Let me start by saying that I have no intention whatsoever of becoming a perfumer. Apart from the time that it would take to train, comparable to training a surgeon, I know already that I have the wrong personality to make it in a lab. My slapdash ways as a cook usually turn out rather successfully, but while an extra glug of olive oil can really liven up a dish, a random glug of rose oil that leads to a masterpiece is no good at all if you can’t reproduce the formula. This much I knew already: if you are not meticulous about recording what you do, you are doomed as a perfumer.
So, I came to the course as an interested amateur wanting to know more about how fragrance is created, and with a desire to familiarise myself with raw materials. I chose this particular course because it offers participants the chance to use synthetic materials as well as natural ones, and since this is now the standard in modern perfumery, I thought it would offer me a more accurate picture of commercial scent production. “Natural perfumers” use only natural ingredients and this will be my next course.
John Stephen, who owns the Cotswold Perfumery, also teaches the course, in the picturesque Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water, 100 miles west of London. He is a chemist by training and revived the business with his mother when his father passed away. You could certainly say that he is well connected: he’s made perfume for the Queen (she likes gardenia) and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh (he likes limes); he’s also on gossiping terms with writer Luca Turin who’d been to visit him with his kids the week before my visit.
Courses run over a weekend, either as a two-day session, or as standalone events, but you can only take the second course if you’ve completed the first at some stage.
We started our morning by learning about fragrance categories, and the way the olfactory system works, before going on to the storage of perfumes: the lower the level of the juice, the more likely it is to go off, because the ‘headspace’ is greater, leaving more oxygen in the bottle. Just as I was thinking that it would be nice to smell something, it was time to grab coats and go into the garden. There we smelled a tiny leaf from a rose bush. John asked us what the note was that we were smelling, but it was incredibly hard to place. Only one person got that it was ‘apple’. Once you were told, it did indeed have a very faint smell of apple. Next he picked some rosemary which was detectable even before we were each given a sprig. The point of smelling both was to teach us that the rose leaves had a very low ‘odour yield’ (ie. pong per pound), where as rosemary has a very high one. What does that mean in a perfume?
To demonstrate the point further, John gave us a fragrance to smell, then a second version, which had been modified with only one drop of basil, which has a high odour yield. The difference of one drop was astounding.
Our next exercise in the lab was to smell anonymous notes which we then had to describe. This was the hardest part of all because most of us simply don’t have the vocabulary* to match the sensations that are going on in our head. Even when you correctly guess, as I did that, what we were smelling was ‘Geranium’, hence something ‘floral’, that word to me denotes something soft and warm, whereas geranium can be quite angular, especially if you team it up with the wrong thing. After the agony of smelling unknown things (we forget how much we rely on visual clues to interpret the world), we were guided through a mini version of the ‘perfumer’s organ’. A full set can contain hundreds of bottles; ours had a more manageable 15. John led us through them giving us words to describe the categories of smells, describing what part they have to play in a composition: top, middle or base note; subtle contributor or thuggish attention grabber. This was my favourite part of the day.
After a lovely lunch in the Dial House opposite (Bourton has a series of pretty little bridges over “the water”, the river Windrush), we got down to the business of making our own perfume. We were given the list of typical ingredients that go into a chypre and a citrus-based perfume, and could choose between the two. The idea was to arrive at a formula through trial and error, starting to build the perfume through the base notes up – the heaviest, least volatile molecules first. Some people like a teaching style that is more exploratory, but to me, it felt like being asked to make puff pastry without a recipe, arriving at the correct proportions through trial and error. I would rather have worked my way through a recommended base at this point, then gone on to customise it with a drop here or a drop there (actually everything is weighed out in grams or parts of grams on very sensitive scales). The people who came on the course seemed to be enjoying this part of the experience, so this could just be down to me.
This was a fascinating day in the laboratory. There were only six students (instead of nine) and a larger perfumer’s organ to play with, containing 60 bottles. This time John took us through 3 different types of (synthetic) musk, all subtly different. We learnt how Hedione, a green note, adds a ray of sunshine to perfume and enhances other smells, particularly florals. We also had a crash course in chemistry, which I enjoyed.
When talking about carbon, John tells us it’s in the middle of the Periodic Table and bonds easily with a lot of other elements: “ Carbon is bland and popular,” says John, “ it’s the Terry Wogan of the periodic table, if you like.” We also got to smell a ‘left handed’ molecule and the same one in a ‘right hand version’. Both smell different even though it’s exactly the same atoms simply rearranged into reverse to make a mirror image.
For those who have any intention of setting up as perfumers professionally, we learned just what a kill-joy the rules of IFRA (the International Fragrance Association) are. I suspect you are more likely to die from a daily overdose of artery-hardening mayonnaise in your sandwich than a regular squirt of oakmoss, but rules there are, and rules you must follow, if you want to sell to the public.
What was the final verdict?
The course costs £150 for day 1 and £250 for day 2
(A free bottle of John’s perfume from the shop is included per day)
For a perfumista who has read a lot of books but needs hands on experience, this is a certainly a good course. Once you’ve been on it, you can buy lab materials from the web-site, including oils ready-diluted in alcohol, which is very useful for an amateur. If you seriously want to learn how to make perfume either for yourself or professionally – this is a first sniff; remember it takes years to become a perfumer.
* If you want to learn more about descriptive words used for perfumery, John suggests tracking down a copy of Steffen Arctander's book 'Perfume and Flavour Materials of Natural Origin'. Unfortunately it costs a few hundred dollars/just under £300, so a library request might be a better idea.