How do perfumers actually make their fragrances? How did they learn the methodology, process, and chemistry-related aspects of perfume creation, particularly if they are self-taught? How do they feel about various materials? Are some trickier to use than others, and is there a difference in the process of handling naturals versus aromachemicals? What are some of the logistics involved in wide-scale production and starting a perfume house, as well as taking a finalised product and releasing it?
Those are some of the questions that I asked Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumery. It is in the first in a series of interviews that I hope to post over the next few weeks, as the various perfumers’ schedules permit. Several of the interviews have sections that intentionally cover the same subject-matter, focusing on the process of learning notes and creating fragrances, as well as each perfumer’s methodology. Many of the perfumers are self-taught, so I think seeing differences in how they answer the same or similar questions will be revealing. We all start some place, even perfumers who have received acclaim for their creations or who are the best in their particular field. So, I’m interested in their educational journey, but I’m also curious about other things, like the precise logistics that are entailed in launching a fragrance, particularly for those perfumers who are subject to the rather exhausting list of EU regulations. We all know about the oakmoss issue, but what are some of the more unexpected side-effects or obstacles that a perfumer may have encountered?
Liz Moores answers all those questions and more. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, she is the founder and nose of Papillon, a British artisanal brand that launched last year to great acclaim with three debut fragrances. I fell hard for Anubis, an incredibly complex fragrance with so many facets that summarizing it as a “smoky, leathered, ambered oriental” simply doesn’t do it full justice. I thought Anubis was the second best new release of 2014, but its siblings, Angélique and Tobacco Rose, were very well done as well.
Her answers to my interview questions are truly revelatory, in my opinion. I mean it quite sincerely and honestly when I say that my jaw was almost on the ground as I read her wonderfully detailed, thorough, straight-forward but incredibly informative explanations that are unlike anything I’ve encountered thus far in showing not only how someone learns about perfume creation, but how the process works. She also, and very generously, shares an astonishing amount of information on such rarely discussed technical matters as: “Mods” (basically, the industry term for the modification stages a perfume undergoes in the development process); the impact of aromachemicals in the balance of notes; EU compliance procedures, MSDS sheets, and the unexpected obstacles that EU regulations sometimes create; how a perfumer who is just starting out obtains supplies for large-scale production; and the logistics of how a small perfume house functions.
I was utterly riveted, and I think you will be, too. So here is Part I of what will be a two-part interview. Part II will focus on the more logistical side of producing and releasing a new fragrance, as well as further discussing the impact of EU regulations. I’ll update this post with the relevant link at that time.
- I’m very interested in your perfume journey, particularly what it was like for you when you first started. How did you teach yourself the basics of perfume creation? Did you just jump into the deep end by experimenting with different essences? If so, do you remember the very first things that you put together in a beaker, and what the end result was like?
Before my perfume journey began, I had my own practice where I performed remedial massage for individuals, and I would often incorporate essential oils into custom blends. I had a very basic olfactory understanding of the more common oils and absolutes used in this field. Occasionally, I would create a blend for a client that was quite beautiful and often think to myself that it could make a lovely perfume.
Back in 2007, I attempted to blend some basic essential oils with vodka — and the results were disastrous. These were oils that I had in my treatment room that I had used in massage blends for my children and clients; oils that I would drop into my bath and some of these oils I would use on my horses for keeping flies away or muscular injuries. There was no real consideration for the finished blend; I simply thought I’d give perfume making a go and utilized the materials I already had. Looking through my very early notebooks, I still have a record of this blend: vetiver 10 drops, sweet orange 6 drops, jasmine 12 drops, bergamot 5 drops, oakmoss 4 drops, all mixed with some vodka I had in the cupboard. It was a complete disaster! The oils separated in the mix, the smell was awful, and the end result wasn’t even passable as an eau de cologne.
Jumping in at the deep end really wasn’t going to work and I realised early on that, if I was to stand any chance at creating a remotely wearable perfume, I needed to study and understand each material in isolation before I could even attempt to blend the materials together. There were also so many materials that I’d never smelt before and this fired an obsessive need to smell everything.
I spent the next two years gradually building up an extensive collection of naturals that I could use as study material. I bought every book I could find on the subject of perfume making and the materials involved. I began writing my observations on each individual oil or absolute, fanatically marking down odour profile, tenacity, similarities to other materials and how each one made me feel, which material had a particular synergy with another and whether it functioned as a top, middle or base note. I separated my notebooks into categories of flowers, resins, bark, roots and leaves, and I began to understand much more than the basic individual characteristics of each material.
Over time, I started to see the olfactory correlation with the part of the material that was used. I smelt the same material that had been subjected to different extraction methods and noted the changes in the odour profile. I bought jasmine absolutes from France, Egypt and India so I was able to identify the differences and possible applications for each. My children would ‘test’ me on this and dip smelling strips, blindfold me and ask me to say which material I was smelling and from which country.
My own (fairly vast!) perfume collection became a separate source of study as well. I would attempt to detect individual notes within these perfumes, a process I found hugely frustrating as, at this stage, I had never smelt an aroma chemical in isolation and knew absolutely nothing about them. At this point in time, I had nothing that I was really working towards; I was merely satisfying a curiosity and obsession that had me in its grip. I knew that I WOULD create a wearable perfume for myself but there was no time limit for me to learn and it was this freedom that really enabled me to enjoy the process without rushing.
In 2009, I enrolled on the CFSS course that is run by the Fragrance Foundation in the UK. This distance learning course allowed me to fully understand fragrance genres and gain a wider understanding of the perfume industry in general. The exam was online, and I remember vividly that my children were at home on this particular day so the exam was taken amongst complete and utter bedlam, but I did manage to pass with a fairly respectable grade! By this point, my obsession with perfume had reached a stage where I was desperate to study in a more professional capacity, but I found the doors to the most creditable perfume schools well and truly closed. It was a frustrating time, as I had my heart and head completely set on becoming a perfumer and become unsure that I could move forward and achieve this goal.
In 2010, I found a course that was run by the late Alec Lawless. This 5 day course covered perfume making using naturals. It was on this course that I met my very dear friend Karen Gilbert, and we instantly clicked. Karen was previously an evaluator for IFF and she has a great understanding of the industry. The course run by Alec was fantastic, but I remember feeling a little deflated that the perfume I created in the 5 days didn’t really smell like a ‘proper’ perfume to me; it was a really nice blend but it was missing something. When I returned home from the course I regularly kept in touch with Karen and, when I expressed my disappointment in not being able to create a ‘proper’ perfume, it was Karen who suggested I use some aroma chemicals to see if this could improve things.
I started buying small amounts of materials from Perfumers Apprentice in the US, and spent months and months evaluating as many as I could. These were far easier to understand than the naturals, and I began to hope beyond hope that I had ‘cracked the code’ and that this newfound understanding may be key in tightening my hold on the building blocks of perfume construction. Immediately, all of the perfumes in my personal collection began to make sense. I was able to suddenly detect these aroma chemicals swirling around with naturals, and I was so excited that these could be the key that would unlock the perfume I had in my head: the perfume I had been trying to create but failing.
From this point on, I really didn’t look back, and I started sketching out on paper a perfume that would be for me, a perfume that included all the facets in a perfume that I love. This perfume became Anubis.
- What were some of the early challenges that you faced when teaching yourself about the science of perfume creation as a whole, and what were some of the unexpectedly easy parts? For example, was it hard to learn about precise proportions, or any of the more chemistry-related aspects?
There were so many challenges in the early days, and there still are. I was thrown out of chemistry class at school for chatting with my friends too much, so my understanding of chemistry was and still is pretty nonexistent. I can understand the materials that interact badly with each, but I don’t know the chemistry behind why this happens. I have bought myself books on the chemistry of fragrance, and I still don’t understand what I’m reading. It might as well be printed in a foreign language. I really do have a complete blind spot where chemistry is concerned, although I’ve tried really hard to overcome this and had even considered taking a degree in the subject but I would have been truly out of my depth. I have now accepted that it’s a subject that I really struggle with. So I try to fill the gaps in my chemistry knowledge with a creative understanding of the materials that I am working with.
Across a lot of my interviews I’m asked about the process of making the perfumes, and I always draw a comparison with another of my great passions: cooking. When I bake, for example, I may not understand the scientific reactions occurring within the mixture; I have no detailed analysis for why we add X amount of one ingredient and Y of the other, or why these “raw materials” must be placed at an exact temperature. Despite this, through books, trial and error, and the use of my senses, I can still make a damn good cake! While I have the greatest respect for and deep interest in the chemistry behind perfume, it is so broad a topic, so intense and so detailed that, to me, it is an entirely different discipline altogether and one which would require another ten, perhaps even twenty years of study.
Therefore, I inevitably perceive my process to be one dictated by artistry, rather than science. Creating perfume, like preparing a delicious feast, requires time, patience and a level of technical understanding; there are materials that will always be harmonious in a blend, and the ones that can be thrown in as a wild card and create something utterly unique or bizarre. I’m absolutely convinced that the more experienced one is at creating a perfume, the quicker the process, but there are certain aspects that cannot be rushed, particularly if there are a lot of naturals within a formula.
Naturals by their very nature are complex and demanding materials, they’re difficult to tame, and they don’t always react the way you think they will. When a formula combines lots and lots of naturals layered over each other, the results can be unexpectedly beautiful or like mud. Handling these materials is for me the biggest challenge, as they are so liable to change throughout the maceration process. Naturals are the soul of a perfume but they always, always require time to show their full potential and sometimes this potential is never reached. Instead, all you are left with is a sludge of smell that doesn’t function as a perfume.
If you would like to cheat a little, then it’s comparatively easy to produce an average perfume by using a lot of aroma chemicals and wafting a little rose oil near the beaker but for me, this is not challenging enough and doesn’t produce a beautifully multifaceted perfume. I am certainly not anti-aroma chemicals, as it was these materials that enabled me to build a properly finished perfume, but the way I work is: 50% naturals, 50% synthetics.
I don’t consciously think about this while I’m creating a perfume; it just happens because I have found a balance that I feel works. When Simon went over the finished formulas for the three perfumes, he found the ratio of naturals to synthetics with Anubis to be exactly 50/50, with Tobacco Rose it was 46/54, and with Angelique 48/52. He asked me if I had actually worked this out beforehand, and was surprised when I hadn’t.
My maths skills are almost as bad as my understanding of chemistry, but I think I’ve reached a stage where I can smell if a perfume is balanced the way I intended it to be. Anubis could have been a far bigger perfume if I’d loaded it with aroma chemicals, and I created an early mod doing exactly this. All of the beautiful facets from the naturals had been obliterated by the synthetics and the formula was firing around with no connection whatsoever inside an exploding toxic bomb. A quieter silage was the trade-off with Anubis, as in the end I went with my heart and the true vision I had for this perfume.
The new perfume, White Moth, is no different. The tiare absolute for this perfume is so delicate, almost fragile, that if you try to underpin the formula with musks, they dominate and obscure the tiare; adding a synthetic white floral to amplify things unfortunately takes everything down the path of a functional product. The naturals here have to keep everything in check. It’s a balancing act all the time, trying to get the essence and heart of the finished perfume to come forward and take center stage, while still allowing the supporting cast their moment in the spotlight too.
- Talk to me about “Mods,” the industry term for the various versions that a perfumer goes through in creating a scent. What is your process like, in terms of what happens from one version to the next? How has your methodology changed since you first started? Finally, what fragrances have challenged you the most in terms of the number of “Mods” you went through before you were satisfied with the end result?
The modification process is one of the hardest and lengthiest for me. I find it hard to know when to let go of a perfume, to put it out there and announce that it’s finished. There have been many times in the studio when I’ve announced that a perfume is finished and Simon never believes me. He knows there will be countless more modifications and procrastinations from myself until I’m thoroughly satisfied that I can do no more. I find the creative side of envisioning a perfume relatively easy and it is certainly the part that excites me. It gets harder when faced with expressing these ideas using smell instead of words, as there has to be the resolve to keep the perfume on track at all times; without this focus the formula may morph into a totally different beast.
With Anubis, for example, I stubbornly refused to let go of my vision for that perfume but there were times when the early mods skewed slightly and I found myself with perfumes that were really good but not Anubis. The temptation after two years of fiddling with mods to just pull out a ‘good’ mod and roll with it was strong, especially when I was feeling completely exhausted by the process. Maybe it’s my inherently stubborn streak that propelled me forward and kept me going, maybe it’s because I’m my harshest critic, I don’t know, but I didn’t allow myself to stop until I felt the perfume that had manifested itself was an accurate construction of my earliest desires for what Anubis would be.
I’ll use Anubis as an example of one of my earliest challenges, as this was the first perfume I made. I created a very basic sketch on paper of how I imagined the perfume would smell and the materials I wanted to include, feelings I wanted to conjure within the formula. At this stage, I only use naturals in my preliminary sketches, as I find these the hardest materials to evaluate within a blend. Evaluating them with aroma chemicals complicates things further, as I find it harder to pick apart any flaws that could be standing out.
To show you how the process developed, this is the very first sketch for Anubis:
Top notes: Lime, bergamot, bitter orange, neroli, black pepper.
Middle notes: Pink lotus, geranium bourbon, rose otto, jasmine, saffron, orange blossom.
Base notes: Opoponax, frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, sandalwood, vanilla.
These materials I blend into separate beakers at the proportions that I feel would work in a finished formula. I will briefly evaluated the top, middle and base notes separately, and write my thoughts in my notebook. I don’t do anything on the laptop, as I prefer the more organic way a notebook feels and it’s a lot easier to take out and about with me too!
These blends are then sealed in aluminum cans, labelled, and then left for a few days before I go back for a second evaluation. I write my findings in my book and then leave the blends for 2 weeks. With Anubis, after 2 weeks, I found that the top notes were heavily dominated by the black pepper and the lime. My notes in my book at this stage say ‘this is bloody awful!!!!!!!!!!!!’ in a very angry scrawl across the page. After a further 3 weeks, this blend was still hideous, so I altered it to this:
- Bergamot (this time I really increased the volume)
- Bitter orange (I reduce this as it was coming through too much in the first mod)
- Neroli (I added a trace amount this time around)
The middle section of Anubis after its resting time was too rosy and lacking depth, so the second sketch was:
- Pink lotus
- Jasmine (massively increased)
- Clove bud (to add a spice facet against the jasmine)
- Rose otto (I halved the amount previously used)
- Jasmine Sambac (another new addition to help smooth the composition)
- Ylang Extra (added to enrich the middle notes)
- Immortelle (another new addition to add a leather effect to the flowers)
- Orange blossom (reduced here as it had gone to battle with the jasmine in the first sketch)
Then, I changed the base notes as they were lacking in depth and I wanted them darker. I needed them to push a bit of darkness up to the florals but not obscure them, so I tried this:
- Opoponax (increased to the maximum IFRA and EU regulations)
- Frankincense (I used a different frankincense this time to achieve a smoky note)
- Myrrh (reduced it here as the first sketch was too dusty. An effect I wanted but not excessively so)
- Labdanum (went to the maximum on this for its smoky leathered note)
- Sandalwood (overdosed it in this sketch to add texture that was missing from the previous mod)
- Vanilla (reduced this as it was too patisserie-like in the previous sketch)
- Benzoin (added lots of this to sweeten the base without taking things in a gourmand direction)
- Tolu (for its subtle vanilla and cinnamon notes)
- Oakmoss (to add a rich green earthy note)
Then it’s back to allowing these materials to hopefully work their magic, a process that in terms of time has occasionally taken up to 10 weeks. I will be continually evaluating these sketches and making notes, creating more sketches built around the original materials in varying proportions, sometimes adding, sometimes subtracting a material, often placing another natural in a new sketch just to see what happens.
After that, I will start creating accords to use within the formula. So, for Anubis, I created an accord of oakmoss, pink lotus and a touch of patchouli to place in the middle note section to see how it changed things, how it would interact with the florals. Anubis contains the original, natural ‘leather accord’ that I created back in 2010, a smell based around my horse’s saddle, but everything else in the formula was adjusted and balanced. There would also be more accords woven into the base notes, and so on and so forth.
The process is constant analytical tweaking and habitual note-taking until I can find the heart of a perfume. I will then blend the top, middle and base notes at varying ratios, for example 20% top, 40% middle, 40% base. After that, I wear the natural blend on my skin for a few weeks to see how the materials are performing (I don’t add any alcohol at this stage), and friends and family are dragged into the studio so I can smear them with the natural sketches. Throughout this process, I am constantly filling notebooks with how the materials are interacting, my thoughts and ideas to take the formula forward.
Then I move things on to the stage where I’ll start adding the synthetics, and this is the process I find the hardest; balancing all of the naturals, retaining the essence of them, and trying not to obscure everything with a hard synthetic fist. This process is the same for the naturals, adding, taking away, leaving things to settle, and going back to the drawing board until I’m completely happy.
I then make up full size 50ml bottles of the final complete mods and these are left for 6 weeks until I start to wear them, spray them on others and observe how the perfume is developing. There have been times when I’ve reached this stage only to find that a material might be jarring with another, and so the entire process starts again.
This method has now become the standard for every perfume I have created since.
In terms of the most challenging fragrance that I’ve made, I’ve been working on a new perfume for the last two years and this particular perfume has been through more modifications than any other perfume I have created. In early January, I had to re-work the formula due to compliance issues, and on first smelling it wasn’t great. This isn’t unusual at all as perfume needs time, so I placed the mod away and decided to give it a week before I sniffed it again. A week later, the formula had twisted completely and was even worse than before, so I decided that this was probably one perfume that would never see the light of day. At that moment, it was so bad and needed much more work.
At the end of January, I thought I would have one last sniff (I couldn’t resist), but I told myself that I must forget this mod as it was driving me insane. I liberally sprayed myself, then had to double-check the bottle, because I was convinced that I’d sprayed myself with something completely different. This mod from early January had, within a few weeks, transformed itself into a perfume of entirely different proportions! Where it was thin and slightly screechy a few weeks ago, it was now fat and luscious with huge depth and longevity.
Time achieved this, and I’ve noticed with this particular mod that it just keeps getting better and better. I’m now at the fascinating stage of waiting for this perfume to stop transforming. I haven’t a clue when this will happen but I’ll know when it does.
- I’d like to focus on specific materials. What notes did you initially find to be challenging to work with, either due to their innate properties and characteristics, or something else? Which ones were easy from the start?
I’ve always found the darker, more resinous materials like labdanum, oakmoss, patchouli and tolu very easy to incorporate into a blend. They have a natural smoothness and affinity with the majority of the florals, and I really enjoy working with these. They also possess an innate natural stability (with the slight exception of oakmoss), so the results when using these materials are relatively predictable.
Animalic notes I absolutely adore, and I find them a joy to work with. Castoreum and hyraceum are my two of my favourite animal notes, and the effects they can create within a formula can be breathtaking. These require a lot more patience within a formula as they need such a long time to work their magic but their ability to withhold their true potential until months later fascinates me.
The naturals can be challenging, but I find aroma chemical musks the hardest to work with. As a result, I tend to use them rarely and then in very low amounts. I’m anosmic to the majority of them until I add them to a formula, and then they have the disadvantage of often dominating a blend.
I used some Ambrettolide a long time ago in an early mod that never saw the light of day. When I standardised this material I could barely smell it but, when I returned to the mod a few weeks later, it had completely overwhelmed the formula. All I could smell was fabric conditioner. Reducing the amount didn’t seem to help things very much at all either, this material was still sitting in the forefront of the formula crashing all over the other materials. I think there are certain musks that can be very helpful in a perfume and if balanced correctly can enhance the rest of a formula. Musk R1 is a musk that I like very much. It has some nice, soft animalic notes with a backdrop of spice and I used this material in Tobacco Rose.
- Are there any materials that consistently remain a bit tricky, perhaps due to how they interact with other elements? Are there any notes that you find a little intimidating? For example, Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse has said he always avoided making any florals for his line, and that he disliked roses, but he recently challenged himself to work with them for his latest scent, Sådanne. Are there any notes that are like that for you?
Straight-up florals I find very hard, because getting close to the scent of a real flower is such a technical challenge and I am in awe of the perfumers who can produce a realistic floral. Fracas always comes to mind when I think of a real tuberose magnified a billion times; the skill in that perfume is incredible and, in my opinion, one of the very best in its genre.
Tobacco Rose took me to the edge and back because I find rose one of the hardest natural materials to manipulate into a formula where the rose has the starring role. As an accessory note, it’s quite easy to work with; it can be buried amongst green foliage, twisted among bark and leaves but to stand alone they really are difficult. Again, this is an easy task if one takes the road of the synthetic, but every synthetic rose reconstruction I’ve tried smells like cheap hand soap and harshly synthetic. Tobacco Rose became my nemesis at times and there was a point at which I packed all of my materials away and swore never to attempt another perfume. This perfume battered my confidence and challenged me like no other but I did go back to this perfume because I refused to let it defeat me.
It became an exercise in self-control and greater understanding of how natural rose materials behave. I discovered that rose absolutes and oils argue within a formula, or hide away and sulk. They need a steady manipulation and gentle introduction with the rest of the materials they will be sitting amongst.
The task I set myself was to create a rose by only using the real thing whilst still complying with IFRA and EU regulations. I managed to get around this and use a very large amount of natural rose by blending two different types of rose together. The Bulgarian rose otto I use is quite high in natural eugenol, an allergen that IFRA really don’t like at all, so I blended this with lots and lots of Rose de Mai that has no eugenol present in its chemical make-up. It contains other allergens, but not the dreaded eugenol. I added Geranium Bourbon to extend the rose note and some other materials to create the rose heart.
Rose is also difficult because the absolutes in isolation don’t smell like the living bloom at all, so it was all of the accessory notes around the absolutes that brought the finished perfume as close to a living rose as I could get. I remember running outside into my garden where I grow 20 different varieties of scented roses, smelling strip in hand, and alternately inhaling the roses and the smelling strip. It’s a good job I don’t have any neighbours close by because I must have looked like a complete lunatic. I’ve often wondered if I would ever create another rose centric perfume again and I think I probably would because I learned to love this tricky material after my initial baptism of fire.
[Click here for Part II which focuses on the logistical side of starting and running an independent perfume house, from large-scale production issues to compliance with EU/IFRA regulations and more.]