Clare Wood speaks to Indie Perfumer and regular forum contributor Chris Bartlett of Pell Wall Perfumes about aroma chemicals, Sophia Grosjman, Jean Claude Ellena and how to become a perfumer.
What are the aroma chemicals someone who’s interested in perfume should know about?
There are a few things that are pretty ubiquitous and probably top of that list would be Hedione. It’s very hard to evidence this sort of thing, but I suspect it’s 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The chemical name is Methyl dihydrojasmonate; Hedione is actually a brand name owned by Firmenich who originally made it.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 don’t have a patent on it anymore and it’s 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 ‘Hmm, this is the most widely used, why?’ It seems really unimpressive.
How would you describe it?
I would describe it as exceedingly mild and jasmine-like. But it’s much more mild than it is jasmine like; very very light and when people think of jasmine fragrances they’re 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 that’s 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, it’s 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.
There’s loads of fragrances that have a citrus note, whether it’s from natural citrus oil or from something else, Hedione’s great for enhancing that. Really, there are very few fragrances that you can’t put Hedione into and get a good effect.
The other one, I’d guess, that is almost as ubiquitous, is Iso-e-Super. It’s 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 clichés has a grain of truth in it: they make a wonderful combination.
In fact if you add Galaxolide to that list you’ve got the Grojsman accord, which I talked about and demonstrated at the Perfume Lover’s 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 that’s 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, they’re meant to be for specialists, for people who want something different.
...who want something they can’t buy in Debenhams.
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 that’s what I demonstrated on the evening, and as you say, everyone immediately understood in what they’re smelling in the version with the Grojsman accord – 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.
What I should also say about that to begin with is Iso-e-Super is again a brand name. I’m not going to attempt to pronounce the chemical name because it’s 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. They’re both made by IFF.
Iso-e-super is interesting again because of the effect it has in a blend, but when you smell it it’s more distinct than Hedione, you know you’re smelling something but often you’ve not quite sure what. Some people argue, quite wrongly that it acts like a pheromone. It doesn’t. 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 that’s what’s wonderful about it.
Do you have favourite aroma chemical to work with?
I’m cheating because my top favourite material of all time isn’t an artificial material, but a natural and it’s Violet leaf absolute. Again, it’s 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 we’re 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 can’t buy it anymore because it’s 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 they’ve made a resurgence.
I look forward to that because I’m a big fan of violet fragrances generally. Violet leaf absolute has got a bit of a violet flower aspect to it, but it’s mostly green. It is also complex, dense and it’s really interesting. You an add it to many different kinds of fragrance and get a positive result as long as you're judicious and don’t add too much.
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. It’s not especially expensive, or actually especially anything except very interesting. Again, it’s 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, it’s green, maybe I have a thing about green fragrance; I don’t know. But it’s more than that, it’s got a floral element to it, it’s got complexity even though it’s an artificial, nothing like violet leaf absolute or any other natural for that matter but even so and it’s subtle.
Lastly, it’s 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 it’s quite hard to do. I think that’s widely misunderstood.
Some people argue that if you mix naturals together your mixing things that already smell nice, so you’ll get something that smells nice, and although there is some truth in that but it’s 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 you’ll end up with brown and naturals are the same, if you keep adding them together you end up with mud, something that doesn’t smell like anything at all and certainly doesn’t 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.
That’s 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 don’t 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 it’s a fantastic fixative for florals.
Depending on what objective you have there are lots of options, as I’ve 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 don’t always do that, sometimes I’m inspired by a material and it’s usually going to be a natural.
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 wouldn’t stand up on its own. This analogy does actually go quite a long way before it starts to fall apart – if you do build a fragrance entirely with naturals it doesn’t tend to last all that long and it doesn’t tend to get up and out there, it tends to lie flat.
Where else do you find inspiration for scents?
I’ve created a few fragrances based on flowers. I’ve taken a flower I love the smell of myself and I’ve set about trying to recreate that in a way that’s 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 doesn’t, I have to make it still work on your skin hours after you sprayed it, while the flower just creates more.
Sometimes I’m 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. That’s nice, I like those.
Which perfumers do you most admire?
One of the very first fragrances that captured me as a buyer was Terre d'Hermes and I’m still in love with it, it’s great. And there’s another reason that I’d put him on the list and that’s 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. It’s very possible to do that and end up with rubbish and it’s 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; they’re all produced in very large amounts so they’re cheap. Well, they are if you’re buying them in large amounts, that’s another whole conversation.
The other person is Jo Malone. Jo isn’t a perfumer, she’s a perfume designer and that’s 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 hadn’t 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 that’s 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 wasn’t an artist, it wasn’t in me.
I discovered later I was quite good at writing, although it was business writing. It was good craft, but it wasn’t 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, what’s 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 that’s how it’s done.
That’s 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 don’t know where you sit on that scale, you don’t know if you’ve got a talent that’s 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