vendredi 20 novembre 2009

In the Labyrinth of Notes

The preparation of my perfume course in London is taking up all my energy and annoyingly, I’m not terribly in the mood to test new things…

But I’ve just been to the Salon des Matières Premières organized by the Société Française des Parfumeurs (that’s the Raw Materials Fair organized by the French Perfumer’s Society) of which I am becoming a member, thanks to Isabelle Doyen’s and Sandrine Videault’s kind sponsorship. While I'm at it, I'd like to thank Patrick Saint-Yves, the President of the SFP, as well as Nathalie Périnet-Marquet, the head of communications, for their warm welcome!

This visit neatly dovetails with my course preparation. I don’t want to post any spoilers for the attendees who might be reading me so I won’t go into specifics but… Ok, so I don’t have formal training in perfumery, but I did want to work on raw materials, so I asked myself how I got to figure out notes, the way they’re used and why they’re put together the way they are by perfumers. The answer was, of course – no-brainer here – common facets and how one material naturally calls for another. A kind of gut feeling, an openness in the way you let the material talk to you, conjure olfactory memories of real things. The way it can tell all sorts of different stories according to the different materials you surround it with.

Of course, that’s a rather contemporary approach: it’s much harder to use it to analyze the creative process behind the grand classic symphonies of yore.

But, for instance: smelling, say, Payan Bertrand’s traditional patchouli essential oil with its musty church stone facets irresistibly calls for oak moss and you can understand why both were used to compose the base of many classic chypres. Smelling their absolute with its nearly animalic black chocolate facets practically dictates the cocoa notes of Bornéo 1834. The bell-clear notes of pink pepper, produced with Payan Bertrand’s Process Elixir method, makes you think how it can be used to impart an aldehydic-type brightness and cool metallic quality to a composition without actually resorting to aldehydes.

Or: Octavian and I had a bit of a laugh when we sussed out what Francis Kurkdjian uses for the orange blossom note in three of his new scents (and a couple of older ones). It’s most likely a Takasago molecule commonly used in functional perfumery, namely washing powder. Oh Francis…

Of course, don’t ask a lab representative to confirm that such or such a material was used in a specific composition: the best you can do, when you don’t have a gas chromatographer sitting in your living room, is to nose it out and make an educated guess… Or ask a perfumer, who might or might not say!

I’m not saying which one had a jokingly hissy fit when I got into a huddle with another… you know who you are, sweetie, and though none can be my one and only – I can no more be faithful to a perfume or a perfumer than to most men in my life -- you’ll always be the first…

And now, on to you: how do you suss out notes in perfumes? Have you ever played with raw materials? And how did you go about figuring out their facets?

Image: Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden (1966)

24 commentaires:

  1. I'll write very soon a review of what I discovered. I have a big list with novelties, some amazing materials to test this weekend and some amazing ideas to share.
    And indeed, that FK molecule was a shock even for me - APOM and Eau du Matin explosed into my "nose".
    This reminds me the relation between some colors/pigments and classic artists (Vermeer, Titian,Van Gogh, Yves Klein).

  2. I finally understood cumin and was able to find it anywhere it appeared after smelling the essential oil. That was really helpful. Some perfumes have sometimes a note so prominent, it sticks forever and afterward you can smell it anywhere even when it's not prominent. That is how I'm learning.
    I still haven't found a way to figure out how exactly does violet leaf smells like though. :)

  3. Octavian, I'm very much looking forward to your reviews... Wasn't that FK molecule a hoot? I knew about the the detergent musks, also quite a prominent feature in his work, but not of the detergent orange blossom, which I swear I also smell in a brand of washing liquid I use!

  4. Ines, did the essential oil smell very differently from the spice?
    Violet leaf basically smells green, a little watery (cucumber) and with some characteristics of violets.

  5. Hmm, yes, I'd say it did. Although I never smelled a larger quantity of spice, I never got such a strong musky? smell from the spice. It smelled really strongly of sweaty armpits in need of a shower but what I found interesting, since it was coming from a small bottle I didn't mind as much as I would have were it happening in real life. :)
    Thank you for the violet leaf explanation.

  6. Ines: you could say the reverse if you smelled parmesan without knowing it was parmesan -- I gave up doing a blind test on it with my students because it's really a bit nauseating in the morning.
    For violet leaves, you can get a sniff of them in The Different Company's Sublime Balkiss or the new V&R Eau Mega.

  7. It's always been a bit difficult for me, picking out the individual notes. The olfactionary I have contains mostly synthetics. Some are easy, others aren't. I have found, though, that an A/B comparison (one essence on one wrist or blotter, another on the other) makes it much easier for me, for some reason. I think this must be a brain thing.

    And, yes, if you close your eyes, parmesan cheese does smell a lot like something...else.

  8. Olfacta, which one do you have, the Le Labo?
    I find that the most useful way is smelling the material on one blotter and the composition in which it is included on another, then the composition without it, but that's not an experience that's easy to come by. And very often, say you smell a sample of vetiver, it's usual nothing like vetiver in a composition. That's a pretty easily identifiable essence, but materials really vary according to their origin, method of extraction, etc (re my patchouli example).
    So it's not that easy. Don't think it's your brain!

  9. Ohhh, how interesting. When Mona di Orio held her soiree at Les Scenteurs a while ago, she brought a coffret of raw materials for us to sniff and I totally fell in love with her jasmine absolute. I have been lemming it badly, but want the very good stuff that she had. Will pick your brain on where to source.
    And as to parmesan, I adore that vomity note in Carnation !

  10. Silvia, leave it to us decadent perfume lovers to say horrors like that (I mean about the vomity note). For Mona's jasmine, the best thing would be to email her I suppose, but it's devilishly hard to obtain samples of raw materials when you're not a perfumer -- except from the perfumer herself. I've heard she's a very nice person and I'm sure she could at least tell you where she got it. Her scents are manufactured by Art et Parfums, which used to be the Roudnitska's company (Michel has now sold his majority shares).

  11. Denyse, je ne l'ai pas pris pour moi. J'apportais juste un avis et un constat, qui était aussi un compliment. Bravo pour tes écrits et ravi que tu découvres d'autres horizons parfumés, l'essence même des essences que nous aimons.

  12. I am very bad at identifying particular notes in a fragrance unless it's really obvious... I would need to study the raw materials to be able to improve my nose for sure!

  13. Tara, I'll bet you've got cumin sussed out, though!

  14. Mechant loup: Couldn't agree more! I join you in your plaudits.

  15. Good Morning, D.

    I methodically compare and contrast excellent vintage fragrances in good shape, one on each wrist, armed with a reliable list of notes, in order to learn what the components smell like.

    This is not a quick process, or an inexpensive one, unfortunately, but I've found it immeasurably valuable. One needs to do it rather deliberately, I think; I kept trying chypres together until I understood the essential nature of oakmoss; compared greens such as Chanel No 19 and Balmain Vent Vert to recognize galbanum; sampled many older Guerlains to "see" the opoponax.

    Not only has it made me a reasonably good student, it has provided a fascinating dimension to my sensual appreciation of beautiful fragrances.

    It's a bit Socratic: I ask the questions and the fragrances themselves give me the answer.

  16. Robin, it seems we pretty much proceed the same way -- or did until I got some access to some raw materials thanks to the perfumers I got to meet. I would very much recommend the method: as you say, the perfumes answer the questions, and you get to spend a lot of time focusing on them too...

  17. Oh, that would be such a dream for me! I am quite green with envy, Denyse.

    I have been lucky enough to spend a little time with perfumer Ayala Moriel here in Vancouver, who works with natural ingredients and has hosted some lovely tea parties in order to expose her customers to some of her exquisite raw materials. (I will never forget the civet oil!!) We compared Moroccan rose with Bulgarian rose, various kinds of jasmine and orange blossom, different patchoulis -- I only wish I could have taken them all home with me to be able to study them more closely.

    I must say that it is much harder to educate myself with today's stunningly original natural/synthetic fragrance hybrids. There has been an explosion of amazing new molecules and I don't know if I'll ever be able to distinguish them all.

    Does anyone else have the same trouble?

  18. Robin, you're lucky to live in the same city as the lovely and gifted Ayala!
    I can pinpoint some of the synthetics but I'd say probably the most important thing would be to qualify their effects in a composition rather than to be able to trumpet "ta-dah! Karanal to the left, Helvetolide to the right!". I mean, in a way, who cares if the purpose is to appreciate perfume? Whereas adjectives or comparisons to real things speak both to our own olfactory memory and to other people.

  19. True enough. And certainly, that is the perfumer's intention, to evoke a memory of something wonderful or to create a whole new and unfamiliar note of beauty that fills us with joy and desire.

    I think I just get jealous of you and Octavian and the others who have all the chemicals sorted out and know just what's what when you sniff it! ;-)

  20. Robin, I certainly don't have the chemicals sorted out, but I can usually make out the ones I hate...

  21. Ravie de ta découvrance d'horizons parfumés pleins de promis!
    S'il est permi d'exprimer un sentiment, je suis un peu triste que nous avons perdu notre rapport en correspondence, j'espere que c'est seulement que nous sommes trop occupées. :-)

  22. Chère E., bisous! C'est vrai que c'est la folie, je ne dors plus, je ne sors plus, car en plus je poursuis mes activités professionnelles habituelles, mais on se rattrapera durant les vacances de Noël où la pression sera retombée.