The structure of a perfume
A perfume is a blend of aromatic materials, which is perceived as having its own aesthetically unique identity. Jellinek & Calkin describe it as a carefully balanced blend based on a definite structure in which each material plays its part in achieving the overall fragrance. What it is not is just a mixture of pleasantly smelling materials.1
Apart from having a well-defined identity, a perfume must meet a number of technical requirements. It must be sufficiently strong, it must be diffusive, it must be persistent and it must retain its essential character throughout its period of evaporation. They must also be chemically stable in the end product.
A well-constructed perfume will still be recognisable many hours after it has been applied to the skin. The technique by which this is achieved is an essential part of the perfumer’s art, and it needs many years of dedicated work to arrive at the level of experience necessary to formulate perfumes that are not only original but also well made.
So, do top middle and base notes really matter?
The top, middle and base note triangle is often referred to as the evaporation triangle. Dowthwaite states that it is the oldest and most accepted representation of a perfume’s composition.5 Almost every perfumer uses it; however, its simplicity becomes a weakness.
One of the most common questions posed by students is what should the ratios of the top, middle and base notes be? Dowthwaite states that this is like asking a painter how much sky, foreground and background should a painting have? The answer has to be a returned question relating to the intention or purpose of the perfume or painting. In quantifying the ratio of top, middle and bottom notes we are merely describing the balance of the three stages. He states that this does not tell us why the materials are there, just the position they occupy in the timeline of the evaporation of the perfume.5
Describe your blend
Dowthwaite states that it is important that you be able to articulate your blend in words. This written or verbal description may be in the form of a series of descriptors. When we create a perfume, we are creating a composition with many essential oils.2
In reference to a perfume it is not just the odour profile, but also includes the feeling it evokes and the message to be conveyed. He states that it is very important to have a structure for organising smells.
I love the way Dowthwaite uses the structure of language to help us understand how we can create a brief for the perfume we wish to create. For example, nouns are words that serve as the subject or object. They are used to describe specific odours. These are the odour types that I describe in my book – terms such as floral, woody or earthy.2
However, he explains that there are specific classes of nouns:2
- Subjects –the main theme of the perfume in a perfume description.
- Objects – a modification of the subject or the location as indicated in the sentence by prepositions. For example: in an English country garden. The location could represent an odour, a setting or an ambience.
- Compound nouns – where the first noun acts as an adjective or modifier to the second noun or represents a single concept. For example, a ‘green rose’ is a rose that has had a green modification whereas ‘green tea’ refers to a specific Japanese tea note.
Adjectives: Words that express an attribute of a noun or describing something. Adjectives are the descriptors that modify nouns. While the number of nouns is limited in number, the modification of adjectives increases the variety of possibilities. For example, rose can become a fresh rose, soft rose, natural green rose, old rose etc. They are not the main theme, but they are actually materials that add the character and differentiate the perfume.2
Conjunctions: Words that serve to join or coordinate words and phrases. Conjunctions are the connectors between nouns to form a combination, or group, of subjects or objects. The conjunctions are the oils that allow the smooth transition of many odours in a perfume from one to another. They are the oils that blend and form bridges between disparate notes to bring them together in a unified whole.2
Verbs: Words that describe an action or state. Verbs will describe the behaviour or action of the odour in a perfume. For example – provides a fresh, invigorating feeling.2
Prepositions: Indicate a relationship between a noun and some other part of the sentence. In a perfumery context, prepositions place the nouns in a location so that they exist in time and space – they fix the subject in a setting (the object) and give depth and ambience. For example, compare ‘rose’ with ‘a rose in an English floral garden’.2
Sentences: A string of words satisfying the grammatical rules of a language. A sentence should describe the main theme of the perfume.2
Paragraphs: A distinct subdivision of a text intended to separate ideas. Dowthwaite explains that this would be appropriate where a fragrance needs to be described in separate sections with a top, middle and base note description.2
How to create your perfume
Define the objective of your perfume
Step one is to clearly define the objective of the perfume you are creating. The purpose of forming the objective is to identify the smell of the perfume before running off to the lab to start choosing raw materials. This is the most difficult part of the creative process and requires the greatest discipline. Anything less than 50 words is insufficient.2
Select your essential oils
Basic essential oils: The first group of oils are the subject – the noun that forms the main theme of the objective and will be reflected in the title.2
Modifier essential oils: The second group of oils are the adjectives. Modifier oils are defined as those oils that smell different from the subject (the basic essential oils). Modifiers will add the style, character, naturalness, freshness or diffusion to the perfume.2
Blender essential oils: The third group of oils are the blenders. These are the conjunctions; the words that connect the nouns and aid the flow of words. When two materials of different odour notes are blended there should be a harmonious transition from one note to another. This is the job of the blenders, whose role it is to smooth over or bridge the differences.2
Fixative essential oils: Fixatives are the materials that form the prepositions and their objects in the sentence. Fixatives are materials that fix the fragrance or note in time or place. Fixatives in perfumery are often described by default as the materials that make a perfume last longer. Dowthwaite states a far better way to think of a fixative is as a material that provides the setting for the perfume – materials that complete it, that make it perfect and whole. They generally have a lower impact on the blend. In term of odours, they will ideally be materials that display some of the characteristics of the basics and modifiers and have the desired dry out of the perfume.2
The blending process
Make sure you add drops from a standardised dropper or pipettes.
Step 1: Form the basic structure or the heart
In this step, you select only two or three materials from the list of ingredients. If you are not sure where to start, mix equal proportions, smell and evaluate the combination. It should be apparent if one of the ingredients is incorrect, over- or under-dosed, and then simply replace, increase or decrease each component until the required effect is obtained. This basic mixture may form an accord in which synergy or harmony exists.
Dowthwaite warns against adding too many materials too soon as it will make it difficult to track future problems such as lack of diffusion or disharmonies.2
Step 2: Modifying step – decorating the basic structure
In this step, choose just one material from the list of modifiers. It is best to start with modifiers in order of importance, which may well be in the order in which they occur in the written objective. The perfumer must choose one material for fresh, one for clean etc. As modifiers tend to be the highest impact materials, they should be added drop by drop until the required effect is achieved. Perfumers should smell each addition before moving on to the next modifying material and must start again in the case of an overdose. Each sample should be labelled and kept for reference. If appropriate, the perfumer should rearrange the order of adding the modifiers. It is imperative to take notes at each step so that you can learn from each step.2
Step three: Blending step – harmonise the composition
You should choose one material from your blender list. Add blenders drop by drop and mix and smell until the required smoothing effect is obtained. For example, lavender has a fresh note that goes well with citrus, green or herbal notes. It has a floral and slightly woody background which means that it acts as a bridge between fresh top notes and the floral heart of many perfumes.2
Step four: Fixation step – adding background and depth
The perfumer should now pick one or two fixatives. Although fixatives are usually base notes they will be present throughout the life of the perfume. They add depth to the composition, transforming a flat two-dimensional smell to a perfume with a third dimension. Fixatives should be added to the blend drop by drop, then mixed and smelled until the required effect is achieved. If you overdose your blend with fixative it may cause the blend to become flat and lifeless.2
Elixir of the Earth
Let me explain how I used this process to create one of the Perfect Potion perfumes which I called Elixir of the Earth.
Elixir of the Earth epitomises the scent of vetiver – the scent of mother earth. The scent of vetiver is very complex – it has a heavy, earthy, spicy, musty, smoky and woody aroma. I find the scent of vetiver nurturing, nourishing and revitalising. At the same time, it is mysterious and grounding. The scent of Elixir of the Earth has to reconnect us to the vitality of mother earth.
Select your essential oils
Basic essential oils
The heart and soul of Elixir of the Earth is vetiver. To enhance the earthy notes of vetiver I added buddha wood, carrot seed and patchouli.
Modifier essential oils
To enhance the natural earthiness of vetiver I added galbanum which provides a delightful green note. The herbaceous floral note of clary sage enhances the mystery and intrigue, while a dash of ginger and clove bud provide a delicate warm and spicy note. To this, I added rose absolute which further enhances the warm and nurturing qualities of this blend – but not too much!
Blender essential oils
While bergamot, lemon and sweet orange are often added as top notes, in this case, they are used as blenders. This means that they provide balance and harmony to the rich earthy aromas used in this blend. A dash of lavender provides further harmony and balance to this blend.
Fixative essential oils
You could say that vetiver is the perfect fixative on its own; however, I decided to add some amyris, Santalum spicatum and benzoin which helps Elixir of the Earth to last longer without impacting too much on the overall aroma of the perfume.
In concluding our discussion on natural perfumery, I would like to share some final words of wisdom from Mandy Aftel, who gives us some excellent advice in her book Fragrant in the chapter entitled – The zen of perfume making.
She says it is important to have an orderly system as the narcotic sensual influence of smelling essential oils can make it difficult for you to keep track of what you are doing. Here are the principles that she follows:3
- the entire process should be beautiful
- adhere to a strict budget
- write down everything you do while you are blending
- experience the perfume on the skin. (However, I always suggest giving the final perfume some time to rest for up to 48 hours before applying to the skin!)
- plan on failing and redoing
- be real – let go (sometimes a blend will just not work out)
- spend money to create something good
- creating perfume mirrors life
Please have fun creating your aromatherapy perfumes!
- Jellinek S, Calkin R. Perfumery – Practice and Principles. John Wiley & Sons, USA, 1994.
- Dowthwaite S. The grammar of perfumery. Perfumer & Flavorist. October 2004; 29:76-87.
- Aftel M. Fragrant – the secret life of scent. Riverhead Books, New York, 2014.