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(Part 1) Things I wish I would have know when I got into perfumery

Updated: Apr 4, 2018

Originally Published 05/04/2017


If you are thinking about getting into perfumery and/or you are just starting out, probably these series of articles are for you. Whether as a hobby or with the goal of making it as a professional I will try to give you all those pieces of information that I didn’t get at the beginning and that I think would have saved me a lot of time, headaches, and money.


In this first part, I will cover the “where do I start?”, the materials you will probably need, their storage, and dilutions.


The second part will be about the basic triangular structure of a perfume, an actual method of creating a perfume, and the after creation process: bottles, vials, marketing, labels and other applications like creams, lotions, soaps, etc.


As usual, I am not a chemist, just a perfumer, and a novice one. Anything you read here is just an opinion and it is just a simple collaboration with society by sharing my experience and my way of doing things. It is not designed to please everybody. Anything you try as a result out of my suggestions is your responsibility and I am not liable in any way for the results of you following these suggestions.


Ok, let’s start:


When I decided to jump into the perfumery world I realized that I have not only A LOT of learning ahead (I still have) but a lot of research to do as well. Getting ahold of information proved not to be an easy task. Yes, I found, probably like you, hundreds of websites and blogs and forums and so forth, but most of them had contradictory information between them or talked a lingo that I didn’t understand, or they made it look like perfumery was something that only a few privileged could get into. I remember the frustration, feeling exactly the same way I felt when I was eleven years old and I started studying magic (yes, I did that for 6 years as a kid). It was like trying to get into a taboo world. Into an un-accessible, unfriendly and hard to control pool of knowledge that, if somehow you are able to tame, you would automatically belong to that exclusive and elusive club.


Starting point:

In my case, I felt that I had to kick off, if possible, with some kind of a base course. Due to the fact that I had a job, going physically somewhere to study was out of the question, so online or distanced courses were the only real option for me. Out of the few choices I found after an exhausting search, I opted for "Perfumer’s World Foundation Online Course" and that was the BEST decision I’ve ever made when it comes to things perfumery.


Perfumer’s World founder is Stephen V. Dowthwaite. He’s been in the industry for more than 45 years, he has more than 300 fragrances and flavors currently on the market in more than 14 countries, and he is the creator of the ABC of perfumery: a GENIUS classification system, a systematic method of odor description and perfume creation. Added to that, he’s a guy that literally enjoys teaching and promoting perfumery as an art. Even though he is constantly traveling all over the world teaching his system, he always finds the time to reply to emails, being each one a little gem of knowledge that he let go every time. He and his company are not just about the money, they are also about somehow leaving a legacy passing on knowledge and making this sometimes elusive world of perfumery accessible to everybody. Everywhere. From here, Stephen, thanks again.


As you can see, when it comes to where to learn, my opinion is 100% biased, I cannot be objective. This was my first step into perfumery and I would repeat it, with my eyes closed, over and over again.


Unfortunately, I cannot give any accurate or experienced information on the rest of the studying options, because I have not taken them and wouldn’t be fair to evaluate them without trying them before, right?


Materials:

The first thing I would say: GET TO KNOW AND TRUST WHO DO YOU BUY FROM.

Why? Well, there’s a lot of businesses out there that they are nothing but professional thieves (yeah, let’s call them by their real names: Why not? They are just despicable people, lying to you, stealing your money and getting away with what they are doing!) Lowlifes that sell 100% “pure” essential oil when they are actually 1) a diluted version of the original, or 2) a mix of a bunch of different essential oils, or 3) a mix of aroma chemicals with essential oils or 4) just simply aroma chemicals sold as essential oils. As you can see, you can be conned in different ways, and, especially when you are starting, when you are a green tender newbie, you don’t stand a chance…you don’t even know how something is supposed to smell!


At the beginning, I started buying only essential oils (somehow I thought that aroma chemicals were unsafe and, at the same time, more for the big leagues. I was buying from different providers, without knowing ANYTHING about them. I just wanted to have a huge variety: in my mind the more I have, the better. They were just more choices to mix and create different odor profiles. I bought stuff really cheap, which is still seating in bottles somewhere in the house if I didn’t throw them away already. E-bay and amazon sellers probably were rejoicing on the fact that I kept buying and buying and buying… I didn’t know better!

Some tips:


  • Essential oils from fruits, with the exception of citrus oils, DO NOT EXIST. Any website stating or offering the contrary it's lying. I know tomato is a fruit but what you can get is an absolute from tomato leaves, not the actual fruit.

  • Always check the Latin name of the essential oil you are buying. Different companies might name the same product differently. Like Melissa and Lemon balm (Latin name: Melissa officinalis)

  • Essential oils from some flowers like Jasmin, Carnation, Rose, Tuberose, Champaca, Frangipani, Neroli, Gardenia and others are REALLY EXPENSIVE. As a reference, if you find Jasmin or Champaca for less than $200, Carnation for less than $150, Rose or Neroli for less than $100, Tuberose and Frangipani for less than $300, all per ounce, they are probably diluted/mixed or fake. These values, of course, might change over time depending on the market.

How do you know is the price is fair? Trust your gut. There is an “average” market price which you can find by researching the web. If most of the places you find online sell one essential oil between $18 and $26 per oz., and you find a website that sells it for $7, relax and don't get all excited...it is not that you are lucky and you need to buy tons of it, DO NOT WASTE YOUR MONEY, either your time. You will end up NOT using it and regretting buying it. At the end of the article, if you are interested, you will find a list of providers I use that I think are safe to buy from (not that I am a big knowledgeable guy, but in some aspects, I think I’ve learned by experience).

Well, back to my story, after filling my shelves with almost every possible and imaginable variation of essential oils (again: DO NOT do the same I did) I decided to start with aroma chemicals (at the beginning I was leery of using them, but after some research, I quickly dissipated my doubts regarding whether they are safe to use them or not. you can read more about aromachemicals vs. essencial oils in this other posting to understand a little bit more about them or at least my point of view. Now I had literally thousands of products to choose from! Oh, my! No salary in the world would help me buy so muuuucchhh! Fortunately, with time I learnt to dose myself and how much I spend.


What to buy:

In several forums and perfumery websites, you can find lists of “the 100 basic essential oils and aroma chemicals” you should buy to start…and some even got up to 200. Truth is, if you buy 200 different products at once, you (and your poor nose) will be so overwhelmed with so many odor profiles that you would be just making your learning experience a lot more difficult. Every reputable website that sales aroma chemicals have a big “starter pack”, even PerfumersWorld, but the idea on these is to study and learn at the same time. You would be following a schedule that will be dosing the way you learn about each product over a long period of time and how spaced they are offered to you. The difference then with buying hundreds by yourself is that the second those lovely bottles arrive you will be opening them up, smelling, smelling, smelling and you will dive right into mixing this with this and with that and with that other one, but you will not really get to know the products, probably falling dangerously close to making an almost sure odor mess.

It is true, some perfumers, perhaps have a feeling of incompleteness if they don’t have these 100 or 200 products, but rest assure that you can buy 10 or 20 and you are ok for a good start. You see: at the beginning, it is not about how many products you have but about how you can “learn” each smell. How you can somehow categorize them, internalize them and get their smell engraved in your brain for future use and reference.


Should you start with essential oils or aroma chemicals?

Probably both. How many? As many as your budget allows you, but don’t go crazy. The key when you sit to make a perfume is deciding in advance how the perfume will be. What would be its target, its personality, what it would smell like? You will need to find the right adjectives to define this and THAT is not easy. Only when you have achieved this, you should sit and start mixing and experimenting with the raw materials. Why? As once Stephen Dowthwaite wrote to me: “if you give to a monkey a typewriter and a piece of paper, chances for him to write a Shakespeare poem are almost null.” Same with you and perfumes. Mixing randomly will usually get you not good results. Setting a goal and try to methodically approach it, will always work better, and what’s best: you will have something to compare the final result with!


How do you know what products to buy?

For me, everything is based on research and acquired knowledge. As an example, for my last composition, I wanted to create a perfume for teens that basically smell like apple and honey. So, from the knowledge I had I made the first attempt to create those two accords. What could I mix to make the honey? I knew it had to be a mix of a phenolic smell and some sweet and sour something. I had a sample of real raw honey that I was constantly smelling to try to separate or individualize the different facets of the smell I wanted to recreate. Since I am still learning and I am not a genius neither I claim to be one, I failed. I wasn’t able to do it by myself so I started researching accord formulas online and reaching out and asking for advice in different blogs, forums, and groups. I wasn’t expecting a perfect finished formula with percentages and all. Just guidance. What were the missing components? Out of all the possible phenolic components, was there any one, in particular, better suited to be the base of the honey accord? Finally, based on all this research and help, I bought the aroma chemicals I thought I was missing and I was able to make a couple of decent accords. From there, I started the perfume.


As you can see, you have to have patience. You need to learn and you need to think. Nothing gets learned in seconds. You have to be willing to spend good quality time reading, studying, and absorbing knowledge like a sponge. Be smart and use all the good people out there willing to give you a hand, but don’t expect them to give you the food already digested, a finished formula. YOU need to process the information so you can extrapolate it and use it under different circumstances. Ask for directions to get there instead of calling Uber to take you there. I know it would be easier to ask for a formula for a perfume that is let’s say, green, fresh with a fruity touch, undertones of floral innuendos and a woodsy base with a hint of a yeasty humidity. If someone would (be stupid enough) to give you an actual formula (which I don’t think they would)…it would be their creation and not yours, and what’s worse: You would not have learned a thing! So next time you need to use any of those assets for another composition you will AGAIN have no clue where to start…


The famous perfumer’s organ and the storage of materials:

Let’s face it: all of us have seen pictures of those beautiful and functional pieces of furniture that hold absolutely everything we need to create a perfume at hand. Unless we are a carpenter (and a really good one) or we have A LOT of money to spare, those pictures will remain as wonderful pictures depicting something that we might be able to get in a not so near future…so, how can we organize out stuff for now?


What follows is a comprehensive list of pics, links, and prices of how I solved my perfumery needs. It does NOT mean that this is the only way of doing it neither the better one. It is just how I did it and I am just generously sharing the information and ideas with you. If you think something is useful, take it, otherwise, leave it.


Dilutions:

( I understand some people might buy by kilos, might don’t dilute their materials, might have huge pieces of furniture holding their vast array of gigantic bottles but I just don’t. I just hope is clear that this is just ONE WAY of doing things. I do not expect everybody to agree with it, neither, if you, some people, disagree, to start trying to make a point because you just happen to think differently)

Because materials are expensive and my pockets are not really steep, I dilute all my materials, basically at a 10%. If the material is too strong, I go 5%, or 1% or 0.5% or in some cases 0.1% dilution or even less. How do I know? Smelling and imagining how strong the smell is compared with another smell.

Basically, I want to make a dilution in such a way that, by putting 1 part of each 2 different materials I can smell the mix of both and not one will be overpowering the other.


What do I dilute with?

I use IPM (Isopropyl myristate). I found it to be perfect for dilutions. Some materials are hard to dilute then I might try, DPG, ACM (Augeo Clean Multi –which dilutes almost anything–) or Perfumers alcohol. But mainly I use IPM.

Other things I use to dilute and store:

  • I have a scale I bought on e-bay. Is it the best? Probably not, but it costs $48 and it’s being doing an amazing job for 2 years already.

  • I keep all the dilutions in 2 dram (8ml) amber vials with droppers. I buy these at Wholesalevials and their cost is $60 for 144 pieces (droppers + bottles).

  • These vials fit like a glove in these tube holders I bought on amazon for $6.75 each. I have all of them organized by letters (as the PerfumersWorld ABC of Perfumery) but you could have it organized however you prefer.

  • I use one of these tube holders to actually hold these tubes " which are the ones I use to mix the materials in and make the different compositions.

  • The table, its 2 legs and the drawer unit (which has 1 big drawer, ideal for big –gallon- bottles), are from IKEA, same as the 2 arm lamps on each side of the table and the overhung that holds part of the tube holders. Finally, on top of the table a $7 glass cutting board that I use to rest everything while I am working.


  • I put the NOT diluted materials on the wall in these amazing tier organizers (I have a total of 6). They can hold bottles up to 4 oz. and I have them organized by the ABC as well.

  • In between them, I drilled 2 small wood studs to the wall. Each has 12 holes with these hard wired clips crazy-glued that I use as blotter holders. I bought then in Aliexpress (50 x $2.29)

  • On top of them, for books, bigger bottles, and chemical paraphernalia, also from Ikea, several of these Shelf units hung horizontally and vertically.

  • For all the small staff: blotters, empty inhalers, empty tiny 2 and 5 grams jars for lotions and creams samples, paper filters, mini funnels, mini vials, etc., I bought in Walmart two 3 mini drawers plastic units and one 5 drawers plastic unit for around $5 each. They sit on top of each other.


How do I dilute:

I know that each 2-dram vial holds around 6.5 grams of liquid. And I say around because depending on the specific gravity of the liquid, it can be more or less. IPM has a specific gravity of 0.85, DPG 1.02, so depending on what are you using to dilute and what essential oil or aroma chemical you are diluting is how many ml you will end up occupying of the vial. Anyways, 6.5 as a general rule it will be fine. Based on that this is how I make a dilution:

  1. Turn on the scale.

  2. Put an empty vial on it.

  3. Tare it (back to zero),

  4. Depending on the % of dilution (see table) you add with the vial’s dropper the amount of oil to dilute: if you want a 10% dilution, then you add 0.65 grams of the oil or material to dilute.

  5. Now top it up with the solvent of your choosing to 6.5 grams (IPM, DPG, ALCOHOL, etc.

Table of dilution’s proportions:



Extra hard materials:

Some materials are really hard or too viscous to handle. In those cases do not be afraid of using the microwave in 10 sec blasts. Checking after each the liquidity obtained. You do not want to boil the material just soften it so it is easy to work with. Probably a lot of people is already horrified: Oh my God! the microwave!…Well, I think if you take certain precautions it is safe, faster and part of that thing called progress…Be sure to check the flash point of the product you are heating. And you can use a laser infrared thermometer ($18) in amazon to be sure you never get close to that point, since it is the point when the product ignites…and you do not want that to happen.

As soon as you dilute, be sure to label your new dilution bottle with as much information as you might need while you are working. I put on my levels: Name, Latin name, Short odor description, Provider, % of dilution, Solvent used, whether it is an Essential oil or an aroma chemical, PerfumersWorld ABC system main letter, What do I think is the function on the perfume (top, middle or base) and whether I consider it works as a heart, note, a modifier, a blender, a fixative or a floralizer.

Here you can see a sample of a finished label. If you are curious where I print, I use, from www.officemartlabels.com these labels that cost $24.35, shipping included, for 150 sheets of 18 labels each.

Well, that would be it for now. Next week, second and final part, which will include a list of what I consider decent providers.


Have a wonderful week, and don't forget to leave a comment if you enjoyed the reading, or if you have any question!


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