(Part 2) Things I wish I would have know when I got into perfumery

Updated: Apr 4, 2018

Same as the first part, 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.

This is the second part of an article started here. We already covered the starting point, the materials that you will probably need, how to storage them and how to make dilutions. Let’s keep going.

The “parts” of a perfume:

“In the nineteenth century, a perfumer named Charles Piesse invented a fragrance classification system in which each fragrance was matched to a musical note, and a successful perfume was one in which the fragrances blended into a harmonious chord. Piesse’s system did not catch on, but another perfumer named William Poucher used it as a starting point to create a classification system that has been adopted for perfumers and aromatherapists. Poucher proposed that fragrances be classified in three categories: Top (or head), Middle (or heart) and Base”. [1]

Usually, this classification is represented by a triangle (or pyramid) divided into 3 parts as shown in the figure.

When it comes to creating a perfume, we now know that the perfume will be somehow “divided” in top, middle and base notes. Why this division and how do we know which products are top, which middle and which base? Well, here is where things start getting interesting. We will add a “layer” of analysis to this basic categorization. Like an onion. This new layer will take into account how long a note (odor, aroma or smell) lasts over time. So, soon we realize that the first impression, whatever we smell first, the smell that introduces us the perfume (aka. top notes), rapidly disappear to let other notes appear in their place. These new notes, the middle notes, are the main theme of the perfume, its core or main character. They last a little bit longer than the top but eventually they submit to the last set, the base notes, which love to linger for undefined periods of time in the background. Sometimes referred to as the “dry down” of the perfume.

Try to experiment yourself with different essential oils and/or aroma chemicals by timing them up to the point of “no more smell”. Be aware that the smell will last more or less depending on whether you apply the material on paper or on skin respectively. Write down your results and have fun. The more you get to know your materials and how they behave over time the more you will know and the easier will be when you start mixing for real.

Why some odors last more than others? The answer is simple: Evaporation.

This variable is directly proportional to the size of the molecules of the material. At a chemical level, the bigger the molecule of the product, the more it takes to evaporate.

All this confirms that a perfume has a dynamic flow and that its smell changes over time. In addition, due to the fact that every material has a different evaporation rate, the transition from top to middle and from middle to base is not a sudden or abrupt change but a slow and multifaceted transformation.

So, it is not only how different materials appear and disappear over the time line but also how they interact between them as they appear and disappear! Over time, each material combines with the others in a specific proportion, creating a unique scent that is exclusive of those materials in those proportions on that certain moment of time. If you could take pictures of the mix of smells in those moments you would see that all of them are different.

And what about the proportions? Which percentage of top, middle and base notes we want our perfume creation to have? Well, the bad news is that there’s no rule, just some random values as guidance that can be changed to absolutely any degree. The good news: you can do it however you want! It’s called creativity! Some people say 33% of each, others will find as many “guides” as people writing them. There is no one truth about this. It is your creation, hence you will decide how much it will last each of its parts and how they will interact between each other.

But now I got greedy, and I want MORE (I knew this was going to happen!). Let’s add ANOTHER layer to the pyramid:

Over time, there have been hundreds of attempts to create a classifying system of odors. Every single one of them had something lacking (Rimmel’s, Crocker-Henderson, Bain’s, Jaubert’s, Tapiero’s & Dore’s and a LOT more). This is why, still today, there is not an “official” way to “name” odors. For example, our visual system has a scientific explanation of what we see and how we see it, basically using physics to explain how light affects matter. This way, even though it’s proven that colors do not exist per se, we have a universal understanding of what “black” is, or “red”, or “blue” (not its meaning, but what they “look like” in reality). Now can we say the same about odors? An “earthy” smell, is exactly what? A citrusy one? Even when we transfer words from the flavoring field, the categorization is not universal. How does something sweet smell? And what about something acrid? All of this is because there’s no classification system that has EVERYTHING a classification system needs in order to be useful and universal [2]

  • Have clear classes that single materials can easily fit.

  • Cover all combinations of smells, preferably for a wider range of smells than for just perfume or flavors.

  • Be the basis for describing any odor.

  • 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.

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

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

  • Be easy to learn.

I told you I studied with PerfumersWorld's system and that they have something called the ABC of perfumery. What is this? Basically is a categorization system that has all the 7 points just mentioned. Yes, each letter, from A to Z represents a category or “type” of smell. Its name coincides with its letter as well: the C is for "Citrus", the N for Narcotics, the P for “Phenols", the R for “Rose” and so on. One letter for one type of smell. 26 types of smells total.

Well, let’s try then to superimpose this ABC to our pyramid, shall we?

After carefully analyzing the graphic maybe you can start understanding why I think this ABC system is GENIUS? Those letters (or type of smells) not only follow the rigorous order of the ABC but ALSO the evaporation rate, from super volatile up to the most long lasting smells we can use in perfumery. EXACTLY! I take my hat off to the mind that came up with that! And then you have combinations of letters, and ways to measure the strength of the smell, etc., etc. Well, if you want to learn more about their system contact them (and tell Stephen Maximo sent you –wink, wink– lol).

Before getting into actually making a perfume, let me add one last thing: materials also have a “function” in a perfume:

  • Main or Heart:When you smell a perfume, you can always put a finger in a particular smell: that’s the heart! The one that without it, the perfume would just not be. Usually, coincides with the Middle notes.

  • Modifiers: They literally modify the basic materials, giving them a chance to show a different aspect or facet by adding a “decorative touch”, a uniqueness. Use these sparingly. If you can actually smell the modifier in the mix, you’ve probably overdone it.

  • Blenders: Heart and Modifiers are sometimes REALLY different (think of oil and vinegar), Blenders are the ones in charge to make them get along fine. They smooth the differences out. They round up the composition.

  • Fixatives: Usually Base notes, they provide depth and substance. They can also slow down the evaporation rate of other materials. Some fixative essential oils to play with: Ambrette seed, Amyris, Angelica root, Peru Balsam, Labdanum, Clary Sage, Frankincense, Galbanum, Styrax, Myrrh, Oakmoss, Orris root, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Vetiver and Violet leaf.

OK, I think we are ready for our first mix:

Let’s roll up our sleeves!

There are several mixing theories to make a perfume. Some people say you should go by function: Heart first, then modify, then blend and finally fix. Other people say to start from the end: working the Base notes first, then the heart and then the top (supposedly this way you can smell the perfume backwards: you start working/smelling only the “dry down”, then you add the heart and then you add the top notes, so literally as soon as you are finished, you are smelling the opening of the perfume). Other people suggest to mix the different parts (top, middle, and base) separately and then work your way with proportions of these parts to obtain a final mix. As you can see there are a lot of ways and none of them are wrong neither right. There is actually only one correct way to mix a perfume: YOURS, the one you feel comfortable with. We are talking about a creative process if someone tells you “It HAS to be done this way” I would start walking the opposite way from that person. You do not need people like that in your life. A creative process should not be regulated. I can tell you what works for me but that should be the extent of it. It is NOT the TRUTH. It’s just my way.

I personally tend to use the first two ways I described, mostly the first one. But remember: try everything, maybe you can start by doing a mix of top and base and to that you start adding heart notes till you find an equilibrium in your composition. Who knows? I cannot stress this enough. There is NOT just one way of doing things (and remember these words for when I drop the bomb that I experiment in drops and not in grams…but don’t worry, that’s going to be another whole can of worms, eh... blog post).

So, for the sake of this example, we are going to go by function. Remember that BEFORE you start mixing anything you need to have an objective, a goal. You have to be clear of what are you trying to achieve, who is the target, what mood are you trying to convey, etc, etc. Your objective has to be phrased in a way that, when you are finished with the composition, you can come back to it and compare it.

So, how do I go about the mixing?

Ok. First of all, I experiment in drops. HERETIC!, I can almost hear most of the perfumery people as they jump out of their chairs and grab their heads while reading this line. Well, relax, dude. I only work with drops when I am experimenting and making trials. Once I reach a composition I like, I transform drops to grams and keep going in grams to scale. BLASPHEMOUS! Yes, I know, I am already hearing the “it is not professional” and “drop sizes vary depending on the material being dropped”, etc. etc. I’ll cover HOW to do this in detail in another article, but if you are starting out, be at ease: you CAN work in drops, it is more cost effective and there IS a way, using science, to jump from drops to grams with a more than a decent level of accuracy. Chill out. It is not the end of the world.

Back to the process: Let’s suppose we determined the following objective for our creation:

A rosy perfume with some peach tones and semi accentuated green details. I want it also to have some spiciness. An exotic entrance mix of an aldehyde with some soft flowers (but just a hint) and as base, a mix of marine notes with some soft woods. A perfume for non-conventional successful working women, to use during the day. Fresh, soft and dynamic, it leaves an intriguing but personal trail.

We are mixing by function (and with 10% dilutions), so for the main or heart, we start adding some rose accord (let’s say 30 drops to start with). Write it down! Don’t have a rose accord? This is the perfect time to start working on one: (Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol + Citronellol + Geraniol + Nerol + Rose oxide + PADMA [Phenyl Acetaldehyde Dimethyl Acetal] + Geranium oil + alpha ionone) [3]

From now on, whatever you add is always going to be one drop at a time, until you think the smell is ok to jump to the next material. Whenever you feel in a rush, remember that you can ADD drops but you cannot TAKE them OUT.

So back to the heart of the perfume: I would add to the rose a touch of carnation accord for the floral spiciness I was looking for. Write it down! (If you don’t have a carnation accord start playing with a lot of eugenol + Isoeugenol + tiny bit of Jasmin + Clove bud oil for freshness + Hidroxycitronellal and maybe some Benzoin [4]

Let’s continue adding a somehow peachy smell (maybe some Apritone, which is a fixative as well (Write it down!) and some Aprifloren. Write it down! With this the heart seems to be covered.

Now, let’s modify it a bit, maybe a minimal touch of cis-3-hexenol, to get that greenness we wanted to achieve in our goal (Write it down!) and we can drop also some ginger grass oil in it (to sort of change the direction of the sharpness of the green and try to mellow it down a bit). Write it down! I am creating/imagining as I write. All this might be a cataclysmic odor mess once we are done, but that is what experimenting and getting to know the materials is about!

Let’s keep modifying, this time we will add some drops to take care of the top notes or entrance of the perfume. Aldehydes are EXTREMELY strong materials (same as the cis-3-hexenol we just added) so when you read traces it literary means maybe 1 or 2 drops at a 1% dilution, or maybe even less. Do not think it is a joke, that you won’t smell it. YOU WILL. So let’s go with, let’s say Aldehyde C-12. Write it down! And let’s also add some cyclamen aldehyde, Write it down! and some linalool. Write it down! These last two, to get closer to that soft flower for the entrance we planned in our objective.

Now, some stuff for the background, the lingering odor that stays after everything has been said and done…I have a sandalwood replacer accord I made, so we could add some drops of that. Write it down! Then maybe some Floralozone, Write it down! some ISO-E-SUPER, Write it down! Ethylene Brassylate for the musks lovers (me), Write it down! Clearwood (oh, what a smell), Write it down! and a super extra tiny little bit of oakmoss. Write it down!

That’s it! You have made your first mix! Of course, you can add or replace whatever you want. That's creativity in action. Me, personally, I would throw in there some trace of animal odor like Animalis as well. Animal smells (U in the ABC, from Urine, are strong nasty odors, but, added in an infinitesimal amount can provide the perfume with that something that makes it unique. Your dilutions for these probably will be around 1% to 0.01%

If you are just starting you may have, as I recommended before, only 15-20 materials and you don’t really even need to use them all. Sometimes less is more. Maybe you just need 7 or 8 for your first composition and the result might be sublime.

As you probably noticed, accords are an incredible perfumer’s tool. Try to make as many as you can. Perfumers apprentice has this page with several accord formulas you can get for free. Play around, tweak them and make them your own! Experiment. Replace materials with oils. Research. If something calls for eugenol and you don't have it: What about Clove Essential Oil or even Clove Leaf Essential Oil? They are mainly Eugenol! GET TO KNOW YOUR PRODUCTS. Read.

The best way to create an accord? Research, research and then research some more. The website have some interesting chemical posters that you can use to get info to create your own accords. All of these suggestions are starting points, ultimately the final result will be entirely up to you and your experimentation.

How do you know what can “combine” or blend harmoniously with the materials you’ve selected? This is what I do (and again…it is just my way): I put one drop of the different materials on different labeled blotters and I smell them, one by one, as I add them and hold them together in my hand. IF there’s a material that is offensive and does not blend with the rest, you WILL notice it the second you add that blotter to the rest on your hand. So…leave it aside. Don’t eliminate it just yet. You might be using it later but in traces, who knows. This is just to check compatibility or blending issues. NOT the proportions of materials. I do this “blotter test”, of course, BEFORE I actually start mixing drops in the mixing container.

Experiment, experiment, and experiment. And then experiment some more. Also, do not forget to have fun!

In case you didn’t get the idea: Write absolutely everything down!

Murphy’s Laws are always present in our daily routines. So don’t be surprised that even though you are used to methodically write down all your formulas as you are making them, THE ONE TIME that you waited 5 seconds to do so, the phone rung and you went to pick it up, after which you went to the bathroom and then took a well-deserved break. While on it, you heard something on the radio, a song that brought back some really good memories and of course that melody kept echoing in your head, which led you to search for music of those times, because…let’s be realistic, who doesn’t like to work with good music, right?

The problem is that because you let those 5 fatidic seconds went by, now your formula is missing a component, and is going to be THAT formula the one that when you think you are done you are going to fall in love with. Unfortunately, whatever you will have in the paper (or computer) where you wrote it, is missing something. Yup! That something that you didn’t write and that you’ve already forgotten. So write absolutely everything down. ALWAYS. Before ANYTHING ELSE. You drop it in the beaker (or wherever you mix in) and you write it down. Capisci?

Don’t you ever say I didn’t warn you!

Let’s spend some more money:

Well, following the last article, where I showed my setup and where I bought everything, let’s add some more stuff I constantly use:

If you will be using the blotter technique to check compatibility of smells, you are going to go through blotters like a madman (or madwoman). I buy mine here. They work great and they only cost £8.25 * 500 or £65 * 5,000, which is an amazing price, comparing with other prices I saw online.

By now, probably you realized that you HAVE to be organized and tidy. And that includes cleanliness. I got this multifold paper towel dispenser in Amazon for $16.13 and its corresponding paper for $15.65 also on amazon. It might sound expensive but we are talking about 1,000 sheets. I bought these May 2015 and I still have two 125 sheets packages left….so you do the math.

I work with latex gloves and after trying several of them I liked 2: these ones, they cost $0.09 each and they are black, which I think they look kind of cool or these other ones, which I bought in bulk at $0.08 each and are blue.

just found online the book Handbook of Essential Oil, Science, Technology and Applications, the information in it is too good to be free, but it is there.... I don't know if its a mistake or for how long it will be there. ...regardless...It has TONS of information. Not really for beginners but just by reading the content index you can tell eventually you will get information from it. I would download it...

Talking about reading, The Volumen 4 of The essential Oils, by Ernest Guenther is a must read. Here you can read, among other things, the main chemical constituents of some essential oils, which is something really useful to have in order to play around with accords. You have more oils (different plant families) in Volume 5 and in Volumen 6. You can also get Volumen 1 (History-Origin in Plants-Production-Analysis) and Volumen 2 (The Constituents of Essential Oils). Volumen 3 (plant families Rutaceae and Labiatae) I couldn't find anywhere.

A general piece of advice: If you are, like me, an all-around hyper “I move fast just because I can” kind of person you WILL NEED to learn to move slowly in your lab working area. You can absolutely ignore what I am saying but I guarantee you that the second you knock down that loosely screwed little bottle of oxane and its content invades your environment and attacks mercilessly your nostrils making you cry like a baby, you will remember me and probably my mother as well...

Provider’s list:

Being that it is so difficult to discern if a provider is trustable, I compiled the following list from my experience with products bought from them. Every provider that made my list is in one of three categories:

  1. Yes, I trust 100%: Some companies have provided unsurpassed quality AND customer service. This combo has the reward of me unquestionably coming back for more. They deserve to be trusted.

  2. They seem ok, I have not gotten a bad experience. Maybe customer service wasn’t as good (but at the end of the day I need a good product, not friendly people), or maybe I did like the product but I have some doubts about the purity of its contents. In any case, they do the job and probably I will come back for more.

  3. I didn’t try yet, but I will. It was recommended to me.

Why the difference? Well, for once I won’t (can’t afford to) make a GS/MS report (gas chromatography analysis / Mass spectrometry) for each oil I buy. It doesn’t really matter if you can get it from the provider either since it is just a piece of paper that anybody can make or copy. With this I am not saying they are fake, I am just saying that they don’t prove that the oil you have in your hands actually belongs to the batch the paper states is analyzing.

My nose is not trained enough to smell a rose oil and determine whether is pure or diluted (I hope I’ll eventually get there) but sometimes you will come across “essential” oils that you don’t really need to be an expert to realize something is off. Of course, those they are not on the list.




That’s all for now. Next week: Finishing the perfume, which includes scaling (the fight about “from drops to grams”), mix with alcohol, water (?), bottling and labeling.

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



[1] Excerpt from “The Healing Trail: Essential oils of Madagascar”, George M. Halpen, published by Basic Health Publications, Inc.

[2] Extracted from PerfumersWorld Foundation Online Course. © Stephen V. Dowthwaite. All rights reserved.

[3] Just an idea for where to start with. Mix other stuff if you think you should. And, by the way, you are really lucky: You get to decide the percentages!

[4] Same as 3.