Practical Perfumery: The Grammar of Perfumery

Contact Author Stephen Dowthwaite
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The topic of how to structure a perfume is not often covered in literature, and so for many it seems an ill-defined process full of randomly chosen materials and proportions. The evaporation triangle (F-1), commonly used to describe the evaporation of perfumes, is the oldest and most accepted representation of a perfume’s composition. Its genius is in its simplicity, which is why almost every perfumer, perfume marketer and advertiser uses it. However, if using it for more than the most basic of descriptions, its simplicity becomes a weakness. This is demonstrated in one of the most common questions posed by students: “What should the ratios of the top, middle and bottom notes be?” This is similar to asking a painter how much sky, foreground and background a painting should have. The answer to both has to be a returned question relating to the intention or purpose of the perfume or painting. In quantifying the ratios of top, middle and bottom notes we are merely describing the balance of the three stages. This does not tell us why the materials are there, just the position they occupy in the timeline of the evaporation of the perfume.

There are, arguably, as many different ways to compose a perfume as there are perfumers. Each perfumer learns his craft and adapts his or her technique to their environment, availability of materials, experience and field of interest, etc. Within a teaching framework to order to explain the procedure, it is appropriate to systematize the intellectual process so that the method becomes capable of being followed through in logical and reproducible steps. The following technique aims to do this.

Inspiration for perfumes may come in a eureka-like flash, but in the commercial world there are deadlines for submissions and raw material and stability constraints to consider. Time is often not on the perfumer’s side, and so creativity must be readily available on demand. The majority of a perfumer’s work is in response to a brief or an enquiry from a customer for a particular perfume. The written or verbal enquiry may be in the form of a series of descriptors, a concept or a list of parameters that must be met. Even if the enquiry is a series of vague concepts, it must be translated into written form for all practical purposes. The procedure presented in this article revolves around this concept and is based on the simple principle that if a question is posed adequately and precisely enough it will already contain the elements of the answer.

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