Perfume Notes: 116 posts

Articles on perfume ingredients and fragrance terminology

My Top 3 Perfect Iris Perfumes

The first time I smelled iris absolute, I stood for a few minutes with a paper blotter under my nose before I regained my senses. In one instant, I saw frozen petals and snow covered trees, and while the image of a winter garden that the essence conjured was vivid, I couldn’t easily describe the fragrance of the material in front of me. It smelled like nothing I had encountered before, and pinning down its radiant but surprisingly potent scent proved difficult.

When perfumers talk about the materials in their palettes, they distinguish between those that provide character and those that give effects. Vanilla, for instance, bestows a touch of sweetness onto anything that brushes past it, be it fruit or leather, while patchouli has so many facets that it will change the whole impression of a composition, to the point of drowning out other more subtle notes. In the same vein, even a small dose of iris can change a perfume and lend it polish and elegance.

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Online Sources for Learning About Raw Materials

You have to be a sleuth to learn about perfumery. As I already mentioned several times on this blog, there is not one definitive textbook or publication that covers all of the fundamentals but if you’re prepared to search, you can find a wealth of sources. This applies particularly well to the study of perfumery raw materials. Soon enough you find yourself curious about more details than an average fragrance description provides. While articles like the kind I have published in Perfume Notes are helpful, it’s also useful to have a database reference on hand where you can look up the materials you know or scroll through the lists to discover something new. Where does the material come from? How is harvested? How is it processed?

The online raw material catalogs provided by fragrance and flavor suppliers are a great source. They’re typically compiled for potential customers, so they explain the origin of a material, its olfactory characteristics, processing and main components. They might also list regulatory stipulations and other useful details for those who work with these materials. These databases are constantly updated, so I recommend bookmarking them. For your convenience, I have compiled the databases I use the most for my work. I hope that you will find these useful.

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Osmanthus, Kinmokusei, Fragrant Olive and Its Perfumes

To inspire those of you who will be taking my Osmanthus classes.

Once the weather turns cool in Tokyo, a sweet perfume fills its streets. It escapes from the parks and enclosed gardens and for a few weeks it becomes a familiar presence in a city better known for its skyscrapers, electronics and cuisine than for its flowers. The tiny blossoms that give Tokyo its aroma are easy to miss, but the perfume is so vivid that osmanthus is sometimes called “a ten mile fragrance” tree. In Japanese, it’s known as kinmokusei, and in English it may be referred to as a “fragrant” or “Chinese” olive, hinting at the plant’s origins, but by any name, the aroma of ripe apricots, jasmine petals and leather is irresistible.

Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena was likewise enchanted by osmanthus, and he chose to pair it with a tea note in his fragrance for Hermès, Osmanthe Yunnan. Although Ellena was inspired by a visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing, his creation captures my memories of Tokyo in autumn. Every element in the perfume is delicately rendered, from the fruity notes that recall the softness of peach skin to the transparent white blossoms soaked in tea. The marriage of tea and osmanthus is a classical one, because both ingredients play up each other’s facets of fruits, woods, sweetness and bitterness. Osmanthe Yunnan is a happy perfume, and whenever I put it on, I feel as if I’ve stepped into a pool of sunlight.

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Hyacinth Perfumes and Spring Flower Notes

Spring is not spring for me unless it has hyacinths. I buy the forced bulbs and leave them around the apartment to wait for the moment when the flowers open up and fill the air with their perfume. The scent of hyacinth is not as delicate as that of many other spring blossoms; it’s rather heady and sweet, with an earthy note. It can be overwhelming, but the contrast is the reason why the fragrance of hyacinths appeals to me—and to other perfumers. Its complexity is an endless source of inspiration.

Hyacinth, like lily of the valley, lilac and gardenia, can’t be processed for essence, so perfumers have to create their own interpretation. Some emphasize the green, succulent facets of hyacinth, like Jean-Paul Guerlain in the legendary Chamade. Guerlain’s hyacinths are framed by the freshness of coriander and violet and the plushness of patchouli. The delicate sweetness of vanilla, an important note in all classics by the house, offsets the earthy darkness of hyacinth without obscuring it completely.  The effect of Chamade is airy, vibrant, and yet enveloping and warm.

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Pink Berries or Pink Peppercorns in Perfumes

If you’ve ever wondered what “solar musk,” “lunar petals” or “electric vanilla” smell like, you aren’t alone. Fragrance marketing lingo is in a world of its own, and I have given up trying to find the logic behind the use of terms that nobody, not even professionals, can untangle. A list of notes describes a perfume’s smell as well as an enumeration of pigments captures Mona Lisa’s smile. While notes can suggest whether a fragrance is predominantly floral, leathery or spicy, they can also be misleading.

One example is “pink berries.” The name hints at the scent of strawberries or raspberries, but instead, “pink berries” is a literal translation of baies roses, French for “pink pepper.” The rose colored berry of the shrub Schinus molle is unrelated to the black pepper plant, but it has a spicy, sharp scent reminiscent of crushed peppercorns with a touch of violet. Its presence in perfumes is confined to the top notes where it reveals its fiery temperament, but pink pepper’s piquancy is without bite. It softens readily, allowing the subsequent layers to shine, be they flowers or woods.

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