Saturday, March 7, 2009

Smells like Allyl Amyl Glycolate

So I finally decided that it was/is time I learned to identify some “notes.”

I was eight when I got my first chemistry set. I don’t know how any of us kids who grew up in the Sixties survived our childhoods. There were none of the safeguards protecting ourselves from ourselves that are so ubiquitous today. I mean, this chemistry set, made for and marketed to grade-school children, had stuff in it you could use to make gunpowder! It did include a warning – “Kids, don’t use this to blow up the house!” – but that was all.

I made some real stink-bombs with that chemistry set. I would find household materials – bleach, Hawaiian Punch, and once, a half-bottle of my mother’s Woodhue cologne – and throw that in, too. (My hide got tanned for that one, I must admit; something else that doesn’t happen to the kiddies any more but maybe should. But I digress.)

Could it be that I missed my calling?

Here it is a few, er, years later, and here I am with another chemistry set. This one includes aromachemicals and absolutes, designed to assist in the identification of notes, and in the making of one’s own fragrances, should one desire to do so.

I actually haven’t had much time to play around with these yet, but at least now I know which of the included musks I’m anosmic to (musk ketone). And which of these really stink (allyl amyl glycolate). I know who the schoolyard bully is (iso buytl quinoline, a.k.a. “leather”). And that perfumers have a tough, tough gig. I knew that before, but there is something about actually measuring these elixirs out, drop by precise drop, feeling that joy of creation if it works, or wondering why it didn’t smell like you expected, what you did wrong, what else you could put in to fix it, what might work to “lift” the fragrance or make it last, and so on, that brings it home in a way all the reading in the world can’t.

Of course, this is like sticking a toe in the Pacific. You can’t exactly say you went swimming. And it’s heavy on the aquatic and “fresh” notes, not my favorites. But, wow. I’m impressed. Impressed with how hard this is. Impressed with how much these people have to know.

I like to make materials. As an artist, I’ve made my own pastels. I’ve delved into pigments down to their molecular structure. I know color theory well, and all of that has made me a more confident painter. But this? Paint’s a piece of cake, a walk around the block, compared to this.

Perfumery truly is where art and science meet. We all rattle off that phrase. It’s one of the axioms of fragrance. But I don’t think I really understood what it meant until now.

I have no intention of attempting to become a perfumer. I’m content to swoon over artistry exhibited by the masters, and to write about how that artistry makes me think and feel. And, when discussing a fragrance, I’m content to say “lily of the valley” instead of “hydroxy citronellal,” and so is my spell-checker, to be honest. You know, it just sounds…prettier.

Does this mean I’m not a newbie anymore? Well, yes/no. After a year’s concentrated study and critique, I’ve learned a lot. But just looking at all these little bottles – a drop in the bucket – humbles me.

And takes me back in time, to when I was eight, making gunpowder in the back bedroom instead of doing my homework.

The kit I’m using is the “Perfumery Notes Kit” from The Perfumer’s Apprentice,
Photo copyright Andrev Kiselev. Used under license from


Perfumeshrine said...

There you are: "I’m content to say “lily of the valley” instead of “hydroxy citronellal,” and so is my spell-checker, to be honest. You know, it just sounds…prettier".
The reason why this whole dimension is hidden from the consumer. It takes an inquisitive spirit such as yours to come up with some drawing of the curtain to see a little bit behind.
I was about to blow out the house as a kid too and ruined many perfumes of my mother's in the process (I feel we're kindred spirits!)...Some things never change!

Olfacta said...

Hi E --

Yes, I too believe we are kindred spirits!

I think many people are just frightened by chemistry. God knows I was, when I had to take it in school. But it's one of the few subjects from those days that I still remember (some of) and use.

As for writing, the poetic descriptions ("attar of rose" or "violet leaf") seem to fit fragrance prose so much better than the multisyllabic and alphanumeric stumbling blocks of chem-speak.

Which is to say they're...prettier.

Luckily, we all have "Perfume Shrine" to turn to to delve deeper!

Perfumeshrine said...

Aaaah.....flattery... :-P

Hugs sweetie!!

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