Staying “true to family” proves a winning formula when choosing fragrance


Advertisement for Guerlain’s Shalimar featuring Natalia Vodianova

When it comes to commercial fragrance marketing, I like to think of myself as impervious to it (haha), and hope that I wouldn’t allow it to influence my decision to buy a fragrance. Commercial perfume marketing, to me, panders to the most clichéd and stereotyped notions of gender, race, age, class and sexuality, and most of the time puts me off trying a fragrance, rather than attracting me towards it! I find myself having to ignore such marketing, whether it’s the writhing of model Natalia Vodianova in a warm pool of water, almost naked, in a publicity video for my beloved Shalimar, or a celebrity like Kim Kardashian, who I have little respect for, advertising her latest “celebuscent”. I find such marketing embarrassing, and I’m no prude. The one advertisement that did capture my attention was the Brad Pitt campaign for Chanel no. 5. I was fascinated that a man (albeit a rather pretty one) was advertising one of the most famous women’s scents, and this intrigued me; the ad played with notions of gender and gained a lot of attention for it. Nevertheless, generally speaking, I dislike commercial fragrance advertising, while at the same time also understanding that I am probably unusual in my dislike of it and inability to be swayed by all the lifestyle promises contained within such advertisements.

Brad Pitt advertising Chanel no. 5

Brad Pitt advertising Chanel no. 5

And yet it seems that purveyors of fragrances still use such marketing, with its suggestiveness of a perfect lifestyle, with its dramatic moodiness and emoting, with its pretty imagery and lovely bottles, as the main tool to sell fragrances. However, contrary to this belief that such marketing results in great sales and more importantly, lasting satisfaction with the perfume purchased, researcher and fragrance consultant Laura Donna has proven that women actually prefer to purchase and wear fragrances based on previous favourites regardless of marketing, and that these fragrances usually fall within the same fragrance categories. Donna’s research (published in Perfumer & Flavorist Magazine, February 2012) suggests that perfume retailers would be best to ignore lifestyle marketing and trends, as well as in-store gadgets sometimes used to guide fragrance purchases, and instead rely on suggesting new fragrances based on preferences and the fragrance families that customers’ favourites come from. Michael Edwards’ Fragrances of The World, a publication that is produced yearly, and which includes most commercial fragrance releases, sorting them by scent family (Chypre, Oriental, Floral, etc.) and into sub-families, is the perfect tool to help retailers guide buyers towards satisfactory purchases. Laura Donna argues that there is no substitute for smelling a fragrance and that no amount of marketing or gadgetry can replace the olfactory experience of actually trying a fragrance in store or at home.

An anecdote of my most recent perfume purchase supports Donna’s theory that customers tend to buy fragrances that are similar to favourite, previous purchases. Last week I visited one of the most exclusive and best stocked niche fragrance boutiques in Melbourne. I was interested in trying Anima Dulcis by Arquiste, and also in checking out the mid-year sale stock. I expressed an interest in trying Baghari by Robert Piguet, and the store owner suggested I also try a couple of other fragrances that were similar to Baghari at the same time. One in particular caught my attention and really took hold of me: Ligea la Sirena by Italian perfume house Carthusia. It didn’t remind me overtly of Baghari, though it certainly shared a lightness with it and some citrus top notes, but I was very drawn to it nonetheless. Knowing to let a fragrance settle on my skin before purchase, I went for a walk in the area and kept sniffing the fragrance on my wrist. Fifteen minutes later, a lightbulb went off and I worked out why I loved this fragrance at first spray: Ligea la Sirena reminded me of my favourite perfume, Guerlain’s Shalimar, whilst also reminding me of two other favourite Guerlain fragrances: Eau de Shalimar and Jicky, both of which share obvious similarities with Shalimar. Ligea la Sirena’s similarity to these beloved fragrances convinced me to buy a large bottle, as I was certain I would enjoy wearing it, based on my preference for these other very similar fragrances, which get regular wear.

Anecdotes aside, Laura Donna’s research does ring true with my own experience of purchasing fragrances that are similar to one another. I own Michael Edwards’ Fragrances of the World, and am surprised to discover that many of my favourite fragrances do indeed exist in the same categories, and often in the same sub-category. While I do have broad tastes as a perfume collector and blogger, my favourites fall within the families of Oriental and Woody Oriental and are generally “Classical” in character, according to Edwards’ system. If you’re interested in Donna’s theory, or if this matches your experience, you will probably enjoy reading Laura Donna’s article and seeing how her research panned out.

I’m curious to know what you think of Laura Donna’s article and whether it matches your own experience of purchasing perfume. Do you like perfume advertising? Are you swayed by it, or do you find yourself naturally drawn to similar kinds of fragrances from the same (or similar) olfactory groups, over and over again? Tell me your experiences in the comments box below. (If you’re reading this post from the home page, click on the title at the top to go to the full post. The comments box is at the bottom of the page).


Donna, Laura: “The Case for Fragrance Family Loyalty: New Research Uncovers a Clear Method for Connecting Consumers to the Scents they will Love”, in Perfumer & Flavourist Magazine, Vol. 37, February 2012.

Who Are The Snazziest Sniffers in the Animal Kingdom?

dog-450083_640It thrills me whenever I approach an animal that I don’t know as the first thing they do is waggle their nose in my direction, nostrils flaring, sniffing me out and trying to work out whether I’m friend or foe. I notice that my cat does this with inanimate objects too. If something new is added to the house, or if something has moved, or is where it shouldn’t be, the first thing she will do is sniff it. It must be her primary sense, or maybe the quickest and most reliable sense to help her ascertain whether said object is safe to be around or not.

man-426985_640We’ve all heard that in comparison to non-human animals, the human sense of smell is fairly poor. Even the magical, astutely trained and experienced noses of perfumers are pretty far down the scale of sniffing-ability in comparison to some of our animal friends. As someone interested in fragrance, I’ve had to develop my sense of smell consciously, and it’s taken some work. I know I still have a lot of training to do, even though I reckon in comparison to the average Joe, I smell pretty well! Women also have a keener sense of smell than men, apparently. This is backed up by my own (non-scientific) observations that I can tell Olly’s shirts sometimes need washing well before he’s even aware of a problem. Eeeeuuwww!

elephant-111695_640Now, if I was an African Elephant, I’m not sure I would be able to cope with Olly’s shirts at all. The African Elephant trumps all other mammals: not only does it have an extremely long proboscis, which is necessary for smelling out predators, amongst other things, but scientists have also found out that it has the largest number of olfactory receptor (OR) genes in a study of thirteen placental mammals. A whopping 1948 OR genes.

This research was undertaken in Japan by Yoshihito Niimura, Atsushi Matsui and Kazushige Touhara of the University of Tokyo’s Department of Applied Biological Chemistry, and their findings were published in the journal Genome Research. You can read more detailed information about the study here and here. You can also read the original article here.

So, where do we humans end up amongst a list of animals with superior schnozzes? How many OR genes do we have? A mere 396. Here is the list of the thirteen mammals that the researchers studied, in descending order of the number of OR genes each animal has:

Elephant 1948

Rat 1207

Cow 1186

Mouse 1130

Horse 1066

Dog 811

Guinea Pig 796

Rabbit 768

Human 396

Chimpanzee 380

Marmoset 366

Macaque 309

Orangutan 296

You can see that primates fare quite badly in the OR gene stakes, and while we humans are near the bottom of the list, poor Orangutans would probably not make very good perfumers at all.

roe-deer-110068_640Why is the sense of smell so important to mammals? The authors posit that

“…the sense of smell is critical to all mammals, and they use it for sniffing out food, avoiding predators, finding mates and locating their offspring.” (quote sourced from this article)

And why is an elephant’s sense of smell so incredible?

“The large repertoire of elephant (smell) genes might be attributed to elephants’ heavy reliance on scent in various contexts, including foraging, social communication, and reproduction.

African and Asian elephants possess a specific scent gland, called the temporal gland, behind each eye, and male elephants exude an oily secretion during annual mating, which is characterized by increased aggressiveness and elevated levels of testosterone .

Research has also shown that elephants have well-developed olfactory systems that include large olfactory bulbs and large olfactory areas in the brain.

And previous studies have revealed that African elephants can reportedly distinguish between two Kenyan ethnic groups—the Maasai, whose young men demonstrate virility by spearing elephants, and the Kamba, who are agricultural people that pose little threat to elephants, through smell.” (quote sourced from this article)

cows-nose-503999_640Relatively speaking, why is the human sense of smell so poor? One idea is that, as our posture became more upright over the course of evolution, we

 “…lifted our noses far from the ground where most smells originate, diluting scent molecules in the air.” (quote sourced from this article)

ginger-cat-253731_640But where does my cat fit into all this? I don’t know. The study doesn’t mention how many OR genes cats have, sadly. But a brief bit of research on Wikipedia tells me the following about a cat’s sense of smell:

“A domestic cat’s sense of smell is about fourteen times as strong as a human’s. Cats have twice as many receptors in the olfactory epithelium (i.e. smell-sensitive cells in their noses) as people do, meaning that cats have a more acute sense of smell than humans. Cats also have a scent organ in the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s) organ. When a cat wrinkles its muzzle, lowers its chin, and lets its tongue hang a bit, it is opening the passage to the vomeronasal. This is called gaping, “sneering”, “snake mouth”, or “flehming”. Gaping is the equivalent of the Flehmen response in other animals, such as dogs, horses, and big cats.”

It’s all rather humbling really. I guess we’ll just have to console ourselves with the knowledge that non-human animals aren’t able to make perfume, yet. So we’ve got one up on them there. But if they could make perfume, and did, would we even be able to smell or appreciate the wonderful creations that they might produce with their superior sense of smell? I’ll leave you to ponder that question…

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


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).


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.


“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!


“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)


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.

Smell and Synaesthesia Part One: Frédéric Malle


An example of time unit – space synaesthesia. Image credit: Dankonikolic (Own work) –

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).


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. menu

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.



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:

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

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

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.

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


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.


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.


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: 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).


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: 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 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

Scent Mapping: Diagrams and Aroma Wheels

Scent mapping tries to make sense of the smells in the world around us by mapping them in a variety of ways. This can take the form of various diagrams, tables, and aroma wheels. Usually such diagrams contain categories that classify and group individual smells, but they can also tell us other things, such as how we relate smells to gender, and also how similar or dissimilar certain smells are to one another. They can also tell us something about how we react – both physically and psychologically – to certain smells. There are a number of famous scent maps, including Paul Jellinek’s odour effects diagram, and Michael Edwards’ fragrance wheel from his Fragrances of World book. In this post I’ll be introducing you to some of these wheels and diagrams, which are fascinating to look at in their own right. In a future post, I will be discussing some of the findings of a study by Manuel Zarzo and David Stanton, in which they compared various odour databases, scent maps and wheels and drew some interesting conclusions about our perceptions of scent. Paul Jellinek’s odour effects diagram (a later version here has been modified by his son Joseph Stephan Jellinek and Robert Calkin) originally dates from 1951. Jellinek’s map proposes various categories or types of smell, and also the various effects that such smells have on us, e.g. stimulating, erogenous, calming or fresh.

Jellinek’s Odour Effects Diagram

Michael Edwards’ fragrance wheel, from his Fragrances of the World book, comprises a number of fragrance categories, showing the relationship between one category and the next. In Fragrances of the World, which is released every year, Edwards groups thousands of commercially available fragrances into these categories. The book is intended for industry use so that sales assistants can recommend new fragrances to customers, based on similarities with a customer’s favourite perfumes.


Michael Edwards’ Fragrance Wheel. c. Michael Edwards

Mandy Aftel’s Aftelier Natural Perfume Wheel consists of categories of scent families, sub-categories within these (like Jellinek’s diagram, labelled with subjective descriptors such as fresh and heavy), and individual notes/ingredients within the sub-categories. The Drom Fragrance Circle is similar to Aftel’s, complete with subjective descriptors, and aligning some scent categories with gender.


Drom Fragrance Wheel

The aromachemically-literate among us might be interested in Givaudan’s very beautiful scent ingredients map, which reminds me of a stylised subway diagram.


Givaudan’s Scent Ingredients Map

There is a well-known connection and cross-sensory interrelationship between the senses of smell and taste, so the following wheels are provided for your interest and comparison with the fragrance-specific diagrams provided above. It’s interesting to me how much overlap there is. First up is Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel, originally devised in the 1980s.


Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel

Below is the Beer Flavour Wheel invented in the 1970s by Dr Morten Meilgaard. wheel

And finally, Niki Segnit’s flavour wheel from her brilliant book The Flavour Thesaurus.


Flavour Wheel from Niki Segnit’s “The Flavour Thesaurus”

What do you think of scent mapping? Do you have a favourite map, diagram or scent wheel that I haven’t included here? Does scent mapping help you to understand smell, fragrance ingredients and fragrance better? I’d love to hear what you think – let me know in the comments below! Until next time, Polly Technic