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Perfume Notes

Woody - Woody essences have a soft, warm note reminiscent of freshly cut aromatic woods. This family includes sandalwood, cedar absolute, black spruce absolute, white spruce absolute, guaiacwood, and fir absolute.

Sandalwood - (from Santalum album) is a viscous oil, pale yellow to yellow in color, with an extremely soft, sweet-woody odor. It is an aphrodisiac which is also calming and quieting. The best sandalwood comes from plantations in the Mysore region of southern India, and sometimes it is called East Indian sandalwood. You may come across something called West Indian sandalwood; this is amyris oil and not to be substituted for true sandalwood. The sandalwood tree has a vampirish way of thriving. It is a hemi parasite, which means that it gets some of its nutrients through photosynthesis, but must siphon off the rest from the roots of neighboring trees and plants via octopus like tentacles, bringing a slow death to the host. The essential oil the perfumer is after does not appear until the tree is at least twenty-five years old, so sandalwood is not harvested before the tree is at least thirty. Even then it cannot simply be chopped down, because the precious oil is in the roots as well as in the trunk and branches. Once the tree is unearthed, loggers enlist the services of the white ant, which eats the sapwood and bark and leaves the heartwood, where the oil is. Then the wood is coarsely powdered and steam-distilled. Sandalwood has little or no top note, and its scent remains constant on the skin for a considerable length of time, thanks to its outstanding tenacity. It is an excellent fix note. Sandalwood is useful with less intense middle notes because it will not envelop or overwhelm them, but will simply support them.

Fir absolute - derived from Abies balsamea, is a fairly new product, and the best of it comes from Canada. I absolutely adore its intense green color, its fragrance of Christmas trees and the forest, and its jamlike sweetness. In my custom work, I find that almost everyone likes it. It is wonderful in bath salts and lends a rich, green outdoorsy note to any blend. You need to heat the essence to make it pourable, which is best done by immersing the bottle in a bowl of extremely hot water for five minutes.

Resinous - essences are derived from the viscous liquids secreted through the ducts found in the bark of certain trees. Not surprisingly, they tend to have a rather piney scent. They include galbanum, frankincense, and myrrh.

Frankincense - found in the bark of various small trees of the Boswellia species. In ancient times it was, without a doubt, the most important perfume substance. Pliny, whose Natural History contained much information about perfume and perfume materials, stated that it could be found only in Saba, a remote part of Arabia that was rendered almost inaccessible by mountains. Gathering it was a hereditary privilege limited to the men of certain families, who were considered sacred and were restricted by certain prohibitions. While making incisions in the trees and gathering the frankincense, the men were prohibited from having intercourse with women or attending funerals. The collected frankincense was brought by camel to the town of Sabota, where one gate was open for its reception; to turn from the road was prohibited under penalty of death. Until the priests had taken one-tenth of the lot for the god Sabin, sales were not allowed. Frankincense has a soft, incenselike odor. It remains an important and elegant fixative in spicy, exotic, and flowery perfumes, and it works well with citruses also. Like sandalwood, frankincense is a diffusive lighter base note that can blend with milder notes without dominating them. It has an elevating and soothing effect on the mind.

Galhanum - comes from the ferula plant, a large umbellifer. (I am referring here to the resinoid; the essential oil of galbanum is a top note that, although intense, contains none of the resinoid's heaviness and fixative value.) Galbanum has a rich, green, woody balsamic note with a dry undertone and a soft piney top note. It is a very complicated scent that evolves over time and can be overpowering if not dosed properly. It has strong but mellow fixative qualities that work well in chypres (a classical perfume based on the marriage of oakmoss, patchouli, and bergamot), moss and woody bases, and exotic spicy blends. Galbanum makes its presence known and needs to be blended with essences with which it won't fight.

Animal - essences include not only those derived from animals (civet, musk, ambergris, and castoreum) but also plant essences that have a warm, musky vibrancy, such as costus, ambrette, hay, and tobacco.

Musk - has been used almost as long as there has been civilization itself. It is contained in a pouch on the abdomen of the male musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), which lives in the wooded regions of the Himalayan and Atlas ranges. The musk deer is a hardy, solitary creature that is only on rare occasions found in pairs, and never in herds. According to legend, the deer's acute sense of hearing could be exploited to trap him. The hunter played a tune on his flute from a hidden spot. Curious to know the source of the strange, melodious sound, the deer ventured closer and closer, until it was close enough to be killed. The musk pouch is an almost spherical sac, about an inch and a half in diameter, smooth on one side and hairy on the other. The musk inside the pod is in the form of irregularly shaped grains. It develops its characteristic scent as it dries. The diffusiveness of musk-its tendency to permeate everything in its vicinity-is legendary. Because of it, the East India Company banned it from cargoes containing tea. It is said that several famous Eastern mosques were constructed with a mortar that was mixed with musk, and even a thousand years later the interior of these buildings emits a perfume when the sunlight shines on them. I have read that a few centigrams will fill a large hall with the characteristic odor for years without showing an appreciable loss in volume. Yet musk is also known for its ability to fix and accentuate other scents without adding an appreciable odor to blends. The power of musk as an aphrodisiac is legendary as well.

Civet - what Shakespeare called "the very uncleanly flux of a cat" - is the only one of the four animal ingredients (the fourth being castoreum, which comes from the beaver) that is still readily available and used, in slight quantities, in many perfumes. Although the civet is commonly referred to as a cat, it is not a true member of the cat family (Felidae) but belongs to the Us'verridae, which includes the mongoose. It is about the size of a fox, with gray fur and black spots. It is native to Abyssinia, Java, Borneo, Sumatra, and Bengal. Both males and females have a deep pouch in the posterior part of the abdomen, containing the perineal glands and the soft, fatty substance they produce. Its function is not fully understood, but it is believed to be a sexual attractant and also, perhaps, a means of defense, on account of its foul odor-although hounds will leave any other scent to pursue it.

Ambrette seed - from the hibiscus plant, is known as the vegetable equivalent of musk. The Latin name of the species, Hibiscus abelmoschus, derives from the Greek ibis, the storklike bird that is said to chew the plant, and the Arabic Kabbel-Misk, "grain or seed of musk". The fruit of the plant is harvested when the plant is six months old. When the fruit dries, it bursts open and the large seeds are collected. The seeds are pressed to render the musky oil they contain. The resulting essence is a powerful and lasting oil that improves with age. Good ambrette seed has a body note that is smooth, rich, sweet, floral, and musky all at once, like brandy or overripe fruit. Its tenacity is incredible. A little goes a long way, and it must be smelled imaginatively and dosed carefully.

Costus - comes from the roots of the costus plant, Saucier lappa, which grows wild in the Himalayan highlands. According to Arctander, "It has a particular soft but extremely tenacious odor, remimscent of old precious wood, orris root ... with a distinctly animal ... undertone. The odor has been compared to that of human hair, fur coats, violets, and `wet dogs' ". It takes some openness to learn to Use costus, but it is a terrific base that, used sparingly, imparts depth and fixation to a blend along with warm, woody notes, and can produce diffusive power and intriguing top notes. Costus blends well with sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, oakmoss, opoponax, and rose. It is considered an aphrodisiac.

Tobacco - comes from various species of Nicotiana. Blond tobacco, the most available, has been disdained as a perfume ingredient because of its dark brown color, but that should not be an impediment to the natural perfumer, especially since the colorless version has an infinitely inferior aroma. (An essence is decolorized by treating it with an adsorbent such as activated charcoal, but the process tends to strip it of some of its desirable scent nuances along with the unwanted pigments.) As might be expected, essence of tobacco conveys the very thick, liquid smell of cigar tobacco and lends a dry note to perfume. It can be useful in balancing the cloying sweetness of some florals. It mixes well with sandalwood, cedarwood, bergamot, clary sage, labdanum, and vetiver.

Vetiver - grass whose rootlets have been used for their fragrance since ancient times. The root itself possesses an agreeable aroma and, when dried, has been used to scent linens and clothes. It was also woven into mats that were sprinkled with water and hung like curtains to cool and scent the air in a dwelling. The oil distilled from the roots is amber-colored and, as described by Arctander, "sweet and very heavy-earthy, reminiscent of roots and wet soil, with a rich undertone of `precious wood' notes". Some people find the odor of vetiver too strong straight from the bottle, but it dilutes beautifully, lending a richness to dry-toned blends and the smell of stems and leaves to rose-based perfumes. Vetiver is extremely long-lasting and is an excellent fixative. It blends well with other green and herbal notes as well as with patchouli and sandalwood. Vetiver is grounding and strengthening.