A chemistry class in perfume-making at Homemade London

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There was a strange light as I walked around the corner from Marble Arch to Seymour Place. I was on my way to an Introduction to perfume-making workshop at Homemade London, and shafts of sunlight were streaking through darkened clouds that threatened to burst at any moment.

Like a rainbow in the storm, Homemade London is a sanctuary in the busy heart of London where you can stop, be still and get creative. I had visited a few years ago for a beauty workshop: The secrets of beauty masks at Homemade London and after three wedding weekends in a row, I had decided to treat myself to a perfume-making class before getting back to the bees.

Nicola, our teacher, likes to keep the evening workshops small and cosy – there were only four of us. This promised to be an intimate and intense journey through scent, with drinks and nibbles. ‘Sugar revives the sense of smell,’ said Nicola wryly, as she served rose lemonade and offered mini cupcakes.

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During the two-and-a-half hour workshop we would learn what goes into making a perfume and takeaway our own signature scent. Working with a range of organic, or wild, ethically sourced essential oils, rather than synthetic scents, we would tune into our likes and dislikes to find out what suited our skin and personality.

As a relapsed aromatherapist, smelling and identifying the essential oils felt like being reacquainted with old friends. Mandarin, petitgrain, ylang ylang, clary sage and frankincense – my aromatherapy had been put on the shelf for the past couple of years, because of those demanding little bees, but this was the perfect way to revive my interest in scent.

Although, all that smelling did require a mini cupcake or two.

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The art of blending for perfumery was quite different to blending for aromatherapy, I was to discover. Nicola passed around paper testing strips so we could give each scent a mark out of 10 on how much we liked or disliked the smell. I had to forcibly remove my likes and dislikes from aromatherapy bias of what I knew were the therapeutic actions of an essential oil, and focus only on how the fragrance made me feel and would work on my skin.

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‘You’re probably familiar with top, middle and base notes,’ said Nicola, ‘But I’m going to introduce you.’ She gave a delightful description of the notes of perfume as the pub goers across the road stole curious glances in our direction:

Top notes are light and sparkly, they are what you notice first in a blend, although they bubble off the top quickly. They are usually citrusy, though some are woody and spicy.

Middle notes, or heart notes, are the heart of the blend and bring everything together. They are floral, green and woody or warm and spicy.

Base notes are what lingers. They are the remains of a perfume when you can still smell it on your scarf a few days later. They are often dark, woody and foresty.

There was such a range of essential oils to smell and choose that after a while my nose couldn’t tell the difference between citrus, floral, wood and spice. Nicola had a great tip for ‘clearing the palette’ and told us to inhale the coffee grounds placed on the table. This cleared my nose ready to start smelling again.

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‘If you like a smell then it will probably work well on your skin,’ though Nicola admitted this wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Perfumes are fickle creatures and randomly choose people they like or don’t like. Chanel No.5 smells fantastic on my mother, but stinks on me. But Nicola’s rule seemed a good place to start, so I wrote down my marks for the smells I liked best in the notebooks provided.

My choice of perfume friends were grapefruit, bergamot, neroli, jasmine, rose, benzoin, cedarwood and vetiver.

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To create a bespoke perfume from our selection of scents we needed to mix the top, middle and base notes to smell how well they worked together and in which quantities. This was a careful and precise process of ‘layering’. We wrote our choice of oils in a table and with Nicola’s guidance added one or two drops at a time to our blends. Nicola gave our measures based on how highly we had scored each oil and used our individual likes and dislikes to make those the focus of each fragrance. As I hadn’t liked the smell of vetiver very much, but still found it interesting, Nicola provided cocktail sticks to add the oil at a quarter of a drop.

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My blend was taking shape as I tested the perfume on places that I would wear it, my inner wrist and elbow (not behind the ears which is an old wives’ tale, said Nicola). However, it smelt (to me) dangerously close to an aromatherapy blend and what I wanted was a dark, smoky and green forest-like perfume. Nicola helped rescue my recipe by adding some black pepper, geranium and vanilla, and adjusting the measures of the other oils in my final two ‘layers’. The fragrance was left to ‘marinade’ on my wrist until we were both satisfied that the perfume smelt more ‘interesting’ and less ‘therapeutic’.

I finally had my first signature scent and I was impressed by how much more complicated it was to blend for perfumery than aromatherapy. But I wasn’t put off, in fact, it made me want to explore it further.

Nicola provided labels and gift-wrapped our perfumes in tissue paper. As it had been raining today and I now had a fresh green smelling perfume with a slight smokiness, I called it ‘AfterRain’.

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If you’re curious about what my perfume smells like, here’s the recipe so you can try it yourself:

Top notes

  • Bergamot 3 drops
  • Grapefruit 2 drops
  • Black pepper 1 drop

Middle notes

  • Neroli 11 drops
  • Jasmine 3 drops
  • Rose 3 drops
  • Geranium 1 drop

Base notes

  • Cedarwood 4 drops
  • Benzoin 2 drops
  • Vetiver 3 quarter drops
  • Vanilla 1 drop

The essential oils were blended in a base of coconut oil, around 20-30 ml.

I would highly recommend Homemade London’s Introduction to perfume-making and any of the other workshops that they run for much-needed time out and a burst of creativity for weary Londoners!

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Perfume alchemy for Valentine’s Day

I have loved making fragrances ever since my mother introduced me to the magical world of perfume. One summer she took us to visit a perfumery in Grasse, France, the birthplace of the world’s perfume industry. We took a bus from Cannes and had a long, bumpy ride up the steep hills of southern France. As we got closer the air became thick with perfume and wonderful aromas flew in through the bus windows.

The perfumers showed us the secrets of their trade, and my mum remembers that I was amazed how many petals were needed to make one bottle of perfume. I was transfixed by the whole process. It was alchemy.

I spent every penny in my purse to buy four tiny vials of the most exquisite fragrances that I have ever smelt. The perfumes from Grasse sat on my bedroom windowsill for years, never worn but occasionally opened to enjoy the heavenly scents. Over the years the aromas faded, until one day I returned home from university to find that the precious bottles held only coloured water.

The visit to Grasse sparked an obsession with smell that eventually led to aromatherapy. Floral and citrus oils are my favourite fragrances, although I also love the woods and resins.

Valentine’s Day is full of romance and so also nostalgia. For this Valentine’s I have tried to recreate the fresh, sweet smells of Grasse, which I remember were as beautiful as they were simple.

There are lots of complicated perfume recipes available using various base mixes and perfumer’s alcohol. I prefer to keep things easy. The recipe below uses vodka, which can be substituted for distilled water or flower water (orange or rose) to make an eau de cologne. I chose three of my favourite oils – rose, jasmine and neroli – for a rich floral base, and enhanced with leafy petitgrain and uplifting, citrusy grapefruit.

You will need:

  • 60ml vodka (80% proof)
  • 9 drops rose absolute
  • 2 drops jasmine absolute
  • 4 drops neroli essential oil
  • 2 drops grapefruit essential oil
  • 4 drops petitgrain essential oil

Pour the vodka into a bottle with a spray pump top and add the absolutes and essential oils drop by drop. Fix the bottle top and shake well. The oils will make the vodka cloudy, which is normal. Spray the perfume on neck and wrists, and enjoy.

The fragrance is how I like my perfumes – subtle. If you prefer, increase the strength of the aroma by doubling the amount of drops.

Store the perfume out of direct sunlight or heat and it will keep for a long time or as quickly as you use it!

You can read more about the essentials oils used here: rose, jasmine, neroli, grapefruit and petitgrain.

I buy my essential oils from Neal’s Yard Remedies, where I was trained as an aromatherapist. They also have lots of smelly ideas for Valentine’s Day!

A deliciously dirty exploration of smell

This week my nose led me on a voyage of olfactory exploration at the Wellcome Collection. ‘Kicking up a stink’ featured an evening of drop-in activities and free talks on how ‘our noses betray the secrets of our unconscious, playing a key part in our perceptions of dirt, disgust and desire’.

I have been passionate about smells, scents and perfumes since I was a child. As an aromatherapist I was fascinated to hear bioscientist Professor Tim Jacob’s talk exploring the interplay of the brain and the nose in eliciting emotions, memory and perception. Tim is a professor at Cardiff University’s neuroscience division researching the psychophysiology of smell: how we smell, why we smell and how we are affected by smell physically and emotionally.

Smell and memory

Smells unlock memories and emotions. One whiff can recover a single moment from a simple childhood memory to a pivotal life-changing event. ‘The odor of tea and a slice of madeleine cake’ said Tim, ‘Unlocked the memories of French novelist Marcel Proust which fuelled his epic seven-volume work In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past.’ Imagine that – a scent that unlocked the memories of a lifetime.

Today the smell of fresh filtered coffee immediately returns me to Cape Town and my grandmother’s flat at the foot of Table Mountain. Every morning she made fresh coffee and drank it on the stoop.

Here’s the science bit…

Tim presented research that suggests aromas can affect areas of the human brain, such as vanillin, a compound of vanilla, which may have a pain-blocking effect and which makes us feel good. Interestingly, old books have a musty vanilla smell because they release similar chemical compounds. Perhaps British libraries should bring volumes out of the vaults because people tend to linger in and re-visit places that smell of vanilla.

An amazing study by Stockhorst et al suggested that patients with diabetes can be conditioned to have a physiological response to smell which affects their blood glucose levels.

To find out more about Professor Tim Jacob’s research visit his website.

Sweet dreams

The evening ended with an olfactory journey of deliciously dirty perfumes from Odette Toilette which evoked childhood memories of eating parma violet sweets. Odette holds monthly Scratch+Sniff events for those who, like me, are obsessed with all things smelly.