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How I learned about overdosage (in scent construction, that is)

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It stands to reason when you know about it, and I suppose I might have thought of it sooner or later — but I would probably never have guessed its application to practical perfumery, let alone guessed the term for it: overdosage.

I read about it in Luca Turin's The Guide, in the article on Serge Lutens Bois de Violette. Because I don't know much about the history of newer women's perfumes, I didn't know about the relationships among Féminité du Bois and several other perfumes that are essentially reworkings of it.

Turin begins by talking about the lineage of Féminité du Bois. He traces its sweet woody nature to Caron's Parfum Sacré, itself in turn bearing a relationship to Chanel Bois des Îles. He talks about Pierre Bourdon devising Féminité during a trip to Morocco, and then passing the project on to Christopher Sheldrake. Turin says that when Serge Lutens opened his shop in the Jardins du Palais Royal in Paris, he needed a few different offerings in his collection, and... well, and now comes the idea of overdosage, as Turin calls it.

Apparently this method was something from Bourdon's bag of tricks: to quote Turin, who expresses it perfectly, overdosage is a process "in which a backstage component in one perfume is moved to the forefront in a new composition, a sort of rotation in perfume space." From Féminité du Bois four new scents were derived, three of them by use of this technique. Bringing the musk up front produced Bois et Musc; putting the fruit notes in the forefront gave Bois et Fruits; and pumping up the vanilla yielded Un Bois Vanille. The "bois" (wood) in all these is the cedar of the original Féminité du Bois.

Now the perfume I was researching, which led me to this enlightening discovery about perfume design, was Bois de Violette. Of this one, Turin says that the woody and fruity aspect of the synthetic that is used to mimic the smell of violets (methyl ionone) "recapitulates and intensifies" the other notes of the fragrance. He calls it the "center of the mandala" and likens it to a central gem in an elaborate jewel.

Once the mystery is revealed, it strikes one that the concept is both simple and sensible. If a perfume is a hit, you can make variations based on the same notes (or a selection of them) by changing the proportions of the notes, bringing different ones successively into the center of each "new" creation. It's a concept we see in cookery, for example, where different proportions of common baking ingredients yield now brioche, now muffins, now something else.

In spite of the striking obviousness of the idea, one has to marvel at the genius of it. For a creative mind to see this possibility and reapply it to a new field of endeavor is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The greatest inventions are always the simplest, the most "obvious" — but they are only obvious ex post facto. The unexpected original insight of discovery is the mark of genius, the ability to see the usefulness of the obvious, and to apply it brilliantly.

For me, this is another example of finding an opportunity to see inside the creative mind of a great perfumer. What a singular privilege that is! And for me, it's largely possible because of encountering this community at Basenotes. Thanks again, you guys!

Updated 5th December 2008 at 05:07 AM by JaimeB

The Art of Perfumery


  1. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Thanks for pulling that together, Jaime. Extremely interesting.

    One of my favorite things to think about (when not thinking about things I'm being paid for) is fragrance perception. I had seen some of Turin's comments and found them enlightening, but I find them even more so now. What I find very curious is what you point out - that one can, as Turin says, rotate a "hit" composition in perfume space and get another one. Not just another perfume - but another good one. This presumably means that some essential quality is conserved (or at least fails to vanish) under such a rotation - in the exact same way that the essential quality of a musical composition is conserved under certain frequency shifts.

    If the experience in science extends here, then understanding such conservation principles may lead to a better understanding of the subject at hand.

    You have given me a lot to think about. Very cool!


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