People often assume that perfumery is very basic: 1) identify smells you like, 2) combine them in a bottle, 3) et voila! If only it were so easy. Professional perfumers train for many years to memorize thousands of smells, learn how different ingredients interact with each other, and find the perfect combination of materials to take a fragrance from an idea to reality. Professional perfumers are also under great pressure to create a products mass market appeal that will sell thousands upon thousands of bottles.
As a non-professional perfumer, you have the luxury of pleasing only one person: yourself. (Okay, if you’re making it as a gift for someone else, that’s two people to please, but you get the idea.) Without the pressure to meet sales goals or to keep production costs to a minimum, you have creative freedom. In this situation, anyone can learn how to make perfume by starting with scents you love, simplifying the process and focusing on quality.
Start with Scents You Love
Before we discuss how to make perfume, it’s important to identify scents and styles that you like. It’s helpful to think about your favorite fragrances and try to pinpoint why you love them, ie. a particular ingredient, a combination of ingredients, or the way it makes you feel.
Most people already know whether they like familiar notes like jasmine, rose, or sandalwood; most people don’t know if they like less recognizable ingredients like galbanum or hedione.
Fragrances are organized into families according to their scent profile. There are different classification systems — one popular system is the fragrance wheel created by fragrance expert Michael Edwards. Edwards’ fragrance wheel contains fourteen different families. Similar families are grouped together, so if you find yourself drawn to fragrances in one family you may like fragrances in the neighboring families as well. If it’s not obvious where your favorite fragrances fall on the fragrance wheel, search for them in our fragrance finder or at osmoz.com to find out the main raw materials and family.
Most people already know whether they like familiar notes like jasmine, rose, or sandalwood; most people don’t know if they like less recognizable ingredients like galbanum or hedione. For this reason, it’s best to begin building your fragrance formula with ingredients you know and like, and then experiment by adding new materials.
Simplify the Process
At the most basic level, perfume is a blend of fragrant natural oils and/or aroma molecules (in the fragrance industry, this is referred to as “the juice”) diluted in alcohol. At the next level, these different ingredients are classified as top notes, heart notes, or base notes according to their volatility (how quickly their scent evaporates.)
Most fragrances are built with a combination of top, heart, and base notes to balance a fragrance as it evolves.
This method of classifying ingredients is not exact, but it’s a helpful way to visualize your formula. Most fragrances are built with a combination of top, heart, and base notes to balance a fragrance as it evolves. Top notes will move from strong to faint, while base notes soften and settle in over time. A fragrance without top notes may lack a strong first impression; one without base notes will not last for long on your skin. Heart notes round out a perfume by blending with the top notes and softening the harsher facets of the base notes.
Top Notes: create a first impression
Top notes are made up of lighter molecules that evaporate the fastest. When you apply a fragrance, you smell the top notes first.
Ingredients: citrus notes, aromatic/herbal notes, green notes, spicy notes
Heart Notes: add character
Heart notes follow the top notes and add character to the base notes.
Ingredients: floral notes, fruity notes, spicy notes, green notes, aromatic/herbal notes
Base Notes: increase longevity
Base notes evaporate the slowest, have the longest staying power and thus determine much of the character of a fragrance.
Ingredients: amber notes, woody notes, sweet notes, musk notes, leather
Aroma Molecules: improve diffusion
Diffusion refers to a fragrance’s ability to spread and disperse through the air. Certain ingredients seemingly add lightness and airiness to a fragrance, helping to improve diffusion.
Ingredients: hedione, iso e super
Smooth rough edges
Some fragrances feel a bit raw or rough around the edges. Certain ingredients are excellent at smoothing those rough edges and blending a fragrance together.
Ingredients: vanilla, musk, benzoin
Focus on Quality
The modern perfume market is extremely competitive. Last year alone there were 1620 new launches — compare this to 1990 when there were 76 fragrance launches worldwide. What does this mean? The invention of aroma molecules has had three major effects on the fragrance industry:
Expand Perfumers’ Palettes
Every new aroma molecule is an additional tool for a perfumer. This allows perfumers to push their creativity, reinvent naturally occurring smells, and create entirely new smells.
Replace Natural Ingredients
Aroma molecules can replace natural ingredients that are no longer available for use in perfumery. This usually happens because either the ingredient has been regulated or banned, or because an ingredient is so expensive that the cost becomes prohibitive.
Aroma molecules are generally cheap. Natural ingredients are often expensive. So, by replacing natural ingredients with similar aroma molecules perfume manufacturers are able to reduce their costs.
Last year alone there were 1620 new launches — compare this to 1990 when there were 76 fragrance launches worldwide.
Now it’s easy to see why the number of perfume launches has exploded in recent years. Aroma molecules allow perfumers to create more and more fragrances at cheaper costs. But remember, without the pressure to meet sales goals or to keep production costs to a minimum, you have freedom. Freedom to be creative and — more importantly — freedom to use high-quality materials.
It’s hard to get things right the first time and making perfume is no different. There are infinite ways to combine ingredients and exploring all of these combinations is half the fun. As noted above, it’s best to start with ingredients you like that are familiar to you. Create multiple versions of the same formula by varying the amounts of each ingredient. Once you find that magic combination, continue to experiment by adding in small amounts of new materials. It’s best to add new ingredients one at a time so that the impact on your fragrance is obvious.
Create. Make mistakes. Have fun!
“You just know it’s right. I can’t explain it. It’s instinctual. When you listen to a melody, you know that a note is sticking out and shouldn’t be there.”— Honorine Blanc, Perfumer, on how you know when a fragrance is ready.