Essence and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel
A book of Perfume
Fragrance has the instantaneous and invisible power to penetrate consciousness with pure pleasure. The olfactory membrane is the only place in the human body where the central nervous system comes into direct contact with the environment. All other sensory information initially comes in through the thalamus. The sense of smell however is first processed in the limbic lobe, one of the oldest part of the brain and the seat of sexual and emotional impulses. In other words, before we know we are in contact with a smell, we have already received and reacted to it.
When Moses returned from exile in Egypt , the Lord commanded him to compound a holy oil from olive oil and fragrant spices.
The most inspired uses of the synthetic were in scents that capitalized on their brusque and one-dimensional qualities. Chanel No:5 is the best example of this. Created by Ernie Beaux for Coco Chanel, it was the first perfume to be built upon the scent of aldehydes.
The decline of natural perfumery was not only a material loss but also a spiritual one. Natural perfumes evolve on the skin, changing over time and uniquely in response to the body chemistry. At most the basic level, they interact with us, making who we are -and who we are in the process becoming - part of the story. Edmond Roudnitska observed, “the more they end up possessing us. They live within us, becoming an integral part of us, participating in a new function within us”.
In some highly complex essences, such as jasmine, numerous chemical substances, sometimes many hundreds have been isolated. Synthetics can approximate the dominant qualities of the natural essences, but because of this irreducible complexity, they cannot capture the subtlety or softness of their odors. With all the chemical analysis available, natural substances cannot be pinned down to a formula and replicated in a laboratory. Only nature can create the smell of jasmine at nightfall. The complexity of natural materials is the source of their charm and mystery and to resort to formula or rigid comparisons is to miss what is most precious about them.
To smell as a perfumer you have to smell with your imagination - to imagine the essence diluted, to imagine them combined, to imagine them changing over time.
We speak of a given essence as having a top note, a body note and a dryout note. The top note is the first perceptible note that strikes the nose and can be of very short duration. Next is the body note, which is the main and characteristic odor of the substance it has a longer life than the top note, lasting from fifteen minutes to an hour. The dryout note is the essence’s most lasting scent, becoming perceptible after perhaps half an hour and lasting for hours or even days. The transition from one stage to the next is, of course, a subtle melding rather than a radical shift; the body note gradually succeeds the top note and slowly fades into the dryout note. Some essences like sandalwood, benzoin and vanilla have no top note and their body note is also their drynote. In other words, they hold true to their body note the entire time. Others - cedarwood, coriander, lime, lavender, and myrrh - posses a top note, but their body note does not evolve into a distant dryout note. Strong base notes like civet, patchouli and vetiver do not reveal their dryout note for many hours and may last for several days or longer.
With the exception of sandalwood, amber and vanilla-based essences such as benzoin, Peru balsam, and tolu balsam, however base notes strike most people as powerful, even overwhelming sniffed from the bottle. They tend to be dark green or brown in color and heavy and thick in consistency, syrupy liquids gathered from barks (sandalwood), roots(angelica), resins (labdanum), lichens (oakmoss), saps (benzoin, Peru balsam), grasses (patchouli, vetiver), or animal secretions (musk, civet)
The base notes is the scent that lasts the longest on the skin and so it mixes mostly deeply with the wearer’s body chemistry. Individual body chemistry reach differently with the same perfume elements. Some bring out the floral, some the species, some of the animal notes. The skin is base under the base and thus base notes from the most intimate connection between perfume and wearer. The property of anchoring a fragrance in time and prolonging its life on the skin is known as fixation. It is so important that without it there is no perfume; no one wants a perfume that does not last.
Fixation is one of the major challenges facing the natural perfumer. The ideal fixative is one that lengthens the varying rates of evaporation of the perfume’s constituents. Different kinds of base notes appear to tackle the problem in different ways, so fixation is accordingly classified in three varieties, but in fact there is an element of mystery to them all, because the property is not entirely understood or quantifiable.
The first kind of fixation, the high boiling point and molecular structure of the base notes are thought to retard the evaporation of the other ingredients. These are usually resins and gums which posses an adsorptive effect - by virtue of their viscosity, a film is created that traps the other essences and the retards their evaporation on the skin. Consequently the aroma of the perfume changes more gradually as the ingredients fade away.
The second kind of fixation occurs with the addition of base notes that have low volatility, such as oakmoss, labdanum and vetiver. These evaporate at a very slow rate, lending their distinctive note to the perfume all the while they don’t affect the rate of evaporation of the other ingredients.
Exalting fixatives are the third category and they are among the most mysterious and magical of all perfume ingredients. They are the animal essences: musk, civet, ambergris and castoreum. Exalting fixatives provide life and brilliance, and causing it to be more diffusive. The full fragrance of the perfume slowly dissipates from the skin, although just how this effect is achieved is not entirely understood.
Novice perfumers, esp. find it helpful to think of essence in groups arranged by some salient aromatic characteristic like with like. Here are seven groups of base notes, with a few representative examples of each - some common, some rare, some simple, some complex.
1 - Woody essence has a soft warm note reminiscent of freshly cut aromatic woods. This family includes sandalwood, cedar absolute, black spruce absolute, white spruce absolute, guaiac wood, and fir absolute. Sandalwood is not harvested before the tree is at least thirty. Even then it cannot simply be chopped down, because the previous oil is in the roots as well as in the trunk and branches. The best sandalwood comes from plantations in the Mysore region of southern India.
2 - Resinous essences are derived from the viscous liquids secreted through the ducts found in the bark of certain trees. They include galbanum, frankincense and myrrh.
3 - Animal essence includes not only those derived from animals (civet, musk, ambergris, and castoreum) but also plant essence that have a warm, musky vibrancy such as costus, ambrette, hay and tobacco.
Musk has been used almost as long as there has been civilization itself. It contained in a pouch on the abdomen of the male musk deer, which lives in woody region of the Himalayan and Atlas ranges. the musk deer is a hardy, solitary creature that is only on rare occasions found in pairs, and never in herds. According to legend, the deer’s acute sense of hearing could be exploited to trap him. The hunter played a tune on his flute from a hidden spot. Curious to know the source of the strange, melodious sounds, the deer ventured closer and closer, until it was close enough to be killed.
Ambergris is another ingredient upon which legends have been built. It was once classed among the most lucrative items of trade along with slaves and gold. Ambergris is a peculiar morbid growth that is occasionally produced in the stomach or intestine of the now-endangered male sperm whale. The growth is apparently induced by undigested pieces of cuttlefish, which set up an intense irritation in the whale’s stomach. before the growth gets too large, the whale regurgitates it and the beneficiaries were the sailors who once encountered it with some regularity off the coasts of Africa, the East Indies, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Like musk, ambergris in its solid state will retain its odor for centuries. And like musk, it is extraordinarily expensive and difficult to find.
Civet is the only one of the four animal ingredients (the fourth being castoreum, which comes from the beaver) that is still readily available and used, in slight quantities in many perfumes. Both male and females have a deep pouch in the posterior part of the abdomen, containing the perineal glands, and the soft, fatty substance they produce. Its function is not fully understood, but it is believed to be a sexual attractant and also perhaps, a means of defense, on account of its foul odor - although hounds will leave any other scent to pursue it. It is also famous for ‘producing’ famous Kopi Luwak in Indonesia - the most expensive coffee is now made from beans recovered from, civet feces.
Ambrette seed is called in Arabic Kabbel-Misk (grain or seed of musk) When the fruit dries, it bursts open and the large seeds are collected and they seeds are pressed to render the musky oil they contain.
4 - Balsamic essence has in common a sweet vanilla note with a woody, floral or spicy undertone. The balsamics include tolu balsam, Peru balsam, benzoin, tonka bean , opoponax and styrax.
5 - Earthy essence has musty, stale smell of freshly turned soil. They include vetiver, angelica root, patchouli, oakmoss and labdanum
6 - Edible essence is associated with food. This family includes vanilla, black tea, green tea, coffee, and cocoa
7 - Cognac essence is produced by steam-distilling the lees left by the distillation of grape brandy. It has delicate herbal aroma, with outstanding tenacity and great diffusive power.
Flowers stand for passion and romance. The very word deflowered connotes initiation into sexual experience. Not only in their heady aromas - dramatic, intense, sweet, even narcotic - but in their very form and coloration, flowers are sexy. I like the Indian poet’s description of a rose as like a ‘book of a hundred leaves unfolding’ but most comparisons are decidedly more erotic. A full-blown rose is like a voluptuous woman; orchids recall the vulva; flowers open and close like receptive female genitalia. So not surprisingly, when people think of perfume, they think of flowers. And indeed floral essences are among the most important perfume ingredients - and by far the more expensive. Flower absolute are priced at up to eight thousand dollars a kilo - not that you would ever need so much.
One stem of Casablanca lily can perfume a room with an intoxicating aroma. Russian rose is softer, Indian thinner, Egyptian richer, Turkish sweeter, Bulgarian rounder, Moroccan brighter, Jasmine sambac is sharp, while grandiflorum jasmine is more full-bodied. The heavy floral have an intensely narcotic aura. The magic ingredient is indol, a major element in jasmine, tuberose, and orange flowers among others..As in nature itself, complexity and context are the field conditions for awakening passion. No ingredient is necessarily crucial: roses themselves do not contain indol, but their odor is unarguably sexual. As Jellinek rhapsodizes, “the opulently rounded shapes of the petals of a rose in full bloom are suggestive of the mature female body and their rich red color evokes thoughts of lips and kisses. The austere form of the bud before blooming, which only subtly hints at the rounded abundance and fragrance of full maturity and its opening to amorous life, exhuming a ravishing scent, are external manifestation =s of the flower’s life possess which man sees and senses and which stimulate his erotic fantasies.
Woman is represented as dissolving man and man is making woman solid, just as spirit was believed to dissolve the body and the body to fix the spirit.
Rose is an aphrodisiac. It is also felt to drive away melancholy and lift the heart. Jasmine is probably the most important perfume material. It takes more than 2,000 pounds of flowers to produce a little over three pounds of jasmine absolute. Jasmin refreshes rather than oppresses, possessing both antidepressant and aphrodisiacal properties.
Scent has long been a weapon in the arsenal of seduction. Cleopatra developed the art of self-adornment into a science. She had her own perfume workshop and she was known to run her mouth with solid perfume before she kissed a lover, so that the scent would force him to think of her after they parted.
Kama, the Hindu god of love, was said to carry flowers in his quiver, instead of arrows. Hades, Greek god of the underworld, used the alluringly scented narcissus flower to ensnare Persephone. The sweet smelling goddess of love, Aphrodite (for whom aphrodisiacs are named), delighted in beautiful aromas and dispensed them with a free hand to aid seductions in the heavens and on earth. In ancient Jerusalem, young women put myrrh and balsam in their shoes. When they spotted an attractive young man in the marketplace, they approached and kicked their feet at him, misting him with scent to spark his desire. But of all the perfumery ingredients, none has enjoyed at pervasive and enduring an erotic reputation as civet; even dogs have been said to find it sexually arousing. It would be difficult, however, to surpass the ecstasies of Petrus Castellus in De Hyoene Odorifera, his 1688 treatise on the subject.
“To make the uterus more greedy for semen, they say that civet smeared on the glans penis will increase the woman’s pleasure during coitus, whence it (the uterus) will more readily receive the semen... which will cause so much desire for coitus that she will almost continually wish to make love with her husband. And in particular, if a man wishes to go with a woman, if he shall place on the tip of his penis of this same civet and unexpectedly use it, he will arouse in her the greatest pleasure”.
The conviction that some of erotic ‘magic bullet’ exists or can be created in the realm of scent is not without some scientific basis. The perception of pheromones plays a key role in animal mating habits. Pheromones are chemical substances, usually volatile that are produced in the body and evoke a response, usually sexual in members of the same species. Like scent itself, pheromones are apprehended directly and immediately by the nervous system, triggering biological responses even before they enter consciousness. Their pathway to the brain appears to be through the airways of the nose and the vomeronasal organ (VNO), a version of sensory organ upon which all cat species among others depends for information about the environment. In human, it is vestigial, consisting of two tiny pits behind the nostrils.
In nature, it is simple cycle: sensory stimulus leads to attraction which leads to seduction. And human participate in this cycl, communicatin gtheir desire in the wordless dialogs Herman Hesse so eloquently captured in Narcissus and Goldmund: “How strange it was with women loving. there really was no need for words.... Then how had she said it? With her eyes, yes, and with a certain intonation in her slightly thick voice, and with something more, a scent perhaps, a subtle, discreet emanation of the skin, by which women and men were able to know at once when they desired one another. It was strange, like a subtle, secret language”.
Yet rose which is one of the most voluptuous essences, does not contain indol, the balsamic earthy and animal base notes that are perhaps the sexiest scents of all. Sexy smells are subliminally reminiscent of the smell of sweat and of the hairy regions of the human body. The odor of our species at its most animal is at the heart fo eros. In ancient Egypt, both men and women perfumed their genitalia, not to mask their odors but to enhance and even to exaggerate them. Women rolled the unguent kyphi into little balls and placed them in the vulva. Ivan Bloch in his peculiar obsessive 1934 scientific and cultural catalog of sexual scents and erotic perfumes, cites the Renaissance physician Prospero Albini who spent three years in Egypt studying medicine as observing, “The Egyptian women anoint the vulva with amber and civet, thus increasing the pleasure of coitus”
The Hindus, Bloch claims, were equally preoccupied with the odor of the female genitals and used to it to classify women into four distinct types:
The lotus smelling: Their two breasts are like the bilva fruit. Their sexual organ is like the flower of the red water-rose, and is compared to a holy mystery.
The merry: Their breasts are thick and their thighs have the color of gold Their love secretion is mild and flows abundantly for their sexual organ is drawn apart as with a pulley
The snail-like: They are very thin and meager. Their love secretion tastes and smells salty
The elephant-like: Their body is large and rich. Their love secretion has the penetrating odor of the fluid which is discharged from the ear of the rutting elephants.
There is no question that typically unmentionable bodily smells are the bedrock of olfactory arousal. Havelock Ellis classified these odors in increasing order of erotogenic effect: “The most important of these are
1. the general skin odor, a faint but agreeable, fragrance often detected on the skin even immediately after washing
2. the smell of the hair and scalp
3. the odor of breath
4. the odor of the armpit
5. the odor of the foot
6. the perineal odor
7. in men the odor of preputial smegma
8. in women, the odor of the monsveneris that of vulvar smegma, that of vaginal mucus, and menstrual odor.
A penchant for the last two, Ellis scandalously suggested could be why some people are more inclined to giving oral sex.
Women do not want to smell like a flower, they want their perfume to radiate an aura that is sexually alluring. so a truly aphrodisiac perfume is one that triggers our unconscious memory of our animal nature in all its erotic manifestations.
Essences that are considered erotic in themselves fall into three categories, which i have adopted from the work of Paul Jellinek:
Erogenous: ambrette seed, costus root, civet, castoreum
Sultry (erogenous and narcotic): tuberose, jasmine, tolu balsam, labdanum, styrax, orange blossom
narcotic: Peru balsam, benzoin, ylang ylang, magnolia, neroli, cassia.
Coco Chanel said to a young woman who asked her where to apply perfume, “wherever one wants to be kissed”)
Sites that sell perfume ingredients:
Great jasmine absolute and concrete:
Coimbatore Flavors and Fragrances