The Beginning

It seems like my life is made up of a succession of monomanias. For many years it was chemistry, then cooking, then photography. In two earlier posts I talk about ambergris and musk and their relationship to food. This has led to the current monomania, perfumery.

The first step was to make a tincture with the ambergris which involved tracking down 190 proof alcohol. The tincture must now age for at least 2 years before I can use it. It has a faint smell of isopropyl alcohol and tobacco. The aroma is intriguing and complex but very held back, like a wine that needs to age.

Musk is a more complicated matter because it comes from the endangered Himalayan musk deer. I obtained a 1 ml. vial (about 10 drops) of the stuff for $200 but it is so powerful that a trace placed on my arm lasts for days. So now the search is on for synthetic musks that will do the trick. There is l-muscone, which seems to be the best artificial musk but it’s expensive. According to my reading, however, a small drop in an apartment is enough to scent the place for years. So it’s pretty powerful.

I’ve been collecting essential oils and absolutes and, contrary to warnings to never let these pure substances touch the skin, apply them to my arm, coming up with different intriguing combinations. Typically I smear on a little musk tincture, add something floral and then something citrus and I have a marvelous perfume.

My first exposure to perfume was smelling my mother’s collection of elegant perfume bottles she had set out on a mirror. Many of the perfumes were from before she was married (1940) and had dried up somewhat. But I never forgot the aromas of those old perfumes. So in my experiments I’m always delighted when I hit upon a note or two that remind me of my mother’s collection.

After experimenting for a while I decided to set out and see what modern perfumes smell like. So my friend Rhona and I went up to Bergdorf’s and, going from counter to counter, smelled Tom Ford, Creed, Jar, and others. I was amazed at how light the perfumes were and how artificial they smelled (except for Jar). None of them (again, except for Jar) had any of the aromas that reminded me of my mother’s perfumes.

The Jar concession was in an elegantly lit alcove. The bottles were inset into the walls and were lit from above. An impeccably dressed gentleman proceeded to open various glass jars with the aromas in them and wave them under our noses. Rhona’s first reaction was “This smells like some of the stuff you’re doing.” I had to laugh since I don’t know what I’m doing and Jar was obviously a very carefully crafted perfume.  But perhaps what she was smelling were animal notes.

Using animal products in perfumes is frowned upon these days (with the exception of ambergris which is literally thrown up by the whale) but I, in my curiosity to produce antique perfumes, managed to obtain some beaver gland extract (from a trapper company) with which I made a tincture. I also have obtained hyraceum which—and I’m not making this up—is the petrified urine and feces of a particular kind of guinea pig that happens to be related to elephants.  The stuff looks like rocks and is about as hard. I broke it up with a hammer and then ground it in a mortar and pestle before tincturing it with alcohol.  I also obtained some civet which is essentially spray from the civet cat. The thing about these animal notes, which can be off-putting by themselves, is that they add a certain dissonance to mixtures that could otherwise be cloying. If I smear on some essential flower oil and it seems like too much, I add a drop or two of hyraceum or castoreum (beaver gland tincture). Chanel Number 5 uses a good amount of civet—artificial civet since the 90s—and I find civet a particular welcome note in floral mixtures.

Nowadays most perfumes are made with synthetic ingredients. I actually managed to obtain a kit of 40 different synthetics that I am now smelling and trying to memorize. The problem is that the smells are unlike anything in nature. They have their own identity but it’s often almost impossible to describe. Included are some artificial musks but the tinctures are so light it’s almost impossible to distinguish them.

So now the hunt is on for synthetics. I so far have only been able to obtain the best known synthetics in very dilute form, too dilute to combine with my other mixtures. I’ve gone on line to various chemical supply companies to track down these compounds but no one wants to sell to me. They only want to sell to established institutions. So I go on about my chemistry experience etc. to try to get them to sell to me. I have tracked down some l-muscone (the active ingredient in Himalayan natural musk), but things like linalool, hedione, and ambraxon are still out of reach. It appears that some of the compounds I’m seeking are used to make methamphetamine. So I hope I don’t have the FBI sniffing down my neck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *