiffed torment!

I’ll be updating you about this adventure roughly once a fortnight as the experiment progress, but for now here’s how I’ve started:

 1) Last year I bought a tiny bottle of Agmark Mysore sandalwood essential oil and a bottle of perfumer’s alcohol. I used it to make a pure ‘authentic’ sandalwood scent. This arose out of discussions about the death of ‘real, i.e. Mysore’ sandalwood in perfumery. Priced out of possibility, manufacturers began to replace it with cheaper species from Australia. The blend was magnificent and possessed all the creamy, unctuous, softly wooded qualities that I remembered in Sandalwood scents of years ago. It felt like meditation in a bottle and fuelled my enthusiasm to create more.

 2) A few weeks ago I ordered a plentiful wodge of essential oils and absolutes from Neat Wholesale (see listing and link under the ‘shopping tips’ page). I couldn’t afford to buy any expensive florals (though I’d loved to have tried their Champaca and undiluted Rose and Neroli) so I stuck to a few that I have used and loved before such as Rose Geranium and Rosewood and a few small quantities of things I’ve never smelt before such Roasted Coffee and White birch. The sensation of smelling their Lavender Absolute (the purest concentration of Lavender) was extraordinary. This bright emerald green liquid contains so very many notes within itself that it was a stand alone perfume, lavender bright with a musky, mossy warm undertone that I’ve smelt in By Kilian’s Taste of Heaven and Caron’s Pour un Homme.

Some of my little bottles of EOs from Neat

3) I also made an order for synthetics with Plush Folly (again see the shopping tips page) who specialise in ingredients for making perfumes, candles, cosmetics etc. I ordered three types of aldehyde, a sample pack of animalic notes, some ISO e Super (of eccentric molecules fame), a musky ambrettia base and some perfumer’s alcohol. The box arrived at my work address and upon opening, stank out our tiny office. It obviously provoked disparaging glances and wrinkled noses from my co-workers as I ran to open the window. I think a little of the aforementioned Aldehyde C11 might have leaked. It wasn’t pleasant.

Tiny curious bottles of Plush Folly's synthetics

Upon arriving home, I started to mix small amounts of the synthetics with perfumer’s alcohol, to enable me to smell then without overpowering my olfactory sensors. The most exciting of these ingredients were the two musks – Castoreum and Civet. I handed them to my partner for his thought’s.

“This is civet, what can you smell?”

“It’s piss. Defintely piss, and erm.. that one we smelt in Selfridges, the brown one”

“The Francis Kurkdijan? Absolue Pour Le Soir?”

“Yup, think so”

“This is castoreum, what can you smell here?”

“Piss, piss and cowpats”

It was a fairly accurate description of the notorious ‘skank’ note that we enthuse over in it’s purest form. This maybe a revolting association but I imagine that either of these notes would beef up a soppy floral or add some quirk to a strong oriental base. I was impressed.

I was also mightily impressed by the Ambrettia base. My curiosity for this ingredient was sparked by my love of the ambrette note (derived from a plant called the musk mallow) that appears in my beloved Annick Goutal’s Musc Nomade. In actuality, the Ambrettia potion is both enlivening (bright, optimistic, sparkly, slightly floral) and grounding (depth, strength, powder). I’m looking forward to making something with a ‘vintage’ feel with this one.

Of the aldehydes, numbers one and two were marvellous, projecting an airy bright opulence, each with a distinct character. I imagine that these will ‘lift’ compositions beautifully if used sparingly. Aldehyde C11 upset my sensibilities so much that it went immediately in the bin, double bagged for the safety of never smelling again. I surprised myself in that I can cope with the smell of, in Andy’s words ‘piss’, but can’t cope with the smell of ‘plasticky ironing’.

4) I’ve made a beginning with the bases of two scents. The first (a coffee and woods combo) smells so good that for now, I’m keeping it a secret (sorry!). I’ll be splitting the base and fiddling with top notes over the next few days.

In the making of the second scent I’ll be revealing every step and ingredient in upcoming posts here at Odiferess, telling you of the successes and failures that will make this either a good quality, wearable scent or complete bin fodder. We’ll see..

Make sure you check back in regularly over the next few months to follow my adventure.  


  1. I love Musc Nomade, so please do tinker away with the Ambrettia base! And it sounds as though your in-house QA assistant has a good nose. Mr Bonkers used to dismiss almost everything I made him smell as 'craft shop', a reference to that general fug of pot pourri and Yankee candle. If he was really impressed by a perfume, he'd modify this to: 'craft shop with the window open'.

  2. I love the idea of 'craft shop with window open!'. Yes, Mr Odiferess does has a good nose, identifying a note of 'newly opened box of trainers' in relation to Chopard's Casmir. I thought it was rather clever.