Tincturing Ambergris


Since I have time on my break, I decided to start a little tincturing project with New Zealand beach-collected ambergris. I bought a couple of pieces, two grams each, and I purchased an automatic stirrer to run a few hours each day. It will take quite a few months (2-6) before I’ll know if I like the result. I bought one type called White Gold (pictured above) and another type called Antique. The Antique smells softer and less animalic; it is subtly sweet with a dusty incense note. The White Gold seems a bit stronger and has a noticeable animalic note. I’m trying 10% tinctures, which is indulgent for such an expensive ingredient, but I want them to be strong. I’ve smelled 1% and 3% tinctures for sale that seemed weaker than I want.

The magnetic stir machines are ingenious. You put a little stir rod into your bottle (the rod looks like a medicine capsule), and then you turn on the base unit that looks like a hot plate and the bar inside your bottle starts to twirl. Some of the units combine a hot plate with the magnetic stirring, and others just have the stir option. They’re useful for tinctures that benefit from hours of gentle stirring.

We’ll see how these turn out! If one is good I could buy more ambergris. I wouldn’t use it in many formulas, but it can add a beautiful effect to a special offering.

Update/Checking In

I’m still on break but wanted to check in. My left arm is not back into action yet. That will teach me not to try to get large items down from over my head in the supply closet… I do feel progress, but it’s slow.

I needed a lightweight laptop and a back-up to my old Dell, so I recently got a Macbook Pro. This is my first Mac, and I’m having fun with it. Light enough to carry with my right hand, and small enough to use in my lap. I got it a week before this arm injury, and it has been really wonderful right now.

I loved this post today on Bois de Jasmin about trying new scents and savoring fragrance. I relate to everything Victoria wrote.

Fellow artisan perfumer Ayala of Ayala Moriel Perfumes wrote a review of Cocoa Sandalwood recently. Thanks, Ayala! I don’t have as much experience with all-natural formulas as you do, so I very much respect your thoughts 🙂

Fall is just around the corner here. We’re having our late summer heat, but it’s not the kind of killer heat that comes in midsummer. I have tomatoes on the vine, and the last of the lettuce. I love fall, but it’s bittersweet for me because it means summer is gone for another year, and summer is my favorite season.

The Bottling Process

I receive questions from time to time about how the scents are bottled, so I thought I’d describe the process a little bit. My method is probably similar to that of many other small indie perfumers.

As orders come in, I bottle the scents at the time of order. I offer so many bottle sizes that it is impossible to predict what sizes people will want, so I do not keep any full 5 ml, 17 ml, or 34 ml bottles in stock for any scent. We do fill sample vials of all scents weekly and keep a box with drawers full of 1 ml and 3 ml samples to make it easy to fill sample orders.

I keep a few cabinet shelves full of filtered batches of each scent, and we use those large bottles to fill samples and perfume bottles as orders come in. In addition to those filtered bottles, I keep large bottles of unfiltered juice in reserve for all scents. When we run out of filtered juice for a scent, I filter the waiting unfiltered batch that has now matured, and then we batch the scent again to put a new unfiltered batch into storage. I make larger batch sizes of the most popular scents. This method ensures that I never have to sell old stock. Everything turns over and is fresh, and there’s no waste. It also lets us quickly adapt to changing sales patterns of scents, which happens with the seasons, for example. Only small indie companies can run this way, and it is one advantage to being small. (There are disadvantages too, like not getting economies of scale, so it’s nice to appreciate the positives when they pop up!)

Wild Roses and Killer Tuberose, Oh My!

I didn’t try many new releases in 2012, but I wanted to mention two all-natural floral perfumes that I enjoyed trying this year.

Ayala Moriel’s Treazon is a gorgeous tuberose scent that has more tuberose absolute than any perfume I’ve ever smelled (she referred to it as her killer tuberose while she was working on it). If you judge tuberose by perfumes like Fracas, then you’ve not smelled anything like this. Mixed media perfumes blend synthetics with tuberose absolute to produce a tuberose accord that is different than what you’ll find in an all-natural perfume. If you’ve smelled the all-natural perfume HonorĂ© des PrĂ©s Vamp a New York, then you are familiar with the scent of natural tuberose absolute, though I like Ayala’s Treazon better. Tuberose can be a difficult note for some people, and some will find the first few minutes of Treazon to be unusual. The birch adds a wintergreen note, and it combines with the anise and tuberose to produce a medicinal effect. The wintergreen gradually fades as the tuberose blooms. Benzoin, vanilla absolute, and massoia bark create a sweet and delicious base accord. Massoia bark has a wonderful lactonic coconut scent and is very long lasting on the skin; it is prohibited by IFRA, so I have not used it in a formula even though I love the scent. African stone tincture adds a subtle animalic note to the base of Treazon, and orris provides some beautiful powdery/woodsy/ionone notes. The drydown is truly gorgeous and lasts quite a few hours. The price is painful because of the high level of tuberose absolute, but if you love tuberose it is fun to try.

Mandy Aftel’s new Wild Roses is a beautiful and exuberant blend. The rose accord is lush, and as a rose lover I find it irresistible. The heliotrope, pimento berry, and apricot add delicious supporting notes, and the indole (combined with the patchouli) adds just enough dirtiness without becoming overly animalic. The natural isolate dimethyl anthranilate adds a soft, fruity orange blossom floral note. The tarragon is noticeable but not strong, so it adds interest without distracting from the main show. The drydown features vanilla and patchouli, and the rose note lasts for a long time considering the perfume is all natural. The ingredients come together to give the impression of a rose garden in full bloom, perfect for those who love lush and spicy rose scents.

I long ago gave up trying to sample all, or even most, of the new niche releases, but I’m trying to sample a few of the indie releases that sound most interesting to me. I’ll try to do more of that next year.

For the aspiring natural perfumers out there…

Here is a great drawing for those of you who want to learn more about natural perfumery. Ayala of Ayala Moriel Parfums is holding a drawing for a copy of her Foundation In Natural Perfumery Handbook. I know some of you are playing around with blending, and this could be a big help to you. I’ve not seen it myself, but knowing Ayala I am sure it would be a valuable read.

I’m working on an all natural amber accord right now for one of my projects. It’s fun to challenge myself not to use any little bit of synthetic amber, woods, or musk in the base. I’m using two or three natural isolates, along with some of my favorite EOs, CO2s, and absolutes. I’m enjoying this.

Panel Discussion on Day One of Elements Showcase

There were several panel discussions at Elements Showcase today, and there will be several more tomorrow. One panel today was based on a new Robertet rose petal distillation that several perfumers used to build new perfumes. After Robertet explained their rose distillation, the perfumers discussed their creation process. Avery Gilbert, scent scientist, was there and wrote a summary of the event on his blog.

Mandy Aftel was one of the perfumers who created a scent with the Robertet rose for the panel discussion. She named it Wild Roses, and it has notes of rose, apricot, tarragon, and woods. I look forward to smelling it!

Mark Behnke wrote a very interesting post about his visit to Robertet, where he sniffed ingredients and learned how Robertet produces their special fractionated ingredients.

I’m looking forward to more details on this panel and on the other panels, including one on “art and commerce, can they co-exist” and one on trends in perfumery ingredients.

Updated to add:
Fragrantica has just posted a nice article by Ida Meister covering the Robertet roses panel discussion.


I just put Nostalgie samples on the site this evening. I will put bottles up in a few days, probably Wed or Thursday. Quite a few orders came in this weekend, so it’s been busy.

Someone let me know that I received a favorite indie perfumer of 2011 award on this Hungarian blog. It’s fun to see how fragrance lovers are united around the world by a common interest. Even though I can’t read the language (without Google translate anyway!), I recognize the other perfumes and brands in the list.

My copy of “Scent and Chemistry: The Molecular World of Odors” just arrived on Friday, and it looks like an excellent book. In addition to lots of information on aroma chemicals and essential oils, it also discusses percentages of various ingredients in many well-known scents, both niche and designer. I found it interesting to read the long list of scents that have massive doses of Galaxolide (including Kiehl’s Original Musk at 92.8%!), and massive doses of ISO E Super (like CdG Kyoto at 55% and CdG Jaisalmer at 51%). We’ve seen lists of scents with huge ISO E doses before, so this is no surprise. I think the ISO E trend has peaked though. Perfumers seem to have a tendency to go a little crazy with great new ingredients when they are first introduced, leading to a series of releases featuring the same ingredient.

I should have an update on a new project in a few days.

A Note on The Idea of a Brand’s Signature Base

People comment that they often find a note or accord that seems to run in common between multiple scents in the same line. For example, people talk of the Guerlinade base, or the Tauerade base, or the way the Chanel brand’s style is associated with aldehydes. I can’t speak for other brands, but I’d like to address this notion a little bit with respect to my own line.

There is no single ingredient that is in all my scents other than the alcohol base. The aromatic ingredients are formulated from scratch for every scent, with no standard “base accord” used in common. In fact, I’ve not made my own accords to use in scents the way many perfumers do; that is, I formulate a new “amber” or “musk” or “sandalwood” accord for every scent rather than blending one standard accord to use repeatedly every time I need “amber” or “sandalwood” etc. This approach takes more time, but it allows me to customize each scent to try to avoid a sameness from one scent to another.

That said, I obviously have some likes and dislikes, so labdanum, sandalwoods, cedars, and musks find their way into many of my scents. The exact ingredients and accords are different, but if you tend to dislike some of the notes that I use frequently, you might need to eliminate a number of my scents from being possibilities for you. And even if you do like the notes and ingredients, if your sensitivities are radically different than mine, the scents might not be balanced to your taste. I think part of the reason we have favorite perfumers is because our scent receptors have a lot in common with theirs in terms of our sensitivities.

I’ll give some examples to help you understand a little more where I’m coming from. Let’s briefly talk about ingredient accords for musk, sandalwood, amber, and cedar.

When I add a musk accord to a scent, I can choose between the 11 synthetic musks I currently stock (like muscone, isomuscone, cosmone, ambrettolide, muscenone, velvione, habanolide, etc) plus the many natural ingredients I stock that have musky facets (like labdanum, angelica root, and ambrette seed). I can then add animalic facets to the musk accord with items like castoreum and/or civet and/or para cresyls, etc. I will usually choose several of the synthetics and several of the naturals to include in the blend. Each synthetic musk has a slightly different character and those variations determine which I choose for any particular formula (synthetic musks have different degrees of powder, sweetness, floral notes etc). At first I did not realize how common it was for people to be anosmic to some musks, but more recently I have been trying to make my blends work whether people can smell musk or not. I’ve not yet found a musk that I can’t smell, and even though I’m not anosmic to them I’m also not overly sensitive to them so they don’t cause me headaches or block out the rest of the scent as they seem to do for some folks.

Other accords work the same way. A sandalwood note might be composed of several of the many synthetic sandalwood ingredients I have (things like Javanol, Polysantol, Ebanol, etc), plus several of the natural sandalwoods I have (currently Mysore, New Caledonia, and Australian). An amber accord might be built with a synthetic or two (things like Ysamber K, Timberol, Cedramber etc) plus many naturals (like labdanum, benzoin, tolu, vanilla, spices, woods). A cedar note might come from a mix of natural sources (like Texas, Atlas, Virginia) plus a synth or two (like CedrAmbre, ISO E Super).

I literally have hundreds of ingredients, both synth and natural, so the possibilities for new combinations are nearly limitless. Sometimes one scent will lead to an idea for another, for example the plum note in Wood Violet led to the idea of Vintage Rose. If you dislike the plum in one you may dislike it in both. A number of my earlier scents used ISO E Super, but I’m using that less often now because it seems to have been overused in perfumery. ISO E Super is very useful at times though; if we were to give up ISO E we would lose modern classics like Feminite du Bois and Terre d’Hermes. ISO E causes problems for some people, either coming and going or smelling like pickles. To me it is very steady, with no disappearing act, and it has facets of cedar, amber, musk, and floral.

I always try to keep an open mind, realizing that no single scent will work for everyone. I try to tweak my formulas to work for as many people as I can, but it’s not possible to have a 100% hit rate. I’m sure that my scent preferences and my genetic receptor sensitivities do set up a certain style that is recognizable, but it’s not because I’m intentionally using some standard ingredients in every scent’s base. I’ve found some people dislike ISO E Super or Javanol or labdanum or certain musks or heliotrope or something else, and I can help steer them away from sampling those scents that contain their kryptonite ingredients. 🙂 And by the way, I do have my own kryptonite ingredients. I can’t tolerate much in the way of ozone or melon, even the mild ozone in green synthetic notes and lily of the valley aroma chemicals.

I also think my style is evolving as I go. I’m trying to use higher and higher levels of naturals, and I’m using less synthetic musk. I’m also exploring some new territory — I’m currently working on my first scent with a noticeable civet note, and I have plans for a couple dry masculine scents. There are always new things to learn, and I hope to keep building and improving as the years go by.

Hope that’s helpful background information to some degree! I’ll have a Christmas post tomorrow…

Updated to add:

I forgot to mention that some ingredients function as part of several accords since ingredients generally have multiple facets to them. For example violet leaf adds to the green notes and the leather notes in a scent; jasmine adds floral and animalic notes; Javanol adds sandalwood, musk, and some vague floral notes; ISO E Super adds cedar, amber, floral, and musk-like notes; osmanthus adds floral, apricot, and leather notes, etc. I don’t think of each ingredient as part of just one accord; I tend to think of most ingredients as belonging to multiple accords. I suppose each perfumer has a different way of working though. You could assign ingredients to the note/accord they contribute to the most and just realize they will influence other accords as well, but I tend to view the whole formula as an entity instead. I do sometimes break pieces of a formula out to work on separately for a while — maybe the heart or the base or the floral notes etc. I don’t formulate in pieces that I then try to put together at the end though.

And when I gave the little examples above, those weren’t meant to be exhaustive. A typical sandalwood accord would include other things besides sandalwood ingredients, like ionones, creamy notes, possibly vetiver and cedar and musk, etc. Again, those auxiliary notes are playing multiple roles in the formula. It sounds complex, but it’s more intuitive once you start playing with ingredients, and I’m probably not explaining it very well. I’d have to work on a write-up for a while to make a better organized explanation, and I’ll save that for another day.

A few IFRA-related notes on massoia bark and oakmoss

I noticed a few IFRA-related things in the news recently that I thought might be of interest.

Hermes is releasing a perfume by Jean-Claude Ellena called Santal Massoia. The notes sound delicious, a milky blend of sandalwood and massoia, which is a lactonic coconut scented oil produced from the bark of the massoia tree. The interesting twist is that oil from massoia bark is prohibited by IFRA because it can cause skin irritation, so the massoia note in this perfume is likely constructed with synthetic lactones, not with natural masssoia bark, unless they’ve come up with a massoia oil that is IFRA-approved. Massoia bark oil is completely prohibited in fragrance rather than limited to a low usage rate, though you see it used sometimes by natural perfumers who choose not to follow IFRA guidelines. Bo Jensen’s great site has an entry for massoia if you’re curious to read more about it.

Another item in the news that brought IFRA to my mind: Basenotes posted a teaser for an upcoming interview with Guerlain’s perfumer Thierry Wasser. Interviewer Marian Bendeth asks Wasser about the difficulties of reformulating to meet ever-changing IFRA regulations, and he mentions that he now has a natural moss that meets IFRA standards. This is true, we have a natural moss that has had nearly all the atranol allergens removed, but even that is restricted to 0.1% in a formula, which is not going to give you vintage Mitsouko. It will be interesting to read the full interview. I have wondered if the industry will come up with a natural moss that IFRA will approve at a higher usage rate, but I’ve not heard of any such product yet (just synthetic reconstitutions). I love the natural low-atranol moss we have but wish we could use it at a higher rate. Combining it with moss-replacing synthetics can help.