Composing a Perfume

Perfume composition is a very delicate art, a matter of personal taste and refined imagination: it is essentially an abstract art. To compose a perfume is to combine certain scents deliberately and create a perfect unity from them. Perfumers smell the raw materials, mix them and once in a while they get a good result. Most perfumes contain anything from thirty to several hundred ingredients.

It takes years to get to know and distinguish the hundreds of different smells, and a perfumer has to learn what effect one odour will have on another when they are mixed together. He must learn how to smooth or sharpen a scent, how to bring all the smells to a common ground so that one does not overpower another. Most importantly, he must learn how to achieve the top, middle and base notes and finally how to fix a perfume so that it will last. Perfumers also have to be skilled chemists. Relying on a highly trained sense of smell, the ‘noses’, as they are known in the trade, will test their compositions as they progress with blotters: small wands of blotting paper which are dipped into the mixtures and then allowed to dry. But the olfactory nerves tire quickly and so the process is a slow one. A perfume may take up to three years to perfect. Francois Coty took five years to come up with ‘L’Aimant‘,while Guerlain’s ‘Chant d’Aromes’ took seven years and Caron’s ‘Infini’ was fifteen years in the making.

The first step in composing a perfume is almost always an idea inspired by nature. Then the perfumer must develop a scent that has high stability under evaporation and an unvarying aroma, together with a harmony of raw materials. A perfumer is like an armchair traveller: alone in his laboratory he is surrounded by hundreds of essences and absolutes from all over the world, but his intention is to transpose the memory of, say, the fragrance of a cedar or the scented shadow of a magnolia, the memory of a tropical forest or a garden in the rain, or something more abstract, like a piece of music, into a perfume.

Having come up with the idea of, say, a forest at dawn soaked in dew and a pair of lovers whose sweat mingles with the dew on the forest floor, he will begin to associate particular olfactory images with the visual images. He might think, for instance, that these would be well represented by a fougere, a fresh but erotic woodland scent with sensual undertones. He may include top notes of lavender and pine essence; middle notes of oak moss and patchouli, which he might blend with bergamot; then he might blend these with another equally pleasing odour of mossy base notes anchored with an amber, a spicy accord of musk and myrrh to represent the amorous embrace of the lovers.

In this way, using his olfactory judgement, the perfumer obtains the essence of the scent. Then he must impart ‘character’ and perfect the composition. He knows that, for a flowery note, he has a whole range of natural plants, from the sweetness of jasmine to the velvety charm of tuberose. The initial impression of a scent should always be fresh and vigorous. It should suggest the presence of flowers, fruits and herbs, things that titillate our senses of smell and memory. Then the fragrance has to be ‘anchored’ by a fixative such as orris root, benzoin (a resin) or oak moss. Finally the perfume is left alone for a while so that it can mature, like a wine, before the perfumer returns to his perfumer’s organ.

When Serge Lutens makes a perfume the process has less to do with practicalities and methodology than it has to do with his intuition and imagination. Serge never had any formal training 一 he simply discovered his own way. He said that he is merely the intermediary through whom the perfume is created and that to make a perfume requires a state of permanent nervous tension that remains with him for a year. When a perfume is finally perfected it is, he said, not unlike an epiphany, or a short-lived ecstasy.

It can take years to perfect a perfume, but although the art of the perfumer is a refined one, some scents have come about through happy accident. ‘Shalimar‘ was born when Jacques Guerlain accidentally tipped some vanilla essence into an existing rather dandyish cologne called ‘Jicky‘ (Jicky was also the first scent to combine natural and synthetic materials). But the traditional process of extracting a flower’s scent to make the top notes in a perfume is very elaborate and time-consuming: it takes 100 kg of petals to yield just 1 litre of essential oil.

Finally, synthetic imitations of animal secretions and real ambergris are used, sparingly, as fixatives. In the days when real musk and civet were used, scents lasted for decades and were sexier than they are today because the animals,secretions are so similar to our own. Real ambergris holds its scent for centuries.

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