Lessons In Perfumery 9

lessons in perfumery 9

One of the things that I’m learning from developing other skills like drawing and painting, is how important it is to free myself from the need to be perfect to create something, anything, when what really matters is the truth that even a creation that sucks is better than not having created anything at all.  Those other arts help me do that.

It’s imperative to find a way to freedom from perfection because this need to put perfection before presence kills more dreams than any dictator ever has.

Sad really.

Of course I get it, many good perfumery materials are expensive and the typical amateur perfumer has a limited budget and feels a great need to not waste a single drop of juice and create something perfect the first go.


Even if success does happen right away, not an impossibility, what is more important is if we are able to reproduce that success. If we are not we’re screwed. Not only but perfection is in direct opposition to the terms beginner, or perfumer in training, student, apprentice, or amateur. We have effectively built ourselves a great prison of procrastination leaving it impossible to be what we are, absolute beginners. There will never be another time for us to be free to make mistakes as when we are beginners, and yet we hastily want to cash in those chips for perfection. We must be free. We must leave room for serious and frequent mess ups it’s the only way out and forward.

This is why being present is so important. For each one of us it will look like something different. For me it means, sitting down every day – typically in the winter this means starting a fire in a room that is 14° – of every week to do scent evaluations which gets me closer to the insights, the happy coincidences, the intuiting possible accords which in turn gets me closer to a scent that I like, that works, that’s in line with an original vision or plan.

There’s no way around it, plan to be present every day for your scent encounters and it will be like taking your vitamin C and eating lots of fruit during the winter time, it won’t immunise you from a cold or the flu, but it’s good insurance that you’ll get stuff done and move forward in your learning.

Have a wonderful week,



lessons in perfumery 7


Of the many lessons in perfumery that are part of our never ending training I think this one is one of the most important, especially when one is self-taught: our life is our classroom – if we allow it, and we continue to learn about perfumery even after we finish evaluating or composing for the day, the boundaries are set much, much wider.

I get the sense that my formal perfume training is making me a better cook, (yes, I can almost here you saying, ‘no, duh!'”).  But honestly, it was not something I expected, not at all.

The other day I made an appetizer for dinner of octopus and potatoes (and no, LV is not undernourished), some tuna on the side, yummy bread from our favourite local baker and a luscious green salad.

What I began to notice was a growing confidence as I threw in a bay leaf (LV’s suggestion – I thought he was comatose in front of the tele but then he chimes in with that!), some lemon juice, a bit of salt from Cervia, potatoes, parsley of course and voilà! But the real surprise was this was all done with nary a taste of the spoon! I made a dish with my nose and instinct alone, something I would never had had the belief in myself to do before. A few days agoI had also managed a ravioli filling (brasato, lonza and mortadella) all without tasting it that even my mother and sister-in-law and LV (the official family taster) said was near perfection – oh, the goosebumps.

Wowwww. I stood there in wonder like a child on Christmas day, inwardly ogling my gift. This gift was nothing I could actually touch but it was precious just the same:  my success in the kitchen had brought me to a new level of awareness and application, confidence really, with my nose. One tiny step at a time I am becoming a perfumer, it was an awareness that descended upon me like a gentle spring rain, that I was beginning to trust and make use of the connection between my nose and my brain.

Let yourself be taught by everything around and within you. As a perfumer in training the only walls we encounter are those created in our mind when we fail to find words that adequately describe our olfactive experience in the moment. Therefore, to move beyond those restrictions it’s important to let life teach us all that we need to know about the olfactive arts.

With this I pose a Christmas challenge: over the holidays, try to see how many smells you can train your nose to remember that are specific to this particular holiday season then, in January let’s see how many we can actually remember!  Leave a comment if you want to join in.

With one more post coming before the new year, have a wonderful weekend!



perfume making lesson 6


Perfume making: lesson 6 when you’re done experimenting or formulating for the day, bloody well, stop! Not one more drop, no, not right after this last ingredient, leave your curiosity exactly where it is drop it and leave.  Why? Because if you push the process (experience speaking) what usually ends up happening is a mess. Everyone has their own limits and you, the perfumer, are going to have to find yours.

I typically start at 8:30/9am and go till around 5 or 6pm. But there are times when I’m just so inspired by a new combination and I want to rush off in sorts of olfactive directions and that kind of creative energy (in me at least) needs discipline.

So, the other day when I told myself I’d call it quits and didn’t, “just one more ingredient!” I ended up adding Neroli eo to my Iris accord instead of to the cologne vials where I should have added it!

The next morning I had to reformulate the whole lot from scratch!  And from that moment I have made it a rule that whenever I get the nudge to stop that I stop and don’t push myself beyond my limitations because of impatience.  Tiredness in my case makes me do stupid things and it’s only lately that I recognise it as exhaustion.

It may not seem like much but being in a studio, all day, smelling chemical compounds even if they’re natural and even if you love it, does have an effect on you after a while and that effect needs to be taken into account.  It’s different for every perfumer, some reach it sooner, others have a higher tolerance, and maybe the tolerance level builds after years of being exposed to concentrated smells, but they exist.

So to make sure you keep the love intact and don’t burn out. Set boundaries. Go out and o other stuff completely unrelated to perfumes and live life!




perfume making lesson 5


Perfume making: lesson 5 – document how you formulate your perfumes – and always use the same approach to establish a standard of production.

From the beginning it’s important to carefully observe how you move through the process of formulating (the steps of going from a test to a production) and methodically taking note of your system either by hand with pencil and a printed spreadsheet or automate the entire phase in Excel.

I don’t know about you but sometimes, it’s the smallest thing that can throw me off my game. As I’m learning perfumery I realise it’s the math – yes, I’ve said it before, I know.  But I needed a way to avoid stalling needlessly during the creation phase.  The answer for me was to develop a way to formulate, to take a formula from trial to production, and get it down cold – should I use the drops to volume or drops to mass method, what dilution should I use, should I wett my alcohol before or after? These questions and more needed to be answered in the process of production.  Each perfumer will approach these questions in a different way which will then become their personal method.

Grey areas, uncertainty about the motions, when I’m learning something are just a pain in the ass for me, and so I try to eliminate as many of them as I possibly can by establishing a personal process early on. Of course I’m fully aware and prepared for alterations as I deepen my learning and become more sure about my actions.

One can either choose to use the hand-written approach and convert the drops to either volume or mass by hand using a calculator or there is the option of using an excel spreadsheet with the calculations built in which automates the process. For the moment, even though I know I could use the spreadsheet, I like to know that I have a firm understanding of the mechanics behind the automation and so doing it by hand is a welcome exercise that gives me confidence in my newbie abilities.

Trouble is, or rather the confusion arises, when I catch on that there are different mathematical routes one can take to arrive at the same perfumed end result! I had to choose how to set about working through it, a way that would be my way: was I going to choose a volumes (liquid or ml) approach or the drops or the mass(weight or grams) approach? Whichever route I chose I would need to convert the drops to a larger scale.

Until I get a real handle on the technical aspects of formulating, my approach or interaction with the process and the materials will always be tentative. This will take time. The math, the calculations used need to be exact and work every time, not because I’m a perfectionist (well, I am, sort of) but so I can forget about it.  This simple act frees me from doubt and worry so I can redirect my energies toward creating which is where the fun is!

This perfume making lesson is about knowing your formulation process cold so you can forget about it and get on with creating and having fun!



lessons in perfumery #3


It’s the first day of Autumn as I write this (happy Autumn!) and here’s something key I’m learning: very, very, very important to have all raw materials at the same strength! Okay, save the odd ultra diffusive naturals (Galbanum), Nature IDs (Acetic Acid) and synthetics (Safraleine) for example.

When I first started with this adventure I read that the best, well the most useful, dilution is 10%, and while after two years I can’t argue with that because I evaluate best at high dilutions (e.g. 1% – 3%, that’s just my nose) 10% suited me fine.

Until…I had to move to formulating. The thing is when you formulate you dilute down not up, what I mean is, it is assumed your raw materials (other than your absolutes, synthetics and Nature IDs) are at full strength – 20%, 25%, 30%, 100% – whatever you have established as the perfumer. Therefore, I was facing a gap when wanting to make a perfume extrait. Yikes!  What now? Am I going to have to go back and re-jig all my raw materials???

What I didn’t realize is that the 10% dilutions are really only for evaluation and testing purposes but that when you move from trial to formula you are going to use your essential oils at 100% and your absolutes at extrait strength. Lightbulb moment! So when this batch of 10% dilutions finishes I’m going to make sure all of my absolutes are at my chosen extrait strength.

The interesting thing in perfumery is, you won’t get it till you gotta use it!  Said another way: you won’t have it figured out until you establish it as a process. When you can repeat it exactly again and again and again, then it works, then you have your process. Until then everything is pure theory and you can’t make perfumes with theory.

Besides that, we just came back from a two week holiday in Provence where I visited the Perfume Museum in Grasse, so lots to share in the next few weeks.  Hope you had a wonderful summer!

lessons in perfumery #2


Figuring out whether to keep all my trial vials or throw them out is a really gut-wrenching decision to make. I mean, on one hand there’s so much that I could learn from my failures at some future point when my skills are more finely tuned; also, who knows, they could mature into something beautiful. Couldn’t they? But on the other hand they are a constant reminder of what a long road I still have ahead of me and they take up a crap load of room, room that could be put to better use, like storing new supplies.

I couldn’t find a way around this dilemma which left me feeling like a dog chasing its tail. My answer came in the form of a list of criteria. Yeah! I love lists!

You will no doubt end up developing your own set based on different values but here, for the sake of sharing and learning, is what I’ve discovered to be my own personal set of criteria for judging whether a trial stays or goes:

  1. Parameters: how closely does it come to my original intent or brief on a scale of 1-10?
  2. Profile: does it have a recognizable profile? can I distinguish if it’s an amber, a chypre, a fougere or a leather?
  3. Character: does it have a distinct personality?
  4. Power: does it have the right potency for the desired effect?
  5. Longevity: how long does it last on paper and on the skin?
  6. Touch: does it touch a secret place in the heart, strike a chord or a special note?
  7. Unforgettable: do I find myself coming back to it again and again both physically and in my mind – am I haunted by it?

What criteria do you use to judge whether a composition is a keeper or not?


lessons in perfumery #1


The first “oh, my, God, that stinks!” is really hard to “swallow”, I don’t care what anyone says. I got mine last week when LV smelled one of my modifications and his reaction was like being slapped in the face. Ouch!

How not to get discouraged when creating is as important as creating itself and of course making a lot of duds is part and parcel of any sort of training.  But how do you get past it? Those less than pleasant reactions to formulas we sweat and agonised over for weeks, months even, are what help build our scent files about what doesn’t work for others because sometimes as artists we can be too close, too protective and not objective enough about our work.

One solution that combats these blues that seems to work for me is lots of experimentation.  By lots I mean anywhere between 5 -10 versions of a theme or an accord.  Something good, something unexpectedly wonderful, is bound to reveal itself. Doing it this way makes it much easier for me to accept and let go of the failures when I know I’ve got one or two mods I can run with.  Those one or two are what give me the inspiration to keep going.  I tried formulating one at a time but found myself getting way to invested and attached to the formula. For someone else it might be the perfect solution, but definitely not good for someone like me.

As perfumers we will instinctively create our own processes picking up pieces of how to work until the whole process becomes custom made like a bespoke piece of clothing.  I’ll share how I approach multiple formulation in the next post.  Have a wonderful Monday!


lessons in perfume making #4

By now, hopefully, you’ve guessed that I tend to write as I am, philosophical and inward-looking. I approach perfume making the same way, it couldn’t be otherwise.  Could it?


Being the solitary, introspective craft that perfume making is it tends to generate more questions that it appears to answer.  Freaking frustrating, but such is the nature of this beautiful work.  So here’s what I’ve been struggling with lately and as I haven’t been able to commit to an approach (until today) the result has been table “bottle neck” – that’s right, backlogged vials:  what is a perfumer to do with their “failed” attempts? Pour them down the drain or keep them in cold storage for future evaluations?  There’s something to be said for both choices and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

coming in for a landing
coming in for a landing

In praise of holding on: I get it, they are our creations, it’s like perfumicide or something.  In all honesty, it hurts.  Simple as that.  I’ve also read that many perfumers keep their trials as a way to evaluate their own educational progression.  And who knows, perhaps that duckling may turn into a swan in 6 months, you never know, so how can you bring yourself to part with a would be, could be, nugget?


In praise of letting go: the sensation is freeing.  You feel unencumbered by the past “mistake” and each time you start a new trial you really feel like you are starting fresh, from scratch but with the knowledge and experience of what didn’t work still impressed upon your olfactive memory.  That’s right, in a way you’re building olfactive muscle memory.  And anyway, if we’ve been diligent with our note taking then we have written proof of what doesn’t work.  Why keep the evidence to mock and taunt us?

it's always better together
it’s always better together

I have chosen the latter, for reasons that are purely personal, individual and speak of where I am now in my journey.  You will probably choose a different approach and that is perfectly perfect.


So, what’s up with the pictures?  Well, spring came really early here in the valley and I’ve been meaning to capture it on camera which is what I did today.  But I see now that it really fits perfectly with my choice to let go of my experiments.  Like Spring I enjoy the beauty and mistakes of every one of my creations and like Spring I know each of them must relinquish their place to another season of wonders, perhaps my masterpiece.  But it won’t come into being for me if I keep hanging on, so today they go down the tube.  Hello Spring!

Tomorrow (or today for some of you) is the first day of spring, make it beautiful!