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Wit & West Origins and How Perfumes Are Made

Posted on March 17 2023

Wit & West Perfumes | Our Origins and How Perfumes Are Made

 

Photo Credit by Wit, Owner & Perfumer for Wit & West Perfumes (photo of perfumery books and materials in the Wit & West Perfumes studio)

 

Often when I am talking to someone about Wit & West Perfumes one of the first questions I am asked is “how did you get into perfumery and how do you actually make a perfume?”


Growing up, perfume and everything scented including body oils and body powders, soaps and candles were a staple in my life. Both my parents wore perfume regularly and my dad owned a boutique in Colorado Springs called Swale Hall that featured British lifestyle and home goods, beauty, and personal care products, including wool sweaters and scarves, British teas, candies, and chocolates, as well as perfumes, soaps, lotions, and scented body powders from Floris of London. I remember being really interested in all the Floris of London bath and body products and especially the perfumes. In particular, I remember loving the Lavender and Lily of the Valley Floris of London perfumes and dusting powders (the latter is no longer produced) and feeling like they were sophisticated, regal and grown up (they still hold a Royal Warrant of Appointment which is considered to be the ultimate mark of recognition for those who have supplied the highest quality of goods or services to the households of Her Majesty The Queen or His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales). To this day, I still have a small bottle of Lily of the Valley and every time I smell it, I am flooded with wonderful memories of my childhood and time spent in my family’s shop.


I had considered perfumery as a career years ago, but I was not quite sure what that meant or how I would get there until mid-2018 when I started thinking about it again. This time, I had decided I was not going to let my fear of the unknown stop me. I spent 2+ years studying on my own and under some of the world’s most well-known and highly regarded natural perfumers including Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, Charna Ethier of Providence Perfume Co., and Anya McCoy of the Natural Perfumery Institute and Anya’s Garden Perfumes. As an avid believer that an artist cannot stop learning and growing, I approach perfumery with a mindset that is open to new techniques, styles, and ideas through ongoing mentorship and training with other natural perfumers as well as via continuing education through organizations such as the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP).

What is Perfumery?

In terms of the process for making perfume, it is important to first start with my definition of what perfumery is.

For me, perfumery is the language of scent, both an art and a science. From an artistic standpoint, perfume is an olfactory art or art that you wear and smell (olfaction means to smell and the olfactory system is the sensory system we use to smell).

As an artisan small-batch perfumer I am fortunate to have the same artistic freedom that other artists such as painters and musicians do; the freedom to take my artistic medium and translate it into a final piece, aka a perfume. In my case, the medium is small-batch 100% all-natural perfume and my perfumer’s palette consists of all-natural and botanical perfume ingredients that I use to compose a final perfume. On a more technical level, constructing or making perfume requires discipline and the ability to follow a repeatable process.

One of the most notable perfumers who helped lay the groundwork for the process used in constructing a perfume is French perfumer, Jean Carles, the founder of the Roure Perfumery School in Paris who served as its first director in 1946 (now part of Givaudan, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of flavors and fragrances). Today, many perfumers (including myself) continue to follow the Jean Carles Method of perfumery which is based on a rigorous and methodical process of classification of each raw material (e.g., perfume ingredients) based on their odorous characteristics and volatility and then further classifying them into base, heart and top notes. Borrowing terms used in music, a perfume is composed of many different “notes” or aromatic raw materials or ingredients. Notes are arranged into “accords” (another term borrowed from music) to create an entirely new scent and then further combined to create the final perfume composition. Learn more about perfumery in our blog post focused on the history of perfume.

How Perfumes are Made

If you were to ask three different perfumers to explain their process and how to make perfume, chances are you will get three different answers. Part of this depends on whether you ask a perfumer working for one of the big flavors and fragrances companies like Givaudan, IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances), Symrise, etc., or a perfumer who is independent/artisan. For perfumers who work for one of the big flavors and fragrance companies they are likely going to follow a more standardized process that starts with a perfume brief presented to them by a client. These briefs often have specific requirements that are geared toward hitting a sales target and achieving a specific profit margin. While this may be true for the independent artisan perfumer, it is generally not the number one objective or goal. There is more artistic freedom available to the independent artisan perfumer, which has both positive and negative aspects to it (sometimes artistic freedom means a world of possibilities in the creative process but if you are not careful this can lead to paralysis by analysis). For myself, when I sit down to create a new perfume, I use the following process:
  1. Perfume Concept & Story
  2. Perfume Ingredients & Fragrance Family
  3. Sketch of Initial Formula
  4. Trials, Mods & Test Batch
  5. Final Formula & Scaled-Up Batch

Perfume Concept & Story

First, I start with the development of the story behind the perfume with an olfactory focus. In other words, I start with what type of scent memory, feeling or emotion I am trying to convey. This sensorial focus in my creation process is important to me because our sense of smell is directly connected to our memory and our emotions, making perfumery a very intimate and powerful form of self-expression for both the perfumer and the wearer. Once I have developed the story behind the perfume, I start sketching out my idea via a storyboard of the concept and vision for the perfume.

Perfume Ingredients & Fragrance Families

Once I have developed the olfactory story behind the perfume, I select perfume ingredients (anywhere from 20 or more ingredients depending on the goal of the perfume) and the fragrance family as a starting point for the perfume.

So, what exactly are fragrance families? Fragrance families (or olfactive families) are the traditional classification system designed in the early 1900s by the perfume industry to categorize fragrances into groups to describe their dominant olfactory characteristics. Common fragrance families include floral (often single floral note known as “soliflore” or floral bouquet dominated perfumes with notes of jasmine, gardenia, rose, etc.), woody (includes notes such as sandalwood, cedarwood and agarwood), amber (a traditionally rich, dark, somewhat heavier perfume with a focus on resins such as labdanum and benzoin, vanilla, sultry florals and spices), gourmand (“edible” perfumes that feature notes such as vanilla, chocolate, caramel, coffee, toffee, etc.) and fresh (often associated with eau de colognes that are light, sometimes floral or aromatic with fresh and citrusy notes such as lemon, bergamot, mandarin and grapefruit). 

From Sketch to Final Perfume

Once I have selected my perfume ingredients as well as my fragrance family focus, I begin drafting my skeleton formula. I have several ways of doing this and sometimes I do it one way and other times another way. Sometimes I start with accords I have already created, sometimes I do not use accords at all. Often, I will start with the traditional structure of a perfume using the perfume or olfactive pyramid which consists of top, heart and base notes. Top notes are what you smell first and are the most volatile and therefore short-lived at only about 30 minutes to an hour at the most. Things like citrus, some spices, etc. are examples of top notes. Heart notes last longer at 2-4 hours and include florals like rose or jasmine, some spices, and some woods. Base notes last the longest – sometimes up to 5 hours and include things like resins and woods.

Depending on preference and/or the fragrance family of the perfume, the proportions of top, heart and base notes can vary. For example, an amber perfume might have a structure that is something like this; 30% citrusy and spicy top notes, 20% floral heart notes, and 50% ambery base notes). In contrast, a fragrance following the classic cologne structure would have the perfume pyramid flipped upside down with a larger percentage of top notes in the formula (80% citrusy top notes, 12% aromatic top to heart notes like lavender or rosemary, 5% floral heart notes, and 3% woody base notes). While the classic perfume pyramid is useful as a starting point, it is not always necessary, and some might even say it is outdated. However, for natural perfumery specifically, this structure of top, heart and base notes works particularly well given the fact that natural materials evolve and change over time so having this structure in mind is one that I find useful when composing a perfume.

In addition to developing the perfume’s initial formula, it is also important to consider what the concentration of the fragrance will be. A fragrance is always defined by its concentration which is the percentage of aromatic ingredients or essence diluted in perfumer's alcohol (for Wit & West Perfumes we use a USDA organic grape alcohol as our perfume base). The range for an Eau de Parfum is between 10-20% aromatics or essence, Eau de Toilette is between 8-15%, and an Eau de Cologne is between 3-5%.

After developing a skeleton formula (and considering safety and regulatory requirements for perfume ingredients), I formulate small trial batches by weighing out each perfume ingredient on a scale (weight is a must for perfume making to ensure accuracy and that a perfume formula can be scaled up into larger batches and produced again and again). Once I have developed a few trials or mods (e.g., modifications) of my formula I will let it age or mature for a few weeks. This step is important for ensuring that the necessary chemical interactions take place between the raw materials contained within the perfume concentrate, creating an olfactory balance. After maturation, I can reassess the perfume formula and determine what adjustments are needed. If at this point, I’ve decided on a final version of the formula for the perfume, I will create a scaled-up batch of the final perfume, let it age or mature for several weeks, and then once it’s aged, I will filter (using a cold filtration process) and store it until I am ready to bottle.

A Wit & West Case Study: Brumaire Woods Eau de Parfum

When I set out to create my perfume Brumaire Woods, my goal was to pay homage to my husband’s childhood home in the Vancouver-Portland area by capturing the experience you feel when hiking through the Columbia River Gorge, the canyon of the Columbia River. If you have never been, the Columbia River Gorge is a spectacularly scenic river canyon that meanders past waterfalls (90+ on the Oregon side alone) cliffs, spires, and ridges, stretching for over eighty miles as the river winds westward through the Cascade Mountain Range, forming the boundary between Washington and Oregon.

Once the inspiration for the perfume and the story behind the perfume were defined, I started brainstorming descriptors that evoked the feeling and mood I wanted the perfume to elicit (calm and peaceful, cool and refreshing, earthy and soft, etc.) and from there I selected the fragrance family for the perfume which served as the starting point for determining my perfumer’s palette of ingredients I wanted to work with.

For Brumaire Woods in particular, I focused on the classic perfume fragrance family known as a fougère (from French meaning “fern” and pronounced “foo-jair”). A fougère, traditionally speaking, is composed with lavender, oakmoss and coumarin (coumarin is naturally occurring in tonka beans) creating a character that is fresh, mossy, cool, herbaceous and somewhat damp and is often considered the trademark of many mainstream perfumes for men (examples include the first fougère launched in 1882 called Fougère Royale and more current perfumes in this category include Paco Rabanne Pour Homme as well as Sauvage Dior). The focus on the fougère fragrance family really spoke to me in terms of the artistic and sensorial effect I was going for; cool, refreshing, and green (lavender and mint), soft, mossy, and earthy (oakmoss and tobacco). I started with the initial framework of a classic fougère and from there I developed trials or modifications of the formula that I then evaluated and adjusted over the course of 8+ months until I landed on the final perfume formulation. The final perfume I created for Brumaire Woods consists of a focus on fresh and herbal top notes including lavender, mint and thyme, the heart leans in a more floral citrusy direction with jasmine and neroli, while the base focuses on mossy and earthy elements with oakmoss and tobacco.

Additional Thoughts on Perfumery

While perfumery is an extremely rewarding artistic endeavor, it is also extremely challenging. There is no simple, quick or single path that one can or should take. Perfumery is an art, a science, a discipline and often for many (including myself) a way of life and a lifelong learning process. It requires years of studying to become proficient and many more years to achieve a baseline level of mastery. It is necessary to spend a considerable amount of time evaluating, researching, and understanding raw materials (their olfactory characteristics, use and function in an accord or formula, rate of intensity and volatility, regulatory restrictions, etc.). Additionally, it requires a love of a process that often involves many trials to reach a particular goal and the discipline and patience to accept that there are (many) more failed attempts at making a perfume than there are great perfumes made. Sometimes a perfume idea or concept becomes a perfume, other times it remains an idea that must be paused until a new idea can help reshape it. All in all, it is an artform and process that I enjoy and one that speaks to my soul; the invisible, yet beautiful world of scent.

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