#5 – Create my own perfume
Perfume is complicated. I’ve never understood why some perfumes smell different on one person than on another, or how to choose a perfume. Consequently I rarely wear perfume as I haven’t found one I like yet which isn’t too heavy to wear during the day. I have no idea how to identify a perfume I might like or that might suit me, so I included this challenge in The List in the hope that I might find the answers to some of these questions.
I chose to attend a course at The Cotswold Perfumery in beautiful Bourton-on-the-Water. An independent perfumery owned and run by John Stephens, a Chartered Chemist, they offer a one day introductory course to learn a little about how fragrances work and how to build them, and then to create your own. They also offer a more comprehensive two day course for those looking to create perfume commercially. As John himself takes the courses, I was confident I would be learning from a master.
It was a very full day! The morning was spent listening to John as he talked about the history of the company, the science behind the sense of smell, the perfume industry as a whole, characteristics of perfume and how perfumes are created. We then spent the afternoon in the lab, learning how to use the equipment, being introduced to our ingredients and finally creating our own fragrance.
I was fascinated to learn that part of the brain which deals with the sense of smell is the same part that deals with emotions, whereas the other four senses are all located in the central cortex of the brain which is the logical bit. This means that we know a lot less about the sense of smell than we know about the other senses. It also means that the sense of smell can be ‘bullied’ or overridden by the other senses. If your eyes are seeing roses, you will smell roses – even if they are scented with something else entirely. The links between emotion and the sense of smell help to explain why smell can have very powerful associations. It can trigger memories and inspire feelings without us really knowing why. John said that he has heard of cases where a favourite perfume has smashed inside a car during an accident and the person has never been able to wear that perfume again because the smell of it brings back the trauma of the accident. There is also a very strong correlation between smell and taste. Vanilla has no taste, only smell, yet it is commonly used as a flavouring for food. This is why our sense of smell is so important when tasting and eating food, and our culinary experiences will be much poorer if our sense of smell is diminished.
John explained that in addition to our lack of knowledge about the sense of smell, we don’t really understand how the it physically works either. We do know that in order to smell something it needs to give off vapour and this vapour has to be in the form of a certain sized molecule. The larger a molecule is, the harder it is to smell. Molecules enter the nose then have to mix with water inside the nose in order to pass through the mucus membrane which coats the lining of the nostrils to get to the receptor cells. In the absence of water, the odour molecules can’t pass through this membrane so there will be no smell. The bit that science cannot yet explain is how these receptor cells turn the molecules into a something which we recognise as a smell.
The membrane inside the nose contains enzymes which react chemically with the odour molecules. These enzymes are linked to our individual DNA, and alter the odour vapour, so each of us experiences the same smell differently. This partly explains why some people like certain smells and others don’t, but this is further complicated by the fact that smells are also associated with memory and experiences so therefore each one of us has different preferences for smell. This combination of influence from DNA and life experiences effectively means it is impossible to predict which smells someone will like or dislike and therefore also impossible to identify which scents a person will like or which will suit them. So, sadly I wasn’t going to get an easy answer to my question about how to choose a perfume. It seems there are no shortcuts and the only way is to try lots of different perfumes and see!
John warned us that we become used to smells that are all around us all the time and no longer notice them – we can’t smell our own house for example. For this reason, John said that you shouldn’t spend your life searching for ‘the one’ perfume for you. Instead you should wear perfume like you wear clothes and change it with your mood. Apparently if you wear a particular perfume all the time you will get used to it and won’t be able to smell it anymore.
All of this theory was fascinating, but next it got really technical as John spoke about perfume composition and classification. Many of us are familiar with the concept of having base, middle and top ‘notes’ in perfume. This is simply a scale of volatility i.e. it refers to how quickly a particular smell evaporates. Tenacious fragrances are those that last – these are usually the base notes. Top notes tend to be light, clean and fresh but they don’t last. Different ingredients also have different ‘odour yield’ (how strong they are), so some ingredients need to be used in very small quantities. Therefore, when creating a perfume, the three key considerations are:
Tenacity – how long you want it to last
Strength – this determines the relative quantities of the ingredients used
Character – what type of perfume you want
Ingredients can come from nature (animal excretions or plant extracts) or can be chemically created. Ingredients generally come as an oil or an absolute. An oil is distilled with steam. This would be things like lavender where the plant is heated to release the vapour, then the vapour condensed to produce the essential oil. However, this process requires a lot of heat which would destroy more delicate odours, so some things instead have to be dissolved in solvent and the solvent then extracted to produce an absolute. Most ingredients can’t be used in their pure form on skin, so for use in perfume they are mixed with alcohol (ethanol). The ratio of alcohol to the ingredient is determined by the odour yield, so very strong ingredients have fewer parts in relation to the alcohol. Civet, for example, is very strong, so was only available to us in 0.1% concentration, whereas most of the rest of the ingredients were 10% concentration. The ingredients we were using had already been pre blended with the alcohol in the correct proportions, so fortunately we didn’t need to worry about that bit!
Having absorbed all this science it was then time to step into the lab itself, to acquaint ourselves with the equipment and our ingredients. John had selected for us a range of 20 different ingredients, including a range of base, middle and top notes. He ran through them all with us, explaining the properties of each, what effects they can be used to achieve and if there is another ingredient that they complement particularly well. We then had some instruction on how to safely use the equipment (particularly the glass pipettes which are very sharp) and in how to build and record a perfume.
We were instructed to carefully write down everything we added; the ingredient, the concentration it is in, and the number of drops used. As we built the perfume, if we found we needed to adjust the balance we could add more drops of a particular ingredient. The key thing was writing absolutely everything down because the proportions needed to be scaled up at the end to create a 20ml bottle of perfume. John suggested that we start by picking two base notes and mixing them, trialling the proportions we liked, then adding middle and top notes, continually checking the harmony and recording absolutely everything we were doing.
Then, it was down to us.
I was very nervous. I sat there, looking startled, for quite a while. My coursemates seemed quite happy and dived in, filling their pipettes and measuring out drops into the tiny test tubes. I was petrified I’d mix up something completely hideous and therefore was paralysed as a result. John helpfully explained that as long as you smell each ingredient and then the perfume every time you add an ingredient you’ll be fine; because if it is suddenly horrible, it’s the last ingredient you added that is the problem (on the grounds that it was fine before you added that one). He also reassured us that as long as everything is written down accurately it only takes a minute or two to recreate the perfume to the point before you ruined it.
So, I took a deep breath and off I went… Sniffing a few ingredients, deciding on my base notes, dropping them into the test tube, sniffing the resultant perfume, adding an extra drop or two, sniffing again, carefully writing everything down, then repeating with the middle notes and the top notes. I carried on, making a couple of mistakes and having to remake the recipe, pausing to smell ingredients and contemplating what I wanted to achieve. Time flew. Hours passed unnoticed as I was so focussed dropping different fragrances into the test tubes.
Once I had put together something I was happy with, the difficult bit arrived: the maths to scale it up to enough perfume to fill a 20g bottle, which meant adding the ingredients by gram rather than by drop.
This bit was really crucial because if you got the proportions wrong you wouldn’t recreate the perfume you had in your test tube. John gave us the formula, and after a bit of head scratching I puzzled it out and was able to create my very own perfume, bottle it, box it up and take it home.
It was a very full on day and my head hurt by the end of it – a combination of olfactory fatigue, maths and science! However, I have created a perfume which is uniquely mine and learnt a lot of interesting things about perfume in particular and about the sense of smell more generally. I know why perfume smells different on different people and I’m no longer anxious to find ‘the one’ perfume I will love and spent the rest of my life with. Highly recommended for a fascinating and different day out.
Details of the courses can be found on The Cotswold Perfumery’s website at: