I'm writing this five-part series on perfume making because perfume making will be part of the plot of my new novel, "Love In a Small Town," to be released by Rogue-Phoenix Press this October. In the book, my teenage protagonist, Sarah, is taught to make perfume by Lindsay, the love interest of Sarah's step-father. The fragrance is called "Shakespeare's Flowers," and I sold it in my store until I retired.
Think of perfume making as like cooking. First you have to have an idea of the finished product. Cooks have a whole mental library of tastes stored in their brain. When they’re seasoning something, they taste it, then decide if it needs to be saltier, sweeter, spicy, or perhaps tart. They search their memory, remembering the tartness of lemon, the bite of turmeric, and add accordingly.
Fragrance compounding is the same, except that you’ve memorized the odors of scent ingredients. You still combine them mentally, then go on to compounding starting with one, and adding carefully, until it smells the way you want it. You start with the oils. When you're satisfied, add pure, 90 proof alcohol--the kind you buy at the liquor store. 16 parts alcohol to one part oil mix. Perfume is four to one.
Think about what you like. Don’t worry about the odor being masculine or feminine. Many women wear men’s fragrances because they are not so sweet, and men often like a little lilac or lavender added to what they wear. Amber is good on anyone. Add a little orange and maybe a snitch of cinnamon and it’s fabulous. Essential oil of Jamaican Bay Leaf is very hard to find, but it adds freshness to almost anything. I suggest you find stores that sell oils—probably a health food store, or Whole Foods Grocers, and start smelling to get familiar. The first thing you’ll notice is a difference in quality. Every brand has a few clunkers, especially the lavenders. This oil is in short supply. Lavender officianalis is the French one we all like, but Norfolk Lavender is good. You will probably have to buy most of your oils online, so start small, and look for quality. In my experience, I have always been satisfied with the quality and purity of Kiehls, and Eden, sold through Amazon.com, and Sunrose Oils. Buy the smallest possible amount to start. ¼ ounce, or 15 milliliters is plenty.
When I was compounding a fragrance in my store for a client, the formulas were very simple—at the most, five oils, because the olfactory nerve in the human nose gets tired quickly and loses its ability to smell. We call it ‘olfactory fatigue.’ This comes in handy if you are in a room with a noxious odor, like something dead, or fermented. In a few minutes you won’t smell it anymore. Inhaling camphor will speed things along. One perfume oil, violet, contains a chemical, ionone, which will kill your nose quickly. If you use it, be sure it is the last thing you add.
I mentioned before the difference between perfume oils, which are synthetic, and essential oils, which are distilled from living plant material. You will be using perfume oils. They are cheaper, and your body will not absorb them, sometimes with unexpected results. Leave them for the aromatherapists. There are only a few essential oils that you will have in your collection: sandalwood, patchouli, vetiver, and possibly benzoin, because they are fixatives, which I will explain later, and the citrus oils.
Your first assignment is to go looking for odors. Shop for oils, but also smell what is around you. Notice the difference between grass, moss, dirt, the difference between the leaf of a flower and the petals. Leaf oils are called “petigrain.” What is orange oil? The odor of orange peels. What is Orange Petigrain? The leaf odor, which is green with a suggestion of orange. Cherry bark smells like almond. With practice you will be able to tell the difference between juniper, pine, and cedar blindfolded. Check out the Internet and make a list. The next paper will be on starting your collection and what supplies you need.