For luxury perfumers, creating a fragrance is like producing a work of art. We find out how it happens. By Charlotte Bailey
There are few things more evocative than breathing in a familiar scent. Fragrances can comfort and delight; they can fill us instantly with calm, regret or nostalgia. So surrounding yourself with the perfect scent is as significant a part of creating your ideal environment as choosing visual details for your yacht’s interior.
The perfume-making process begins with sourcing the raw materials. These are mainly either from flowers and plants or from synthetic materials, although historically, animals provided some interesting-sounding substances used in perfumes: a musk was extracted from grains found under the belly of a deer during mating season, castor came from the glands of a beaver and ambergris, an expensive ingredient still occasionally used in perfume-making, is secreted by the intestines of a sperm whale. Thankfully, today’s perfumers usually prefer chemical alternatives, which are easier to produce and more ecological.
Plants, however, such as tuberose, jasmine, orange blossom and mimosa remain very popular bases for perfumes, particularly boutique fragrances. Scents are extracted from different parts of the plant: roots, leaves and stems as well as petals and buds, depending on the species. Barks, leaves, resins and different types of moss are also popular, and foods are perhaps even more sellable in perfume-making because they carry some of the strongest memory-inducing connotations. Herbs like thyme or rosemary, fruits such as mandarins, grapefruits and lemons, and spices including cumin, cardamom and pepper are frequently used to create scents. We took a Perfume Portrait at the Ormonde Jayne perfumery in London’s Sloane Square, a process all clients go through to help owner and perfumer Linda Pilkington select a suitable perfume from her intoxicating collection, and one of the first questions Linda asked us was which food aroma most reminded us of childhood. One of her perfumes is created using her own favourite, basmati rice. Memories like this are just one source of ideas for Linda: “Inspiration comes in all forms,” she says. “The colour of a beautiful scarf, an attractive woman, an elegant home, an opera, a garden, my very old and worn out botanical encyclopedia.” The birthplace of the industry, Grasse, Provence, is still the world’s perfume capital, but Linda’s scents are mixed in an unassuming lab in north London.
Luxury perfumers will travel, work hard and pay high to source tricky ingredients. “When I work, I use raw materials which can cost between two and ten times the price of gold,” explains perfumer and fragrance expert Roja Dove. “These ingredients are expensive and make my clients smell expensive.” For her signature male scent, Ormonde Linda Pilkington travels to the Middle East to haggle with dealers of oudh, a rare oil worth tens of thousands per kilo, produced when the partially-endangered Aquilaria tree is infected. And Ormonde Jayne’s most popular perfume, Ta’if, is made with the oil from the pink rose that grows in Ta’if, a hilltop town overlooking the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. The rose only flowers for a month each year and the oil must be extracted from closed buds picked at dawn. “I first encountered Ta’if rose oil seven years ago” says Linda. “It is rarely used in the luxury perfume industry today. It is amazing to think of these delicate pink Ta’if roses growing in such a parched searing climate.” She blends the rose oil with other ingredients including date and saffron for this exotic scent, popular with Middle Eastern clients in particular. It’s evident that the characteristics from a raw material can carry through to the finished product: for example, this rose’s adaptability in hot climates. “One of the practical reasons for Ta’if Eau de Perfum’s demand is that it does stand up to the test of heat – it’s a perfume that loves hot sultry weather.”
Once the materials are settled upon and sourced, the fragrance itself must be extracted from the plant so the perfumer has a concentrated raw material with which to work, and there are a variety of techniques for this process. Organic solvents are generally used most commonly: the plants are washed in solvents in steel vats and the fragrance attaches to the solvents. They are decanted and filtered, then evaporated to leave a fragrant paste, called a concrete or resinoid. This is then washed with mechanical beaters in alcohol, chilled and re-chilled to obtain the ‘absolute’, which is used for perfume.
Another common method is distillation, developed by the Arabics in the 8th century, in which steam is used to catch essential oils in a piece of equipment called a still. The plants are placed above a pot of boiling water, and as the steam rises it collects the oils carrying the scents and carries them to a glass condenser. The mixture of water and these essential oils is collected in Florentine flask bottles, where the liquids naturally separate. The oils, having risen to the surface, are skimmed off and ready for perfume creation (the remaining waters can also be sold – this is how rose water is made).
Other raw materials go through the absorption or enfleurage technique, which uses animal fat to absorb odours – although this is increasing being replaced by more modern methods. Strong flowers are steeped in lard or tallow and the mixture is then filtered to collect the oily, scented substance. The more fragile flowers like daffodils or jasmine are damaged by heat, so instead fat is spread onto sheets of glass and the flowers placed on top. The flowers are continually replaced until the fat is saturated with their fragrance. Alcohol is then used to separate the fragrance from the fat to obtain the absolute.
Once the scents are extracted and ready, the perfume maker, known as the “nose”, begins creating a perfume from the absolutes. When creating a bespoke perfume, perfumers offer five vials of scent to the client, who chooses their favourite. Five further vials are then created to add the next layer of scent, and again the client chooses their favourite. This process is repeated until the fragrance has enough layers and the client is happy; if none of the five is right, the perfumer simply goes back one step. It was something like this process that led Coco Chanel to name her iconic “No. 5” perfume after choosing the fifth vial. “The most vital part of the perfume-making process is the interaction between perfumer and evaluator,” says Tania Sanchez, co-author of A Little Book of Perfumes: The World’s 100 Greatest Perfumes. “That’s if we take for granted that the perfumer has talent and has been granted enough time and budget to do good work.”
To begin creating the perfume, the creators dip mouillettes into the solution at intervals and let them dry before using the scent from them to decide what to add to make the product stronger or lighter. They continue to make infinitesimal additions to make the product into what they envisaged. It can take years to create one perfume, and experienced perfumers can identify up to 3,000 aromas; many of today’s “noses” have degrees in chemistry or psychology. Around 600 new fragrances are introduced to the mass market each year, but most don’t last long. Bespoke perfumers, on the other hand, can indulge in months of preparation to create a perfectly crafted scent. The most expensive bottle of perfume on the market, priced at a cool $215, 000, is Clive Christian’s No. 1 Perfume. Made with no budget restrictions, its heart note is Rose de Mai from Grasse, which blooms for only three weeks a year (170 roses are needed to create a single drop of oil), and its base note combines 50-year-aged sandalwood and fermented crystallised Tahitian vanilla.
So what should you keep in mind when buying a new perfume? Since 1900, finished fragrances have been separated into seven “families”, depending on their origins. These are citrus, floral, fougère (fern), chypre, woody, amber and leather. The list was further developed in 1945 to include new scents such as aquatic, fruity and gourmand. Finding a new fragrance should be “approached like a game of seduction: slowly and with pleasure,” says Roja. His advice is to spray the scents you like on blotting cards, conceal the brands, then smell them away from the store: “Maybe take yourself to a smart little bar and slowly sniff and deliberate alongside a glass of well-chilled champagne. After all, this could become a long-term love affair.”
A perfume diffuses down through the day, so it’s important to like how it smells 12 hours after you first tried it, adds Tania. “You cannot buy a perfume based on the way it smells in the first ten minutes,” she says. “You have to wear it all day to know what it’s really like.” Perfumes contain top notes, middle or heart notes and base notes. These terms refer to how volatile the elements of the essences are; how quickly they diffuse into the air and for how long they remain on the skin before fading. The first smell you take from a perfume bottle will be the top notes, and eventually you’ll reach the base notes, which can be fairly different from the top. Strong base notes can last 48 hours. And when it comes to gender, don’t feel you need to stick to traditional his and hers: many luxury perfumers advocate the idea that if you like a perfume, you should wear it, regardless of the gender for whom it was ostensibly created. “I have one fragrance, Isfarkind, that I originally made for men,” says Linda. “But my female customers now love it too.”
And as many superyacht owners know, your favourite perfume doesn’t have to be restricted to the skin. “Having a signature home scent is becoming more desirable than wearing one on your skin,” says Roja. “It is a way of marking out your territory, of really owning your surroundings. It is more personal than simply wearing a scent, as people have to be invited into your home to experience it. And because sense of smell is so closely linked to memory, your guests go away with a lasting souvenir of your home (or yacht). Home fragrance has become a very personal style statement.” SyW
This feature is taken from the November/December 2011 edition of SuperYacht World. Click here to buy the issue for your iPad.