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Follow Your Nose: A Lesson In Perfume-Making

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

As someone who has been involved in the design of fragrances I have found that the single most important part of the process happens before we get to the lab. The most important part is the decision about what the message will be. To walk into the lab without a clear idea in mind as to what message the fragrance is going to deliver leads to confusion and that confusion will be present in the bottle.

We spend hours with our clients trying help them firm up in their minds what it is they want to say with a fragrance. We don't always get it right first time but we always have a plan. The article below struck a chord with me because it reminded me of my first attempts. The joy of learning, the surprise of discovery and the confusion of choice. All of it leading to a fascination that does not wane.

I hope you will enjoy your voyage of discovery as much as I did and as much as David seems to have enjoyed his.

Cedar wood, tangerine, musk – the anatomy of a great scent is fascinating. But how easy is it to make your own?

Sweet smell of success ... David Shariatmadari creating his perfume. Photograph: Martin Godwin

I have a fragrance habit. It all started with an article by Brian Eno in this newspaper, many years ago. He complained that there was no systematic way of labelling odours, that smell was “our most primitive, un-languaged sense”. The article contained a reference to methyl octine carbonate that, he wrote, “evokes the smell of violets and motorcycles. Dior’s Fahrenheit uses a lot of it.” That stopped me in my tracks. How could something smell like flowers and engine oil at the same time? My dad had a bottle of Fahrenheit and I ran upstairs to find it. Unscrewing the bottle, I inhaled and there it was: the essence of violets and motorcycles.

For a time I exercised moderation. I went through a long Fahrenheit phase, getting a bottle each Christmas, before branching out to other woody or fresh smells from Boots. I wore Hugo Boss, Égoiste, Terre d’Hermès. I had no idea about the history of scent, the great perfume houses, their niche counterparts. And then I stumbled on Perfumes: the A-Z Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. I’m not sure I’d go as far as India Knight, who called it “one of the best books I have ever read” but it’s pretty damn good.

Makes scents ... perfumer Sarah McCartney in her workshop. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

The book turned me on to a whole new world of scents – those that use oakmoss as a base and bring to mind dowager duchesses; others that work their magic via lavender and coumarin, a molecule with a hay-like odour extracted from tonka beans. At the same time, I was dying to smell the individual components of many of the fragrances I liked. Yes, a perfume is complete design in itself, like a classic car, but I wanted to peer under the bonnet. Was that an opopanax note? Or labdanum? Both are rich, complex resins from the Middle East. I wanted to be able to tell these – and all the other raw materials – apart.

What better way to hone my olfactory skills than on a perfume-making course? Tucked away in a studio in Acton, west London, perfumer Sarah McCartney concocts and bottles her 4160 Tuesdays line, which includes treats such as The Dark Heart of Old Havana and Ealing Green (it smells of light, fresh cut grass, herbs, meadow flowers and wild roses). The name comes from the number of Tuesdays we can expect to see if we live to 80 – a reminder, Sarah says, not to waste any time.

I arrive and take my place on the sofa with four other perfume-making novices and Sarah’s assistant, Aisha. We slip into easy conversation, safe in the knowledge that we’re all nerds together, swapping favourite scents and asking if anyone’s come across the latest from some obscure brand or other. Then, we make our way upstairs to the workshop, which has the air of a laboratory crossed with an artist’s studio – exactly as you would hope. The room is lined with bottles of all shapes and sizes, some large canisters of synthetic musks and carriers, and tiny vials of precious essences like orris root, vetiver and petitgrain.

The morning is devoted to “appreciation”, which involves sampling a range of these intoxicating liquors on paper strips. Pure oakmoss, it turns out, smells like the inside of a stable. Musty, sweaty, a little animalic. Coumarin, to my nose at least, is pure marzipan – with only a touch of the reputed hay. Then come the strange and wonderful chemicals that can be vanishingly subtle on their own, but add a crucial sense of smoothness or grandeur to the final composition. There’s hedione, the “fresh air” smell; light and sweet ethylene brassylate; and calone, the seaside molecule used in marine fragrances like Cool Water.

Bottling it ... David Shariatmadari attempts to create a new hit fragrance. Photograph: Martin Godwin

A couple of hours whizz by and it’s time to go to the local Thai for lunch, but I can’t bear to leave the laboratory and insist on sniffing my way around the jars. There is violet leaf, tobacco absolute, neroli, cedar from the Atlas and cedar from Virginia, citral, decanal, undecanal. I become slightly obsessed with a molecule called undecavertol, which smells somewhat vegetal, rather like a cucumber in the middle of a bouquet of flowers.

The afternoon is devoted to creating our own fragrances – we get to design and take home 30ml of each, in distinctive 4160-branded bottles. I go at it with the undecavertol, mixing it with loads of cedar wood, opoponax and tangerine, keeping careful track of amounts on my perfume formula sheet. I’m falling straight into the trap Sarah warned us about, of picking too many “feature notes” and leaving them all to fight it out for attention.

The result is ... strong. The cedar is a bit overpowering and the undecavertol washes its cucumberiness over everything. If you were being unkind you might say it smelled like exotic floor polish. At least there’s still another bottle to go: I aim for a lighter scent, this time with a hint of tobacco, some grapefruit up top and lots of ethylene brassylate in the heart. This is better. I haven’t tried to cram everything in there. But, again, if you were being less than charitable you’d say it smelled a bit, well, urinous. Just as I’m getting into the swing of it we look up at the clock and it’s 6pm. Way past the advertised finish time, but Sarah’s in no hurry and neither are we.

After all, there’s still the ritual glass of champagne and a tour through some of Sarah’s own treasures to come – one wall of the studio is devoted to her perfume collection, stuffed with rarities, discontinued fragrances and holy grails such as the original formula L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain.

The sniffing continues. It’s been a splendid day: a melding of art, science and fun with something concrete to show for it at the end. I only wish I could spend a week there and get my cedar-heavy floor polish to smell a bit more like wooded bliss.

By David Shariatmadari

If you are looking for the most experienced team of multinational experts to scent your business or property, look no further than NeoScent International. Founded in 2009, we were the FIRST scent marketing company in Thailand. Contact us today.

Tel: +66 2559 2330

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