Learning Perfume Notes

It’s rare that I write perfume reviews here, mostly because I am not as interested in ingredients per se as I am in the overall effect of all of them combined.  It’s high time though that I became better acquainted with the nuances of notes, both natural and synthetic, to enhance my experience of scent.  Spring is awakening my nose to the bounty of seasonal smells, and I am eager to sharpen my olfactory vocabulary.

I purchased a notes kit from The Perfumer’s Apprentice, a well known and respected supplier of everything you need to make fragrances.  Containing 40 small bottles of natural and synthetic pre-diluted solutions, the set comes “ready to smell” with pipettes and paper blotters to get you started without a moment’s hesitation.  There are also empty bottles in case you decide to blend, but these fragrant fluids aren’t really meant to be used to create perfumes.  A handy guide, produced by the Perfumer’s Apprentice, gives some background on the notes, from their origins to perfumes that contain them.

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Here are the notes included in the set:

Synthetics: Adoxal, Aldehyde C12 MNA, Aldehyde C14 (Persicol), Allyl Amyl Glycolate, Ambrox DL/Ambrofix/Ambroxan, Calone, Cassis, Civet, Coumarin, Dihydromyrcenol, Galaxolide, Habanolide, Hedione, Helional, Heliotropin, Ionone Alpha, Isobutavan, Iso E Super, Kephalis, Leaf Alcohol, Lilial, Linalool, Lyral, Mandarin Aldehyde, Melonal, Methyl Pamplemousse, Muguet (Hydroxycitronellal), Musk Ketone (Nitro musk), Quinoline, Tonalide (Macro musk), Vertofix Coeur

Naturals: Bergamot, Black Pepper, Frankincense, Galbanum, Helichrysum, Jasmine Absolute, Rose Absolute (Bulgarian), Sandalwood, Vetiver

I started with one of the more controversial notes out there, Helichrysum, also known as Immortelle and Strawflower.  It’s not a smell I love–it reminds me of burnt maple sugar mixed with hay in all of the sweet bitterness they connote.  I can see how it brings out the green in a fougère, can add a bite to an Oriental, and puts the saccharine into a big gourmande.  Luca Turin says it smells like curry but I don’t get that at all.  L’Eau d’Hesperides by Diptyque is the one I associate the most with immortelle, though there are many more out there.

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Immortelle.  Image courtesy fragrantica.com.

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Next up: Australian sandalwood. I decided to go from a smell I don’t like to one that I adore.  Sandalwood has strong personal associations for me because it’s in incense and the Chinese like to carve boxes and make fans with it.  My favorite perfume featuring sandalwood is Montale’s Dark Aoud that hits you over the head with its warm spiciness.  When I applied the diluted solution to my blotter, I couldn’t smell it initially.  I had to add more to the blotter for the characteristics to really come through, while the Helichrysum assaulted my nose at first sniff.  I get wintergreen at the beginning, but then the balsamic sweetness reveals itself timidly, going against my idea of sandalwood as a rich and robust aroma.  Nevertheless, it’s there, but in a sheer, diaphanous way.

Lessons learned: Natural and synthetic compositions experienced one by one in these diluted formulas can only give an inkling as to what a perfumer can do with them in combination.  Aromas from these gorgeous little vials, handled properly, create the perfumes we love and enjoy.  As far as making perfumes myself, I’m going to leave that to the experts.

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