Part 1: Introducing the ABC of Perfumery©

Updated: Apr 5, 2018


Click acá para la versión en Español

You might have noticed on some of my other postings that I’ve mentioned several times the PerfumersWorld’s ABC of perfumery system and you have probably wondered: What is that? Would or could it help me in any way to improve my skills as a perfumer or as an individual walking the path to become one? Do I NEED to use it? Is it just nonsense, or is it an additional tool that might help me optimize my time and my understanding of products and raw materials?

Within the next few postings I will be making a comprehensive explanation of the PerfumersWorld’s ABC System of Perfumery and its advantages. I would like to thank Steve Dowthwaite, the system creator, who allowed me to share this information with you (and who supervised that I am not making preposterous mistakes in my explanation).

Following the ABC’s explanation posts, I will be making additional postings getting into a detailed of what each letter means, what it represents and how to work with them. I will also be adding in each of these “letter postings” examples of which raw materials (aroma chemicals and essential oils) could belong to each letter being explained. In addition, I will try to provide as many tips as I can so you might optimize your perfumery experience and at the end of the day, your creativity process. As usual, all this barbaric amount of information, will be topped off with my already well known position of “experiment, there’s not just one way of doing things” and sprinkled with my sarcastic —no he didn’t, aromatic, almost funny, and sometimes un-nerving dialectic point of view.

You might find that you do not like how I write or that my style is boring or intense or dull, but bare with me through all the parts of this series and I warranty you, if at least you TRY the system, your NEXT perfume will be better than your last one. You will have a better or more logical understanding of what you are doing and if by any reason you are not enjoying now the creative process of making a perfume from scratch, you will.

First of all, ALL the information provided it’s free, so you are welcome.

Unless you are one of those narrow minded individuals that go as far as to the point of saying “I know absolutely everything and I don’t need any new tool that could help me, my perfumery skills and / or its results”, then you should keep reading and enjoy. You can always disagree at the end, or after trying to use or apply the system, if you see that somehow is ineffective for you. I seriously doubt it though.

If you are one of those cases where money is definitely not an issue and you just enjoy spending it, regardless of what is it that you get in return, well, you can still read and learn all this amazing load of useful information for free and then send me some money to cover your unfulfilled desire of wasting money away…just kidding (or not). LOL.

Second: This is for everyone. And I really mean EVERYONE. You might be a newbie trying to figure out how to start, you might have some experience based on your own intuitive experiments and/or some internet research, you might be an incredible chemist that’s been working on perfumery for years or, you might as well could be one of the few that have been trained by one of the big houses that supposedly have all the “big secrets” and the “know how”, and you think there’s not much left to learn to help you and your working method. Whatever your case might be, the ABC of Perfumery IS for you and it WILL help broaden your horizons and to think a little bit more out of the box, it will let you see and understand the fun of the creativity process from another point of view and it will definitely add several “drawers” in your structured mind where you will be able to put some materials that probably still today you don’t really know exactly how to classify. You just need to be willing to understand how it works and let it sink in. You have NOTHING to lose and, again, it’s free. Are you ready?

What is the ABC of Perfumery©?

If you think about it, each of our senses has a classification system or kind of a “language” of its own that provides accurate description, understanding and interpretation of its different concepts with somehow a universal meaning:

  • If you would want to describe a color, then you have different pantones that make the classification quite simple, practical and easy to catalog. When it comes to measurement, through physics and the vast knowledge about light, measurement nowadays is not an issue.

  • When it comes to sounds, there are different notation systems, being the western staff notation system the most popular one, with its basic 7 notes (C D E F G A B or DO, RE, MI FA, SOL, LA, SI), and the different signs and words to measure duration, pitch, tempo and variations on playability and other factors. And again, if we want to get detailed, we can measure sound with an infinitesimal exactitude level using again physics, through waves and cycles.

  • If we talk about the Skin, through different receptors located throughout our bodies we have the ability to detect touch, pressure, vibration, pain, itch and even tickle and our language has the words to describe all of these sensations and its variations.

  • In regards to taste, basically there are 7 different types: bitter, salty, sour, astringent, sweet, pungent, and umami. 7 words for 7 different tastes. We have even identified specific locations in our tongue that receive information on each of these categories. Perfect.

  • And finally, Uh, la la, Paris, Paris, city of perfumes…when it comes to smell we have…NOTHING! Even though there has been several attempts to build a classification system for smells (Rimmel’s, Crocker-Henderson, Bain’s, Jaubert’s, Tapiero’s & Dore’s and a LOT more —you can read a super interesting article about this here—), all of them lack, one way or the other, at least one of all the necessary components a classification system should have to be effective:

o Have clear classes that single materials can easily fit.

o Cover all combinations of smells, preferably for a wider range of smells

than for just perfume or flavors.

o Be the basis for describing any odor.

o Recognize that an odorous substance, molecule or product may have

more than one facet to its smell. E.g. the smell of chocolate is sweet,

creamy AND balsamic.

o Have some factor that incorporates the pungency or strength of an odor.

o Have a time factor for how long the smell lasts.

o Be easy to learn.

So to answer the question what is the ABC of perfumery©:

It is a systematic odor classification system created by PerfumersWorld’s owner Steve Dowthwaite that takes into account every one of the 7 aspect just mentioned! It is a system that is REALLY easy to learn. And even better: it is easy to use. It was originally conceived as a means to classify or catalog odors and it soon became the fundamental stone of a perfumery and odor compound design system also created by Steve.

Let’s see then how each of these aspects are covered in the ABC of perfumery©:

  • Clear classes for materials to easily fit: In the ABC of perfumery©, each class is one letter of the alphabet which at the same time is related with a word that represent a general description of that group. As instance, the F represents the group of Fruits and the S represents the group of Spices.

  • Cover all combinations of smells: Each group can combine with another one giving the smell a secondary or a subgroup descriptor.

  • Be the basis for describing any odor: Yup. EVERY odor fits somehow, somewhere in at least 1 letter.

  • Recognize that odors may have more than one facet to its smell: Each odor, will be a combination of different letters, conforming what it’s called odor profile.

  • Have some factor that incorporates the pungency or strength of an odor: That factor in this system is called odor impact and it is measurable.

  • Have a time factor for how long the smell lasts: Also taken into account. It will allow to understand and manipulate odor strength over time.

  • Be easy to learn: You are already in the process!

So, let’s dig deep into the ABC and let’s see which group of smells each letter represents:

To start with, even though names are more general than specific (“dairy” rather than butter or milk) all names are definitely descriptive of a smell. In the common description column you can find a couple of extra words that might help with the description in case you don’t understand exactly what the category is referring to.

What’s amazing is that this arrangement, from A to Z, also follows the different evaporation stages of a material, from top notes (A-H), through middle notes (I-S) to base notes (T-Y). So, when it comes to “organization” you would be organizing your materials not only by a specific classification of smell but at the same time, from their level of evaporation. Neat, right?

As an exercise, think of a smell, or even better, actually go grab some blotters, dip them into some materials and start smelling. Let’s say we start with Atlas Cedarwood. Where do you think it will fit? In which letter? Exactly, you are right! It will go with the W (Woods). What about Juniper berry EO? Probably since it is a fresh pine-like smell it would be a good match with the K (Konifers).

  • The term “AliFATic” was chosen over “aldehydic” to represent the "fatty" characteristic of straight chain aldehydes, alcohols and fatty acids. This is also why, as a reminder, is written AliFATic instead of Aliphatic.

  • Herbs are considered cool while spices are considered hot as a way to differentiate them and not confuse and mix them in a same “condiment” group.

  • Since Jasmin, Muguet (French is used to avoid confusion with other lily species) and Rose are well-known and recognized they were kept as specific groups. Also, because they are the main theme in the majority of fragrances.

  • The rich, sultry and exotic character of Benzoin and other resins were grouped under "Queen" of the Orient, term that embodies, relates and represent these smells.

  • Solvents and other low-odor additives, such as anti-oxidants were relegated to solvent with a "Z" ("Zolvent") to ensure that they could be conveniently grouped together at the end of a formula in line with the convention of formula writing.

Odor Profile

Keep smelling a little bit further the Juniper Berry EO sample you just put in the Konifer group: you can probably get some herbaceous smell. Yes, somewhere in there there’s some (H)erbal as well and you can go even further and probably notice some (C)itrus, some (L)ight floral and maybe even some Balsamic(Q)! And here is when you start realizing that your materials are actually a MIX of different smells.

Next step would be to try to quantify these different smells. As instance, the Juniper essential oil: Let’s assign a relative percentage based on what you think smells stronger or softer. Out of a 100% of the sample, probably around 75% of it is (K)onifer, because it seems to be the strongest one. What about (H)erb? Maybe a 10%? Now the (C)itrus: Could we say 5%? Same with the (L)ight floral and the Balsamic(Q) we are smelling on the background.

Now do the same with the Cedarwood. What other letters you identify in its smell? Some Konifer maybe? More Queen? A really distant earth(Y) and moss(Y) background? Anything else? Try to assign some percentages now.

Remember that there’s no right or wrong here. You might smell a 4% of (C)itrus and for me it might be 6% of (A)liphatic instead. It doesn’t matter.