Sunday, June 13, 2010

The "why?" of a perfume

A perfume takes birth in the imagination. Only when it is nearly fully conceptualized does the perfumer begin to translate it from the mind into a physical state -- the formula. At this point there are "adjustments" and they can be both in the mental image and in the physical interpretation but, if the conceptualization is sound, the adjustments are more likely to be in the formula -- the tweaks that are now needed to bring the "smell" in line with the communication that was envisioned.

The process of creation in perfumery goes under different names. Personally I think of myself "developing" a new perfume. That's a pretty neutral word. But some write of how they "design" fragrances. To my knowledge, this is a very contemporary (rather than classical) usage, probably inspired by "designer labels" and all that. When I received a sample of a new aroma material from a U.S. distributor they wished me "happy formulating." So yes, the perfumer is a developer, designer, and formulator. But no matter what you call the process, the process amounts to translating a mental image into a physical product -- the perfume.

A very useful intermediate step in this process is pen and paper -- trying to express your mental image in WORDS, before you begin to formulate. Some will cry "foul" over this suggestion. Many great visual artists are clueless when it comes to talking about their art. (In recent years "artists" who understand the sales value of publicity have begun to let their tongues flap more freely.) But in my own experience, when you try to express a mental image in words and encounter difficulty, the difficulty is often due to the mental image being foggy, unclear, or even self-contradictory. Forcing it onto paper helps (me, anyway) clarify my thoughts and expose potential weaknesses in my idea.

The paper plan that precedes a perfume has been very much a part of Stephen V. Dowthwaite's teachings, both in his home study course and in his face-to-face workshops and these have formed much of the basis of my own training. In the world of commercial perfumery, there is the "perfume brief" given to the perfumer by the client to explain, in words, what is desired.

So there is what I would call a "why?" to a perfume -- the reason behind its creation. The perfume itself is a communication of this "why?"

The importance of the "why?"

Ask yourself: why do some works of art endure while others are quickly forgotten? Not all works of art are equal in their influence on the public. Some "connect" and some do not. The "why?" behind the work is of tremendous importance because it is in this "why?" that the work takes on its significance.

If the reason for creating the perfume is simply, say to make use of a particular note that interests the perfumer, it is unlikely that the physical product, however skillfully constructed, will produce a memorable experience for others.

But if in the "why?" of the perfume, the perfumer is thinking that he or she wants to use this particular note because it recalls a certain association -- an association that might be shared by others -- then in thinking of how that associative note might be reinforced by other materials, we're beginning to develop a concept that, if well executed, is far more likely to resonate. And, important from a commercial point of view, the perfume now becomes much easier to advertise and promote because the perfume communicates the story of the "why?" and the "why?" itself is of greater significance to others.

When we start out making perfume we are pleased simply to master enough technology to be able to get a nice smelling fragrance in a bottle. As we rise from apprenticeship to artistry, we find this isn't enough. We find ourselves thinking more about what we are about to do before we do it. We clarify our vision, double check, test it, refine it -- in our minds -- until we are bubbling over with a need to communicate THIS vision in the physical product, the perfume.

Not surprisingly, as this happens, our perfumers get "better" and become easier to "explain" -- because our vision and the perfume we have created become one.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can you make more of what you just made?

I ask this question for a reason. I've been reading some notes about so-called "natural" perfumes ... attempts to formulate perfumes using only natural materials, with some of these materials being created by the perfumer.

What is being rediscovered is the ancient art of turning natural materials from the environment into aroma materials. And, from what I am reading, tincturing appears to be a favorite current method.

To create a tincture of a natural material, that material is placed in alcohol -- the most odorless alcohol available -- and allowed to sit there for about a month. The plan is for the alcohol to take on some of the aroma of the natural materials being bathed in it.

Traditionally in perfumery this method was used to extract aroma from "difficult" materials such as hard-as-a-rock resins and lumps of ambergris. Flower smells would have been achieved through distillation or solvent extraction, the commercial successor to enfleurage, an older method employing fats to extract aroma and which always left a bit of a fatty smell along with the desired aroma.

These traditional methods, used commercially today, require equipment and precise quality control. Quality control is important because the perfumer, having established a successful formula, wants to be able to scale it up to larger batches and thus profit from his or her creation. If the quality of the materials being used is erratic -- the characteristics of a subsequent batch of an aroma material is not a match for those of the original batch, the success of the formula is destroyed.

So, for any commercial perfumer -- any perfumer who wishes to develop formulas which can be properly duplicated, year after year -- consistency from batch to batch in the characteristics of the aroma materials being purchased is very important. This is also why a large perfumery will not buy from a small supplier, no matter how high quality the materials may be. The small supplier simply cannot provide the volume that the larger perfumery needs and hence the large perfumery might be forced to discontinue successful fragrances.

Now personally I have great admiration for those who are experimenting with natural materials possibly grown in their own back yards. Certainly transforming your own garden's bounty into aroma materials is exciting. But what happens when commerce raises its ugly head?

From a commercial point of view, repeatability is essential. If you have made a perfume that people like -- and are buying -- you certainly want to be able to make more of it. If your new batch doesn't match the successful fragrance, you're in trouble. And the more people and stores that have placed orders with you, the bigger your troubles will be.

It is for this reason that commercially inclined perfumers vet their sources for continuity of consistency of supplies. For a large perfumery, in an "emergency" a skillful perfumer may be able to rejigger the formula to achieve the same smell with different materials. Most of us are not so skilled.

From my own experience I can think of several instances where I used a particular material to develop a formula only to find, within a mater of months, it was no longer available and my formula had to be either reworked or abandoned.

It would be nice to think that, when we find a material that we like and want to make great use of, all we need do it stock up on it.

Unfortunately with many natural materials and even some synthetics, there is a shelf life even under the best storage conditions, so that the excess we have squirreled away might very well be worthless when we finally go to use it.

The hard lesson is that we must think twice about our sources and continuity of supply before we make a big commitment to a new formula.