Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Oriental Perfumes

The idea of the Oriental perfume goes back as far as recorded history.  The people of ancient Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Rome were using the resins, balsams and spices available to them to create sacred incense and unguents.

The first modern Oriental perfume was Shalimar by Guerlain, created in 1921. It was formulated using a relatively new synthetic molecule, vanillin. Combined with labdanum and coumarin it formed the base of the perfume, along with incense and opoponax. The heart is composed of jasmine, rose and iris with lemon and lots of bergamot on top.
Shalimar caught the attention of the public at the perfect moment, when 1920's Europe was swept away by the exoticism and passion of the East.  It set a lasting trend that still intrigues and excites.

Oriental perfumes are almost always built around an amber accord.  There is no such thing as amber essential oil.  The accord is composed of a combination of vanilla and labdanum.  Other resinous notes are added for distinction, some to sweeten such as tonka bean or balsams, and some to darken and deepen like frankincense, myrrh and opoponax.

Oriental perfumes are further classified as Classical, Spicy, Woody, Soft (Incense) and Floral. Classical Oriental perfumes are dark and animalic with heady florals.  Shalimar is a perfect example. Spicy Orientals have a dry, woody base with spicy top note. Woody perfumes have a luminosity characterized by sandalwood and other rich woods.  Soft Orientals are darker and warmer but are less balsamic and animalic that Classical varieties.  They are ethereal and elegant with mysterious notes of incense and amber.  Floral Orientals combine the softness of florals with the warmth of orientals. Sweet spices mix with florals to create a sensual scent with depth and complexity.

To learn more and to create your own you can attend my Amber/Oriental Natural Perfumes class on Sunday, July 19th.

Friday, July 10, 2015


Amber, the fossilized resin.
There is no such thing as amber essential oil.  Essential oils (and absolutes for that matter) are derived from plants.  There is no one single plant that creates the note "amber". Some regard a certain species of fir grown in the Himalaya's as the source of the note but that would be false.  The oils we identify as "amber oil" are really proprietary blends, secret formulas, of oils and resins blended together to produce a warm, rich, caramel-like note. The concept of amber came into being in the late 19th Century with the development of vanillin (a synthetic vanilla) which was combined with labdanum, the exudate of Cistus labdanum.

Amber is a primary ingredient in Oriental perfumes, a classification heralded by Guerlain's Shalimar, which used vanillin, labdanum and coumarin (the principal note in tonka bean) to create a sweet, warm, powdery and erotic fragrance.  Not all Oriental perfumes, however, are ambery.  Opoponax and other balsamic and resinous materials are used as bases as well creating a wider spectrum of Orientals.

There are materials that are often confused with amber. The prehistoric tree, Pinus succinifera, produces a fossilized resin used in jewelry making.  A process called destructive distillation is used to produce a material called fossilized amber, or Baltic Amber. Most of what I've smelled is not pleasing and so not used much in perfumery.  I've sourced out a beautiful oil that is deep, rich and smokey with a subtly sweet and lasting dry down. Ambergis is the waxy secretion of the sperm whale.  It is secreted by the gastrointestinal tract of the whale to coat and soothe it from the sharp beaks of it's favorite meal, the cuttlefish.  The mass is excreted and floats on the ocean.  The synergy of sun and salt water transform it into a sensual, warm and somewhat ambery perfume substance that lasts and lasts. Ambrette is rendered from a type of hibiscus and is referred to as the vegetal equivalent of musk.  It is ever so slightly ambery (but more animalic) and becomes sweeter during its long dry down.

Cistus labdanum
Natural perfumers seeking to create amber accords will most heavily rely on labdanum. As well as vanilla, other balsamic materials are used to create the chord.  Benzoin, from the tree Styrax tonkenensis, is secreted when the tree is injured and is soft, warm and caramel-like with a powdery drydown. Styrax, from Liquidambar orientalis, is another tree resin and smells a little like glue and cinnamon.  Other materials would be Peru Balsam, Balsam Tolu, opoponax and tonka bean.  Other camphorous materials, incense resins, florals and woods are included to add distinction.

Amber Oil
Years ago, after reading about the realities of amber, I attempted to create my own amber accord.  I collected every material I'd ever read might be included in formulating the accord and began to create my own.  It's wonderful - and useful - to have my own formula to use for blending perfumes.  Pleased with my concoction, I made my own version of Amber Oil (available on my website and Etsy store).

On the heels of my recent Spice Route perfume class (and the resultant research I did) I'm teaching a class on Amber and Oriental perfume making in my home studio in Brooklyn on Sunday, July 19th. We'll review the Oriental classification and pass around some examples of established and niche perfumes.  Resins, balsams, florals and spices that were discovered along the Spice Route will be discussed, explored and available to work with to create two perfumes.  For more information and to register look here.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Orange Flower Water

Orange Flower Water in a vintage bottle.
Orange Flower comes from the blossoms of the bitter orange tree, Citrus sinensis.  The bitter orange plant actually gives us four fragrant oils.  The steam distillation of the blossoms is the coveted neroli.  When an absolute is made of the same flowers it is referred to as orange blossom absolute.  The pressed rinds delivers bitter orange essential oil and the unripe green fruit, stems and twigs give us petitgrain oil.

Bitter orange is a peculiar kind of citrus.  It is fresh yet dry and elegant with a lasting sweet undertone.  It's blossoms have a light, dry nature. They produce one of my absolute favorite scents in all of creation, the coveted orange blossom.  I should really live near orange groves.

Orange flower water is the water left over after the blossoms have been distilled to make essential oil. The blossoms are put into a vessel and steam is forced through it. The steam collects in another vessel with the essential oil floating on top. The oil is syphoned off, the water remaining is the hydrosol.

The scent is sublime.  It is floral, fruity with a hint of green, refreshing and very complex. When inhaled orange blossom is antidepressant and a mild sedative, so useful at night to ease insomnia.  It has a joyous, uplifting quality. It stops caffeine jitters and is a great choice for fretful babies. It is known for its supportive qualities during the detoxification process or when quitting an addictive habit.

Neroli is a wonderful treatment for delicate, sensitive and oily skin (due to its astringency).  Use it as a toner and in face masks with clay and honey.  It can also be used as a perfume!

Both rosewater and orange flower water have been used in cooking and baking for centuries.  Indian and Middle Eastern desserts are often delicately flavored with them.  It is what's used to flavor madeleines and prompted Marcel Proust to remember the past.  It's also often used to flavor marshmallows.  Add it to champagne as an aphrodisiac, or if you're not inclined to drink alcohol add it to plain seltzer. One tablespoon in a liter of seltzer would befit a toast at any occasion.  It's one of my favorite summer refreshers.

I've bottled some up in vintage bottles I found on the beach, all one of a kind. You can see them, and other hydrosols, in my Etsy store.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Ground Glass Stoppered Bottles

I truly adore ground glass stoppered bottles.  The good ones have a tight secure fit and don't let air escape.  I collect antique ones for their visual beauty but actually use them quite a bit.  Stronger scented potions tend to ruin good phenolic caps forcing me to toss them into the rubbish (where they end up in landfill).  Here are some gorgeous examples.