One of those questions I get asked quite often by people planning to start making their own perfumes is what to buy to get started. To help answer that I’ve put together some lists of both natural and synthetic materials that I think are good to start with.
|Pell Wall Perfumes Blending Bench|
My own collection runs to hundreds of materials, but you need something a bit more manageable to start with – you can always add more as you get familiar with these. Naturals are widely available in small quantities but synthetics much less so, so I’m now offering a kit, based on these recommendations, for sale.
Synthetics first, in no particular order:
Synthetic Ambergris – there are several and I use one in many, many accords I make – Ambroxan / Ambrofix and Ambrox DL are common ones.
Iso E Super – adds a unique diffusive quality to many accords. IFRA limits this to 21.4% but that’s more than you are ever likely to want to use anyway – I find 2% is plenty in a finished product (that’s 2% of the total product not 2% of the aromatics, just to be clear).
Kephalis has some similar properties, isn’t IFRA restricted and has a more woody-smoky, incense quality to it.
Hedione – works well in lots of blends especially florals, it brightens the blend and enhances many florals especially the jasmines, but by no means only those. It can be used quite freely and also has a very useful fixative effect.
Synthetic Civet and Castoreum – these are vital for adding animalic notes to perfumes where you are not using real animal ingredients. Use with caution and keep well diluted – 0.1% and 1%.
Ambrarome is a less powerful animalic note with more leathery quality than civet that works really well to fix and diffuse florals especially chypre types.
Geranyl acetate and Linalyl acetate are especially useful to add top notes when you don’t want either citrus or lavender to be apparent in your blend. They will enhance all sorts of other things too without being dominant.
Vanillin, Ethyl vanillin – these are vital for sweetening and softening blends – strong chemicals though so keep diluted to about 1% – ethyl vanillin is much stronger than vanillin.
Lilial, Lyral and hydroxycitronellal – these are all imitations of Lily of the Valley, all different and all restricted by IFRA to low usage. Even so they enhance a lot of floral and other blends in small amounts and are lovely used in combination with each-other and many florals. Lyral in particular has an amazing exalting effect on other florals and is incredibly tenacious.
Methyl ionone (& ionone alpha and beta) – useful to add some ‘punch’ to florals and add depth – quite heady and not that nice neat but enhances a lot of blends. The latter two are ssential to add a violet note, which is in a surprising number of florals you don’t necessarily associate with violet and beta-ionone is also useful in fruity compositions.
Calone is a wonderful clean, fresh sea-breeze note that is essential for creating those popular ‘aqua’ type colognes. Strong stuff so dilute to 1%. Ultrazur is an alternative with similar effects.
Melonal is a very distinctive melon / cucumber, relatively short-lived and extremely fresh and clean. It’s claimed to last 4 hours on a strip which means only half an hour or so on skin so it’s a top note shading towards middle. It’s powerful and I keep mine at 1%.
Floralozone is as the name suggests both ozonic and floral. Used in small quantities in lots of blends to brighten them up – careful dosing is needed to avoid a synthetic, plasticy note creeping in. Neat it smells really quite nasty but diluted is very useful.
Helional, stemone, verdilyn and cis-3-hexanyl acetate are all good green notes. If you want to add a real cut-grass effect then Leaf alcohol is also very useful
Javanol is a good replacement for or booster with sandalwood (more booster than full replacement really). Ebanol, sandalore and sandalmysore (aka Santaliff) are more direct replacements for sandalwood oil. Well worth having as good sandalwood is getting more and more expensive.
Cedramber is a nice cedar-wood like scent with some ambery depth
Veramoss is a substitute for Oakmoss – not as good as the real thing but handy to boost it because the IFRA permitted quantities are so low. Good general fixative too.
Vertofix is a good general fixative with a warm woody scent with an ambery, slightly leathery quality.
Ambrettolide, Celestolide, Ethylene brassylate, Exaltolide, Galaxolide, Muscone, Musk Ketone, Romandolide, Tonalide, Velvione etc. – all useful, all slightly different. I would pick four from that list including either Ambrettolide or Velvione and Exaltolide as top choices for versatility. I’ve done a whole blog post on musk giving descriptions of the different kinds, their uses and so on.
I’ve missed off the main aliphatic aldehydes as these are probably a bit more difficult to work with and so best left for a later order but it does depend on your priorities – if your ambition is to produce something like Channel No5 then you’re going to need to get to grips with them. I’ve done another post on these aldehydes as they have unusual storage requirements.
Here are the main ones I use (and I keep them all diluted to 1% in ethanol when blending, except where noted, as they are strong):
C-8 – octanal – strong, citrus, orange peel – in traces in light citrus & cologne style fragrances.
C-9 – nonanal – strong, pleasant, fatty, rose – versatile in traces in light florals.
C-10 – decanal – strong, sweet, orange peel – versatile in traces in florals and citrus fragrances, a bit softer than octanal so easier to use.C-11 undecylenic – very powerful, rosy-citrus-woody effect with a soapy element. Use in traces.
C12 lauric – a waxy, citrus-rind note. Very long lasting, useful and distinctive, often combined with C11 undecylenic
C12 MNA – curious stuff with a fresh scent but base-note characteristics. Amplifies musks and ambers.
C14 Peach – distinctive fatty-peache aroma. Actually a lactone rather than an aldehyde. Very fruity, more versatile than you might expect – try it with lavender for example.
C12 Strawberry – strawberry, waxy scent. Not as obviously strawberry as the previous one is peachy, works well with florals to brighten them. Very persistent. Also not really an aldehyde.
Cyclamen aldehyde – lovely soft, transparent floral scent. I use this one at 10%
Cucumber aldehyde – very strong, distinctive cucumber / melon scent. A little will smell like cucumber, a tiny, tiny trace will brighten almost any blend, but it’s so powerful I keep this at 0.1% to work with and even then only use very small amounts.
BTW, ethyl vanillin is technically an aldehyde but I’ve already listed it as it does not need quite the same caution as most of the group – though it does have the characteristic power.
Now for the naturals:
For this list I’m indebted to the perfume reviewer and writer Luca Turin, on whose recommendations it is partially based. The accompanying notes are my own:
Geranium – very versatile and an essential support for expensive rose (this is of course made from the leaves, not the flowers but I’ve included it here as it is a floral scent)
Jasmine – classic floral – if you can find Jasmine Sambac I think it’s easier to blend and less restricted by IFRA too.
Lavender – a useful top note in many fragrances & essential for Fougère. Consider getting more than one variety and the absolute as well as essential oils (but use the latter in traces).
Orange Flower Absolute – even more expensive than neroli with a great depth of scent this is a very widely used floral in many compositions.Osmanthus – scarily expensive but lovely – miss this out if budgets are tight
Rose – ideally you want both Absolute and Otto but they are very costly. Unusually the absolute is cheaper than the otto (the essential oil)
Tuberose – also expensive but very rich and expansive – again skip this if money is short
Ylang ylang – a powerful floral that is best used in small amounts but amazingly effective at getting other floral elements to marry together well. Buy the Extra grade (rather than I, II or III) for use in fine fragrance.
Basil – a good spicy, anisic addition that has a remarkable texturing effect when combined with cedarwood. Use with care though as it can easily dominate a blend.
Clove – an essential element used in moderation to give it’s very distinctive note. Most usually clove bud is used, but you could use clove leaf instead at a pinch. Very high in eugenol among other IFRA restricted components – clove oils can be 90% eugenol so dose with care.
Coriander – gives a nice spiciness that works very well with both citrus and florals. Complex
Juniper – Get the oil derived from the berries for that spicy, gin-like element.
Rosemary – surprisingly spicy rather than herbal in a blend but very versatile. Works well with woody blends.
Thyme – a lovely herbal element that works very well with lavender and florals. Red thyme is the true (and variable) natural, White Thyme is a rectified form that is more consistent.
Vanilla – a difficult material to work with in it’s pure form, so buy pre-diluted vanilla absolute in ethanol if you can. A useful sweetener and much more complex than the synthetic alternatives.
Trees & woody
Cedarwood – ideally get Atlas, Virginian and perhaps Chinese as well, but at least get the Atlas as it’s such a useful material.
Myrtle – a nice way to draw together florals and woods.
Oak Moss – essential for Chypre and Fougère types and a useful and unique fixative – now heavily restricted by IFRA so can only be used in traces.
Vetiver – a deep and complex base note that has amazing versatility – can easily dominate a fragrance so use with care.
Patchouli – another one that can easily dominate but one of the most complex and versatile materials it works wonderfully with rose and other florals as well as with balsamic, woody and other combinations. Ideally get both a light and dark version.
Rosewood – less used now than it was due to over-harvesting of the trees but still the best way to support a floral fragrance with a base note. Very high in linalool which is a synthetic that is a cheaper and more environmentally responsible way of introducing this note.
Sandalwood (Vanuatu) – I’ve written a whole post on why this particular sandalwood, but here suffice to say it is still the most versatile of the woody notes and goes with almost everything.
Cistus – also called labdanum – the two terms are not entirely interchangeable though as they represent different extraction methods – vital for Chypre types and very useful in many accords where a deep resinous quality is required. Buy labdanum absolute as a starting material rather than the raw resin or cistus essential oil.
Galbanum – the essential natural green note with a distinctly agresic, anisic quality. Very strong.
Benzoin – this resinoid is a great fixative, with sweet vanilla notes as well as a balsamic element. Very useful but don’t overdo it: 0.1 – 2% is enough
Olibanum – frankincense – there are several species but carteri or serrata (these are actually same species) are the most commonly used. Particularly useful to add base notes to a citrus fragrance and essential to create incense notes.
Opopanax absolute – a lovely sweet, resiny, toffee-like quality and excellent fixative.
Tonka – a very unusual and interesting ingredient that adds coumarin to a blend as well as other elements. Good as a fixative as well as giving a distinctly coconut / chocolate / vanilla note.
Ambergris – a wonderful exalting and fixative agent that can transform a blend. Happily there is no reason to be concerned about using it on moral grounds either, as I’ve explained in another post, but it is very expensive and variable so stick with the synthetic alternative when you are starting out.
Castoreum – is a natural animal material that I do sometimes use in bespoke work, it is particularly good for adding leathery notes.
Musk – I only use the synthetic as I don’t agree with killing endangered species for perfume and in any case it is restricted by CITES and illegal to trade in some countries. There are a wide range of synthetic musks that you can find out more about in another post.
Civet – I only use the synthetic as I don’t agree with the means of collecting the natural version. Use in traces to enhance florals and many other blends – it has fixative value but also makes a fragrance more natural and easier to wear.
Neroli – orange flower essential oil – another vital top note of great versatility
Bergamot – probably the single most widely used perfume ingredient, the least ‘edible’ smelling of the citrus oils and the easiest to use. Make sure you buy Bergaptene free (= FCF – furocumarin free) as otherwise it causes sensitivity to sunlight when it’s on the skin.
Grapefruit – a very popular scent but personally I often use a synthetic substitute as it can break down into sulphur compounds over time. However for a fragrance for personal use that you are not going to keep for long the natural oil is lovely.
Green Mandarin – all the mandarin oils are lovely, but if you have to pick one I think this is the most useful, very sharp and fresh but quite floral too. Can be used as a cheaper alternative to neroli.
Lemon – can be used to brighten and freshen many blends. Generally best used below the level at which you can detect lemon as such. Get distilled if you can, but expressed is fine if not.
Lime – the strongest of the citrus oils, use only in traces unless you want it to dominate, but very good for adding a sharp freshness to many blends. Best to get distilled rather than expressed.
Orange (sweet or bitter) a lovely versatile top-note, often used in combination with other citrus. Very fleeting.
Petitgrain – essential for marrying together citrus and woods and very useful for helping to extend the short-lived citrus oils, this is made from the leaves and twigs of the bitter orange tree.
Iris or Orris – another horribly expensive ingredient to skip if money is short, but lovely for adding a special character to florals. An unusual material – what you buy is often called a concrete or butter, but technically is an essential oil, made by steam distillation, it just happens that this one is solid. Very occasionally you’ll see a true absolute offered at an enormous price. Synthetic irone (the key chemical in orris) is also quite expensive but a lot cheaper than the natural if you want to experiment.
Violet leaves – this absolute is one of the few natural green notes and one that can add value to very many blends. It has distinct floral character as well as the green feel and lovely complexity. It is quite strong so don’t over do it.