There’s rain on the breeze

It may be 40 degrees C outside and the whole of Australia is sweltering, but here in the perfumery it smells of cool, fresh rain on a flower garden. Very calming. It’s because Rain on FlowersI’ve been working on a conceptual fragrance that started off with the same accord as Aquarelle exploring the idea of the smell of water (see here But whereas Aquarelle ended up moving in a bright, fruity direction with smells of ambergris and berries, this new fragrance (still to be named) has a more literal interpretation; that of the smell of rain – petrichor – a smell that universally proclaims the end of a dry spell, the life-giving relief of a downpour on dry soil, the release of signalling chemicals such as geosmin telling all living creatures with its powerful broadcast that there is water present. It’s a smell that I believe we have evolved to detect since the earliest days of life on this planet.

“Beets are deadly serious.”  –  Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

What is it about the smell of rain, particularly after a long dry spell, that is so emotive? In India the coming of the monsoon rains is so welcome that they have tried capturing the smell in an attar oil called Mitti Attar produced from the damp clay soil.

Mitti Attar

In 1964 two Australian researchers (Bear and Thomas) looked into what it is that creates the universally recognised smell and came up with the name “petrichor” (from the Greek words for stone and life blood of the gods) for the smell in their article in the scientific journal Nature. They thought that plants exude oils during dry periods which is absorbed by soil and by rocks. When rain comes along, it releases these oils along with a strong chemical called geosmin which combine to create the petrichor smell.
Now, geosmin by itself smells very strongly (do not try and smell it above a 0.1% dilution) of mold, soil, potato peels, damp and musty. To me it smells exactly like a rich, damp potting mix. That a single compound can smell so rich and complex by itself means that it must excite many different parts of the brain, hinting at its importance in our evolution.

Geosmin Structure

Geosmin Structure

A lot has been written about geosmin recently as researchers are realising just how important this volatile compound (along with other similar ones) is in nature. It is released by several types of bacteria and algae when they die, it’s in blue-green algae, in beetroot, in the 8000 worldwide species of liverworts and is sure to be discovered in many other places.

Humans are incredibly sensitive to geosmin – a million times more sensitive than we are to any other substance. We can detect it at a level of just ten parts in a trillion! So when a breeze carries a little in our direction we can immediately detect it and think ‘rain’s coming’. We can detect minute amounts in the taste and smell of bottom-feeding fish, so these fish are often eaten with lemon which disguises the geosmin – think blackened Cajun catfish or grilled catfish with lemon juice.
Camels can detect the smell of geosmin that had been released by bacteria in wet ground from 50 miles away and track the geosmin to find an oasis. It has been found that flies have neurons exclusively devoted to detecting geosmin and earthworms always head toward higher concentrations.


(The characteristic earthy flavour of beetroot is due to geosmin. It wasn’t known whether geosmin is produced by the beetroot itself, or whether it is produced by symbiotic soil microbes living in the plant. However researchers at Washington State University grew sterilized beetroot seeds aseptically and found geosmin in the seedlings, supporting the conclusion that beetroot is capable of endogenous synthesis of geosmin.)

Geosmin is harmless to life and its only purpose seems to be to signal the presence of life-giving water from one organism to another. My belief is that the first multicellular organisms evolved the ability to detect and head in the direction of higher concentrations of geosmin. If this is true, then it is the first chemical to be detected and acted apon – the first odour – ever. All life literally evolved around the ability to smell this and related  compounds. Could it even be said that we evolved because of it? What a thought. No wonder we find petrichor so evocative!

So, back to my as yet unnamed perfume. As I said, it is based on the same accord as Aquarelle but also contains a little geosmin and smells completely different. I imagine that not many people would enjoy the idea of smelling of potting mix, so the geosmin is only dosed lightly – just enough to evoke the feeling of rain – and combined with fresh floral elements of gardenia and lily of the valley. Taking cues from the chef’s knowlege of how to serve catfish, I tried to use citrus notes to combine with the geosmin and provide the required freshness, however it really didn’t work. It may work in relation to taste, but seems not with smell. So no citrus here, folks. An Australian connection is present in the formula with the use of blue cypress oil grown and distilled in the Northern Territory to provide a woody bridge between the heart and base notes and then there is a wonderful vetiver used in the dry down along with some oakmoss.
Keep an eye on the Facebook page for news on this new fragrance, including what it’s to be called!

How to follow this blog

I finally found out how you can follow this blog! It’s had me stumped for a while. As this is a WordPress blog, but it’s not actually hosted on, things are a bit different. Turns out there are a couple of tick boxes below the comment field of any post (even this one)…


So now you never have to lose sleep over missing out on the next Evocations instalment ever again.

Jude the Obscure

After Evelyn’s Rose turned out so well and seems to be universally liked, I thought I would look at other rose varieties, particularly the David Austin roses. There’s one called Jude the Obscure which has been recommended as an amazing smelling rose with hints of guava and white wine. I love the name as well, it’s named after a character in the Thomas Hardy novel of the same name.

Jude the Obscure Roses

Jude the Obscure Roses

So, I’m now on a quest to be able to smell these roses. There’s one grower in South Australia which supplies David Austins – they are wholesale but I paid them a visit anyway as they are not far from where I live. The girls there were helpful and interested in the idea and quite willing to let me have a wander around the plantation and have a sniff, but it appears I was too late in the season and nothing was blooming anymore. Drats. There were a few straggly blooms around, but nothing of interest.  Ah well, looks like I’ll have to wait six months or so till the blooms are at their best and try again. Watch this space.


Why Perfumery?

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.

Lab Equipment

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.


Lavender Field

Why don’t roses smell anymore?

I feel as if I had opened a book and found roses of yesterday sweet and fragrant, between its leaves.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

Smelling Roses

What’s the first thing you do when you see a rose? Bend down and smell it, right?
Ever done this in a florist or nursery recently? You would have noticed, if so, that the roses on display are very pretty, and smell wonderfully of… well, nothing much. You instinctively touch the petals because you think that maybe this is one of those ingeniously crafted silk or plastic facsimiles, but no, they’re definitely real flowers. It’s confusing because there is so much in the media and literature extolling the beauty of the rose and its evocative scent, its ability to transport to the gardens of Eden or the Versailles. But no, nothing’s happening.
What’s going on here? A rose is a rose, or maybe not anymore. Its soul is missing.
In the 1927 Royal National Rose Society Annual, George Taylor wrote “Fragrance is the soul of the rose, without it, the flower is nothing“.
So what happened? The scent of rose itself has never gone out of fashion – half the products on the shelves are rose scented, even if they are mostly a generic, standardised rose smell. Have consumers become so isolated from reality that they no longer expect or desire to smell the real thing from real flowers?
This is actually not a recent phenomenon, there are many references in rose literature spanning the 20th century bemoaning the loss of the rose’s soul:
From 1924 –  “people today are so amazed by the perfection of the rose that they don’t believe they are real, and the lack of scent doesn’t help
In the 1968 American Rose Society Annual, Arthur Bouquet noted that many articles centre around the fact that most modern roses are devoid of scent.

Evelyn Rose

The demotion of scent as an integral part of the rose flower began with the introduction of the small and almost scentless China Rose and the larger Tea Rose, both from China, in the 19th century. These roses were hybridised with other varieties to obtain a larger variety of plants and blooms to sate the never ending desire for variety and novelty.
The different hybrids are better suited to a wider range of climates, resistant to disease to varying degrees, have blooms that last longer when cut or have longer stems for display. They can have flowers that are multi-layered and they may bloom more frequently during the year and for longer periods. They have a greater variety of colours – yellows and white and pinks that were not available before.
But there has been a price to pay. All of this hybridisation has somehow resulted in the loss of scent.  No-one seems to know why exactly. Some say that the gene for scent is recessive and has mostly been bred out. Another possibility could be that scent scores low in rose trials because smell is so subjective and difficult to judge, so breeders can’t be bothered with it as a result. Breeding for scent is not easy, apparently and there is no guarantee that two fragrant parent roses will produce a scented progeny.
It is true that there are still some wonderful varieties of scented roses out there.  There’s antique roses, particularly those bred by the David Austin company. Some fine examples include:
Jude the Obscure
Charles de Gaulle
Perfume Delight
Lovely Lady
Double Delight
The Prince
and many more.
There are the Damasc roses which are used by the perfume industry for rose oils and absolutes. Indeed many of every class of modern rose are fragrant to some degree. But just try finding them without going to a specialist nursery.
Here’s some links that may help if you are searching for lists of the most fragrant roses.
Many argue that there are now actually a larger range of rose scents available as a result of the explosion of rose varieties. Notes in modern roses include clover, nasturtium, orris, violet, fern, moss, geranium, tea, hyacinth, clove, lily-of-the-valley, wine, marigold, pepper, honey and almond, as well as fruits such as apple, lemon, raspberry, peach, pear and quince.  It’s just that you have to concentrate a little harder to detect them. Smelling a modern rose has become an intellectual exercise, like picking out the notes in the bouquet of a fine wine. You may even have to catch the rose in the morning or at a particular season.
Overall, though, the modern rose has lost its fragrance. What has been revered throughout history as a priceless, fragrant gift from mother nature is now just a pretty ornament.