Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series – Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes

thirteen-thoughts-v2_800_shadowThirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.

Today’s interview is the fourth of five weekly instalments of Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series. Today, American perfumer Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes answers the thirteen questions. Next week’s instalment will feature 4160Tuesdays’ Sarah McCartney.

I want to let each perfumer speak for themselves about who they are, what drives them, and what they do with fragrance, so without any further ado, I introduce you to…

Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes

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Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes

  1. Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.

When I was nine years old, my Grandparents moved from Los Angeles to retire in the California Gold Country foothills, near Sutter Creek, where gold was first found in California in 1848. They bought a house in the mountains in the Gold Country of California, east of Stockton CA. They moved there after retiring from Los Angeles, up to the mountains, which seemed quite remote, to a 9-year-old. Not too many people lived on their mountain then. What I enjoyed when I went to visit was all of the natural scents from their environment. They were in the middle of many cedars, some of which were Incense Cedars. Pine trees, Oak trees, Manazanita bushes/trees, rich red earth, and my beloved meadow ground covering that I loved to walk through and smell. They called it “Mountain Misery”. I was always puzzled by why it had such a hateful name, considering how much I loved its scent. In the summer, this plant has a tremendous odor strength; the little 18” ferns would become laden with a sticky resin that I’ve since learned contains between 10–12% essential oils, which is extremely high for a natural material to contain.

The Mountain Misery would stick to my shoes and pant legs when I walked through it. It had a really strong odor, and because it came packaged in a sticky resin, the odor would last for almost a week on your clothes and shoes. I revelled in it when I went to visit them. I’ve since learned that it was called Mountain Misery because it is almost impossible to eradicate for people who wished to remove it and “settle” some land without this ground covering. It seems to be the first thing that comes back after a forest fire, and chokes out other plants, and effectively monopolizes the ground where it grows. I now use the Native name of “Kit-Kit-Dizzie” instead. I wanted to bring these forest memories and even the scent of Kit-Kit-Dizzie into a perfume and it is my perfume called Ere. I love this memory perfume based on my first love affair with scent.

I just loved that smell. When I became a Perfumer, I went back to the mountains where that plant grows, and picked some to tincture for making my fragrance Ere. Ere to me is the scent of the Forest in a bottle. Ere is based on my scent memory of being a small boy running around in the forest of California.

Since I am very much the Artist and Photographer/Observer, what started my love affair with fragrance began with my fascination and appreciation of Beauty, in my case, the Beauty of the natural world around me. An observational and contemplative perspective: Seeing, Listening, Smelling, Hearing, Touching. These of course are the basis of life experience and the initiation of Art. Really, it’s simply paying attention to what you experience. Being an Artist in every medium, including Perfumery, is indeed about paying acute attention to what you experience.

  1. What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?

I think that the “scent of place” fascinated me long before Perfume fascinated me, as my story above mentions. But “Perfume” started to fascinate me when I started to be an adult in my 20’s, and I could experience a new scent art form… namely the colognes of the day that I could put on and be enveloped and almost overwhelmed with. This was a great experience to feel. I was mostly appreciative of an early scent, Grey Flannel. I loved how it was very “Orchestral” and multi-dimensional, and it very much related to Time, almost as a performance. I loved to experience Grey Flannel with its facets that seemed to change with different wearings, and it also changed over time. I learned that a fragrance could indeed be Symphonic in scope. This was a real revelation and experience for me in my tender 20’s.

We moved away from the Beach, where I was used to going into the garage and making art in the temperate environment there. We bought a house inland, halfway between Los Angeles and the Beach, and the hot desert of Palm Springs. This meant that it was extremely hot in the summer in the garage, and would freeze at night in the winter. So this weather extreme drove me inside for artistic expression. It was then that I started to explore the path of Perfumery, looking for a way to create a scent for myself that I not only liked (as opposed to so much of the mass market Men’s fragrances at the time that were hideous) and also I have some allergies to materials, so I wanted to wear what didn’t give me headaches. I also have a strong distaste for the overabundance of Vanillic scents in the American culture of fragrance and flavors. So I had set for myself a task, and set about solving the issues related to the problem.

It was January 2005 when we moved and I started shortly thereafter exploring fragrance composition. As I grew in acquisition of materials, skills, knowledge, and all other things pertinent to the Art of Perfumery, I kept up my regular job, and studied, studied, and studied. I’d been looking for an Artistic pursuit that didn’t matter where I lived, and Perfumery really fit the bill, and fit me and my talents, persona, and contemplative spirit.

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Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes

  1. Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?

I am completely Self Taught, and have been almost completely self-taught in many of the Artistic disciplines that I’ve worked in. I’ve chosen to occupy the boundless territory that lies beyond the convention of College degrees and external cultural validation of a set of informational and educational constructs. Many of my different resumes have this across the top:

“All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education.”

Sir Walter Scott

Cultural influences/influencers/Mentors have been several communities of fellow learning Perfumers found in Internet discussion groups facilitated by the major search engines. It is here that I started as a know-nothing plebe, and now years later, I moderate for the largest of these groups, which has 2,200 Perfumer members worldwide.

  1. Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?

My favorite Perfume Houses are Frederic Malle and Zoologist. These are my favorites because they are driven by visionary people who help direct and curate and free the Perfumers to create works of Olfactory Art that exist well outside the mass market drivel produced for the world.

My favorite Perfumers? Ernest Beaux, Henri Robert, and Dominique Ropion. The first two perfumers are old-school and worked with many naturals in their perfumes (as I also choose to do so when composing perfumes). I really admire Dominique Ropion, who composed Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower, which is a stunning tuberose. He also composed many more fragrances for the Frederic Malle line as well.

  1. Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.

My tagline is: Handmade Artisanal and Real Perfumes For All – Complex, Enigmatic, and Luxurious.

My great hope is to make perfumes of great grace and beauty that people can experience the best of their lives in, and if possible, help them even to amplify their experience of life and loves…

  1. How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?

Artistic inspiration comes from so many sources, maybe a place, an abstract idea, a romance, a flower, or a really great material. Starting with the idea, then thinking about what else compliments and reinforces the concept. Sometimes surprises walk in and tear it apart, sending it in an unexpected direction, or can work out so very nicely. I think in this part of creation, that I am more experiential than theoretical. Success can come quickly sometimes, or with many months or years of trying to make your vision a reality. Perfumery is very contemplative, and also then, much patience is often required.

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PK Perfumes – some of the range

  1. What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?

PLAY: The concept of “Play” is extremely important for me. Giving myself the freedom to play and seek, and find and fail are all so important to this Art form. “Play” allows for dynamics of interesting juxtapositions and contrast to happen without predictions of results, and this happy play can have astounding results and consequences.

COLOR and FEELING: If I am trying to illustrate a color in a perfume or trying to emulate a feeling, these can be very different or difficult, and require much thought, and trial and error to encapsulate in a perfume, because these things work on our own learned experiences and associations with scent, and can be extremely personal. This is a difficulty in the Art of Perfumery.

  1. What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?

SCALE: Manufacturing, distributing and marketing are all challenging and engage all your capabilities and vulnerabilities regardless of the scale of your business or how you make perfume. Both larger scale and smaller scale production generate their own issues to work through, and when moving upscale there are translational issues that need hard work to make the scent work in a larger scale as well as it did in the smaller scale.

REGULATIONS: The current IFRA recommendations and EU regulations are throttling the entire Perfume Industry and is making the creation of REAL Perfumes extremely difficult, almost to the point of impossibility. I define REAL PERFUMES as the classic style that existed pre-regulations, where one combines the best naturals with the best aromatic materials to create and design the best possible perfumes. As it stands now, the usage of Naturals is being extremely curtailed almost to the point of it being pointless for them to even exist, as well as all of the occupations that go into the making of these naturals too… THIS IS AN INTERNATIONAL TRAVESTY. I can’t speak out ENOUGH in protest of this regulational idiocy, and destruction of our worldwide Perfume Heritage and culture, and the destruction of the Jobs of poor farmers and workers around the world.

  1. How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?

My new Artistic Profession has heightened my analytical capability to dissect smells that I perceive into their individual molecular constituents. This has seemed so far to be more amusing to me than an annoyance. It also helps me to tear apart the odors experienced in flavors too.

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Ere by Paul Kiler for PK Perfumes

  1. Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?

I think that Labdanum resin would make a really great flavor, and would be on the top of my list… It has a really warm, ambery long-lasting wonderful odor profile. It would make some lovely desserts I think…

  1. If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?

There’s no time like the Present. The current day is by far my choice, without question.

  1. If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?

To benefit Perfumers, or at least something that *I REALLY* want, is a pocket headspace GC-MS analyser, capable of telling you the molecular makeup and constituents of whatever you are smelling at that moment, or of a particular item or flower…

To benefit the rest of the world: the same thing, as it would allow much more natural smelling fragrances to mimic the natural world better.

  1. What is the purpose of perfume?

Freedom – the freedom to help us experience great Grace and Love in our every moment, if we choose to enjoy it. And still retain the freedom to choose not to wear Perfume and instead experience the place that we presently occupy, and the scents of the people around us.

Thanks for allowing me to explore these thoughts with all of you here,

Fragrantly Yours,

Paul Kiler

PK Perfumes


I hope you’ve enjoyed the fourth instalment of Perfume Polytechnic’s Perfumer Interview Series with Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes. I want to thank Paul very much for his passionate and interesting answers! If you’d like to find out more about PK Perfumes and Paul Kiler’s range of fragrances, visit the PK Perfumes Website. You can also find PK Perfumes listed on Fragrantica.

Last week Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù answered the thirteen questions. You can read his very unconventional interview here! If you’d like to catch up with week 2’s interview with Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes, click here. Emma Leah of Fleurage was interviewed in week 1 of Thirteen Thoughts. To read Emma’s interview, click here.

NEXT WEEK’S Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series will feature Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesdays. Make sure you visit Perfume Polytechnic again this time next week to find out how Sarah answers the same thirteen questions!

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Smell and Synaesthesia Part Two: Synaesthetic Poems for a Sunday Afternoon

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Composition 6 (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky, a synaesthete.

Synaesthesia: a definition

Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g., hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality (e.g. vision). Likewise, perception of a form (e.g. a letter) may induce an unusual perception in the same modality (e.g. a color).

Source: http://www.synesthete.org/

Synaesthesia is a kind of sensory interplay. It isn’t the same as consciously setting out to find equivalences between things attributed to separate senses, realms, or artistic media. And it isn’t the same as using metaphors or similes to describe things. For a small percentage of the population (between 2-5%), the parts of the brain that usually detect and experience our five senses as discrete things, connect with each other neurologically, so that when one sense (or perceptual mode) is engaged, it triggers a response in another part of the brain that relates to another sense (or perceptual mode). The result? A kind of sensory co-existence of two (or sometimes more) sensory or perceptual experiences at once. One sensory experience triggers a simultaneous co-experience, usually between seemingly unrelated things.


The other day I launched a new series about synaesthesia and smell. This is the second post in the series. If you’d like to read the first, which includes a brief profile of perfumer Frédéric Malle’s smell-colour synaesthesia, click here.

As this is a blog about olfactory matters, my focus in this series will be mostly on smell and synaesthesia. As it’s a very hot Sunday afternoon, and I’m feeling lazy and tired, I’ve been researching smell and synaesthesia on the Internet. I came across these two magnificent poems, one by Rimbaud and one by Baudelaire. Both demonstrate the phenomenon of synaesthesia so beautifully that I wanted to share them with you.

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“Lances of proud glaciers…”

The first poem, by Arthur Rimbaud, is more about the type of synaesthesia I have, grapheme-colour synaesthesia, than smell, though there are a couple of odour-related references within. It also describes letters and colours as they relate to objects, nature, emotion, and all manner of other associations, both synaesthetic and more logical. In any case, it makes for wonderful reading:

“Voyelles” (Vowels) by Arthur Rimbaud (1883)

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels
One day I will tell of your latent birth:
A, black hairy corset of shining flies
Which buzz around cruel stench,

Gulfs of darkness; E, whiteness of vapors and tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, quivering of flowers;
I, purples, spit blood, laughter of beautiful lips
In anger or penitent drunkenness;

U, cycles, divine vibrations of green seas,
Peace of pastures scattered with animals, peace of the wrinkles
Which alchemy prints on heavy studious brows;

O, supreme Clarion full of strange stridor,
Silences crossed by words and angels:
—O, the Omega, violet beams from His Eyes!

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“There are perfumes… green like fields of grass…”

The following extract from a poem by Baudelaire conjures up several synaesthetic associations between smell, colour, and sound, leading me to believe Baudelaire experienced synaesthesia between all three modes of perception.

“Correspondances” (Correspondences), extract, by Charles Baudelaire (1857)

…Perfumes, colors, and sounds respond to one another.
There are perfumes fresh like the flesh of children,
Sweet like oboes, green like fields of grass,
—And others, corrupted, rich, and triumphal,
Possessing the expansion of infinite things,
Like amber, musk, benjamin [benzoin] and incense,
That sing the transports of the spirit and the senses.
(Translation by James C. Morrison)

Sources

Baudelaire, C. (1857/1961). “Correspondances”. In Antoine Adam (Ed.), Les fleurs du mal (p. 13). Garnier Frères, Paris.
Rimbaud, A. (1883/1967), “Vowels”. In Wallace Fowlie (Trans. and Ed.), Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters (p. 121). University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Both poems were sourced from the following online article: Hypermedia and Synesthesia by James C. Morrison.

Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series – Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù

thirteen-thoughts-v2_800_shadowThirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.

Today’s interview is the third of five weekly instalments of Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series. Today’s interview is with Italian perfumer Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù. Future instalments will feature PK Perfumes’ Paul Kiler and 4160Tuesdays’ Sarah McCartney.

O’Driù – A Brief Introduction

Amongst perfume enthusiasts, independent perfume house O’Driù is often considered controversial. For example, in 2013,  O’Driù released the divisive Peety, a fragrance that is supposed to be completed or personalised by adding 1ml of the owner’s urine. O’Driù’s fragrances are often filled with conceptual or imaginary fragrance notes or ingredients, including “bitter battle”, “the nightmare that reveals the pleasure” and “the hug of a woman”. Perfumer Angelo Orazio Pregoni’s work at O’Driù displays a friendly playfulness combined with the intention to shock. In combination with references to high art and culture, this combines to create a very interesting aesthetic full of tension and friction. I think O’Driù is creating some of the most interesting work out there in contemporary perfumery, conceptually and artistically.

At the bottom of this page, I reflect on my own thoughts about Angelo’s answers and O’Driù. As I don’t want to let my ideas influence your experience of this very interesting interview, I have left my thoughts until the end.

Without any further ado, let me introduce you to…

Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù

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Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù

  1. Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.

The story would take too long to explain however as soon as my mother conceived me she was forced to escape to save my life. We hid in a trunk on the deck of a pirate ship that sailed away while my mother cradled me inside. Near the island of Serifo the trunk was thrown overboard and was recovered by a fisher named Ditti, the brother of the island tyrant, Polidette. Ditti brought the trunk to shore thinking it contained treasure and opened it. The smell of fish was so strong that it overwhelmed mother, who fainted while I cried. That is therefore the first smell I recall, fish.

  1. What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?

Being the product of incest between my mother Mirra and her father, my adolescence wasn’t all that happy! You can imagine the social bias I was subjected to. So for a while I took care of the preparation of salves to be used during sacred ceremonies, the only activity I was allowed to undertake. As my birth was considered “inhuman” so my “touch” was thought alike to that of the Gods.

  1. Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?

I think that schools are suitable only for French people, with French tastes and French formulas. No external influence will ever affect a person’s DNA, however a person is the result of accumulated experience. In this case I recall happy memories about a time in my life when I was living with a prostitute, a woman who welcomed me into her house just because she was in love with me! Rosa, that was her name, used to grease her hats with rancid butter and white flower essences and my nose was greatly influenced by this.

  1. Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?

I don’t like fantasy characters!

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Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù

  1. Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.

There is no philosophy at all behind my brand! I am my brand and my perfume.

  1. How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?

As originality is not my strong point I try to participate in as many fairs as I can to steal some hints from other perfume houses. I often go to perfume shops and if I find something good, that is the so-called best sellers, I just copy them.

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“O Shame! Where is thy blush? Panty (about Peety)” signed art work by Angelo Orazio Pregoni (100/100).

  1. What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?

Everybody will be surprised to know (no doubt) that none of my perfumes contain urine! For the rest I use casks from King Arthur’s time to perfect the perfume (though I have no idea of their purpose). In my living room I do the distillation of essences from my neighbour’s trees and flowers. Each perfume is magically tied to the memory of a dead person and is inspired by the thought of a celebrated writer! I often work at night, drinking rum and experiencing feelings that not even Baudelaire ever felt.

  1. What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?

My current challenge is destroying the world of perfumery and rebuilding it in only three days!

  1. How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?

I’d say the contrary!

  1. Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?

As a matter of fact we eat stupid things and we use stupid perfumes! Now this scent “Stupidity” is used as much in food as in perfumery. As far as I’m concerned we could cook a very good dish using the most famous raw material widespread in perfumery: the Pathetic! We could cook a beautiful heart-shaped cake, with strawberries and cream, add grandmother’s secret touch and a sprinkle of Pathetic. Wow!

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Pathétique perfume by O’Driù

  1. If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?

Immediately after my death.

  1. If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?

A vanilla-flavoured anal vibrator! I’m sure that using it most critics could discover how precious vanilla becomes when blended with fecal notes.

  1. What is the purpose of perfume?

Making money.


Reflections on Angelo’s answers and O’Driù

I must admit that the morning I received Angelo’s answers to my questions, I was in a grumpy, pathetic mood. After reading these answers, I found myself smiling, and in a much better mood for the rest of the day. Angelo’s answers seem to embrace the same kind of spirit expressed by the Dadaists, an art movement I have always been particularly fond of. Dada, an art movement that sprang up in Europe during World War I, was an “anti-art” movement:

Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality…

According to Hans Richter [one of Dada’s key artists] Dada was not art: it was “anti-art.” Dada represented the opposite of everything [that] art stood for. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art was to appeal to sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend.

(Text quoted from Wikipedia)

Is Angelo Orazio Pregoni channelling Dada in his work? Is his perfume “anti-perfume”? I don’t know; but the playfulness of all that Angelo does and his rejection of the conventions of perfumery remind me very much of the Dada spirit. These ramblings are only my interpretation of Angelo’s creative answers to my standard set of thirteen questions. All I really know for sure is that Angelo’s answers put a broad smile on my face the day I read them and reminded me not to take life, or myself, too seriously. Life became lighter for me.


I hope you’ve enjoyed the third instalment of Perfume Polytechnic’s Perfumer Interview Series with Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù. Hearty thanks to Angelo for his fun and lively answers! If you’d like to find out more about O’Driù and Angelo’s perfumes, visit O’Driù’s website. If you’re interested, you can also read a previous blog post of mine in which Olly Technic and I blind-tested and reviewed a sample set of O’Driù perfumes. O’Driù’s fragrances are listed on Fragrantica.

If you’d like to catch up on last week’s instalment of Thirteen Thoughts with perfumer Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes, click here. Emma Leah of Fleurage was interviewed in week 1 of Thirteen Thoughts. To read Emma’s interview, click here.

NEXT WEEK’S Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series will feature Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes. Make sure you visit Perfume Polytechnic again this time next week to find out how Paul answers the same thirteen questions!

Smell and Synaesthesia Part One: Frédéric Malle

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An example of time unit – space synaesthesia. Image credit: Dankonikolic (Own work) – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Synesthesia_5.jpg

Synaesthesia: a definition

Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g., hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality (e.g. vision). Likewise, perception of a form (e.g., a letter) may induce an unusual perception in the same modality (e.g. a color).

Source: http://www.synesthete.org/

Synaesthesia is a kind of sensory interplay. It isn’t the same as consciously setting out to find equivalences between things attributed to separate senses, realms, or artistic media. And it isn’t the same as using metaphors or similes to describe things, as in the following passage by William Shakespeare from Romeo and Juliet:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Here, Romeo sees Juliet at night through a window, and finds her beauty so vibrant and illuminating that he compares her to the sun. In the world of scent, our vocabulary to describe smells and perfumes is limited, due to an insufficient vocabulary or language to describe smell; so we use metaphors, similes and comparisons to describe perfume frequently. When we describe smells, especially those that are unusual or new to us, we refer to other things outside the world of scent to describe the smell. A particular perfume note might smell nutty, dark, or velvety, dirty or bright. These adjectives actually come from the sensual realms of sight, touch and taste, and yet we often use such words to describe smell. But this is not synaesthesia, rather, it is a deficiency of the language that we have available to us to describe scent that forces us to use words that commonly describe other senses.

Similarly, we might imagine the colour orange when we smell orange oil, or red when we smell raspberries, or green when we crush and smell a pine needle, but these are understandable, logical associations. They are not synaesthetic responses. We compare perfumes to works of art or music or even famous people, but not in a genuine synaesthetic way (unless we are smell synaesthetes). Again, we do this to try to describe what we are smelling to others so that we can communicate about our experiences with smells.

However, for a small percentage of the population (between 2-5%), the parts of the brain that usually detect and experience our five senses as discrete things, connect with each other neurologically, so that when one sense (or perceptual mode) is engaged, it triggers a response in another part of the brain that relates to another sense (or perceptual mode). The result? A kind of sensory co-existence of two (or sometimes more) sensory or perceptual experiences at once. One sensory experience triggers a simultaneous co-experience, usually between seemingly unrelated things.

One key factor of working out if you’re a synaesthete is the repeatability of such experiences. For instance, if every time a person hears the musical note “G” they see the same shade of yellow in their mind’s eye, and they have other colours assigned to other musical pitches, they almost certainly have synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is something that people seem to either have or not have. It’s not something that can be cultivated. It can be simulated, and is simulated sometimes by artists who wish to find analogies or faux-synaesthetic associations between different art forms or to create multi-disciplinary works. But with synaesthetes, the experience has always been there, usually throughout their lives, and it’s often repeatable and the same, and it can’t be switched off.

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The colours and shapes used in the design for my website were based on synaesthetic associations between the letters of my name and the colours in which I see these letters (grapheme-colour synaesthesia).

Why am I so interested in synaesthesia? Because I am a synaesthete. And because it’s one of the few neurological conditions that allows one to function fully in society! In fact, it can make life more interesting. For as long as I can remember, I have always experienced grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which is one of the most common, most studied types of synaesthesia (there are more than 60 types altogether). This means that when I imagine letters and numbers (as forms) in my mind, I see each letter or number in a specific colour and shade. The same colour and shade each time. I had no idea this was unusual, until I thought to mention it to a friend when I was 19 years old. My friend, a fellow composer, was most excited: he told me it was a rare condition called synaesthesia and that not many people experienced it. I’m glad that the first person I chose to tell was someone who a) knew what it was and b) didn’t mock me or make me feel strange for seeing coloured letters and numbers in my head. Apparently synaesthesia is much more prevalent amongst creative people and artists, and some studies show that it is also more common amongst women. I also experience number form synaesthesia, whereby the days of the week and months of the year form a pattern of linear blocks in my visual imagination, which I see every time I imagine the days ahead, or try to plan something.

As I mentioned already, the grapheme-colour synaesthesia that I experience is actually one of the most common kinds. I’m jealous of those who feel shapes when they eat certain foods (e.g. the chicken tastes “pointy”), or hear music when they smell certain smells. As  composer, I really wish I’d been born with a type of synaesthesia that related to sound in some way, and as a perfume buff, I’d love to have a smell-based synaesthesia. But alas, it’s not meant to be, and as a true synaesthete, I know that sadly I can’t train myself to develop these kinds of synaesthesia, nor would it feel right to fabricate connections between these senses and any others. Being endlessly fascinated by this topic, and wanting to find out more about the other kinds of synaesthesia, I decided to research the topic as it relates to the sense of smell. I wanted to find out if there were perfumers and artists out there who are known to experience smell-based synaesthesia. And there are.

So, with all that in mind, in today’s post I wanted to introduce you to synaesthesia, tell you a little bit about my own experience of it, and introduce you to my first subject in this series: perfumer Frédéric Malle, who experiences smell-colour synaesthesia.

Frédéric Malle

Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums is a collection of niche fragrances composed by some of the greatest perfumers in the fragrance industry.

Frédéric Malle introduced the Editions de Parfums in 2000, as a completely original concept whereby the world’s greatest noses composed exclusive, creative fragrances that would be sold under their creator’s names. In an era in which most companies attach more importance to brand names, by intensified marketing campaigns, Malle brings the attention back to the product itself: perfume. Through a simple “back to basics” ideology, the Editions de Parfums are challenging all prevailing trends.

Frédéric Malle grew up immersed in the world of perfumery; his grandfather, Serge Heftler, was most notably the founder of Parfums Christian Dior. Malle started his own career in 1986, at the prestigious perfume creation labs Roure Bertrand Dupont. Over the years, he acquired a profound knowledge of the raw materials of which perfumes are composed, as well as a strong sense of olfactory balance. Simply, he is an “evaluator,” the professional term defining a specialist whose deep understanding of fragrance structure and accords enables him to critique a perfume’s composition.

Source: http://www.fredericmalle.com/eu/about-us/frederic-malle

malle-colors

Frédéric Malle’s illustrations for the limited edition release of Editions de Parfums at Barneys New York. Image credit: Illustrations by Frédéric Malle. Image sourced from The Fashion Reporter blog: http://thefashionreporter.com/blog/?paged=2&m=201212%2Fpage%2F2

In 2012, to celebrate ten years in business together, Barneys New York and Frédéric Malle released a special, limited edition range of packaging for the Editions de Parfums collections, based on Malle’s own synaesthetic illustrations.

Malle told Laura Feinstein of PSFK.com:

To celebrate 10 years with Barneys [Malle’s US distributor], I decided to create a line of packaging with each of these illustrations, so that – for the first time in the history of our brand the exterior expresses what’s inside the bottle…

When smelling fragrances I see colors. This capacity to translate scents into images is called synesthesia. A few years ago, I decided to put these visions that I have when smelling the perfumes of our collection on paper. I used Photoshop, its many layers and its many brushes to illustrate the layers and textures that I smell when smelling these scents. At first the purpose of these images was to explain each perfume not using words.

While I receive inspiration from all things– nature, things I see while walking, design, I certainly am also inspired by these colors.

In this wonderful video from Barneys New York’s website, Malle explains his synaesthesia and describes what he sees when he smells a couple of fragrances from the line, while showing us the resulting illustrations.

Video sourced from Barneys New York’s “The Window” website.


I hope you’ve enjoyed the first in this series on synaesthesia as it relates to the sense of smell. I’d love to know if you experience synaesthesia too, and if so, what type you have.

If you’d like to read more about synaesthesia, the following websites are good places to visit:

Wikipedia’s page on synaesthesia

Synaesthesia.com

University of Sussex synaesthesia research page

If you’d like to take a test to see if you are a synaesthete, I recommend the following:

The Synaesthesia Battery test

Frederic Malle’s website can be accessed here.

Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series – Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes

thirteen-thoughts-v2_800_shadowThirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.

Today’s interview is the second of five weekly instalments of Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series. Today’s interview is with Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes, based in Adelaide, Australia. Future instalments will feature O’Driù’s Angelo Orazio Pregoni, 4160Tuesdays’ Sarah McCartney and PK Perfumes’ Paul Kiler.

I want to let each perfumer speak for themselves about who they are, what drives them, and what they do with fragrance, so without any further ado, I introduce you to…

Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes

Mark EvansBW

Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes

  1. Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.

I’d love to be able to regale you with stories of fragrant holiday locations and smells that tear me back to momentous events in my past, but I’m afraid the truth is I was raised in a regular English immigrant family in the seventies in suburban West Australia where money was short and such things as perfume, holidays and aesthetics just didn’t play a part (proven by the lurid purple bedspread and orange carpet in my bedroom as a teenager). Two smells that I guess do take me back to those times are the smell of woodchips and potting soil from my first ever job in a plant nursery and the other would be the smell of body filler putty stuff that was used in a panel beating shop where I had another job sweeping the floors. Not sure I could get more prosaic if I tried but really, the world of the senses or art of any sort was just not a thing back then – you worked hard, ate a meal, watched TV and went to bed. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I managed to shake off that mindset and discover that there was so much more to experience from life and the senses and the world around me. The gradual discovery of perfume was certainly a driving force behind this revelation – it corrupted me completely.

  1. What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?

One day in my thirties I found myself re-reading over and over the chapter relating to smell in Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses, particularly the part where Sophia Grojsman visits IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances) and describes experiencing perfumes being developed there. I had no idea why, but I found the whole idea fascinating and I became incredibly excited to throw myself into this completely unknown world – it was like something inside my psyche that had lain dormant had stirred, woken up and started shouting at me! I remember being confused and even a little concerned at the time; nothing had prepared me for the strength of this sudden obsession that was so foreign to my normal life as a geeky computer tech. Maybe this is just how it is when you stumble across the thing you were destined to do. Just a pity that it happened to me so late.

This new obsession was magnified ten-fold when I finally managed to obtain samples of some actual perfumes (I certainly couldn’t afford whole bottles and wasn’t confident to go into a shop to smell the testers) and was incredulous that such beauty could be contained within a smell!

Being of a scientific bent and having a huge curiosity, I needed to find out about how these smells were put together and so I started exploring any way I could. And so here I am, ten years or so later and that excitement hasn’t abated in the least. By the way, I have no qualms about waltzing into Mecca Cosmetica and spraying with abandon now!

  1. Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?

I’m completely self-taught. Thank goodness for the internet, hey? There’s a bunch of communities online devoted to learning perfumery and it’s only because of their existence that I was able to make any progress at all. I was also lucky to come along at a time when these communities were still young, very active and enthusiastic. The learning curve has been incredibly steep and it has taken many years of fanatical devotion, but I like a good challenge and here’s hoping that I’ve managed to succeed a little. Of course there have been many influences and diversions along the way. It seems that every few months I smell something and decide that the rest of my training needs to head in that direction. Until the next influence comes along, that is.

  1. Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?

Without thinking too hard, names that come to mind include Christopher Sheldrake for Serge Lutens, Jean Paul Guerlain, Isobelle Doyen for Annick Goutal & Lez Nez, Thierry Mugler, and Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès.

I’m thinking about what could be the common factor between these (and many others, of course) that appeal to me. I think it must be that the perfumes they create or release are all extraordinary, as in extra ordinary. The perfumes grab your attention and force you to think about them. You can’t spray them casually.

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Evocative Perfumes’ range of Eau de Toilette fragrances

  1. Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.

I guess when you study perfumery, there naturally comes a point at which you think about taking the scary step of baring your soul and letting others smell and even pay for your creations. I’m an introvert and so taking this step was especially scary – more like a headlong leap into the unknown.

When I was thinking about some sort of consistent brand image and name (I certainly couldn’t use my actual name for the brand like many other indie perfumers do, can you imagine – Evans Perfumes, hahaha) I wondered if I could use the actual descriptive word evocative – it described what I wanted to achieve with my work and when I found that no one else seemed to have used the name (and the internet domain was available) I went for it. It’s kinda daggy I know but I’m hoping the Evocative name will eventually become associated with quality and creative perfumes.

The perfumes themselves are a mix of different styles and types that are released as I experiment with and learn about different styles of perfumery. One day in the future hopefully they will settle down into a more consistent range when I find a style that particularly suits me.

  1. How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?

Yes to all of them. Ideas can come from anywhere and at any time but I think that they mostly result from smelling incredible ingredients and wanting to ‘do something’ with them. Like my Olibanum which resulted from smelling an amazing frankincense and needing to break it down to its elements and highlighting them within something that is wearable as a perfume.

It’s also true that I would like to fill in gaps in the range: it would be great to have a leather and a woody aromatic masculine.

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Olibanum perfume oil

  1. What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?

Maybe your readers would be surprised that an indie perfumer with limited funds has to do it all themselves. Everything. Not only do you have to actually learn and practice perfumery itself for years, you have to source small amounts of the hundreds of hard to find ingredients from all corners of the globe. Researching where the best quality ingredients come from and then begging, borrowing and stealing what you can and even making your own when necessary.

You have to liaise with suppliers of these ingredients as well as the producers of bottles and label printers etc. Then comes learning web design and eCommerce, creating the website yourself and then handling all the logistics from payments to packaging and shipping. Then there’s the marketing side of things, getting your name out there and answering interview questions 😉 coming up with a brand, an image and so on. It’s a lot of work and there’s a lot to learn!

  1. What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?

I could go on about the mundane reality of never having enough funds to fully realise my dreams for Evocative Perfumes, but I guess that’s the case for any venture – you do the best with what you have available to you. Funnily enough, although it has been a huge challenge getting my hands on the many, many ingredients needed to make perfumes, I really enjoy that side of it. I think of it as the same way that a collector loves scouring around and finding their prized items. I’m a collector as well, it’s just that I collect smells and I love the thrill of the chase and the excitement of finding that one rare extract that no-one else has.

Another hard thing for me has been the whole business of getting the finished perfume from the big flasks here into the hands of the wearer. Hassles of sourcing bottles and labels and packaging and dealing with restrictive postal services and taking money from people and so on and so on. So tedious.

  1. How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?

It has affected my smell perception to an amazing degree. After the years of concentrating on how my experiments are smelling, the relevant parts of my brain must surely have laid down new pathways and I’m aware of the smells around me constantly now, like you on one of your smell walks, Polly.

I’ve also started occasionally perceiving smells that I know aren’t actually there. Sometimes I’ll actually get a whiff of bacon if I see an advert on TV or something. Not often but it does happen.

I read somewhere that a study was done on the brains of perfumers and although their olfactory nerves were normal, they had more neural pathways leading away from the olfactory part of the brain to other parts. So it wasn’t so much their sense of smell that was enhanced, but the associations that resulted from the smells.

NewSiberianFir12mlOil-320x320

Siberian Fir perfume oil

  1. Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?

Patchouli – can you imagine? And labdanum absolute!

A lot of the materials used in flavours are exactly the same as used in perfumery so it’s highly likely that we’ve all consumed most of them in our food already!

Here in Australia we have musk candy that really does taste like ethylene brassylate smells.

  1. If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?

I’d have to say the 1940s and 50s: such an amazingly creative time for the couture houses and perfumers.

  1. If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?

This is a hard one. You hear of the new technologies attempting to transmit scents via phones or the internet, but knowing what goes into complicated smells, this simply could never work for perfumes – they might work for a range of generic smells, but nothing too complex or original. In fact I think that these devices are a bad idea. I really don’t see much use for them beyond novelty – surely they could only promote the standardisation and cheapening of scents.

  1. What is the purpose of perfume?

Talking about fine perfume as opposed to functional perfume…

I’d make a distinction between deliberate and casual perfume wearers here. For those who grab and spray a trendy celebrity scent on the way out the door, perfume is just an additional part of the wardrobe – a final touch, a boost to self-confidence and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

For the deliberate wearer, though, I think perfume is first and foremost about personal pleasure. Whereas the casual wearer wants to smell good for other people, the deliberate wearer sprays or dabs firstly for themselves and if those around catch a whiff, then that’s fine too. So in this case the perfume acts more as an artistic medium – the wearer is sharing the perfumer’s vision and it’s our job to try to take the wearer on an emotional journey through bliss and remembrance and even intellectual curiosity.

That’s what it’s all about for me.


I hope you’ve enjoyed the second instalment of Perfume Polytechnic’s Perfumer Interview Series with Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes. Warm thanks to Mark Evans for his fascinating answers! If you’d like to find out more about Evocative Perfumes and Mark’s fabulous creations, visit the Evocative Perfumes website. For those seeking more in-depth information about Mark’s creative practice including detailed information on how his fragrances are made, visit the companion blog to his website, which is great reading too. You can also find Mark’s fragrances listed on Fragrantica.

If you’d like to catch up on last week’s instalment of Thirteen Thoughts with perfumer Emma Leah of Fleurage, click here.

NEXT WEEK’S Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series will feature Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù. Make sure you visit Perfume Polytechnic again this time next week to find out how Angelo answers the same thirteen questions! You are in for a singular experience.

Perfume 101: Fragrance Materials and How They Are Extracted – Part 1

Hieronymus_Brunschwig_Liber_de_arte_Distillandi_CHF_AQ13x3

A fanciful depiction of distillation equipment from Hieronymus Brunschwig’s “Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis”, 1512.

Essential oils, absolutes, concretes, resins, hydrosols, balsams. I’ve heard and seen these words so many times when perfumers or fragrance aficionados talk or write about scent, but did not know what all of them actually meant, until yesterday, when I started reading perfumer Mandy Aftel’s book Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance, co-authored with chef Daniel Patterson. Aftel’s chapter “The Perfumer’s Pantry” has such a succinct and easy-to-understand summary of these various fragrance materials and processes, or “building blocks” of perfumery, as she calls them, that suddenly I felt much more informed, inspired to do some further research, and share some definitions of these things with you.

Today’s post will define the following terms: essential oils, hydrosols, concretes, absolutes, resins and balsams, and will describe how each of these substances is produced and/or harvested. In future posts I will explore other extraction techniques including CO2 extraction, headspace technologies, florasols/phytols and other methods as I come across them.

Distillation_by_Retort

Vintage engraving of a still

Essential Oils

Essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic oils extracted from certain plant materials, mostly through distillation. Citrus essential oils are one exception to this: while some citrus can be steam distilled to produce an essential oil, the best, most vibrant results are produced by using pressing techniques to extract the oil. Cold-pressed citrus oils are produced by machines that puncture or cut the rind and capture the oil that escapes. Essential oils also differ from the plant oils that we cook with and use for cosmetic purposes, which are extracted by pressing nuts and seeds, olives, and so on.

A few different kinds of distillation are used. In most of them, plant material is placed in a still, water is heated, which produces steam inside the still and helps to break down the plant material to release the aromatic oils. The aromatic steam vapour is then passed through a condenser, returning the steam to a liquid state, which is collected. As oil and water do not mix, the essential oil will normally float on top of (but occasionally below) the watery substance that remains, which is called hydrosol.

There are a few different types of distillation used, including steam distillation, hydrodistillation, water and steam distillation, dry/destructive distillation (no water or steam is used), and fractionation distillation. You can read more about some of these methods here and here.

Hydrosols

This is the “water” left over after the distillation process, once the essential oil is separated off. Hydrosols retain a small amount of essential oil, up to 0.2 milliliter of dissolved essential oil per litre of hydrosol (source: https://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/how-are-essential-oils-extracted). According to Mandy Aftel, even though the hydrosols contain these tiny amounts of oil, “they [also] have [other] plant-based properties and nutrients, which make them very different from regular water to which a few drops of essential oil has been added. Hydrosols are lighter and evaporate faster than essential oils and offer a different, more subtle olfactory experience” (Aftel & Patterson (2004), p. 20).

Concretes

Some flowers and plant material, such as jasmine, linden blossoms, violet leaves, tuberose and mimosa are simply too fragile to be subjected to the heat of the steam in the distillation process, so their aromas are instead extracted using solvents. The solvent (hexane and dimethyl ether are commonly used) flows through or repeatedly “washes” the plant material or flowers, which are placed on grills or perforated trays inside extracting units. The solvent dissolves the aromatic components of the plant along with non-aromatic plant waxes and pigments. The solution that results is filtered to remove the solvent, and the resulting substance is called a concrete, which has a semi-solid, waxy texture. Concretes can contain as much as 55% aromatic oil (source: https://www.naturesgift.com/aromatherapy-information/what-is-aromatherapy/how-are-essential-oils-made/). Solvent extraction is just one of the more modern and efficient techniques to have replaced the very old technique of enfleurage, which used to be the best method for extracting fragrance essence from delicate materials. According to Aftel, concretes have great staying power and a “softness to their aroma that makes them perfect for use in solid perfume” (Aftel & Patterson (2004), p. 20).

Absolutes

Absolutes are extracted from the concrete, via a process that removes all wax and solid material. Aftel describes concretes as highly concentrated with a refined olfactory quality, and they are “much longer lasting than essential oils.” They also tend to be the most expensive essences to buy (Aftel & Patterson (2004), p. 20).

The following passage, quoted from Nature’s Gift Aromatherapy Products’ website describes the extraction process for absolutes:

The concentrated concretes are processed further to remove the waxy materials which dilute the pure essential oil. To separate the absolute from the concrete, the waxy concrete is warmed and stirred with alcohol (usually ethanol). During the heating and stirring process the concrete breaks up into minute globules. Since the aromatic molecules are more soluble in alcohol than in the wax an efficient separation of the two takes place. But along with the aromatic molecules a certain amount of wax also becomes dissolved and this can only be removed by agitating and freezing the solution at very low temperatures (around -30 degrees F). In this way most of the wax precipitates out. As a final precaution the purified solution is cold filtered leaving only the wax-free material (the absolute).

Resins and Balsams

There is some confusion within the fragrance community about what resins and balsams are, and how they differ from one another, so I’ve decided to resort to Mandy Aftel’s definitions, and the entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Aftel defines resins as “the viscous, solid, or semisolid gums derived from trees, particularly pine and other evergreens” (Aftel & Patterson (2004), p. 20). The Encyclopedia Britannica adds that “resin formation occurs as a result of injury to the bark from wind, fire, lightning, or other cause.”

Balsams also come from trees. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines as balsam as an “aromatic resinous substance that flows from a plant, either spontaneously or from an incision; it consists of a resin dispersed in benzoic or cinnamic acid esters and is used chiefly in medicinal preparations. Certain of the more aromatic varieties of balsam have been incorporated into incense.” And, as we know, perfumery too!

In perfumery, resins and balsams include ingredients such as benzoin, styrax, Peru balsam, frankincense and pine. Aftel says that resins have “tremendous staying power” and that they act as fixatives in perfume making, which means that they help the scent last longer on the skin (Aftel & Patterson (2004), p. 20). As this is such a broad category of materials to discuss, I won’t go into all of the harvesting and extraction techniques used for resins and balsams, as there are many. I do know however that frankincense is harvested periodically by hand from the tree (the resinous “tears” are removed with a special knife), and that it can be used in its raw state as incense, or subjected to the distillation process to create an essential oil.


Sources and further reading:

Aftel & Patterson (2004), Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance, Artisan, New York.

Nature’s Gift Aromatherapy Products: How Are Essential Oils Made?

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy: How Are Essential Oils Extracted?

Ça Fleur Bon’s Perfumer’s Workshop: The Art of Enfleurage “From 19th Century to 21st Century Headspace Technology” + The Art of Flowers Draw

Encyclopedia Britannica: Resins and Balsams

Bois de Jasmin: Tolu Balsam, Benzoin, Styrax and Other Oriental Balsamic Notes