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


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.

A Possible New Way To Develop Safety Standards For Natural Perfumery Ingredients

Concern has been growing over the last few years that natural perfumery oils could be regulated out of existence because natural oils are complex mixtures of aroma chemicals and often contain chemicals that are limited by safety rules. A recent Perfumer & Flavorist article about a possible new way to safety test natural ingredients caught my eye, partly because of the parallels to current food and diet research.

In his article Will All of Our Flowers Be Gone?, Kim Bleimann (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Berjé Inc.) discusses whether we should test natural perfumery oils in their whole form rather than judging their safety by the levels of individual chemicals in them. For example, should we judge the safety of rose oil by tests conducted on the whole rose oil, or should we judge the safe limit for topical use by the maximum safe amount of each isolated chemical found in rose oil? We currently do the latter, but this article suggests that we should also investigate natural oils in their whole forms because some initial tests show that safe levels of whole oils may be higher than would be allowed if judged by the individual chemical components on their own.

This observation sounds similar to research in the food and diet arena, where whole plant foods have been found to be beneficial for all kinds of diseases, but supplements containing individual substances extracted from plants have not been nearly as effective as the whole plant food, and in some cases have even shown negative effects. Dr. Greger from has posted a number of videos on this topic, such as the benefit of whole turmeric vs curcumin supplements and the difference between beta carotene naturally found in food vs in supplement form. In the case of beta carotene, the isolated supplements seemed to increase cancer rates, whereas whole foods that contain beta carotene decrease cancer rates. The synergistic effects of all the substances in the foods seem to be important. The dose matters too: a much higher dose of an isolated component like beta carotene is possible in a pill than in whole foods, and more is not always better.

It is hard to say how much this pattern seen in food research might apply to the topical use of plant oils in perfume, but the subject seems worthy of research, and Mr. Bleimann states that a number of natural perfumery oils are now being investigated in their whole forms. The results will be interesting. Until now, the main approach to saving natural perfumery oils has been to develop oils with less of the components of concern, for example creating rose oil with reduced methyl eugenol. Developing standards based not only on individual components but also factoring in research on natural oils in their whole form is another approach that could help preserve the use of natural perfumery ingredients.

What Goes Into Running An Artisan Perfume Business?

Have you dreamed of creating your own perfume brand? Or wondered what keeps artisan perfumers busy behind the scenes? Maybe you have taken classes and developed some formulas, and now your friends say that they want to buy your fragrances. Should perfumery remain a hobby or should you take it to the next level?

I often receive emails from people who request advice about starting a brand; I can’t answer those questions individually, but this post covers some points that I think would be important for those inquirers to consider. You can find plenty of general advice for starting a business, such as how to obtain a license and business name, but this post covers details that are more specific to artisan businesses and to perfumery in particular. The following 12 suggestions are based on my experience gained from running an artisan perfumery since 2004. Your experience may vary, of course.

Ask yourself if you can juggle the many different aspects of the job beyond the formulating. Evaluate which tasks you cannot do, whether you will have the funds to hire help for those aspects of the business, and whether those expenses are one-time or ongoing. Can you design a logo and packaging? Use Photoshop? Create a brand identity? Design and maintain a website? Photograph your products?  File trademarks? Answer all customer emails promptly and courteously? Create all the juice and fill all the bottles? Pack and ship all the orders? Source ingredients and maintain ingredient inventory? Follow social media and post about your products? File 1099’s and payroll paperwork? Keep track of all the incoming payments and outgoing expenses in some kind of financial software so that you or someone else can file your income taxes and sales taxes? Certain people thrive on this kind of multi-tasking, while others find it overwhelming. You need skills in many areas and the self-discipline to stay on top of things. You also need the ability to research products and procedures. People are quick to visualize the fun aspects of creating a brand, but they tend to be less able to imagine all the little details that go into it.

Remember that your products have to be priced not just to cover the cost of your ingredients and packaging, but also to cover all the costs of running your business. One of the most common misconceptions I see about pricing artisan perfume is that the cost of a finished product can be approximated by the cost of the ingredients and packaging, when in fact the total cost to the creator is much more. I’m not trying to justify the absurdly high prices we’ve seen in the niche market lately, but product pricing is more complex than people realize. Expenses incurred by an artisan perfumery business include payment processing fees, website fees, business insurance, employees/contract labor (this will include ongoing helpers such as a shipping assistant or an accountant as well as one-time hires for tasks like graphic design), ingredients that go into product development, postage, sales taxes, alcohol taxes, equipment (computers, labelers, scales, crimping machines, refrigerators, shelving, etc.), supplies (bottles used for developing formulas, pipettes, filters, gloves, shipping tape, boxes, bubblewrap, mailers, ink, label tape, tissue paper, etc.), computer software (for example Photoshop, Excel, Quickbooks), promotional giveaways, business cards, education, licensing, contests, trade show displays, and organization dues. If you run a lean business and do most of the work yourself, you can keep prices lower, though you will not be paid for your many hours of work and you’ll still have the non-employee costs mentioned above. Artisan businesses tend to be labors of love, but they can also create income for you if you take all the costs into account. Some artisans create more profit by collecting fees for teaching classes, adding another source of income to the business in addition to product sales.

Realize that the economy of scale works against you when you buy ingredients, packaging, and supplies. Because you have to buy small quantities, the per gram price of your ingredients will cost many times more than the price per gram that larger companies pay for their ingredients. Items like bottles, labels, boxes, and shipping supplies all cost more in small quantities too. Still, it’s probably best to resist the urge to buy large amounts when you first start because you’re likely to make mistakes (for example, some people buy bottles that are too large, not realizing that perfume collectors prefer smaller bottles, and some people buy bottles/sprayers that they later discover are prone to leaking).

Recognize the good things about being a small company and use them to your advantage. Your agile artisan company can quickly adjust to market changes and can survive and even thrive in market downturns, which are harder feats for your less nimble larger competitors. Your small size also lets your brand be an extension of yourself (if you so desire), and it allows you to connect directly with your customers. You are free to use very expensive ingredients, unlike many larger brands, and you do not have to follow focus groups. Celebrate the artisan advantages that probably attracted you to this type of work.

Be aware that if you want to sell to boutiques and/or use distributors, your prices will have to be higher. Boutiques will pay you only half of your retail price (the price you charge for your products on your website) and distributors will take an even bigger cut. You need to look at the costs involved with wholesaling and evaluate whether you can price competitively and still come out enough ahead to make the business worthwhile. It’s much harder to make a profit when you split your sales income with retailers, but you may be able to do some wholesale as long as you also do a healthy portion of sales directly on your own website. You may prefer to limit wholesaling only to select boutiques that you trust to handle your brand with care. Your own website can be the best place to sell your products if you make your site attractive, easy to use, and easy for the fragrance community to find.

Be aware that you’ll need to follow some regulations and you’ll need to stay abreast of changes to regulations over time. In addition to local and state license requirements, you’ll also have to follow federal, and in some cases state, rules that govern cosmetics. If you sell scents in the USA, you will need to follow the FDA regulations for cosmetics, including conforming to the labeling requirements. You may also have state regulations, such as the California Safe Cosmetics Program.  More USA regulations are likely coming in the future (for example, the proposed Personal Care Cosmetics Act), though the smallest businesses may be exempt. If you create scents in the EU or sell to stores in the EU, you must follow the EU Cosmetics Directive. You have probably also heard about IFRA, the International Fragrance Association, which has compiled a long list of rules about ingredient usage, banning a few ingredients and restricting the levels of many others. It is true that you don’t need to follow IFRA rules if you don’t belong to the IFRA organization, but that’s not the whole story. You’ll want to carry product liability insurance, and you are expected to follow safe manufacturing processes and use safe formulas, which means that you should probably not stray too far from IFRA rules even if you don’t belong to IFRA. (You don’t have to purchase lab analysis to follow IFRA guidelines; you should be computing the percentage of all ingredients in your formulas, usually in software like Excel, and you can find all the IFRA guidelines online to check your formulas. Another great resource, for safe use of natural ingredients, is Robert Tisserand’s comprehensive book Essential Oil Safety.)

Realize that shipping alcohol is complicated. USPS allows domestic shipments of alcohol-based perfume by ground only and prohibits international shipments of perfume. The legal way to ship internationally is by UPS/FedEx, which is much more expensive than USPS (be sure to negotiate a business discount, which helps). Many small perfumers choose to ignore the USPS rules and ship international USPS anyway, but you can be fined and it is not a wise risk if you do very much volume. Some post offices are stricter than others about enforcing the rules. Perfume is considered hazardous goods and is difficult to ship via UPS/FedEx unless you stay within the amount that is allowed under the “excepted quantities” rule, which limits shipments to 30 ml bottles of perfume or smaller and limits the total amount of ml per shipment box. Even if you ship UPS/FedEx, you can run into rules in some countries that prohibit any perfume from being imported to individuals who do not have a license to import cosmetics, and you will have no legal way to ship directly to customers in those countries. International customers will be understandably disappointed if you can’t serve them, and they often won’t understand the rules because they see so many companies getting around the rules by lying about the contents of their packages. (Oil-based scents are generally much easier to ship, depending on their flashpoint.)

Be aware that you’ll need to keep an annual inventory of ingredients and finished products for tax purposes, which can be challenging with many hundreds of bottles. You’ll need a big enough space for your business, separate from the rest of your life, and you’ll need to stay organized with spreadsheet software such as Excel. You’ll need to track your inventory’s dollar value to use in your annual computation of cost of goods sold.

Decide whether you can handle being “on call” 24-7 and if you have the right personality for customer service. You’ll receive orders seven days a week, and you’ll need to hire help if you can’t keep up. Of course, this is a good problem to have! 🙂 You’ll want to treat customers the way you would hope to be treated yourself. I’ve found most people to be honest and wonderful, but it helps if you come from a place in your heart of wanting to please and wanting to be fair. You’re providing a product that will bring pleasure to people in their busy lives, and you want the transaction to be as pleasant an experience as using the product. You’ll want to make customer satisfaction and product quality your top priorities.

Understand the distinction between contractor and employee for any help that you hire. Any person that does not qualify as an independent contractor needs to be characterized as an employee and the paperwork is so complicated that it is easier to hire a payroll company to handle all the required filings. There are a few payroll companies that cater to small businesses, but you’ll still pay far more than the actual wages that your employee will receive.

Don’t quit your day job, at least not right away, and think about how your brand concept offers something new to a crowded field. Your new business will take some time to thrive, so you’ll probably need your current job while you grow your new brand. Each year numerous small artisan perfumeries enter the market, bringing with them ever more perfume releases; last year 2,044 new perfumes were launched, according to Fragrances Of The World. Think about what you have to offer that is new and how you can distinguish your brand from the rest.

Limit your initial investment to what you can afford to lose. You won’t need to invest large amounts of startup money if you do a lot of the work yourself, though your ingredients and packaging will require a significant investment. I was able to grow my business without taking loans and without investing very much at any one time, just by starting small and reinvesting the profits back into the business as I went. Starting small is the safest way to proceed if you can’t afford to lose money. Custom bottle designs are out of reach for most new artisan perfumers, but you can use stock bottles and then create distinctive branding with the design of your website, boxes, and labels.

If you’ve read through all these complications and don’t feel deterred, you may be the sort of person who can handle an artisan business. The upside is that your work will truly interest you and you’ll be your own boss with all the freedom that confers. You can work from home and set your own hours. You’ll also meet many wonderful people among your customers and fellow perfumers.

I didn’t plan the growth of my business; I just kept taking the next steps to see where it would take me. I would have valued the information in this post before I began my journey, so I hope these thoughts are helpful to those contemplating this line of work and to those who just want to know more about what goes into an artisan perfume business.

Ten Tips for Exploring the World of Perfume

IMG_1524edsmIf you have just recently discovered the world of niche and artisan fragrance offerings online, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. The internet has encouraged an explosion of options, from large niche lines that are sold worldwide via specialty boutiques to small artisan lines like mine that are sold through brand websites. Here are some tips for those who are beginning to explore the world of scent beyond casual sampling at your local store counter.

 These tips apply equally well to mainstream and niche categories (treasures can be found in both), but you may find that you need more online help with niche options because they are less available at your local store.

1. Join the fragrance community

online_iconsmallestOnline Resources: The online fragrance community began years ago on forums and then expanded to blogs and Facebook groups. You can visit several options to find a place where you feel comfortable. Good places to start include Basenotes, Fragrantica, MakeupAlley, Now Smell This, Bois de Jasmin, Cafleurebon, Perfume Posse, Colognoisseur, The Non-Blonde, EauMG, Chemist in the Bottle, PerfumeShrine, Undina’s Looking Glass, and many other blogs that you will find linked from those starting points. Fragrance aficionados are eager to share their love of scent with others and are generous with knowledge and samples. You will likely make some lifelong friendships that extend beyond the world of fragrance. Forums, Facebook groups, and blogs have developed their own communities, with some overlap in membership and content.

Offline Resources: Fragrance fans can meet in person at a number of events each year, including Sniffapalooza’s Spring Fling and Fall Ball, special events scheduled at boutiques (such as “meet the perfumer” events), and meet-ups coordinated by informal local groups of fragrance lovers on both coasts. You can hear of these in-person events through the online community. If you become interested in learning more about perfumery itself, you might check this post about perfumery schools and classes to find some introductory classes offered by indie perfumers or by organizations such as the Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO).

2. Sample, Sample, Sample!

samplestrans_ed3smEven though you will be tempted to buy unsniffed after reading an intriguing review, you’ll save money in the long run if you stick to a “sample first” policy. When you sample, use a large enough dose to simulate spraying from the bottle, and wait long enough to judge the drydown to be sure you won’t tire of the scent after the topnotes are gone. Give your nose some breaks, and don’t try to sample too many scents at once. You can buy samples from places like Surrender To Chance, Luckyscent, Twisted Lily, Indigo Perfumery, Indie Scents, Olfactif, and the brands’ own websites. You can also sample in person if you happen to live near a boutique like Scent Bar (Los Angeles), Tiger Lily (San Francisco), or Twisted Lily (Brooklyn). As you acquire samples, you can swap the ones you do not want to keep with other fragrance lovers who have things for swap that you want to try. You can even buy decants (small amounts of perfume decanted from a full bottle) when you want more than a sample but not a full size.

3. Discover your preferences, but keep an open mind and revisit


Try different types of scents; you may think that you only like certain types, such as fresh scents or light woodsy amber scents, but you may be surprised to find that you also enjoy other types once you try them. Realize that your tastes may change over time, and revisit samples as you learn. You may want to try some all-natural scents too; they usually stay closer to the skin and have shorter lasting power, but you won’t know whether you connect with them until you sample.

 You can read more about fragrance categories here on Now Smell This and here on the Art et Parfum site.

4. Learn the notes

AIcollage_strokedAs your interest deepens, learn to identify notes such as jasmine, rose, violet, orange blossom, iris, ylang, cedar, sandalwood, labdanum, aldehydes, fruits, spices, musk, leather, amber, and greens. Some notes will be familiar to you from foods and plants, while some notes will be new. Keep track of notes that you like or dislike, but realize that your preferences may be qualified by other factors and may change with time; for example, you may like jasmine as long as it is not too indolic, or you may like fresh smells as long as they are not ozonic.

To help you learn notes, you can sample scents that showcase single notes, and you can even buy samples of ingredients from places like Perfumer’s Apprentice (both naturals and synthetics) and Eden Botanicals (naturals only).

 Notes do not correspond one-to-one to ingredients because a note is often created with an accord that is built from multiple ingredients. Perfumer’s Apprentice lists examples of accord formulas for things like apple, sandalwood, and amber to illustrate how accords are built from individual ingredients, and you can purchase samples of the accords if you want to sniff them. Perfumers generally build their own accords for various notes, creating the desired character and nuance to the notes and to the overall composition.

I have links on my website to short descriptions of many of the notes in my scents, and other sites also have similar note descriptions. You can also find in-depth posts on quite a few natural ingredients on Smellyblog, which is a blog written by another indie perfumer, Ayala Moriel.

chanel55. Try some classics

Try mainstream classics like Chanel No 5 and Patou Joy, but don’t worry if they aren’t instant favorites. Be sure to try some classic niche choices too, such as scents from Serge Lutens, Comme des Garcons, L’Artisan, Annick Goutal, Frederic Malle, and Parfums de Nicolai. 
Surrender To Chance makes it easy to try classics with themed sample packs. They also have samples of vintage classics if you want to try some of the scents that are no longer available or that have been radically altered in newer versions (though vintage buying is prone to risk because scents can go off after a number of years).

6. Wear perfume to please yourself, and build a wardrobe

Advertisements would have you believe that perfume’s purpose is to influence those around you, but it can bring even more enjoyment to the one wearing it.

 If you collect a variety of scents to choose from each day, you’ll find that you enjoy changing scents with the weather and season, with the occasion, and with your mood. Some scents are subtle enough to be work appropriate, while others are better worn when you are not in close quarters. The idea of a signature scent has waned as people have realized that wearing the same scent daily can desensitize you to it and can lead to over-application; by changing scents frequently, your nose will stay fresh. Loved ones may have some special favorites that you will enjoy wearing when you spend time with them. Your collection need not be large, and you may decide to opt for smaller bottle or decant sizes to allow for more variety.

woman_smelling_coffee_smallest7. Pay more attention to scent in daily life

You will improve your sniffing ability if you pay attention to the scents of daily life: the aroma of ingredients, such as spices and herbs, when you are cooking; the scents of the foods you eat; the scents of flowers, leaves, and soil in the garden; the scent in the air just before it rains; the scent of a loved one. Most of us are quite focused on what we see and hear, but being more aware of the smells around you as you go through your day can add a new dimension to your senses and can increase mindfulness.

You’ve probably noticed how a scent can vividly bring back a memory of a person, place, or event. Scents of everyday surroundings make life richer and make memories stronger. To this day, I can’t smell star jasmine without it taking me back to when I was young and spent some happy sunny afternoons with friends swimming at our kind neighbor’s pool next to a long fence covered with an impressive wall of star jasmine. We all have scent memories associated with holidays and major events, but some of our most significant scent memories are associated with more mundane moments. I’m always touched when customers write to tell me that one of my scents has brought a memory back to mind.

8. Realize that people often smell different things from the same scent

nose_icon_smI always mail test samples to friends as I work on new scent formulas, and this process has taught me how differently people smell the same perfume. Skin chemistry affects scent, but even if perfume is sprayed on a blotter to take skin out of the equation, people will not smell scent the same way. We each have genetic differences in our scent receptors that determine our relative sensitivity to different ingredients. Between being more sensitive to some ingredients and anosmic to others, the same scent will smell different to different noses. In addition to that genetic variation, we develop preferences over time through our experiences and scent associations, and this combination of genetics and experience helps determine why we love certain smells more than others.

Realize that you won’t always agree with reviews on blogs or forums; don’t let a negative review stop you from sampling something you think you might love, and don’t let a rave review inspire you to buy a full bottle without sampling first. You’ll gradually discover which reviewers and perfumers most often have similar noses and preferences to your own, but be understanding of those with different views because their perception is just as real to them as yours is to you.

9. Try different application methods

Rather than applying fragrance near my neck or face where the scent will be constantly in range of my nose, I prefer to use fragrance on my wrists where it will waft in and out of my breathing space as I move. You can experiment with placement and dosage to see what you like best. You’ll apply a larger dose if you spray a scent than if you dab it from a dauber vial. If you are new to scent, you may find that you enjoy it dabbed on your wrists but are overwhelmed if you spray it on your neck. You’ll also find that perfume oil behaves differently than alcohol-based perfume; oils generally stay closer to your skin.

dictionary-icon10. Learn the language

Words like eau de parfum, accord, sillage, and chypre may confuse you at first, but you’ll soon speak the jargon. Bois de Jasmin and Now Smell This have helpful glossaries of perfume terms that can serve as references while you learn.

And finally, have fun with your new hobby, and enjoy your time spent with like-minded, or like-nosed, people!

Some of my readers with a long fragrance hobby history may have tips to add to this list, so please feel free to comment below. Also, newcomers can see the Perfume 101 posts on Now Smell This, Bois de Jasmin, and Perfume Posse for more advice and for recommendations for scents, by category, that you might want to sample.

EU Regulations Update — Good News For Now

Reports are coming out that the EU has decided, at least for now, to continue to allow the low atranol version of oakmoss and tree moss while only banning moss that has not had the allergens atranol and chloroatranol reduced. Most perfumers (myself included) already switched to the low atranol version of oakmoss years ago when that standard was first set by IFRA, so there will be no change for us. IFRA not only requires the use of the low atranol type but also places a limit on the percentage of use of the low atranol type. Even at the IFRA level it is useful though, and I have the low atranol natural moss in many of my perfumes. I am glad to hear they are not banning it. Suppliers are actually getting better at removing atranol and chloroatranol, so the levels are extremely low.

The EU also decided not to implement the drastic restrictions on a number of ingredients, like citral and eugenol, that would have made it virtually impossible to use naturals anymore. They are going to conduct more research so this saga will continue, but at least the pace has slowed and better studies will be done.

Lyral (a synthetic lily of the valley ingredient sometimes referred to as HICC, short for hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde) will be banned. It was already heavily restricted and this move was expected, so I doubt anyone will be surprised. I do not use Lyral in any of my scents and never have used it, so this issue does not affect my formulations.

It sounds like the EU still wants to require labeling for over 80 allergens rather than the current 26, but they may allow the allergen listings to be made online rather than on the product boxes. There will still be a lot of work to comply with the EU rules, but this is overall very good news, at least for now. I think the great outpouring of concern over the proposed regulations helped persuade lawmakers to do further research before taking those drastic steps.

I’m not selling in the EU so these rules don’t technically apply to me at the moment, but I believe that the EU is setting precedents that may well migrate to the USA eventually. Also, the IFRA and EU ingredient regulations affect what is considered “currently accepted practices” for product liability insurance purposes, so the standards do have an effect on all perfumers whether directly or indirectly.

I will update if the news changes.

Interview with Dabney Rose: artisan perfumer, expert distiller and plantswoman

dabney_editedToday I’m talking with Dabney Rose, a fellow perfumer, a gardener/distiller extraordinaire, and a wonderful example of an indie artisan staying true to her vision and ideals. She is a life-long plant lover and currently has a custom greenhouse at her home that holds an amazing array of beautiful flowering plants from which she extracts fragrance. In addition to flowers, she also distills roots, seeds, leaves, and woodsy materials such as agarwood and incense.

Dabney has spent years perfecting her distilling techniques and produces beautiful hydrosols from steam distillation as well as hyper-realistic extraits using the ancient art of enfleurage. She sells hydrosols, enfleurage extraits, and all-natural perfumes that make use of her special extractions.

tuberoseI recently had the chance to experience some of Dabney’s products. I was especially enamored with her tuberose extrait from enfleurage (image of the process at left); it’s amazingly beautiful and represents the full scent of the flower better than an absolute does (the absolute lasts longer, but the enfleurage is truer). Her agarwood and incense hydrosols were also favorites of mine. The hyacinth enfleurage extrait was fascinating to sniff because, like the tuberose, you’d almost think you had the flower in your hand.

I’ve long admired the gorgeous photos that Dabney shares on Facebook. All the photos in this post are hers; you can see she is an excellent photographer with a sharp eye for composition (all photos copyright Dabney Rose). I’ve not met Dabney in person, but she seems like a straight shooter, someone who always tries to be real and honest with you, which is something I greatly respect.

home_sm2Dabney grew up in West Virginia and currently lives with her husband in North Carolina (photo at right). She has a son and a daughter. Today we get an in-depth peek into her world and an update on what she will be working on this year.

Laurie: Did your connection to plants and nature start in your childhood? I’ve read that you spent a lot of time on the trails by horse and by foot, as I did, and I’m guessing your early experiences probably contributed to your wanting to keep a lifelong connection to the natural world.

Dabney: First, Laurie I want to thank you for this opportunity; it’s refreshing to come across another perfumer with this much interest and vision outside her own studio!

dabney_hiking_smAnd, yes, yes and yes! Not sure how the twig gets its original bend but I was extremely fortunate in that the natural world was in the forecourt and as a backdrop to my life. “Playthings” were trees, rocks, woods, flowers and creeks. I would wander off, sometimes for hours, even at a young age. Our family had ties with Northern Virginia and that world was of horses, old family homes (the old places had smells that you hardly encounter anymore), and roaming several family estates on foot and horseback. My first experience with ambergris hit me over the head with my childhood in Warrenton.

Another early memory is the wild plum tree at the edge of our woods; somewhere around age ten I asked my dad to help me make some wild plum incense with the flowers, and I remember that the incense did smell like the blossoms. That made a vivid memory!

In the early 80’s I had the experience of sharecropping tobacco, from the planting to the curing and baling, and smelling tobacco absolute resonates at a deep level with me (I have “been tobacco”).

In Conversation, ©DR

“In Conversation” ©DR

I also have a lot of plant dreams and sometimes the actual smell of a flower will wake me up.

Laurie: You recently mentioned on Facebook that you lived for 11 years in a place with no running water? Can you tell us about it? (The photos looked like it was a gorgeous spot, but that would be very challenging!)

Dabney: Ah, Laurie, this was one of those “starting over from scratch” times and I was offered a place with the whole south wall in windows. My brain’s first cylinder fired off with, “Think of the plants I could have!” I had done a bit of homesteading and roughing it but had no inkling it would go 11 years! It didn’t stop me from distilling though.

greenhouseLaurie: That’s dedication! I love seeing pictures of your beautiful greenhouse. Did you design and build it to your own specs? What types of plants do you grow in it?

Dabney: My husband built it; we were gifted all the double pane windows we could use. It is a real dream come true for me and is built in panels so when we move, it will definitely move with us! The intention was to enable me to grow whatever fragrant plants I could, from a lemon tree to parma violets to cyclamen (the roster varies each year). It’s kind of like my lab, and I have figured out the cool and warm zones and place the gang accordingly. It’s also my own personal haven and I go out there and blend energies with the green people.

greenhouse3_smLaurie: A greenhouse like that would be a dream for many of us! (Probably more work than we’d imagine, but worth it.) How did you learn to distill? Was it mostly trial and error or did you learn from others or from books? I read that your Dad helped you learn?

Dabney: My dad got me started. He was a chemist, saw I was into aromatherapy, and connected a few dots. That was in 1987 and I still have the glassware he got me. Back then there was no reading material to help me along the way, and I do remember feeling isolated and frustrated. But at the same time there was no one to tell me I couldn’t do this or that!

Laurie: Did distilling lead to perfumery or vice versa?

Evening primrose distillation

Special evening primrose distillation, ©DR

Dabney: I was distilling for over 15 years before I got into “proper” perfuming, and I got into it as a way to round out my fragrance experience. With distilling, I seem to be able to go deeper into the creative process; it offers more of an unknown quality to the journey and encompasses more realms. Enthralling as perfuming can be, the process remains on one plane only. You are mixing, moving material around, and then you end up with blended materials. (Of course beautiful synergies take place but you are still on the one plane.) Distillation is alchemy; something gets transmuted and raised to a higher frequency. It “encourages the flowers and herbs to release their finer spirit from the grosser,” and the essence of the distiller gets distilled as well.

Because hydrosols have water-soluble components as well as oil-soluble, they are a more holographic representation of the original plant than the EO and can be truer in scent profile. Hydrosols, as with enfleurage, are closer to what I think of as the “original fragrance,” the fragrances that inspired and gave rise to perfume, and they captivate me as much if not more.

"Hydrosol fragrant kisses" ©DR

“Hydrosol fragrant kisses” ©DR

I have for years desired hydrosols to be taken more seriously as fragrance; people tend to dismiss them because they are so fleeting, but really, how long does a kiss last? Let them be fragrant kisses!

Laurie: I can definitely understand that point of view. Sometimes you are in the mood for something gentler and have the time to focus on it and appreciate it — these would be lovely for meditation.

Hydrosols are usually produced as a by-product of distilling essential oils, but you specialize in creating exceptionally high-quality hydrosols as a main product. How do you modify the distillation apparatus/process to focus on the hydrosol?

Rose blossoms, ©DR

Rose blossoms, ©DR

Dabney: For me it is simple: I don’t do bulk. Period. My batches are small, intimate and intense. My yields are in pints, not in gallons. If I’m doing flowers, I hand remove every single calyx. A lot of my batches are quite labor intensive; the ginger lilies go through the mortar and pestle on their way to the still. I once had someone who wanted to buy my whole stock of raspberry. It’s gratifying beyond anything when people say, “yours are the best I’ve ever found.” It helps one rebound from the burnout times but it’s also validation that you have found a good and worthy path through your life. It’s humbling. I’m sorry that I disappoint some people because I can’t offer to sell wholesale, but I am an artist and this is my art; it’s not just a way to make money. On occasion I will do special requests.

Laurie: I think most indie perfumers feel the same way about the scents we make in small hand-made batches, so we can relate! What are some of your favorite materials for distilling? And for enfleurage?

Camellia blossoms

Camellia blossoms, ©DR

Dabney: I’ve put over 60 different materials through the still, and it’s nice to still be awed; recently I did some high-quality Japanese incense and it’s precisely and beautifully right on. I like doing my lemon tree “a la petitgrain sur fleur.” I enjoy doing co-distillations, like an agarwood and rose that was sublime. Delicate things like camellia flowers get doubled distilled; I put them through the still twice to give them a little more “oomph.” This also takes more time, electricity, and water. I enjoy pairing flowers with gemstones, like tuberose and moonstone. I like getting out of the box and have done things like french green clay and rice bran (you would not believe what they do for your skin). And I want to bring back my AlcheMists (hydrosol hybrids)… the ideas never stop coming!

Laurie: Have you been able to extract scent from some of the flowers that aren’t usually available in essential oils/absolutes, like gardenia, lilac, violet (flower) or lily of the valley?

narcissusSmDabney: Yes, but I’m still trying to grow enough of these to really have them make an impact. My daughter and her husband just bought a farm in upstate New York that just happens to have a lilac grove, and I hope to be able experiment with these in every way imaginable!

Laurie: That’s great! I’ve tried some simple infusions in alcohol, and while I’ve had success with things like iris root, ambrette seeds, and tea, the flowers that I’ve tried have produced infusions that were nowhere near as useful for perfume as essential oils. Would you say enfleurage is a better way than infusion for the home gardener who wants to extract some scent from a small crop of flowers?

Dabney: Enfleurage continues to be a revelation to me. There is no other process to compete with its authenticity of capturing a flower’s scent profile. It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing. If you’ve taken good care of them, they will sing for days. To dunk a flower in oil or alcohol (or solvent), you drown their voices. The resulting medium is flat and distorted. To me it’s like dead verses alive. (I once seared some scallops with enfleuraged lemon blossom…and I know I will never top that for taste.)

"It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing."

“It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing.” (hyacinth blossoms, ©DR)

Laurie: I can see what you mean by sniffing the samples you sent me; the hyacinth and tuberose are amazingly beautiful and real! Makes me very tempted to try enfleurage next summer, especially since it does not take any special equipment.

For steam distillation, is there any simple equipment someone can set up in the kitchen to give it a try, or do you really need to buy professional equipment to get good results?

Dabney: Distillation is a very straight-forward and basic process, and it does not take fancy equipment; the only thing I would insist on is a really good condensing tube, but that is well under $100. Sometimes I use a reconfigured stainless steel pressure cooker (reconfigured at my friendly neighborhood hardware store). Quality comes from knowing how to ride your horse, not how fancy the saddle is.

Laurie: I understand that you may be coming up with some new products for sale. Do you want to give us a hint of what might be coming?

Vase of tuberoses, ©DR.

Vase of tuberoses, ©DR

Dabney: Recently I had to withdraw from the scene for a while, and now I am back in creative mode and building another website. The big news is that one of my favorite clients has asked me to collaborate as perfumer for her forthcoming company. We are taking the time to get all of it right, so it might be another year or more as we are aiming high!

Laurie: That’s wonderful news, Dabney! I’m sure you will come out with something extraordinary! Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm with us! It’s been a treat to talk with you. Best wishes with all your projects!

You can stay tuned to Dabney’s Facebook page for updates, announcements, and the beautiful photos she shares.

Petal portrait, ©DR

Petal portrait, ©DR

1. For those who want to learn the art of enfleurage, Dabney provides a wonderful illustrated tutorial here. Enfleurage involves spreading freshly-picked flowers on trays of fat (coconut oil, for example) and collecting the scent of the flowers in the fat. The flowers are changed multiple times to concentrate the scent, and when the scent is strong enough the fat is washed with alcohol to transfer the scent from the fat to the alcohol.
2. A hydrosol is a product of steam distillation, and an excellent discussion/definition can be found here at Mountain Rose Herbs.
3. Dabney has been interviewed by Cafleurabon and Now Smell This. A beautiful review of several of her products can be found at Indie Perfumes, and more reviews can be found at Scent Hive.
4. All photos copyright Dabney Rose.

Talking fragrance design and more with Miriam Vareldzis of 40 Notes Perfumes

miriam_edit2smToday I’m posting another interview in the fragrance friends interview series. This time I’m talking with someone who has worked in many segments of the fragrance industry: Miriam Vareldzis of 40 Notes Perfume. She has worked as a fragrance evaluator for major companies, has started her own indie perfume line, and currently also works for an outstanding natural ingredient supplier. Miriam has been interviewed by Cafleurebon and The Perfume Magazine about her indie line and career change, but I thought it would be fun to learn more about her work as a fragrance evaluator and to get a peek into her unique perspective of the fragrance industry given that she has experienced so many aspects of it. You might not know what a fragrance evaluator does, so here’s a great chance to learn about it while also enjoying and appreciating Miriam’s story.


Background: Miriam was born in Santa Barbara, California and has traveled extensively around the world. She studied architecture and interiors at the University of Oregon and then worked for design firms in New York City. Her life-long passion for scent led her to a major career change from architecture and design to the world of perfumery. She began her fragrance career in 1991 at Gryphon Development, where she was mentored by one of the industry’s leading fragrance designers, Ann Gottlieb, the consultant hired to develop all scents for Gryphon. Four years later, Miriam moved to International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF) where she worked for seven years both in New York City and in California. Her work involved fragrance development from concept to launch, collaborating with master perfumers to develop scents for major brands, as well as roles in sales and marketing. She launched her own indie line, 40 Notes Perfume, in 2010. In 2012 she was recruited to work with Robertet, Inc., a French company that is one of the leading suppliers of natural ingredients to the fragrance and flavor industries. She is active in both the global fragrance industry and the community of west coast indie perfumers. She currently lives with her husband (and cat!) in Portland, Oregon.


I had the pleasure of meeting Miriam last year when she brought some Robertet ingredient samples for me to sniff. She is knowledgeable and talented but is also a people person – warm, outgoing, perceptive and enthusiastic. I can imagine that it would be fun to work with her and have her on your team.

Laurie: What was it like working at Gryphon Development mentoring with Ann Gottlieb? That must have been an amazing opportunity!

Miriam: First of all Laurie, thank you for inviting me to speak with you. I’m happy to share my story! I was the product development manager at Gryphon, and I worked with Ann on all the fragrances. I was considered “on the client side,” giving direction to the fragrance houses, based on Ann’s direction. She was my mentor in every sense and trained me in the development of fragrances: how to focus my own innate sense of smell, evaluate on skin, smell for the brief, and give direction in the successful creation of a fragrance in all types of bases. It was from there after four years at Gryphon, through her guidance, that I transitioned my career to strictly the fragrance side of the industry and followed an opportunity to IFF. When I was hired at IFF, it was to handle all of Ann’s clients; we had developed a wonderful working relationship, and it evolved into the next phase for me.

iff_logo2Laurie: Can you explain the job of a fragrance evaluator in a little more detail? What was a typical day like at IFF?

Miriam: The role of the fragrance evaluator is really being the Liaison between Perfumer and Client. The evaluator has to know both the language of perfumery and the language of the market, and the temperament of everyone! Perfumers are often in their own world, not always aware of trends or recent launches. I had to be aware of the vision of the client as well as the creative vision of the perfumer in order to successfully guide the process. Ann really was the vision for the client, and we followed her lead. If she and I smelled, I would have to translate her direction perfectly to the perfumer!

The day to day is much more detailed, as you can imagine. In my experience, there were several layers to being an evaluator. As a team, the evaluators would participate in group evaluations of market products (fine fragrance, personal care, home fragrance) and classify each fragrance we smelled. We would come to a consensus on the olfactive family of each product and our personal interpretations. Sometimes we would agree with the product copy (as stated by the brand), and sometimes we wouldn’t. Smelling as a group is a powerful tool in honing your skill.


Each of us was responsible for many projects simultaneously. Since I was in the Fine Fragrance Division, my projects rotated around high-end prestige brands such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, or celebrities such as Christy Brinkley, and also included BBW, Unilever Axe & Impulse brands. During the day I would find myself smelling experiments with various perfumers one-on-one in their office, then later that day into evening smelling “on skin” in preparation for an upcoming client meeting. And it continued when I wore ideas home in the evenings for a longevity test, smelling my arms up until I went to bed. Everything rotated around smelling!

In the case of home fragrance or candle development, I would smell a burning candle in a specially designed odor booth for lift, character and tenacity.


A typical day could range from smelling alone, to smelling with a perfumer, smelling with a team on a project, smelling with Ann to further a project in preparation for a client presentation. I would also conduct fragrance training for clients (sales teams who would need to learn how to smell), and last but not least, write fragrance copy and descriptions for all the fragrances we created.

One of the most important qualities to being a successful evaluator at a fragrance house is the ability to separate your personal preference from the direction of the brief. The client has a vision for where they want the fragrance to be, and it is our job to take them there, at the highest level, for the brand.

Laurie: Wow, sounds like your nose got a workout! That must be hard sometimes to separate personal preference from the project. It sounds like a fascinating job though.

The experience you gained at those companies must have put you in a perfect position to develop your own line and must be partly why your line was so polished from the start. Did you encounter any aspects of being an indie brand that came as a surprise? Was it hard to narrow down your scent offerings for the initial launch?


Miriam: What came as a surprise: I am much more used to working in collaboration with people than I am being totally by myself. So although the creative development and blending was easy on my own, the day to day was much more challenging without a team of people to connect with on a daily basis. I love personal interaction!

It wasn’t difficult to narrow down my offerings because I started with the materials, the notes. My “muse” for each scent was a natural material or note that I was in love with and wanted to play with: Vetiver, Jasmine, Ylang, the notion of “Cashmere softness”… each of these was the singular inspiration for the scent. Initially I had developed six, and the seventh came at the very end. Then I knew the first Signature Collection was complete. Each fragrance is a “deep dive” into the Universe of that note and how I was feeling about it at the time.


Laurie: When I tried samples of your line, my favorites were Exotic Ylang Ylang and Sampaguita Jasmine (I must have been in a white floral mood!), both beautiful.

What personal qualities do you think are needed to launch a successful indie line? Do you think it has gotten easier or harder over the years? (Resources are better and online connections are more available, but the number of indie brands has exploded so there is more competition.)

Miriam: The personal qualities question has two levels: the level of “business owner” and the level of “creator.” As an entrepreneur, there are many ways to interpret the business model: from creating, blending and filling on your own all the way to partnering with a fragrance house to manufacture your fragrance idea. All approaches are valid.

On the level of creator, I feel integrity of personal vision is key. For some that may be living their dream as the “Alchemist-Wizard,” staying very behind the scenes. For others, that may be holding the platform as “Teacher,” promoting the Lost Art of Natural Perfumery. Or for others, delighting us by being “Court Jester,” showcasing provocative new ideas and blends.


For me personally, it’s crucial to follow inner vision on all levels simultaneously; the fragrance will be perceived from the juice, to the bottle, packaging, imagery, through to the website and ultimately to the package the client receives. Seems it always goes back to design for me!

And if by successful you mean financially, then the Indie Brand may want to experience marketplace success, which then begs the question if it is still Indie! LOL. I do believe in financial success for Indie brands, for sure.

Like you pointed out, the market place has exploded with Indie Brands. I feel it is easier to actually launch a brand, with all the resources available now. But I feel it is simultaneously more difficult for that brand to be successful, and even more complicated if that brand wants to be international. The regulatory environment for perfume, and natural perfumery specifically, is more stringent and exacting for everyone, creators, suppliers, and distributors alike.

It may take an initial spark of interest or curiosity to “fall in love with perfumery” and suddenly launch a line. But it takes a tremendous amount of personal passion, humility, and life-long learning to stay in this creative industry. Perfumery is an art that is not suddenly learned overnight, but honed over a lifetime.

Laurie: I completely agree, Miriam; it does seem much easier to start an indie business than to last for the long haul, and the regulatory environment is making things much more complicated, especially for those who want to take their brand international.

I now see that my question was a bit vague in reference to “success,” but I had in mind selling enough to meet whatever goals the indie owner had set out for himself/herself. I agree that there are many scales at which you can run an indie business. Defining indie would get us into a big thorny topic, lol.

robertet-logoIn addition to your own line, you’ve recently been working for the major fragrance house and natural ingredient supplier Robertet. It must be fun to introduce people to new essences! What is your favorite part of your work for Robertet? Have you visited any of their growing fields? Do you have some favorites of their ingredients?

Robertet rose harvest.

Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)

Miriam: Since joining Robertet, I have happily “fallen down the rabbit hole” into another universe in my exposure to natural fragrance ingredients and their sourcing around the world. It has deepened my knowledge of not only materials, but the various manufacturing processes needed to create essential oils, absolutes, isolates, hydrosols, etc. I’ve not been to a growing field yet, but I have been to Grasse in the South of France, the headquarters of Robertet, and seen the distillation of neroli, cocoa and other beautiful materials. I have never smelled more varieties and qualities of lavender or ylang in my life! This is a true gift that I am treasuring.

Ylang blossom (photo property Robertet)

Ylang blossom (photo property of Robertet)

Laurie: That must have been wonderful to see the distillation operations in Grasse! Some companies like Robertet seem to be more open to the idea of working with smaller indie brands in recent years. Do you think that might be a trend? (I’m ever hopeful!)

Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)

Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)

Miriam: Yes, I honestly do think this has become more of a real possibility for smaller brands. Especially in these last few years. First of all, the market has completely changed. The larger brands aren’t the only ones launching fragrances. The marketplace has expanded into home fragrance, personal care, private label, and Niche & Indie brands. Fragrance houses that once only worked with established cosmetic companies are now open to working with smaller, entrepreneurial companies. The minimums are still a factor, since we are still talking about manufacturing. But there is more flexibility now.

Laurie: I read in your Cafleurebon interview that you were another Jeffrey Pine sniffer as a kid! My brother and I used to love to sniff those tree trunks too because of their sweet, resinous vanilla scent. What are some of your favorite non-perfume smells today?

Huge_jeffrey_pine_trunksmMiriam: I LOVED the smell of the pine trees at Yosemite and Mt. Lassen National Parks, every hot August, growing up. The heat of the sun would bring out the vanilla resin, and the park rangers would tell us to put our noses into the bark and sniff! HEAVEN! What a memory. Don’t laugh, but I have a very nostalgic memory around the smell of basement mildew! My grandmothers’ house in San Francisco, close enough to the water to get the dampness, had a cold concrete & mildew note. Her house was the center of life, so I naturally have a positive association. And I love the smell of the gas-stove before it lights: a very home-hearth feeling. I adore the smell of the pods that fall from Eucalyptus trees. These are all scents from my childhood, ironically.

Laurie: Oh, eucalyptus pods are another of my good childhood smells too! ☺ We have some common CA childhood scent memories. And isn’t it true how our associations with scents affect our feelings toward them, in this case elevating basement mustiness to something cozy.

Given all the things on your plate, do you still get some time to relax at home in beautiful Oregon, where you live now? What kinds of things do you like to do for fun and relaxation?


Miriam: I love to go on walks: hikes in the forest, walks on trails, and walking around town and neighborhoods. It keeps exercise interesting, and is great downtime. I love my yoga practice: right now it’s my savior, with so much travel in my life. My husband and I are both movie and music fans, and there is no shortage of either here in Portland. And naturally, we submit to the whims of our Cat!


Laurie: Thank you so much, Miriam, for generously sharing your time with us and for giving us a peek into the world of a fragrance evaluator. It’s inspiring to meet someone who had the courage to make a radical career change and then made so much out of it! Wishing you continued good luck in all your endeavors and with 40 Notes!


1. For a wonderful blog post tour of Robertet in Grasse, see Persolaise Perfume Blog.

2. Gryphon Development was the company created by The Limited to develop and launch all products for Bath & Body Works, Victoria Secret Beauty, A&F personal care, and Henri Bendel’s private label. Gryphon was bought-out less than 5 years after it formed.

Learning Perfumery: Classes & Schools

Note: If you have found this post via a link or Google search, I’d like to let you know that I have moved my blogging to a new location at The Artisan Insider. The new blog has a new name and format, but all the old Perfume In Progress posts are still there. I’m blogging there as of February 2019. Eventually this Perfume In Progress blog will redirect to The Artisan Insider.

I am frequently asked what types of classes and schools are available to learn about perfumery. I decided to post about this topic since it seems to be of interest, and now I can refer to this post whenever I’m asked the question in the future. I learned perfumery on my own through self-study and do not have personal experience with classes, but I can provide a list of many of the options. Some of the short courses are appropriate for people who just want to learn more about perfumery, while the longer programs are intended for those who want to make perfumery their life’s work. This information can also help you understand the background of perfumers who list schools in their bio information.

Studying in France to be a Perfumer:

ISIPCA (Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l’aromatique alimentaire) in Versailles is one of the most well-known and respected perfumery schools. It was founded in 1970 by Jean-Jacques Guerlain. Only about 20 students are accepted into the intensive program each year, and they must have chemistry degrees to apply. Students learn to recognize perfumery ingredients and study classic formulas before beginning to create their own perfumes. The program lasts two years, and then the students apprentice at a fragrance house for several years. Very few indie perfumers have studied at ISIPCA (the only one I know is Ineke Ruhland of Ineke Perfumes).

The Givaudan Perfumery School, located in the outskirts of Paris, was founded with the guidance of perfumer Jean Carles in 1946 and offers a three-year program. Jean Guichard is the school’s current director. The Givaudan site says, “The school attracts hundreds of applicants for the prized few places available each year.” Givaudan, a Swiss company, is one of the major suppliers of raw ingredients for the fragrance and flavor industries, and they create many of the scents on the market today. You must work for Givaudan to attend their school (that is true for all the schools that are internal to a major fragrance/flavor company — Givaudan, IFF, Mane, etc).

The Grasse Institute of Perfumery was founded in 2002. The student perfumer training program is an intensive nine-month course open to only 12 students each year. They also offer some summer school programs and a seven-month program to become a technical assistant. I know of two indie perfumers who studied at GIP: Jessica September Buchanan of 1000 Flowers and Anne McClain of MCMC Fragrances. Jessica wrote an interesting chronicle of her time at the perfumery school. Clayton Ilolahia gives a great description of his experience attending the GIP two-week intensive summer course on his blog What Men Should Smell Like.

Mane Perfumery School is a two-year program followed by further training while working at Mane, which is another major supplier of fragrance/flavor ingredients and products.

Cinquieme Sens, which means Fifth Sense, was founded in Paris in 1976 and then expanded its program to New York in 2008 and to Amsterdam (their Northern European division) in 2017. Cinquieme Sens offers workshops and training programs at both the introductory and professional level. Programs can also be individually tailored. Gaia wrote about her visit to the Paris location of Cinquieme Sens on her blog The Non-Blonde. Swiss perfumer Vero Kern of Vero Profumo trained at Cinquieme Sens in Paris.

Short Classes in France Open to the Public:

Galimard is a perfumery in Grasse that offers 2-5 hour workshops designed for the lay person to learn about the art of perfumery. Perfumers lead classes with small groups of people and each person has access to an organ with over a hundred ingredients. You learn notes and then compose your own scent. You get a 100 ml bottle of your creation and a diploma for completing the several hour class. It’s meant to be a quick introduction to perfumery, and anyone can pay to take the class with no admission requirements. These types of short classes are offered at some other fragrance houses too (Fragonard and Molinard), and are targeted to the tourist market. They can be a fun though and might spark an interest in some people to study perfumery. Here are some reviews.

Studying in the USA to be a Perfumer:

IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc), like Givaudan, is one of the major suppliers of fragrance and flavor ingredients as well as creator of many of today’s fragrances. They have an internal perfumery school (you must work for IFF in order to attend the school) in New York headed by Ron Winnegrad. It is very competitive to be admitted to one of the few spots each year. Victoria Frolova of the Bois de Jasmin blog has studied perfumery at the prestigious IFF school.

Cinquieme Sens, offers training programs at the professional level both in Paris and in New York (see entry above).

The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City offers a B.S. in Cosmetics And Fragrance under their Cosmetics And Fragrance Marketing program. They say you will learn the business and marketing end of the fragrance industry and will also “learn to create and evaluate fragrances in FIT’s professional-level fragrance studio.” It is not a perfumery school but includes perfumery in the curriculum.

Many USA indie perfumers offer classes or internships for those who want to learn perfumery. Many more natural perfumers seem to offer these courses than perfumers who use combinations of naturals and synthetics. I can’t give a complete list here, but classes are given by natural perfumers Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes and Ayala Moriel of Ayala Moriel Parfums. Anne McClain of MCMC is a mixed media perfumer who offers perfumery workshops. Anya McCoy of Anya’s Garden and the Natural Perfumery Institute offers a home study course and textbook in natural perfumery and leads an online Yahoo Natural Perfumery Group. Charna Ethier of Providence Perfumes and Jeanne Rose, esteemed aromatherapist and author, also teach natural perfumery classes. Roxana Villa of Roxana Illuminated Perfume teaches classes in person and also offers an online program for learning natural perfumery. Jessica Hannah of offers natural perfumery workshops in several locations, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Eliza Douglas, a GIP trained perfumer, offers classes in Brooklyn, NY; she is a mixed media perfumer so you would have the opportunity to learn about both naturals and synthetics. (Even if you choose not to use synthetics in your blends, sniffing a full range of available synthetics and naturals helps educate your nose. You can also sniff natural isolates for aroma chemicals that are available in natural versions.) Many other indie perfumers offer classes, books, or internships, and you can find information on their websites.

Short Classes in the USA Open to the Public:

The Los Angeles Institute For Art And Olfaction has introduced workshops, talks, and once-a-week drop-in sessions open to anyone who wants to learn. For upcoming events, check their schedule page. Update on 7/14/2015: The IAO is starting a resource page with a listing of perfumery classes around the world, many of which are given by indie perfumers.

Cinquieme Sens, offers workshops and training programs that are open to the public in its New York location. See also the entries for Cinquieme Sens above.

Scenterprises is a New York company that offers one day workshops in which you can learn about perfumery and make your own scent.

The Perfumer’s Apprentice offers an introductory course in perfume creation at their Scotts Valley, CA location that is open to the public for a $30-$35 fee.

Perfumer’s World, based in Thailand, now offers workshops in Los Angeles (as well as in other locations around the world).

Long Distance Classes:

The ICATS (International Centre for Aroma Trades Studies)program leads to an IFEAT (International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades) diploma. The course is associated with Plymouth University in the UK, and the director is Dr. Tony Curtis. Part of the course description reads, “In distance learning the normal university approach of lectures, tutorials and workshops are replaced with reading and activities. The approach has proved its worth over 30 years. All the necessary materials are included in the learning pack (ICATS module workbooks on CDs, textbooks, monographs, aroma reference standards, smelling strips and IFEAT expert papers). There is a lot of flexibility. There is no fixed exam at the end of the academic year or fixed hand in dates for assignments. Students can work through the material at their own pace.”

Other Classes Outside The USA:

The Perfumer’s World, located in Thailand, offers classes on location in Thailand and in other countries and also offers correspondence courses. Karen Gilbert has written a review of a three-week Perfumer’s World course that she took on location in Thailand.

Karen Gilbert now offers her own classes in the UK. She also has an online course. She has also written several books that you can find on her website.

Other fragrance and flavor companies have internal schools, such as the Symrise Perfumery School, which has locations in Germany and India.

As mentioned, Cinquieme Sens offers training programs in Amsterdam through their Northern European division. (They are based in Paris and also have programs in New York.)

Another program in the UK is called The Perfumery Art School; it offers both in-person classes and long-distance study. You can check their website for more information, and if you look down in the comments below you can find a comment by the founder with some helpful links to blog reviews of the program.

Self-Study Resources:

Many indie perfumers are self taught, and there are even some very famous self-taught perfumers such as the much-loved and prolific Bertrand Duchaufour, the 2006 Prix Francois Coty award winner Lorenzo Villoresi, and one of the first very successful indies Any Tauer. Most small indie perfumers learn from a variety of sources — reading books, researching online, experimenting with ingredients, and joining online groups to interact with others who are also learning. Three online groups with lots of links to books/formulas/suppliers are the Yahoo perfumemaking group (for both mixed media and natural perfumers), the Yahoo Natural Perfumery Group, and the Basenotes DIY group. The Yahoo perfumery group is no longer very active but it has moved to a Facebook group called Perfumemaking (from the Yahoo group). I joined the Yahoo perfumemaking group very shortly after its inception. I was one of the few members of that original Yahoo group who was already in business when the group began, but it was nice to meet online with others who were learning about perfumery with the intention of starting businesses. We made friendships there that allowed us to buy kilos of ingredients together and split them before our businesses were large enough to need whole kilos. Today the Facebook version of that group is a place where you can post questions and receive feedback from other indies. An indispensable online reference for ingredient information is The Good Scents Company. Small quantities of ingredients (including synthetics) can be ordered from The Good Scents Company, The Perfumer’s Apprentice, Perfumer’s Supply House, and Creating Perfume.

Hope that list is helpful, though I know it is not all inclusive.

Defining Niche, Indie, and Artisan

I’ve read quite a bit of discussion lately about the definitions of niche, indie, and artisan perfume brands. As more and more brands enter the market, we seem to look for more specific words to describe what we do as small brands.

Niche: The word niche seems to be used these days for everything that is not designer. Niche originally implied something different than what you find at department stores, but the term has become less meaningful as the niche market has exploded.

Indie: The word indie describes brands that are niche but are smaller, independently owned brands. These days even indie companies can be fairly large though, at least compared to the very small owner/perfumer indie companies.

Artisan: This word seems to engender the most disagreement. Artisan is a subset of indie that refers to brands that produce artisan-made products. Most people define artisan to be products that are handmade in-house. Many indie companies have their scents batched and bottled in labs rather than doing it by hand, and that takes them out of the strict definition of artisan if you subscribe to the idea that artisan means handmade rather than factory produced. Being artisan is not a guarantee of quality, but the best artisan products are original and creative, and they contain a piece of the creator because they are personal. Being artisan in the strict sense means that quantity will be limited because the products are not mass produced.

Finding your way as an artisan brand can be hard, trying to grow while still doing everything by hand. Wholesaling means larger quantity and less profit per item, which is hard to fit into the artisan model that requires so much time and hand labor. The internet helps artisan businesses thrive because we can reach customers directly without the middle-men, and that gives us a way to compete even though our base costs are higher than for factory-made items. (Base costs for artisan brands are higher not just because of increased labor, but because ingredients and packaging are much more expensive when purchased in smaller quantities as we must do.)

I don’t have the answers, but I’m taking things day by day and trying to steer in the direction that my heart says is right for me. Currently, I’m working on my first collection of all-natural scents and am having a lot of fun with it. Terminology is important for defining things like FIFI award categories, but terminology isn’t as important to the consumer; people buy what appeals to them, so indies need to produce the best quality, most unique and interesting products we can regardless of the labels we use to identify ourselves.

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.