Friday, July 9, 2010

Technology as a Tool for Learning ... Learning To Make Perfume!

I started the summer with a list of four fragrances I wanted to work on -- two for women, two for men. Two had been started (or "finished") in the past but hadn't been (to me) entirely satisfactory. Two were brand new ideas based on smell memories, one recent; one so old, so from another time in another country that it is only a vague remembrance which, hopefully, some experimentation with raw materials will refresh for me.

So this was the summer plan -- overly ambitious. I thought that I could at least sketch out the bare bones of these fragrances -- discover the critical notes and modifiers I wanted -- but I got sidetracked.

It's a bit of a story (told elsewhere) but, "by popular demand," I was brought back to a fragrance I had done five years ago. I had the formula and I had the materials to make it. But why settle for the original when (by my nose) it could stand some improvement?

I hadn't intended to spend much time on this other fragrance which I liked but felt was imperfect. So I ran it through one of the "wizards" in The Perfumer's Workbook to see what modifications the wizard might suggest. First the wizard was asked to adjust for "greater smoothness." Indeed the original formula had rough edges in its transitions from one note to the next. The wizard's suggestions were good. The new version was smoother -- more "professional" if you will.

Next, I asked the wizard to modify the formula for "depth" -- suggestions for improving the formula by adding really tiny amounts of new materials. The wizard came back with a suggestion that would have tripled the number of materials in the formula -- without changing its personality.

The problem that now arises is one of measurement. When you are working with very small batches -- because you don't have and can't afford the quantity of materials that would be needed to make up larger batches -- adding touches of aroma materials becomes highly unscientific, highly imprecise. I have developed my method for doing this (wetting the tip of a toothpick and using it to stir). Others probably have theirs. A larger company would simply make up a larger batch so there would be no tiny, hard to measure, additions.

No one says you have to follow the "depth wizard" exactly. Personally I find it useful to look over the wizard's suggestions and, if I am not familiar with particular materials that have been suggested, I try to find out more about then and, if something seems "right" for my project, I'll order a small supply to see how it performs.

Sometimes when I use this software, these computer wizards, I feel like I'm cheating. I feel like, gosh. I should have been able to do this without any help. But the fact is that I learn from the wizard. It expands my knowledge of aroma materials and forces me to work harder, more methodically, and not just by trial and error with my own personal and very limited knowledge.

Five years ago when I wrote the formula in question I was was working with perhaps forty aroma materials. Today I'm working with well over 100. As a result, my formulas have become more refined.

The Perfumer's Workbook
, for me, has been a great learning tool. While it can create a fragrance for your from scratch, I don't use it that way. My own method is to start with a few aroma materials and sketch out my theme. Only when I'm well into a project -- with my ideas -- do I begin to consult the wizard for suggestions. It's like having a senior perfumer looking over your shoulder and giving you a small but incredibly useful helping hand.

One thing more. The suggestions that the wizard gave me for my 5-year-old formula opened my eyes to an aroma material that, as it turns out, is perfect for one of the men's fragrances I'm working on. By circumstances which I won't go into, I had some on hand and found it to be "just right" for one note I was looking for. And it's use was totally new to me.

Having a good teacher can allow us to go faster and farther with our studies. And here, the "teacher" -- a very good teacher -- is nothing more than a computer program!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Importance of Your Notebook

I wrote recently about repeatability -- being able to duplicate your fragrance. It sounds simple but sometimes two problems arise. (1) Formulas are lost; (2) the original aroma materials are no longer available. As you might suspect, these problems usually come to light when one of your forgotten fragrances suddenly rings a bell with someone and a new supply is requested. It happened to me just last week.

Here's the story. I'm vacationing at our house in Canada and (slowly) noticed that my wife was wearing a perfume that I hadn't smelt in a while and I suspected it was one I had made for her and long since forgotten.

I asked and she showed me the bottle. It was one of the ones I use for samplers and, rather than a name, it was marked with a code that referenced the formula and date when I had made it. It was from 2005, five years ago! She mentioned that the bottle was almost empty.

Of course I was curious about the fragrance and wanted to look at the formula to see if I might be able to make up a new batch for her. It was not a fragrance I had ever offered for sale.

Speaking frankly, although I liked the aroma (and obviously she did too) my nose easily recognized the rough edges to the formula. If I wanted to offer it for sale today, I would work to smooth it out so that the notes blended more like a fragrant forest rather than standing out like a few tall trees.

But for the moment my task was to find the formula and, if the formula could be found, to see if the aroma materials I had used were still available with their characteristics unchanged.

I looked to my notebooks. Problem. The oldest formula in my hard cover notebooks was from 2007 -- two years short.

The next step was to go to the computer and see if I might still have it in the archives of my ancient copy of The Perfumer's Workbook. Search .... search ... search ... -- and BINGO! Formula found!

Yes, after all these years the formula was still there -- and all of the required materials were on hand and in good condition. A new batch matched the aroma and lifespan of the old batch. Not only could I now reproduce this perfume, I had a good starting point for an "upgrade" that would (if I wanted to do the work!) smooth out the rough edges.

The point of all this is THE NOTEBOOK. When you are working on a perfume -- or even IDEAS for a perfume -- keeping a notebook is of tremendous importance. For each iteration of a project I record the material used (including supplier and supplier's reference code), the date, and -- initially -- the number of drops or half drops or traces of drops used of each material. If I decide to put a formula "into production," drops will be converted to grams and remeasured to check accuracy.

My notebook also includes my impression of each trial and its aging, both on the test blotter and in the mixing pot, as well as my notes to myself on how the formula might be improved in the next trial -- materials added, materials left out, materials changed in proportion. All of this, both for fragrances that were finished and for fragrances that were discontinued, are captured (or were intended to be captured) in these PERMANENT notes.

And you NEVER discard your notebooks.

Improving your skill as a perfumer requires that you learn from both your successes and your failures. And you can expect that there will be far more failures than successes. Memories are short. What I did five years ago is not on the top of my head today. But by going over my notes -- from five years ago -- I can refresh my memory. I can study what I did then. I can think of how I might rework an ancient formula to make a more finished, more refined, perfume today.