I love the idea of custom perfumes and blending bespoke scents. So this past weekend I did a workshop at the Chicago Botanic Garden taught by natural perfumer Jessica Hannah of J. Hannah Co.
Jessica gave a short introduction to the concept of natural essences and passed around a tiny piece of ambergris, which famously was a major ingredient in perfume for many years. It is basically whale poop, but like civet, it is one of those things that can bring amazing depth and transformation to a perfume. (Amazing metaphor there for how something “dirty” or profane is an essential element of beauty — but that’s another post.) Apparently how it is created is a bit of a mystery, but it is thought to be the result of an irritant in a sperm whale’s digestive system. Rather like a pearl perhaps, although ambergris doesn’t look like much in its raw form.
That was not one of the essences we worked with–as you can imagine it’s quite expensive. Instead Jessica brought about 30 natural essences, which were divided into top, middle, and base notes. Top notes are what you smell right away. Middle notes are what show up most strongly when the top notes start to fade. And the base–well, the base is the foundation of it all. It’s like music. Each perfume is a little symphony–or a pop song.
We chose three scents in each category. In each category, you could add ten drops using those three scents–in whatever proportion smelled good to you. Using droppers, we slowly built each level, starting with the base notes. You add a drop or two into an alcohol base, shake it up, smell it (preferably on your skin, of course), add more.
As you can see, there are so many possible variations–which is a little intimidating when you don’t know what you’re doing. But Jessica provided great guidance. Some top notes, she explained, are “accessories”–on their own they’re a bit much. In the middle, sometimes you need a “filler.” And then there are the concepts of “locking” and “burying,” which refer to the ways that notes can come together. Advanced stuff. I was just hoping I could come up with something that didn’t smell like a car crashed into a perfume counter.
I’ve been drawn to more smoky, woody scents lately, so I decided to try to aim for that, maybe with some floral in there to lighten it up. For the base, I chose tobacco, labdanum (distilled from the resin of a Mediterranean shrub), and choya ral, made from the burnt wood of trees in India. (Apparently there is also a choya nakh, which the distillation of smoke from burning seashells. I have got to smell some of that someday.) I decided to focus on the choya ral, in the base.
For the middle, I went with ylang ylang for that floral note, plus rose. I don’t love rose, but I was curious to see what it would do. For the third middle note, I used clary sage on my first try but switched to lavender on the second. I thought both were a little too herbal, but none of the other middle options seemed quite right.
The top notes, said Jessica, are known to be very difficult to get right, for whatever reason. Apparently perfumers can spend months trying to figure out the perfect top note combination. And we had about an hour for everything! Well, I chose black pepper, cabreuva (another distillation from exotic wood), and juniper berry.
We did one formulation, then we all evaluated them as a class and reformulated them with Jessica’s feedback. Mine smelled good but less like a symphony than someone smashing the keys of an organ. Jessica suggested pulling back on the choya in the base and the black pepper in the top.
My second formulation still smells a little too strong and incense-like to me, like a hippie version of some high-end amber oriental fragrance, but Jessica said it was a great attempt for my first try doing this tpe of thing. I’ll be curious to see how it changes as it ages, and if anyone has any comments as I wear it around.
There’s a science to this, but of course it is also an art. It’s like an endless puzzle. And I love puzzles. Just what I need–another spendy hobby.