What are the aroma chemicals someone whoís interested in perfume should know about?
There are a few things that are pretty ubiquitous and probably top of that list would be Hedione. Itís very hard to evidence this sort of thing, but I suspect itís probably the single most widely used aroma chemical in the whole industry.
The chemical name is Methyl dihydrojasmonate; Hedione is actually a brand name owned by Firmenich who originally made it. They donít have a patent on it anymore and itís manufactured by a number of other people now.
If you get to smell some Hedione most people are distinctly underwhelmed; you sniff it and you think ĎHmm, this is the most widely used, why?í It seems really unimpressive.
How would you describe it?
I would describe it as exceedingly mild and jasmine-like. But itís much more mild than it is jasmine like; very very light and when people think of jasmine fragrances theyíre big, heavy, loud, blowsy things and not like Hedione which is very unassuming.
Some people get a very distinct transparent jasmine note straight away but many people get nothing and thatís quite common with certain kinds of aroma-chemicals.
The reason that Hedione is so interesting is because of what it does when you include it in a blend. It has this wonderful harmonising effect on other ingredients, itís a good fixative, and also a radiant and it is of course, completely impossible that it can do both; it makes no sense chemically at all and yet it works.
So it has a very interesting, general enhancing effect on many other ingredients. Particularly good with lots of different kinds of florals; obviously jasmine, but in fact almost any floral and also, with any kind of citrus.
Thereís loads of fragrances that have a citrus note, whether itís from natural citrus oil or from something else, Hedioneís great for enhancing that. Really, there are very few fragrances that you canít put Hedione into and get a good effect.
The other one, Iíd guess, that is almost as ubiquitous, is Iso-e-Super. Itís very widely used. There is a school of thought amongst people who on the fringes of perfumery that if you mix together Hedione, Iso-e-Super, Methyl Ionone and one of the several ambergris chemicals, you are guaranteed to get a good perfume and like all clichťs has a grain of truth in it: they make a wonderful combination.
In fact if you add Galaxolide to that list youíve got the Grojsman accord, which I talked about and demonstrated at the Perfume Loverís London Meetup in March.
You said you added it to a perfume to make it more wearable and friendly and it was interesting to see how familiar it was to everyone; it made something that was a little bit different into something very recognisable as perfume.
Yes. It was of my most difficult perfumes, although people who love it, love it and thatís I suppose because, if I can take a little diversion here, I seek to make perfumes that some people will love, not that a lot of people will like and so some of my fragrances are quite difficult, theyíre meant to be for specialists, for people who want something different.
...who want something they canít buy in Debenhams.
Exactly, exactly. So I took one of those called Crowdsource and is based on the scent of late flowering Narcissi. Itís a very beautiful scent, but itís big, itís loud, itís heady and it contains some quite strong animalic ingredients which are very love it or hate it.
What the client asked for was a more approachable, easier version of that and what I did was very simply mix up the Grosjman accord and then mix the two fifty-fifty. And thatís what I demonstrated on the evening, and as you say, everyone immediately understood in what theyíre smelling in the version with the Grojsman accord Ė so called because it was invented by Sophia Grojsman, and who has to be credited with inventing something so amazing that now everyone thinks about using it.
Even if you donít end up doing so, but you always have that in mind when youíre creating a perfume, that really is some kind of achievement actually, thatís something quite special. She invented that for Tresor, which is eighty three percent that accord. So eighty three percent of Tresor is just four chemicals, which is remarkable when you consider just how successful that fragrance is.
What I should also say about that to begin with is Iso-e-Super is again a brand name. Iím not going to attempt to pronounce the chemical name because itís a yard long and pretty much everyone knows it as Iso-e-super. There is also a newer, essentially amped up version of the same chemical called Timbersilk which is now available. Theyíre both made by IFF.
Iso-e-super is interesting again because of the effect it has in a blend, but when you smell it itís more distinct than Hedione, you know youíre smelling something but often youíve not quite sure what. Some people argue, quite wrongly that it acts like a pheromone. It doesnít. What it does, when you put some on your skin is make you smell more like yourself. In the same way, when you add it to some orange oil, it makes it more like orange oil; it has an enhancing effect. And thatís whatís wonderful about it.
Chemical wise, the other thing Iíd choose, and this is something quite different. Itís much more modern, itís called Norlimbanol. I like Norlimbanol a lot. Chandler Burr described as the scent of dryness, which is a very attractive phrase, so Iím happy to borrow it from him with due credit. It is the scent of dryness itís also the scent of wood. Not just any wood, but wood thatís be bleaching in the sun for a long time, that kind of thing. . Itís also got an animal edge to it which I like very much. Now that sounds as if it ought to be quite faint, it isnít: itís enormously powerful. In very small amounts it has a big, interesting effect in a blend. If you use quite a lot you get Wonderwood.
Do you have favourite aroma chemical to work with?
Iím cheating because my top favourite material of all time isnít an artificial material, but a natural and itís Violet leaf absolute. Again, itís a very powerful material, you have to use it in quite small amounts otherwise it overwhelms everything. It is one of relatively few naturals that are defiantly green notes. It also has a very special history that rather appeals to me.
Once upon a time, and weíre talking the very beginning of the 20th century you could buy violet flower absolute. I so wish I could get hold of some, that would be a wonderful thing, but you canít buy it anymore because itís estimated it would be about half a million pounds a kilo now if it was still made because the violet flowers are tiny, they sit below the leaves, they have to be harvested separately by hand and you need a heck of a lot of them to make any absolute and the components that form violet fragrance, the ionones are relatively cheap to make.
Now originally they were very expensive which is why violet fragrances became very popular amongst the elite. Violet fragrances at the turn of the century when it was being made with real violet absolute was incredibly exclusive. Nowadays I think violet fragrances are coming back actually, I think theyíve made a resurgence.
I look forward to that because Iím a big fan of violet fragrances generally. Violet leaf absolute has got a bit of a violet flower aspect to it, but itís mostly green. It is also complex, dense and itís really interesting. You an add it to many different kinds of fragrance and get a positive result as long as you're judicious and donít add too much.
Above : Chris Bartlett's Perfume Organ
Another favourite, which is Undercavatol, which is one of those you could google and not find anything useful on or at least not from a public perception kind of thing. Itís not especially expensive, or actually especially anything except very interesting. Again, itís powerful, you use it in small amounts, just traces. It was discovered on some work on trying to find the components of the lily-of-the-valley. Again, itís green, maybe I have a thing about green fragrance; I donít know. But itís more than that, itís got a floral element to it, itís got complexity even though itís an artificial, nothing like violet leaf absolute or any other natural for that matter but even so and itís subtle.
Lastly, itís hard to work with and I like a challenge.
When we spoke after the Perfume Lovers London Meetup, you said that you generally create a skeleton out of artificial chemicals and then decorate it with naturals and I wondered if you could elaborate on that a little.
Sure. I think a modern fragrance needs an artificial skeleton to support it. You can do some wonderful things only using naturals but itís quite hard to do. I think thatís widely misunderstood.
Some people argue that if you mix naturals together your mixing things that already smell nice, so youíll get something that smells nice, and although there is some truth in that but itís also very easy to end up with mud. Just like with paint, if you keep mixing the colours up you end up with brown. No matter what you started with youíll end up with brown and naturals are the same, if you keep adding them together you end up with mud, something that doesnít smell like anything at all and certainly doesnít smell like perfume. So I think you need to start with something much more transparent to hang those special naturals off.
...A few definite shapes in charcoal first.
Thatís what your aroma chemicals give you, so things like Hedione and Iso-e-super give you a certain kind of framework, the musks give you a foundation. If you donít want to build on a base of musk, you can use something like cinnamyl cinnamate, which has a very unassuming scent of its own but itís a fantastic fixative for florals.
Depending on what objective you have there are lots of options, as Iíve said, over 3000 different chemicals, plenty to choose from. The thing about using individual aroma chemicals is individually, they smell very simple in comparison with naturals and what that makes the sketch.
Start simply. I do sometimes start by denying myself any naturals at all and make the blend and see what it is just with that skeleton and then think about which naturals I can then paint on. I donít always do that, sometimes Iím inspired by a material and itís usually going to be a natural.
Thatís how my fragrance called Artemis was created, I got hold of a very beautiful French oil extracted from Artemisia Absinthium which is the herb thatís used to flavour vermouth and, of course, absinth.
This stuff is just beautiful, I was completely overwhelmed by it when I first got it and I built the whole fragrance around that. It does still have a skeleton inside, made of synthetics, otherwise it wouldnít stand up on its own. This analogy does actually go quite a long way before it starts to fall apart Ė if you do build a fragrance entirely with naturals it doesnít tend to last all that long and it doesnít tend to get up and out there, it tends to lie flat.
Where else do you find inspiration for scents?
Iíve created a few fragrances based on flowers. Iíve taken a flower I love the smell of myself and Iíve set about trying to recreate that in a way thatís wearable. Which I think is still art in the way that painting it or taking a photo is, you are creating a new thing when you try and recreate from nature. I have to comply with regulations, the flower doesnít, I have to make it still work on your skin hours after you sprayed it, while the flower just creates more.
Sometimes Iím working to a brief, which come in a number of forms. Sometimes I get a list of notes, which qualifies as my least favourite way to get a brief. Sometimes I get a mood board, so a collection of pictures someone has put together with the deliberate intention of inspiring. Thatís nice, I like those.
Iíve also done a fragrance from the brief of a poem [Sticky Leather Sky], I think that was the single most enjoyable brief to get.
Which perfumers do you most admire?
Yes, of course. Sophia Grojsman of course and Jean Claude Ellena because one of the things that he has done is this kind of minimalist thing and I donít mean using fewer ingredients, although he does also argue for that, but for making the perfume itself more transparent, less dense, more interesting.
One of the very first fragrances that captured me as a buyer was Terre d'Hermes and Iím still in love with it, itís great. And thereís another reason that Iíd put him on the list and thatís because he is willing to make the case for fragrance creation as an art that has nothing to do with mixing together very expensive ingredients. Itís very possible to do that and end up with rubbish and itís perfectly possible to use the cheapest ingredients on the planet and end up with something wonderful.
Tresor is actually a great example of that. None of those ingredients are remotely expensive; theyíre all produced in very large amounts so theyíre cheap. Well, they are if youíre buying them in large amounts, thatís another whole conversation.
The other person is Jo Malone. Jo isnít a perfumer, sheís a perfume designer and thatís not the same thing. But I think she did something for the industry, with her orginal brand, Jo Malone, was try to create simpler perfumes that were designed to be layered. That hadnít been done before and I like the idea very much.
It gave perfume consumers a stake in the creation process which was a stroke of genius.
Do you see yourself as working within a particular tradition of perfumery?
To me, it is all about art. It is not meant to be just craft. Although thatís terrifically important. I wanted, as a child, to be an artist and I tried all sorts of stuff. I tried painting, pottery, working with wood, sculpture, poetry and you know I was rubbish at all of them so I gave up and decided I wasnít an artist, it wasnít in me.
I discovered later I was quite good at writing, although it was business writing. It was good craft, but it wasnít art. Not at like writing a novel or a proper poem. I do have some poetry but discovered I could only write poetry when I was very miserable and I prefer not to be.
So it was fabulous, fablulous thing to discover I could create real art in the olfactory medium. One of the things I think is really quite sad is that while every child gets to play with paints no school child gets to play with perfume ingredients. More people need to know that people can do that for themselves.
If someone is interested in learning how to create their own perfume, or become a perfumer, whatís your advice?
If you desire to be a perfumer, and work in one of the big perfume houses and spend your whole day making perfume, the first thing you have to do is get a degree in organic chemistry and then work like stink to get yourself accepted into one of the in house perfume schools. Or start as a compounder and work your way up. Either of those roots are hard but thatís how itís done.
Thatís not what I did. Option two is what I did, and this is what you can do if you just want create perfume for yourself. There are a number of people who offer courses, including me. I recommend doing that first. Partly I recommend doing that, which is what I did, because until you have exposure to someone who can really do it, and perhaps exposure to people who are not so good at it you donít know where you sit on that scale, you donít know if youíve got a talent thatís not been realised yet. You can get some technical structure and perhaps the inspiration, as I did, to make it into your life.
Chris Bartlett's website is at http://www.pellwall-perfumes.com
Perfume Lovers London