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  1. Materials we use: violets

    α-ionone and β-ionone - Victorian treasures discovered by the early olfactory explorers

    2013-04-26 19.15.52

    Have you ever smelled a violet? You have to get down really close. Or you can pick it, but that would be a shame. The picture here is of violets in my front garden last year. Any day they'll be back. I can't wait. There was a time when violets were cut and brought to London every morning by train for flower girls to sell by the bunch. Out of season the rich and fashionable would wear the perfume instead.

    These days violet perfumes aren't made with violets. You might get a tiny amount of expensive violet leaf absolute in there, but even that doesn't smell of violets, it smells like very intense grass. Extreme leafiness.

    In Victorian time and before, violet perfumes were made at huge cost, extracting the scent by a method that is no longer used - too expensive, too slow, tot small a yield. And it involved lard...

    Napoleon Bonaparte loved his violet perfumes, but maybe that was because he was such an immense show off. Once he made himself emperor it turned his head; he installed himself in the palace of Versailles and spent money like water - completely forgetting why he'd joined in the French Revolution in the first place. But that's another issue. He liked his amazingly expenseive violet perfumes, and he liked everyone to know he could afford them so he splashed them about a bit.

    He must have turned in his grave when Perkin, the British chemist working just up the road from here in Greenford, and others in France and Germany synthesised the ionones: alpha and beta. They smelled of violets; the world of perfumery changed overnight. (It took a bit longer than that, but not much.) Almost everyone could suddenly afford to smell of violets.

    Parma Violets, the breath freshening sweets, are made with the ionones. Alpha is more floral and beta is more woody. Together they are amazing. It took until 1972 to find out that it really was the ionones that make violets smell that way, not a chemical coincidence. By that time they'd been making us smell lovely for 100 years.

    Violet perfumes went out in the 70s and 80s - although the ionones were still in there, secretly adding their magic. They're back in favour now, but you'll probably find a tiny to medium amount of the ionones in almost every woman's scent on the market. Even if you can't detect the violet, they bring a delightful loveliness to a perfume. I can't describe it any better.

    There's a fair amount of ionone alpha in Urura's Tokyo Cafe, and I've just put a load of ionone beta into my Vintage Tuesdays London 1969. Blended with citrus fruits and lavender, it's just amazing. Not violetty - just extra fruity and floral. It's one of the best ways I know to make natural materials smell ever more natural.

    Every time I get out the ionone alpha in a sniffing session people smile and yell out "It smells of Parma Violets!" To which I reply, "Not exactly: Parma Violets smell of ionone alpha."

  2. The perfumery materials I use, and why I use them

    AKA Hydroxyphenyl butanone, frambinone 

    What's the point of being a perfumer if you can't make things smell the way you want, creating scents which remind you of the things you love? That's why I started anyway. Then I got distracted by making things that smell of other people's favourites, but that's a story you can read elsewhere.

     One hot summer, our family spent a holiday afternoon in a Scottish wood where we found the biggest wild raspberry patch in the universe - probably - and ate the delicious pink fruits one by one until we had to go home. My favourite food, free. Only a stream of liquid chocolate would have improved that afternoon. 

     So to the scent of raspberries. If you buy the fragrance oil from cosmetics suppliers, it won't have come from raspberries. In my early years I used a bottle of that stuff for dabbling and experiments, but before I felt I deserved to call myself a perfumer, I really needed to know exactly what I was using in my formulas. It's not just for the regulations (although that's important too) but more of an intellectual pursuit, the satisfaction that I'd got to the bottom of the issue, identified what was really going on, and in. I put on my metaphorical Sherlock deerstalker and set off on the trail of raspberry scent.

    I'm going to write about raspberry leaf absolute later, by the way. That's a natural material that smells of raspberry jam. Gorgeous, expensive and difficult to work with, so very rarely found in commercial perfumes.

    Perfumer, illustrator, writer and wondergeek Pia Long, told me that she thinks of raspberry ketone as the scent of the dried berries. For me it's the smell you get when you snap open a bar of Divine's dark chocolate with raspberry crunchy bits.

    You can buy natural raspberry ketone, extracted from raspberries, but it costs a blooming fortune, so I buy the synthetic stuff. If you are a dedicated natural perfumer and insist on using (as close as you can get to) 100% natural materials, it's there for you. But to be honest, by the time it reaches a usable form, you can't really claim that it's natural. Some like to call these things "derived from nature" but what isn't? It's a powder, refined from the original fruits using chemistry techniques.

    For me, only using natural perfumery materials is cutting off your nose to spite your face and you really need your nose in this business. More of this later.

    So I often use raspberry ketone side by side with raspberry leaf absolute so get the deep jammy note and the lighter dry one; they hold hands and support each other. And I get to smell like summer pudding.

    You can smell my simple raspberry accord in Urura's Tokyo Cafe, created with both materials, not to the point where the finished scent smells overwhelmingly fruity, but it has this deliciously tasty, jammy background to the gentle flowers, flightly citrus fruits and dark balsams.

     I use it in The Great Randello too, with its strawberry equivalent.

  3. The things I use to make scents: number 3

    Rose oxide, also known as Tetrahydro-4-methyl-2-(2-methylprop-1-enyl)-pyran, is one of the natural chemicals* that make roses smell the way they do.

    Somes roses have no scent and are bred merely for visual beauty. That seems a shame to me. The ones bred for scent are picked by the million and turned into rose absolute - which is expensive - and rose essential oil - which is even more expensive.

    Natural rose oil and absolute are made up of hundreds of different molecules.  Some smell and some don't. Some do other things, like giving you a feeling of calm and peace Rose oxide is one with a very distinctive scent.

    The rose oxide I use is synthetic. It's the same molecule with the same smell as the one that comes from rose petals, but it's made in a factory, and it exists on its own. And it really does smell like metal roses would, if you could grow them. You just have to use your imagination.

    Each variety of rose contains different amounts of the molecules that make it smell, including geraniol, linalool, citronellol and natural adlehydes.

    So in modern commercial perfumery, where scents are made by the 100s of litres, natural rose can be too unpredictable. Batches of rose absolute from different countries, fields, levels of sunshine or rainfall, or years, will all smell slightly different from each other. It's the task of a skilled perfumer to reformulate final fragrances so they smell identical to the previous batches. This all takes far too long for many of the high street brands. The top dogs like Chanel and Guerlain do go to the trouble. Others can't afford it.

    That's one good reason why perfumers will choose synthetic materials and recreate the smell of roses from its individual parts. Once they have a formula they can use it forever (regulations permitting) and it will always smell the same.

    Rose oxide has a shiny brightness to it. Add a little to a boring flower blend and it will wake up; it brings some life to the olfactory party.

    I use it in a light airy rose blend of my own. I also use it in an accord I call Shiny Bicyles. Inspired by the 2012 Tour de France, I developed a scent called Time to Draw the Raffle Numbers, to celebrate the moment Bradley Wiggins (Sir Wiggo) led the peloton into the Champs Elysees to help Cav win the final sprint. I used rose oxide and an essential oil that I think smells like wax polish to give me the scent of racing bikes. 

    *Natural chemicals:

    Roses are made of chemicals, as are human beings, everything we eat, drink and use. Some chemicals are synthetic - made in factories - and some are natural - found in nature. They are still chemicals, and as a science geek and proud of it, I'm not going to pretend otherwise. More on this later...

  4. perfumery materials and why I use them

    I do love making scents, and I like to explain what I do and why I do it. So I decided to share. Here's why I put grapefruit into almost everything I make.

     I love eating grapefruits, no sugar, just cut in half. I've developed a method to scoop out the flesh with a slightly pointed teaspoon so nothing gets left behind. I can't bear it when people think they are helping by slicing one up with a knife then handing it to me. Heathens.

     Jean-Claude Ellena, that precious being sent to earth to teach us the delights of perfumery, he says that all grapefruit oil smells like oranges in perfume, so he uses a synthetic blend instead. Perhaps it's just because I know it's in there, but when I use it, I smell grapefruits, and when other people ask me what's in my scents, they can smell grapefruit too.

    I use both pink and white grapefruit essential oils: pink tends to be a little less sharp and that's my favourite. Most of it comes from California these days, a by-product of the juice industry. Which is nice. I hate waste.

     As a material, grapefruit oil is fleeting, light and lovely - what traditional and natural perfumers call a top note - a little molecule which will give you a quick hit as it escapes from the bottle, then fade into nothingless. If you want a long lasting grapefruit scent, you do what Jean Claude says and you use synthetics, bigger molecules with similar smells but with longevity.

    To make the natural scent hang around a little longer, you add your fixatives then let your finished blend macerate for a few weeks, so the molecules that make grapefruit smell the way it does, attach themselves to the bigger, sticker materials - like vanilla and patchouli. It still floats off first, but less sharply.

    Grapefruit oil is restricted in the world of self-regulated perfume so I keep an eye on the levels I use. I've never had to reduce the amount I need for the effect I want just to complay with the regs, so it's not been an issue. (Some people ignore the regulations, particularly those perfumers who mistakenly hold that nothing natural can harm you - to which I say nettles, belladonna and poison ivy - but the regs have been introduced to prevent sore skin so ignoring them is disingenuous at least and potentially dangerous.)

    As well as smelling lovely, what else?

    It's stimulating, uplifting and reviving  so it's used as an anti-depressant. Just smelling it cheers me up, don't know about you. People use it to treat SAD, depression caused by lack of sunshine. It's squeezed or distilled from the peel, so perhaps the hours and days worth of sunshine in each drop really do reach us as the benefits of the light it absorbed to come into being.

    It's supposed to be good for stimulating the body to get rid of cellulite, and for athletes and dancers to remove lactic acid from their tired muscles. It calms stress. 

    Can things be calming and stimulating at the same time? Yes. Like a good yoga class, a decent sniff of grapefruit and the other citrus oils wake you up but don't tip you over the edge. It's all about balance.

    And that's the reason I use grapefruit, the real thing. It might not last through my scents' whole smell cycle, but a quick sniff puts me in the right mood for whatever the day is set to throw at me. It's in Urura's Tokyo Cafe and The Lion Cupboard, just for starters.

  5. The story of Says Alice

    At Karen’s course (See The Great Randello story) one thing that she and I played with – quietly in the corner while the others were getting the hang of things - was a base that’s rumoured to be at the centre of a lot of high street perfumes.

    (When we talk about a base, that doesn’t mean a base note, it means a blend that makes a recognisable accord, which you keep as a standard tool in your perfumery toolbox and use in different creations. It saves starting from scratch every time. I often like to start from scratch but most professional perfumers working to a client’s brief don’t always have time for that so their bases come in really handy. You build up your own library of them, and I added this one to mine.)

    Karen hadn’t put it into practise before, so we mixed it up, then I added a few fruity features and a flower or two and Lo! - we had a scent that could have fitted nicely into a couple of well known ranges.

    The base is kind of an industry open secret, made with three well known synthetics plus one natural material, but I’ll not be the one to give it away. Besides, my version is very probably different from the original. You could wear it by itself, and I’m sure some people do. I named my version Mr Fixer.

    Then Nick’s cousin came to stay, and he was looking for a scent for his sister Alice’s 21st birthday. I took my base, then added some fruits and an accord I’d been working on. This is the part that makes it different from the high street stuff. It’s rose absolute, jasmine absolute, honey absolute and sandalwood essential oil – the seriously costly stuff all in the same bottle. I can’t stand jasmine by itself, or jasmine soliflore perfumes, but I do like to use it at strengths that make a difference to a scent but don’t dominate it.

    For me, the natural materials give a scent a soul. Synthetics can smell lovely but they just don’t do anything apart from smell. The naturals make you feel different; that’s why it’s such a shame that they are being restricted and gradually driven out of perfumery. But that’s another story.

    The name, Says Alice, is borrowed from A.A. Milne’s poem about Christopher Robin’s nanny.

    The materials

    On top of Mr Fixer, we have grapefruit, peach, rose, sandalwood, raspberry, mango, honey and jasmine.