Karen Gilbert's One Day Natural Perfumery Course

03rd March, 2012

In our on-going series, Lila Das Gupta tries out a One Day Natural Perfumery Course in London with Karen Gilbert.

As with previous courses that I’ve attended, my primary motive is always to learn more about the construction of perfume and its individual components rather than to become a perfumer.

That said, I was thrilled (and quite surprised) that I love the perfume I made on this course and have been wearing it continually. It certainly is a crude effort, but to me it’s simply beautiful.

The Natural Perfumery course begins as soon as you enroll – once you have paid, 15 little sample vials and some paper smelling strips are sent to you so that you can familiarise yourself with various key notes. Different fragrant families are represented including woods, florals, citrus and aromatic notes. The idea is that you train your nose to recognise some basic perfume ingredients before you even start. Most of the vials were familiar to me (vetiver, lavender, labdanum etc), but a big surprise came when I smelt them all a couple of hours later, some of the changes were quite profound. The geranium for example, something I know well when it’s fresh out of the bottle, had a completely different smell later on. I’ve smelled that smell before, but somehow never been able to put my finger on it or to associate it with geranium, so I really felt I had stored something important in my olfactory memory.

Despite enrolling on a course that entails only ‘natural’ ingredients, I would say that I am not in either the pro’ or ‘anti’ camp when it comes to including synthetic/ man-made ingredients. One of the strong points about Karen Gilbert is her vast experience in the perfume industry, having worked as an evaluator for IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances) as well as a product developer for Neal’s Yard, she has top level experience at both ends of the spectrum and takes the approach that people should choose what they think is right for them. In the past I’ve tried some natural perfumes, but not been as moved by them as I have many niche fragrances. As in all things, I keep an open mind.

An added bonus on the course was that as well as bringing a selection of books with her for us to peruse, Karen also brought the work of several noted natural perfumers including examples from Mandy Aftel, which I had always wanted to try, as well as Roxana Villa, Ixchel Leigh and Shantara.

The course handouts were sensibly arranged and are handy to refer to later - again, ingredients are divided into Citrus, Herbal, Floral, Green, Woody, Spicy, Balsamic, Hay, Ambery, Earthy and within these categories, sub-classes of top, middle and base notes. We got together in smaller groups and worked our way through 32 different raw ingredients, writing down our own impressions and using our own vocabulary to describe what we were smelling. The advantage of working with others is not only to see how perceptions change, but also to learn from one another: one tantalisingly familiar smell that no one could quite put a name to was described by one participant as ‘reminds me of Roses Lime Marmalade’. It did, of course, turn out to be lime oil!

As a class, we also smelled some commercial fragrances from various decades as reference point which we all enjoyed. One classmate just happened to have a bottle of Roja Dove’s ‘Oud’ in her handbag, so that went down well too.

A little theory followed, we learned about the Jean Carles theory of blending which involves experimenting with ratios. Since this would have taken too long to practice in a 1 day course, instead, at Karen’s suggestion, we divided up the task of blending our perfume into three – a top accord, a middle accord and a base accord. Her advice was to pick three key ingredients for each accord, blend the first two, then when we were happy to blend in the third. This accord would then be set aside and the next one would be worked on, till we were satisfied with all three accords. For those making heavier, oriental or chypre-style fragrances, Karen recommended building the perfume from the heavier base notes up, for lighter colognes and green fragrances, she recommended starting on the top accord and working downwards, the idea being that you start with the most prominent thing in the perfume.

The idea was to end up with 10ml of perfume that would then be diluted to make up 30ml. Most of the ingredients we used were at 20% dilution to make them easier to smell and to work with, stronger ingredients with a higher odour yield, like synthetic civet, are used at a much lower concentration.

We were told to work in ‘parts’ so that it would be easier to work out the ratios of ingredients to each other later on - one part being 0.25ml for the purposes of our exercise. In an ideal world we would have used scales to weigh ingredients, because this is the only way to create and recreate a perfume accurately, drops, unfortunately, can vary too much in size. (Anyone wishing to make perfume in a more serious way is advised to buy scales – perfumer’s scales range from a few hundred pounds in cost to a few thousand).

Looking back at my notes I see I have committed the cardinal sin and not written down my formula properly. I can tell you that my perfume has in it: Vanilla, Benzoin, Sandalwood, Patchouli, Gaiac Wood, Tobacco, Rose Otto, Wild Rose, Black Pepper, Bergamot and a couple of other things in tiny amounts that I have measurements for but neglected to write down...

When we came to dilute our perfumes, we were given a choice of bases – Karen uses a prepared base from Essentially Me which already has some botanical fixatives in it and is made out of Denatured Ethanol (96% proof) with botanical fixatives. The base has a slight smell which is lovely, and goes perfectly with oriental fragrances like mine, so I chose this one. For those making lighter, fresher or more delicate fragrances there is a chance that this base might introduce an ‘external’ smell that is not part of the perfume. Karen also brought with her some perfumer’s alcohol that was from Mistralni. This one is not all ‘natural’ because it contains Isopropyl myristate (which is a moisturising ingredient used in the cosmetic industry) and Monopropylene glycol (which acts as a solvent and helps to dissolve aromatic materials in the base and helps to slow down evaporation of the alcohol).

  • Final Verdict: A great course for a beginner, whether you intend to continue using natural ingredients or later include aroma chemicals in your perfumes.

  • Best Point: I love the perfume I made

  • Room for improvement: Would probably have preferred to use weighing scales rather than pipettes, but then given my reckless way of recording the formula, this may be rather an impertinent comment.

Karen will be running a follow on One Day Intermediate Perfumery Course using Aroma Chemicals as well natural ingredients in London on the Sunday 29th April in association with Perfume Lovers London.

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About the author: Lila Das Gupta

Lila Das Gupta is a London based journalist with an interest in all things olfactory. Lila also organises the Perfume Lover's London meet-up group.

Website: http://www.meetup.com/Perfume-Lovers-London/

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    • michailG | 3rd March 2012 11:40

      This was a great account of the kind of workshop I would love to participate in.

      Alas in Helsinki I have never heard of anything like this. The price of 150£ seems quite reasonable. To me it is important that at the end of the course one doesn’t feel exploited paying a lot for a cheap and disorganized event. According to Lila’s account this was a rather well done workshop. Thank you Lila.

    • KarmaLee | 3rd March 2012 15:40

      This account made me want to have been there. I would love to attend a workshop and construct a personal scent. Glad you love yours and got to enjoy a scent event like this.

    • Lila Das Gupta | 5th March 2012 09:50

      Thanks for your kind comments. We are running a course in London at the end of April, but we hope to run another one later in the year. We are lucky, there seems to be a lot of perfume activity in London these days!

    • Chris Bartlett | 5th March 2012 18:56

      Another good article and from the sound of it another good course. I’m impressed with the idea of sending out materials in advance: a very good way of making the best use of the limited time on a one day course.