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How to Smell

The first step in making perfume is to get to know the repertoire of essences. And the best way to get to know them is to play with them-smelling them, comparing them, combining them, experimenting with them. To smell as a perfumer you have to smell with your imagination-to imagine the essences diluted, to imagine them combined, to imagine them changing over time. The organs of the sense of smell can be educated to the appreciation of perfume ingredients as easily as the palate can be educated to the nuances of teas, wines, or coffees. Because of the trace elements natural essences contain, their individual odors are complex, and they express the various elements of which they are composed in varying degrees of intensity as they evaporate. This is true even is the main and characteristic odor of the substance; it has a longer life than the top note, lasting from fifteen minutes to an hour. The dryout note is the essence's most lasting scent, becoming perceptible after perhaps half an hour and lasting for hours or even days. The transition from one stage to the next is, of course, a subtle melding rather than a radical shift; the body note gradually succeeds the top note and slowly fades into the dryout note. It requires experience to differentiate them readily.

It's a good idea for a beginning perfumer to keep notes, in a special notebook or on index cards, of her impressions of the various aspects of each essence. Over time, these observations accumulate into a useful compendium of information and impressions. More immediately, the act of paying attention and recording heightens and hastens the development of an olfactory consciousness. The great perfumer and perfume theorist Edmond Roudnitska, creator of Diorissimo and Eau de Hermes, had some wonderful ideas about how to begin smelling and describing as a perfumer:

Try to determine and record the quality and character of the odor (its note, its "form", what it evokes or suggests); its stability or instability; the evolution of the note, its form in time (several days, several weeks); the duration of perceptibility. All these traits make up the attributes of the odor and give it a personality; they are inseparable and will have to be taken into account as a coherent whole. When introduced to a mixture, the odor ceases to be one entity and interacts freely with other odorous bodies. Take note of everything that comes to mind, using the words which arise naturally; if they enable a thought to be more precise, if they surround the contours of the odors without ambiguity Avoid "almost" at any cost. Try to find the words that unequivocally define the impression so that twenty years later, if confronted with the same impression, the same words come to mind.