It came up in conversation again recently, while celebrating my mother’s birthday on the banks of the Murray River. That question that seems to confound and slightly disturb the uninitiated – why perfumery? That’s so unusual, why have you chosen to spend your time doing that? What made you start? Almost like I’d just admitted to some strange fetish or addiction (actually, that’s pretty close to the mark). When this situation arises I think to myself and am tempted to ask back, “Why on earth are you not doing perfumery?”
If you have any interest in the arts, the senses, have an awareness of the beauty around you or a fascination with fine perfumes then you are sure to find enjoyment in perfumery, it really does have so much going for it as a hobby, obsession or even a career. There are many facets to explore, each of which can be studied to whatever depth you desire… (I’m going to resist the urge to use bullet points here):
It’s a journey of discovery – There are thousands of really smelly things out there that can be used safely in fine perfumes or candles or soaps or cosmetics or other functional products. Some are found in nature, some made by man. The possibilities are infinite – mix more than a couple of ingredients together and you can be guaranteed that you have created something unique. You are the first person to smell that smell, ever. New research has found that the human nose has an olfactory resolution larger than the eyes have visual resolution. We can distinguish between billions of different smells. Imagine exploring that universe – it is a never ending journey of discovery, study, evocation and sensual delight.
Treasure hunting – many of these mille oudeurs are common place and easy to obtain. A tincture of vanilla beans is easy to make and a wonder to behold. Essential oils and aromachemicals can be obtained from any number of retailers and there are even beginners perfumery kits available out there. But when it comes to the more exotic, expensive and specialised materials that can really make your composition come to life in a unique way – that is where hunt begins. Like an antiques collector scouring dusty attics and peeking behind curtains of country market stalls, the search for the best beeswax absolute or aged patchouli leads you to the obscure and esoteric back waters around the world.
Imagine the thrill when the postie hands you a battered package covered in small Indian stamps and a barely legible handwritten address and knowing that it contains a small, precious vial of amber attar, created in a single small village for generations – the secret formula passed from father to son – and that this oil is completely unknown outside of that small Indian community and is going to smell of a thousand years of history and refinement.
Lab work – meticulous record keeping, experimental techniques, lots of scientific chemical names, playing with vials and pipettes, a steady hand measuring milligrams of chemicals and oils, lab coats, safety glasses and well ventilated areas. Nerd paradise.
Creativity – and then there is the joy of creation. At its finest, this is truly an art form. Many disagree and say that it is a refined craft. Regardless of how you wish to classify it, the fact is that a well composed perfume can transport the wearer to a time gone by, places yet to be travelled and to the heights of sensual pleasure. To know that this is something that you have been inspired to create, to actually be the alchemist who has succeeded in transforming base materials into such a trans-formative experience – nothing comes close to the sense of satisfaction.
So I have to think. Why isn’t everyone doing this?
Expensive? Yes, certainly, but then so are horse riding and model aircraft. Both of these have shelf space at the local newsagent for their devoted periodicals. When was the last time you saw a Perfumer Monthy magazine?
What we do is secret? To some extent, I do think that this may explain it. Previously, the knowledge was only granted to a reclusive, sect-like group of figures. Their identities, methods, formulas and materials all kept a closely guarded secret from the public by the fashion houses in a deliberate ploy to maintain the aura of mystique, exoticism and exclusivity surrounding their products. This was all very romantic and I must admit to a yearning for the days when the contents of a perfume bottle was a magic, never to be investigated lest the fantasy be diminished. However now the internet is here and like it or not, there are no more mysteries. As in the Buddhist parable the man has been handed a mirror and can no longer dream about his face. The consumer is now generally aware (I hope) that Britney Spears did not really create her Fantasy perfume, and that it doesn’t really contain quince and chocolate.
A quick internet investigation will reveal a whole swag of resources and communities out there to help you learn how to source and combine materials, both synthetic and botanic, as well as safety and practical blending tips etc. Here are some if you are interested:
My own Perfumer’s Search Page can be a launch pad to finding resources and materials
The Yahoo PerfumeMaking Group is propably the most active and helpful forum around.
Basenotes DIY Forum is great for those starting out.
Linda Andrews’ Perfumer’s Apprentice website has a Perfumer’s Corner here:
But I think the most important reason that perfumery has is not more of a mainstream pastime is more subtle and is also ingrained in the human psyche. When was the last time you saw someone really stop and smell the flowers or the tree bark or the aluminium door frame? Even writing that seemed ridiculous, yet the visual or textural aspects of these objects are always appreciated, why not their smell? The sense of smell has been relegated to the background of everyday life, the least appreciated and the least understood of the senses.
I read an article just this morning about Smell Walking – taking time to pay attention to those smells that you pass through in an urban environment. As the original article was published on the first of April, many of the reader comments were suspecting that the article was in fact an April fool’s joke! That such a concept is not even taken seriously shows just how disconnected we are to our olfactory environment. Our brains have surely withered in the relevant parts.
Perhaps it takes a rare combination of genes to occasionally create someone with more of an olfactory proclivity. Someone who would smell the door frame to build a complete picture of it in their head. Do you smell a book before turning the first pages? Surely a sign that you may have been chosen to live the life of an olfactory junkie, but maybe haven’t awakened to the realisation yet.
So I invite you to come and join us in this obscure pastime. I invite you to explore a whole new world of exotica, sensuality and of infinite possibilities. Perfumery is difficult, expensive and time consuming, but the amazing journey through an olfactory landscape all of your own creation makes every second worthwhile.