The Fragrance Creation Process: From Inspiration To Release

How does a perfumer turn a fragrance concept into a finished perfume? Why are many months required to bring a new fragrance to life? This description of the fragrance creation process is written from the artisan point of view since that is what I know best, but the steps are similar whether done on a large or small scale.

Light Bulb iconInspiration

The inspiration is the easy part! The original concept for a new scent might be based on a person, place, mood, fragrance ingredient, or another art form such as music, literature, or visual art. The inspiration could come directly from the perfumer’s personal experience, or the concept could come from a client or creative director in the form of a fragrance brief. The perfumer might need to research the subject to fully understand the client’s vision. The name of the scent might be part of the concept, but name availability must be checked to ensure that the name is not already in use. As in other areas of life, product ideas are more plentiful than time to complete them!

Defining The Notes

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The perfumer first chooses the notes and ingredients that will provide the scent’s main theme and structure. The fragrance concept usually defines some of the notes, but the perfumer must decide which ingredients should be used to create those notes and which ingredients to use as supporting notes. Many notes are created with accords of multiple ingredients. The perfumer might put drops of ingredients onto paper blotter strips (mouillettes) and fan the strips out, sniffing different combinations of the strips to help decide which ingredients to use in the scent.

Writing The Initial Formula

The method of formulation varies a bit from one perfumer to another. Some perfumers immediately write a complete formula with top, middle, and base notes, while other perfumers break the scent down to work on parts independently before putting the parts together. Perfumers often work on accords separately to use later in the full formula.

chocolate_key_new_smProfessional perfumers work in measurements of weight (grams) rather than in measurements of volume (drops or ml) because weight is more accurate and can be scaled up to large batches. Most perfumers write formulas in a spreadsheet that calculates the weight percentage of each ingredient in the formula based on the perfumer’s specified ingredient concentrations and amounts. Knowing the ingredient percentages is important because the perfumer has developed, over years, a feeling for reasonable percentages of each ingredient. Percentages also help the perfumer follow safety guidelines such as those established by IFRA. Perfume formulas are traditionally written for a total of 1000 grams (1 kilo), but the formula can be scaled to any desired total amount once the ingredient percentages are known.

The image above shows a short example formula, from Perfumer Supply House, for the Givaudan chocolate key accord, which is not meant to be a perfume by itself but can be used as a rich chocolate note in perfumes. Some sample formulas are also shown on the Firmenich website, such as a demo formula featuring their beautiful rose base called Wardia. Most spreadsheets for full perfume formulas would include more ingredients than these simple examples, and the spreadsheet would include columns for ingredient concentrations and percentages in the finished product as well as a scaling factor to increase/decrease batch size. Perfumers usually develop their own spreadsheet format  tailored to their method of formulating.

Weighing Out The First Trial Batch

scalecropWhen the formula looks promising, the perfumer weighs out a small batch on a scale. Most artisan perfumers start by making small amounts with at least some of the ingredients in dilution. Small batches conserve ingredients and save money, which is wise given that the perfumer will likely need to make many trial versions, often called mods (short for modifications).

When making a tiny batch, say 10-30 grams, even one drop of some ingredients might be too much, so pre-diluting becomes necessary. Some ingredients in formulas need to be used at orders of magnitude less than others. For example, aldehydes, geosmin, civet, indole, and birch tar are some ingredients that are used in very small amounts.

Perfumers at larger companies often have lab assistants who weigh out the mods, and some labs have sophisticated machines that help with weighing formulas. Artisan perfumers create mods by hand themselves and dream about those formula batching machines!

First Skin Test

Each time the perfumer weighs out a formula, he or she tests the result on skin and/or on paper scent strips. After sniffing, the perfumer adjusts the amounts of ingredients in the formula and might even add or remove a few ingredients. Evaluating each mod can require several wears, and the perfumer might need a few days away from the scent occasionally to freshen his/her nose. Working on two or more scents at once can actually help keep the nose fresh.

Creating Mods, Testing, And Getting Feedback

This smells lovely!The process continues with the creation of successive mods followed by testing on skin and paper, often comparing mods to each other to determine which mod is best. At some point, the perfumer asks other people to test mods. In the case of larger fragrance houses, this step likely includes professional fragrance evaluators, clients, and/or creative directors. Testing the formula on multiple people is important because each person’s nose, skin, and preferences are different. Sometimes feedback can be contradictory; for example, some people might say the scent has too much of one note while others might say they would prefer more of that note. The perfumer collects all the input and then tries to adjust the formula to work for as many people as possible, while also fulfilling the overall fragrance concept.

A fascinating and beautiful description of the fragrance formulation process is given in an interview with perfumer Michel Roudnitska on the Bois de Jasmin blog. Roudnitska says that he spent two years creating about 300 trials before finishing the scent Bois de Paradis for the brand Delrae. (The effort was worthwhile for the gorgeous result!) In an interview on Fragrantica, Firmenich perfumer Olivier Cresp says that fragrance creation takes a few hundred modifications. It is interesting, and perhaps somewhat comforting to indies and artisans, that even the great master perfumers create many trial mods.

Final Mod And Scaling Up The Formula

As with many creative endeavors, it can be hard to decide when to call the product done. The perfumer by nature feels the urge to keep tinkering, but eventually the formula is hard to improve any further and input from testers/clients/creative directors confirms that the final mod meets the goals and has some special appeal.

Once the final mod is chosen, the perfumer scales up the formula to production size. The perfumer adjusts the formula in the spreadsheet to increase the concentrations of most or all of the ingredients to 100% (neat), thus creating a nearly alcohol-free concentrate. All the alcohol is added after batching the concentrate, which is much more efficient than working in dilutions but is only possible when making larger batches.

The perfumer often creates a few final mods, diluting small trial sizes of the concentrate with different amounts of alcohol to determine the optimal final concentration of the finished fragrance. If several different concentrations are desired for multiple end products, like an edp and a parfum, the perfume concentrate formula will often need to be different for each end product.

Regulatory Paperwork

If the perfume will be sold in countries that require regulatory paperwork, these steps must be done once the final formula is complete and before the scent is released. Some countries require the fragrance to pass a product safety assessment, receive a certificate of IFRA compliance, and be registered. Modifications to the formula could be required, but most formulating is done with the regulations in mind to prevent the need for changes at this late stage. The final formula also determines the EU allergen listing for the packaging.

Batching, Maturing, And Macerating

With the formula done, the perfumer or a lab weighs out a large production size batch. The new blend will benefit from sitting to age in a cool, dark place for a least a few weeks to a month or more. This aging is usually done after adding the alcohol, but aging can be done before adding the alcohol as well. When the perfume concentrate sits for a few weeks before being diluted to the final concentration with alcohol, this aging stage is called maturing. When the perfume concentrate is diluted to the final concentration with alcohol and then sits for a few weeks to a month or more, this aging stage is called maceration. Different perfumers have their own customary ways of maturing and macerating, and their procedure can vary from one of their perfumes to another.

filters2sm Filtering

After maturing and macerating, the fragrance needs to be filtered to remove particulates that accumulate from natural ingredients like resins. Many perfumers put the perfume in a freezer or refrigerator for a short time immediately before filtering because that extra step prevents particulates from dropping out later if the perfume is subjected to low temperatures.


Bottling And Release!

Woman crossing the finish lineMonths have gone by, and now the perfume has been formulated, batched, matured/macerated, and filtered. Finally, the perfume is ready to bottle! The fragrance can now be added to websites and sold, if it will be released commercially.

The release stage and the inspiration stage are two of the most exciting parts of the perfume creation process, partly because they are shared with other people. More solitary moments of excitement and breakthrough occur when the formula starts to come together or when a specific formulation problem is solved. The process is addictive and is especially satisfying when multiple testers start to say that they would like a bottle for themselves. The process of bringing a perfume from concept to production requires a significant investment of time, money, and patience, but it can be very satisfying for the perfumer and the creative team, and with luck the end result is satisfying for customers as well.

Update

We’ve had lots of holiday orders, and we are busy shipping packages. USPS and UPS can run a bit slow this time of year, so it’s a good idea to allow a little extra delivery time if you are ordering a gift. If time is tight, send me an email and we might choose a faster shipping method if possible.

I started writing a blog post ages ago about the fragrance creation process, and I finally just finished the article to post tonight. I thought this might be a topic of interest and would add to the library of perfumery posts here on the blog.

Hope you’re having a great holiday season! 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Sending best wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving to those who celebrate tomorrow!

In addition to my usual things to be thankful for, I am extremely thankful this year that our home is unharmed after the fires. I’m so grateful to the firefighters. We’ll be gathering at my parents house tomorrow, and for a while we were not sure that would happen this year. My older niece is a freshmen at UC Berkeley, and it will be fun to hear how her classes and dorm life are going. My younger niece started high school this year, and I’m also looking forward to hearing what is new for her.

We have been shipping lots of SSS orders daily since the reopening on Nov 16, but so far we are keeping up.

I’m always grateful to be part of the fragrance community and to share this journey with you. Many thanks to all of you, and may you have a wonderful holiday with friends and family!

Reopening Notes

I have put the cart up, but I am still low on Jour Ensoleillé and Yin & Ylang and will only have sample sizes in those until we can batch them. Bee’s Bliss samples and 5 ml are available now, and bottles will be available next week. Ambre Noir is out of stock likely until after the holidays.

Review of Bees Bliss and Reopening November 16

I plan to put the shopping cart buttons back up this Thursday, November 16.

Today, Cafleurebon posted a lovely review of the upcoming new release called Bee’s Bliss. Thanks so much for your beautiful writing, Ida! Cafleurebon is hosting a draw for a half ounce bottle of Bee’s Bliss, which officially launches in December, so follow the link and enter if you’d like a chance to win.

Update: Reopening and new scent coming

I am planning to open the SSS site for orders again approximately Nov 16.  I still have a lot of restocking to do, but that is my goal. I might not have every scent in stock by then.

I plan to release Bee’s Bliss, one of the two new scents that I have been working on, before the end of the year.  It has notes of bergamot, apricot, peach, orange blossom, jasmine, mimosa, lilac, heliotrope, iris, beeswax, honey, vetiver, green leaves, benzoin, amber, oakmoss, patchouli, and musk. It’s a sunny celebration of a summer garden in bloom.

I’ll post more updates as the opening gets closer! 🙂

Back Home

We just got home today after evacuating the fires a bit over a week ago. I’m very thankful that our homes are fine and very grateful that my brother and SIL were able to take us all in (it was nice to spend time with family). It’s been a stressful week worrying about our houses, but it ended well for us.

My heart aches for all the people who were not so lucky. It’s going to take a lot of time for people and the community to recover. Air quality was horrible outside when we got here this afternoon (we needed our breathing masks), but the smoke cleared out later and the air is good tonight. I think the smoke will vary depending on the winds, and masks will just be part of life for a while when going outside. Tomorrow night’s predicted light rain might help a lot.

SSS will remain closed for a bit. I still want to try to release at least one of the two new scents before year’s end. I lost 12 days of work to the fire crisis, so that will delay the reopening. That is minor compared to potential loss of life or home though.

I’m just so very thankful to be back tonight and find everything in good shape. Thanks again so much for keeping us in your thoughts. ❤

Sonoma Fire Update

SSS is closed for now. I am at my brother’s house south of SF. We had to evacuate the Sonoma fires, but we are safe. We are worried about our houses because the fire is very close and winds can spread it quickly. Firefighters are there though, doing great work. Hoping for the best and will update when I can. Thanks so much for your concern; it means a lot to me. ❤

Fall Update

I’m nearly done with the new floral scent and am scaling up the formula. I’ll post more about it here on the blog, along with a link to the webpage for the scent. Some of the main notes are mimosa, orange blossom, jasmine, lilac, and beeswax/honey.

I’m also hoping to finish the chocolate gourmand in time for the holidays, but we’ll see.  I’ve taken the shopping cart down in order to have more time to work on scaling up these two formulas.

It sure feels like fall! We have a little family of deer living nearby; they graze on acorns under our oaks (we have a huge acorn crop this fall), and they reach what they can of my roses over the garden fence. The family includes a buck, a doe, and a fawn. Very cute.  We also have a skunk living nearby; we’ve not seen him, but we can sure smell him!

Here is the doe, deciding if she should ignore me and keep eating, or flee. Photo quality is poor because it is a screen shot from a little movie clip that I took with my phone.

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The doe, going back to munching on my rose from outside the garden fence (I was deemed to be non-threatening). 🙂

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Goldenrod in the late afternoon light. I love the warm afternoon light in fall.

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Light through the oak trees.

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