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  1. Vanillin, and the question we dread


    I’ve got a new way to display our scents. 1970s Pyrex picnic cups with ceramic perfumed discs at the bottom. On each cup I tied a brown paper luggage label and listed the notes, the scents that people might pick out and recognise when they sniffed the scents:

    Lemon, orange, grapefruit, raspberry, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, violet, crème brulée, rock pools, earth, cut grass, ice cream, candy floss…

    Last week we had three days at a wonderful pop up department store - chatting, sniffing, trying to pretend our legs didn’t hurt and preparing ourselves for the question:

    “They’re all natural, aren’t they?”

    For years, perfume sales people were briefed to answer this, “Oh yes, ours are all completely natural with no chemicals at all.” Perhaps they really don’t know, and they are repeating what they are told on their training notes. Perhaps the trainers don’t even know.

    But this imaginary vision – that perfume must preserve the mystique of being made the way it was 200 years ago – is all starting to unravel as the EU impose restrictions on both natural and synthetic materials.

    And there are places where perfumers are taking the lids off the secret boxes.

    One is the Osmotheque in Versailles, the French perfume library dedicated to preserving the scents of the past. Go to one of their public lectures, and they will show you a history of the synthetic materials which changed perfumery, set fashions, and make up most of the fragrances we wear today.

    Another is Thierry Wasser, my perfume hero, head perfumer at Guerlain who happily tells everyone about the ethyl vanillin in Shalimar and how Jean-Paul Guerlain created a synthetic narcissus for Vol de Nuit when the 1953 frost took out the entire Auvergne crop.

    If Thierry Wasser’s going to start spilling the beans on how perfume is really made, then that’s good enough for me.

    I try not to get cross at things like a cosmetics review I read recently, “They’re made with essential oils so they’re completely non toxic.”

    This is so not true, but it’s tricky though.

    Natural perfumery materials -  essential oils, CO2 extracts and absolutes - are formed of hundreds of different chemicals manufactured naturally by plants, and they are processed in ways that don’t change them too far from their natural state so we can use them in liquid and solid form.

    Synthetics are made up of chemicals made in factories.

    Toxic materials are banned, or restricted to safe levels. This includes the chemicals made by plants that end up in essential oils.

    Besides, everything is poisonous if you use enough of it. Drink six litres of water and it can kill you. I’m old enough to remember the news story about Basil Brown, the Croydon man who turned yellow and died of Vitamin A and carrot juice addiction.

    Given the choice, what I’d rather see on the horizon are trees and fields, not oil wells and chemical works, but if it weren’t for the factories, no one but the superrich could wear scent.

    Napoleon wore natural violet perfume just to show he was loaded; once chemists started synthesising ionones  in the late 19th Century, everyone could afford the occasional bottle of scent. These days we can afford to wear perfume all day long all year around if we like. And that’s because synthetics and mass production have made them affordable.

    So to vanillin.

    In my studio I’ve got a tub - big enough to sit on - full of vanillin, and I’ve a little 100ml bottle of vanilla absolute. They cost about the same. From the early 20th Century, anyone who’s wanted to make an amber, oriental, floriental or fruitychouli has used vanillin. Guerlain, Chanel, Coty, Houbigant… you name it. Every perfume house bigger than a one man band, they use vanillin. They use vanilla too, when they can afford it. I like to use both together for a deeper scent with soul that doesn’t cost £1000 a bottle.

    But we list “vanilla” on the notes. Why? Because it smells of what we know as vanilla. Natural vanilla from pods smells mostly of vanillin, the same chemical manufactured naturally by the plant. Biscuits, cakes, ice creams… most of them are made with vanillin, not natural vanilla. Partly because there’s not enough natural vanilla in the world to make all the ice cream we eat, and partly because most people can’t afford to pay £25 a scoop.


    When I list “ice cream” as one of the notes in What I Did On My Holidays, that’s the vanillin. It’s a white soluble powder that smells just like Mr Whippy ice cream and the squidgy bit in the middle of Custard Creams. (Everyone outside the UK can put their own brand names in here and use their imaginations.)

    Like all naturals grown in different places, natural vanillas can smell really different from each other. They’ll smell different from plant to plant, island to island, year to year.

    Vanilla Bourbon, by the way, comes from the island of Reunion, which used to be named Bourbon, after the French royal family. Come the revolution it got a new moniker. It’s not called Bourbon because it’s so good it was named after royalty, as I’ve heard one well known perfume expert state out loud.

    One more vanillin point. Perfumers are all told that vanillin will turn your final fragrance brown. I was assured by a chap who’d been to one of the best perfume schools that this always happens, without exception, and everyone knows.

    This isn’t quite true. If you make really unusual perfumes and make accords from vanillin and other things that people have never tried it with – sometimes – it can stay colourless.

    So my answer to the question “It’s all natural, isn’t it?” is this.

    “No it’s not. None of the perfumes you’ll find in shops are 100% natural. But some perfume salespeople will look you in the eyes and lie their little heads off. Most perfumes are about 85 to 100% synthetic. Mine are about 50:50. Here, smell this one.”

    So far, telling it the way it is hasn’t put anyone off.



  2. We were at the Osmotheque, a small group of us listening to Yves Tanguy, retired master perfumer, the creator  of New West for Aramis, the first ever marine fragrance, and Lancome's Magie Noire. Monsieur Tanguy was a charmer of the old school and surrounded by a bunch of women jotting down everything he said, I suspect he was enjoying himself. l2012-05-12 13.02.44

    He had the Osmotheque's PowerPoint presentation on hand to make sure that he steered us through the essentials. What the Versailles perfume library stands for, why it exists, its expertise, its history and the jewels of the colleciton.

    The official presentation covers turning points in the history of perfume, the materials which changed the direction of perfumery, the perfumes themselves which were influential landmarks over the decades. New West - now discontinued - was one of those perfumes and I was there to glean as much as I could about the inner workings of the perfume industry from its creator.

    The best bits for me were when we could nudge him off the script and get him talking about his own experience, telling anecdotes, the tales of how certain fragrances came to be made. I mentioned Magie Noir and he said, "Oh no, it wasn't me; it was the team." It was not de rigeur amongst the old school to claim individual creatorship of a perfume. The same went for working with "couturiers" - designers.

    In his world, a perfumer would never present the couturier with just one perfume; that would be inappropriate. You would take three and the couturier would choose, because it was his or her creation, not the perfumer's.

    He expressed a view that perfumers these days putting their own names on the bottles is somewhat undignified. These modern chaps don't seem to know the true role of a perfumer - to support the couturier's creativity, and work to a brief. His praise of the southern French school made it quite clear that only Grassois - perfumers from Grasse - are the genuine article. Perfumers putting their own names on the bottles! Whatever next?

    A couple of weeks before, I'd met a perfumer trained in Paris who told me that Grassois are out of touch and only in the business because of their family connections, not because of their skill. This Parisian added that no one trained outside France could never consider themselves to be proper perfumers. He also dismissed the regulations we all have to follow as "something that someone else takes care of". Another described the Grassois as "boring old farts". Like all creative types, they can be a sensitive, defensive bunch, these A-list perfumers. It's exactly the same with musicians, writers, actors and artists.

    Anyway, one of our group had set up a studio where she's using only natural materials. M. Tanguy had spent his career immersed in commercial perfumery and appeared bemused to find there is anyone left in the world not using synthetics. Anyway, he wanted to tell us about calone, the material that makes a "marine" fragrance smell of the seaside. They're called ozonic scents - even though ozone itself is odourless. We're talking about L'Eau D'Issey, almost any man's fragrance since 1995 that comes in a blue bottle, and anything that has waves on the packaging.

    Monsieur Tanguy had worked for eight years at Chanel in Grasse, so he knew all the formulae inside out and upside down. After that he moved to America to work for Estee Lauder, including Aramis. "You know Cristalle de Chanel?" he said, "A beautiful fragrance. I took Cristalle and added calone to make New West." This is a wonderful piece of information - a deep insight into the real world of how great perfumes are made. Take a magnificent perfume, and drop something else in it to see what happens - to create comething completely different. That's the kind of information I'd been hoping for. (There was more too - I'll save it for later.)

    The naturals woman asked,"What's calone?" and there was a momentary shocked silence from the rest of us. Yves Tanguy explained that it's the very heart, the essence of marine scents, the one magical material that changed fragrances for ever, and he got out the calone bottle for her to smell.

    "But Monsieur Tanguy, isn't it possible to make a marine scent with natural materials?" she asked.

    He thought for less than a second. "Non," he said calmly and moved onto the next material.

    To be fair, you can use seaweed absolute but it's expensive, inconsistent and quite a mucky thing to work with. Calone is several thousand times cheaper, reliable and colourless. It's very very strong too. (Karen Gilbert dilutes hers to 1% for classes and if someone takes the lid off she can smell it from the other side of the room.) Myself, I put it in What I Did On My Holidays, and if I'm after a particular smell of pottering about amongst the rock pools or sitting on a boardwalk, I'll use an accord of calone and Veramoss - one of the oakmoss substitutes that are replacing the real thing. The two together make a scent that makes pretty much everyone I've tried it on say "Oh my god! The seaside!"

    Use too much and you'll get the intensity of too many estate agents packed into a lift first thing in the morning.

  3. The perfumery materials I use - 6 - oudh

    Oudh is Arabic for stick. That can lead to some confusion; also there’s a musical instrument called the oudh; it looks a bit like a lute, or a big mandolin.

    In the world of perfume oudh or oud – and a few other spellings – refers to the extraordinarily smelly oil from a particular wood. It occurs in several species of agar tree (Aquilaria) when they are attacked by a fungus Phaeoacremonium parasitica that turns the wood dark and stinky.

    What’s it like?

    Rich, deep, dark, dirty. A little gives a perfume a mystical sensuous feel. A bit too much and it smells as if you’ve accidentally strayed into the stables at mucking out time.

    With all the recent hype, you’d think it had been invented when Tom Ford first put it into an exclusive fragrance a couple of years ago, but it’s been around in the Far and Middle East for centuries. Now, the price is rocketing as every perfumer and his auntie is being asked to do an oudh variation. It’s very popular in the Middle East; people will pay thousands for the finest raw materials and hundreds for a bottle of extrait with oudh in the title. Or noir, or black or dark – all implying that there’s oudh in there somewhere, Of which more later.

     Earlier this year I was at a niche perfume trade show in Milan, and at every second stand we were smacked in the nose by another oudh perfume. It’s everywhere, and I’m not that bothered about adding to the proliferation. In 30 years time oudh will be what this year's babies are calling grandad scents.

    In 2011 I was in Dubai and visited the oudh market. After a great deal of banter I got to smell some.

     “You don’t want oudh, you want a beautiful rose for a beautiful gazelle.” (Produces a cut glass pink bottle.)

    “Give me oudh.”

    “Western ladies don’t like oudh. Here’s a beautiful jasmine.” (A white velvet box with a sparkly multicoloured decoration.)

    “Please let me smell the oudh.”

    “Oh but a beautiful orange flower!”


    And finally I got some. I bought a tiny bottle, 10ml of oudh oil in a cheap glass bottle for more money than I care to say out loud. And I do use it in The Lion Cupboard. Each litre of perfume has a tiny amount of oudh, a drop. The Lion Cupboard is not an oudh perfume. I don’t want it to smell of oudh, and I don’t want anyone to notice it when they wear it. For me, one drop gave it richness and that was the difference I was looking for at the time.

    I’m not planning to make an oudh perfume, mostly because that’s what everyone else is doing. Call me incorrigible, but I’m not that interested in following perfume fashion. If someone asks me to make one for them because it reminds them of a wonderful evening out at the soukh, watching the moon reflect on the harbour... Well then, I’ll consider it.

    There’s another thing.

    There are more oudh perfumes than there is oudh to fill the bottles. Most oudh fragrances - like most rose, jasmine, sandalwood or orange blossom – are made with excellent synthetic recreations. That’s not really a problem for most perfumers, except that a lot of the recreations are sold as the real thing at prices to match.

    Here at our tiny 4160Tuesdays workshop, I don’t have the technical machinery for the necessary analysis. Genuine oudh is very expensive, so there are people hiding away, skilfully blending together oils that smell really just like it, labelling it as real and charging extortionate prices. As soon as a product can command big profits, you’re going to get counterfeits.

    The same thing is happening with sandalwood. The oil from Mysore in India used to be the best. So now, alternative sandalwoods being imported into India, mixed with some beautiful synthetics to make it smell like the proper lovely Mysore stuff, labelled as the real thing and sold for bucket loads of cash. I’m happy to buy Australian sandalwood and blend it with synthetics myself to get the richness I want, recalling the scent of some sandalwood beads I got in the 80s before the industry imploded.

    And if I want to buy an oudh perfume, I hop along to a shop in Shepherd’s Bush that’s never had sight of an EU cosmetics safety certificate and pick them up for £15 a go. So shoot me. Not planning to put it on my skin any time soon though.

  4. What does musk really smell like?

    (And why am I showing a picture of Daisy the Donkey?)

    The short answer is that real musk - which I sniffed at the Osmotheque perfume archive in Versailles - smells like the donkeys at the beach.

    If you're not northern British you might not have a clue what I'm talking about, but the moment I sniffed the hairy musk pod, that's where it took me. Back to the beach and childhood holidays. A friendly donkey that hadn't had a wash in a while and had been out in the sun for a couple of weeks.

    (In the UK, at seaside resorts built by the Victorians for the workers to enjoy a day of fresh air, there were "amusements" arranged too. Donkeys for children to ride on were one of them. You get a short walk along the sand with a bunch of other children and donkeys and it's the most exciting thing you can imagine when you're four years old.)

    Back to the smell. Donkeys. This was a relief. Did you ever hear the lateral thinking question about the man who goes into a restaurant, orders albatross, takes a bite then goes out and shoots himself? It was a bit like the opposite of that. I realised that the Moroccan "musk" I'd been given by friends was a mixture of vanillin and synthetic musk which hadn't been illegally and cruelly obtained by killing a musk deer for its scent glands. Phew. I'd always worried about that.

    Animal musk isn't used in modern perfumery. It's quite rightly banned. What we call musk can be several different materials, or a blend - always smooth and unobtrusive - the molecules that are so big that they are off some people's smelling scale - and sensual too. There's a handful of synthetic odorants which their manufacturers call musk. They have this smooth sensuallity on common, but they really smell nothing at all like donkeys.

    Some of them are powders, some granules, and some are thick liquids. They're all really useful in perfumery to blend and smooth out the edges on other materials - things with more character and sharpness - and like perfumery Post-it® Notes, they fix things gently in place. So a lemon scent with musk to hold it in place will last longer than lemon by itself, but it will smell different.

    In mine, I tend to use the more traditional musks to give 4160Tuesdays perfumes a vintage feel to them. I use synthetics with elegant names like Galoxolide  Fixolide and Ethylene Brassilate, and I'll often blend them with natural labdanum for its animalic side, (although that comes from a plant). I don't use a lot.

    When I'm running workshops, I'll often use a musk to help rescue a perfume that smells too disparate, when someone has picked all their favourite smells and bunged them together in a beaker. It's like putting bread around a sandwich or rice with a curry.

    People fell in love with the smell of musk when the huge household cleaning product companies started putting these synthetic scents in washing powder, then in conditoners too. Proud 50s housewives were taught to delight in the smell of clean laundry, so musks made their way into fine fragrance. They were a symbol of fresh cleanliness. Ironic, no?

    Then came White Musk perfume from the Body Shop.

    The people who now run Lush created this product for Anita Roddick in 198. At the time they didn't have their own perfumery; they were still buying in from an independent perfume manufacturer, Quintessence in the UK, the way most cosmetics companies and perfume brands do. Recently Mark and Simon Constantine, father and son perfumers at Lush, recreated the scent for a soap of their own, partly as a statement, because they were so horrified that the Body Shop sold to L'Oreal, a company they had previously campaigned against because oftheir widespread animal testing on ingredients.

    As you probably know, White Musk became massively popular; many people adore it as a favourite fragrance from their teenage years. For that reason, its scent has been duplicated by hundreds of companies. It's not hard to duplicate a scent if you've got your own analytical equipment in your lab. All the big perfume companies do it as a matter of course, with every competitive scent that comes out.I t's much more difficult to do it using only your own nose.

    (By the way, I don't have this machinery; it's currently beyond my finances and anyway, I'm never really interested in what other people use to make their perfumes. I prefer to  use my nose and imagination when I want to make the scent of a beach, or a garden or a city.)

    White Musk it's a blend of several different materials - not just musks - and when hobby perfumers want to buy the smell they can get this blend ready made up in dipropylene glycol. Professional perfumers might use all of these materials individually, but they are unlikely to buy it ready mixed in DPG. All the same, smiliar scents wafts in abundance out of mass market and niche fragrances all over the place.

    If you want to get hold of a white musk to put in blends for friends, you can buy it relatively cheaply from many materials suppiers, including Mistral. I used a generic musk blend myself when I was first starting to experiment and only selling to my mates. That was before I learned all the things I needed to comply with - about EU regulations, IFRA, PIFs and safety certificates, and before my synthetic materials workshops with Karen Gilbert and Perfumers' World, and before I could afford to buy by the kilo.

    A couple of times I've had reviews of my perfumes where bloggers have written that that I'd put white musk in a 4160Tuesdays perfume, and it happened again last week, so I thought I'd explain here. He or she wrote that he or she knew I'd done it because he or she could smell it, and other people could smell it too, so it must be true.

    Nerd that I am, I answered and said I hadn't put musk in it, but that if that's what their brains told them, then the musk note must be coming from something else in the blend. I even listed the entire materials list, but no, he or she was having none of it. White musk he or she could smell, so by a process of non-logic, it must be in there.

    And not for the first time I realised that when someone "knows" something, that person doesn't take kindly to the suggestion that he or she might not be... right.

    Those of you who have read Jean Claude Elena's superb books on perfumery will know that what we smell often bears no relation at all to what perfumers put in their blends. Misunderstandings can come from the real perfume manufacturer not telling the creative director what's actually in there. Their job is to supply the creative director with the perfume he or she wants for the brand, not to list the ingredients. But there will be a list of notes which are created by those ingredients.

    Say a creative director instructs his perfume house to make an apple musk fragrance. It comes back smelling of apples and musk. The creative director then briefs the PR agency and before you know it, you've got people assuming that an apple note comes from putting squashed up apples in the perfume. And because very few people really know what genuine musk smells like - although they know what Body Shop White Musk smells like - they guess that it's got musk in too. It's not an unreasonable assumption but it's wrong. Second guessing actual ingredients is nigh on impossible. And to most customers. it's not that important. To professionaly perfumers, it's almost totally irrelevant.

    And so to Daisy the donkey and Mavis the musk deer. Modern perfumes no longer smell as animalic as they did. The big materials makers created a whole different meaning for musk, then they did their best to synthesise something identical but came up with the censored version.

    What do musks smell like now? It's difficult to say - sweet, fresh, vague - like a recently washed pet rabbit, I'd say.

    I use them more for their effect than their smell. I don't want to make a perfume that smells of musk; I want to use it to make my perfume more wearable. But In future if someone tells me that I've put musk in a perfume when I know I haven't, I'll try not to be such a nerd; I'll try to nod and say, "That's interesting".


  5. 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."