Perfume. Such a subjective & intangible subject. The word itself comes from Latin meaning ‘through smoke’ – think of frankincense burning. Perfumes worn on the body were originally designed to mask odours. Nowadays, many people feel naked without their favourite spritz.
Since working as an aromatherapist for the past decade, my nose has become accustomed to pure, unrefined scents. Perhaps a little like changing your palette through giving up certain foods, I am now turned off by anything with a strongly synthetic odour. So, venturing into the world of natural perfumery seemed like an interesting step.
This adventure began when I visited award-winning natural perfumer, Marina Barcenilla, at her workshop space in Glastonbury, for an intensive weekend course. A blog I’d read by Annie Heritage had prompted me to find out more. I felt like a complete beginner again, despite being familiar with many of the essential oils available to the perfumer. I left with more questions than answers & over the past 3 years I have been studying the craft, reading books & blogs & forums, as well as revisiting Marina for one-to-ones & asking for help on many occasions when I came up against a hurdle. I have other people to thank, too, the many people within the industry who kindly answered my many searching questions about ingredients, provenance, manufacturing processes and more. The Facebook Perfumemaking group where I received wise words, including encouragement from Meredith Smith & Sarah Mc Cartney at a particularly crucial moment. The encouragement I have had from my existing customers has been enormous & I'm so grateful for their belief in me, which has kept me going.
In discovering natural perfumery, I inhabit what feels like an expanded world, where magic ingredients such as natural isolates, CO2 extracts & Absolutes have all joined in to rub up against my beloved essential oils... and the result is sometimes messy! So many molecules jostling for space. So many variations in colour & texture. So many strange, yet wonderful aromas. Tobacco, Hibiscus, Rooibos, Jasmine Tea. Isolates that smell of Violets, Strawberries, Watermelon? Who knew? Nothing prepared me for the complexity of this journey.
Needless to say, with such precious & delicate substances, some are eye-wateringly expensive, others more abundant & easily accessible. Natural ingredients yield vastly differing results, depending on where, when & how the plants have been grown & the ingredients extracted, how they have been stored, whether they are actually pure or sadly adulterated. Finding trusted suppliers is absolutely crucial. Sourcing certain extracts in tiny quantities for a tiny business & reaching suppliers who care enough to answer all questions & supply the required paperwork for compliance, this has been an exploration & a challenge. I have sampled ingredients from supply houses in Europe & the USA, sourced from all over the world.
I have learnt how to create ‘accords’ - blends of different aromas that become building blocks, more than the sum of their parts. That some ingredients have fixative effects, to keep the aroma on your skin for longer. That some can be used as ‘bridge’ notes, to link one part of the perfume to another, seamlessly. Ingredients relate to each other in specific ways- opening each other up, trapping another down or lifting another up to create a dynamic first impression. A little like human beings, with personalities & influence.
Despite learning on paper, when it comes to formulating, I’ll admit that I’m more of an artist than a scientist. Although I have a basic understanding of Essential Oil chemistry, I don’t have the knowledge to logically compare the molecules of one ingredient with another & anticipate what will happen when they merge – I simply have to take action & blend. Molecules are lively & unpredictable. They jump around & change places, work together or separately, blend nicely or distance themselves from each other, stick around or leave suddenly.
Even after the months & years of experimentation, when you finally hit the sweet spot & create a blend that you love, that tells the story you want to tell (with GOLDEN I wanted to evoke a perfect day), you can’t take your creation at face value. It needs nurturing. You put it to one side, allow it to mature (like a fine wine). Let the molecules settle down. Then you may add water to soften the blend, this is done with a light touch to avoid cloudiness. Natural perfumes must be frozen & filtered to remove any sediment. This may alter the final aroma, depending on how many times you filter. You also lose some of your precious creation through this stage.
Friends, family & my therapy customers have all influenced the final result offering thoughts, feelings & wrists for testing. Our body chemistry interacts with perfume & it's fascinating how the fragrance changes depending on the wearer. Light, bright citrus on one person becomes warm spice on another.
The challenge of creating perfumes feels not dissimilar to creating a painting. For me, one of the biggest challenges is knowing when to stop messing with your work & to be at peace with it. If, after the maturation process, my formula brings joy, works on several different levels, has complexity & sits comfortably on different skins, then my creative work is done.
Finally, if your formula survives this complex process of invention, it then comes under the scrutiny of the science laboratory.
Then begins the next step - figuring out how to put into words what you have created, how to communicate the intricate & sometimes painstaking task that has led to this bottle of liquid. Then batch blending, filling, labelling, packaging and finally, eventually, at last… offering it to the world. Hoping that it communicates its power, the love that’s gone into it, its value & most of all, its natural beauty.
Copyright Lucy Stevens 2018
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