Making Scents

Historical Scents

From the Egyptians to Romans and Persians, the first perfume maker may have been a 2 B.C. chemist who extracted flowers, oil, etc.  However, evidence dating back 4,000 years may be related to this great cause as well — spices, flowers, etc. were used, and the practice continues on today.

The ninth-century chemist Alkindus (aka Al-Kindi) wrote “Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations” with over 100 recipes with techniques/equipment.  Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna) used distillation (as used now), and evolving from Santa Maria Novella of Florence, Italy’s monks’ recipes, then the Hungary Water from blended scented oils with alcohol, with Rene il Florentino (i.e. the Florentine) during the Renaissance, for RCatherine de’ Medici.  In the 1500-1600s, rich people who didn’t want to bathe used perfumes to mask body odors.  Eventually, a barber in Italy named Giovanni Paolo Feminis created “Aqua Admirabilis” aka “eau de cologne toda

Concentration is determined by aromatic compound in ethanol – also, the intensity and longevity is determined by the natural essential oils/perfume oils ratio.

The “perfume extract” or “perfume” = 15-40% aromatic compounds;

Esprit de Parfum (ESdP) = 15-30% aromatic compounds;

Eau de Parfum (EdP) = Parfum de Toilette (PdT) = 15% aromatic compounds;

Eau de toilette (EdT) = 10% (with Eau de Cologne a registered trademark;

Perfume mist = 5% (in a non-alcoholic solvent);

Splash (Eau de Splash), Aftershave = 2% aromatic compounds, with EdS being a registered trademark.

  • Solvent used is typically ethanol, or ethanol+water (but can be diluted by coconut oil or liquid waxes such as jojoba oil.

** The above “EdP vs. EdT” can be varied by different companies, but the relativity of one being more or less concentrated than the other is maintained by a company.

The PRESENT: “Fragrance Notes, Families, & Wheels”

In a harmonious scent “accord” three sets of notes appear –

“Top notes” are immediately perceived at application (“head notes”) that determine perfume sales;

“Middle notes” – immediately after dissipation of top notes (“heart notes”);

“Base notes” – bring depth and start being noticed 30 minutes after application (“deep notes”);

  • Imaginative terms are used to describe this “fragrance pyramid” by manufacturers

Classification or “taxonomy” of perfumes can be done as follows:

Traditional – single floral, floral bouquet, ambered or oriental (slightly animalic combined with vanilla/tonka bean/flowers/woods with camphorous oils and incense resins to depict Middle East/Far East, Wood (agarwood, sandalwood, cedarwood), Leather (honey, tobacco, wood/wood tars), Chypre (or Cyprus in French, like patchouli), Fougère (Fern, on base of lavender, coumarin, oakmoss – e.g. Drakkar Noir, characterized by a sharp herby/woody scent).

Modern – Bright floral, green (cut grass), aquatic/oceanic/ozonic – a clean scent, Citrus (e.g. “Brut”), Fruity (non-citrus, such as mango, cassis (black currant) or other, Gourmand (edible, desert-like – such as vanilla, tonka bean, coumarin – sweet or savory).

In a continuum (left to right), a FRAGRANCE WHEEL has been created based upon tha bove, by Michael Edwards in 1983.  Proceeding (clockwise) as Floral notes à Oriental notes à Woody notes à (Fougère notes) àFresh notes à Floral notes… and so forth.  * Aromatic Fougere (sharp herby/woody) remains in the center of this wheel.

The FUTURE: Sources, Composition, Health, & Environment


Plants – bark (cinnamon), flowers, fruits (rinds of orange, vanilla, juniper), leaves (sage, rosemary, lavender), resins, roots (ginger), seeds (coriander, cocoa, cardamom, anise), woods (sandalwood, rosewood, cedar, juniper, pine);

Animals – Ambergris (oxidized fatty compounds secreted by a whale with no harm done to whale), castoreum (beaver odorous sacs), civet (from musk sacs), hyraceum (excrement of Rock Hyrax (!)), honeycomb (from honeybee), deer musk (originally from musk sacs of Asian musk deer, replaced by synthetic “white musk”;

Other Natural – Lichens (oakmoss and treemoss), Seaweed distillate (rare);

Synthetic – Calone (metallic marine), orchid (could have been natural, but synthetically created in this case), white musks ** to give a CLEAN scent.  FEW companies make synthetic aromatics – International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), Givaudan, Firmenich, Takasago, Symrise (with PATENTS for production associated).

Natural vs. Synthetic – CONTRASTS

Variance – natural components depend upon nature as to cyclical fragrance, may be unknowingly adulterated by suppliers; synthetic components vary less;

Components – numerous (with high allergenic potential) vs. single or few (less allergic potential);

Scents are similar to original product, so more complex (for naturals vs. synthetics);

Both can be costly – naturals due to labor cost of extraction, synthetics due to production process


Extraction is done by organic synthesis – whether oil, absolute, concretes, or butters are formed depends upon the existing wax content.

All techniques distort odor, due to process (heat, chemicals, etc.).

  • Maceration/Solvent extraction – dissolving into a solvent, taking hours to months (e.g. for woody scents) – were hexane or dimethyl ether solvents called “concrete” – but with supercritical fluid extraction using Co2, low heat and non-reactive chemicals (CO2) allow similar scent as raw material.  Alternatively, ethanol extraction (for dry, non-fresh items) can extract oil (in process called enfleurage)… in fresh items, water binds to the ethanol instead.
  • Distillation – heating raw material (from plants, usually, such as orange blossoms or roses) – condensation allows re-collection of the material via (e.g.) steam distillation and a Florentine flask (allowing oil-water separation easily).  Pyrolysis results in different componds, with dry/destructive distillation – used to obtain compounds from fossil amber & fragrant woods; Fractionation column distillation allows selective removal of some components through distillation.
  • Expression – raw material such as citrus are squeezed.
  • Enfleurage – Absorption of aroma materials into solid fat or wax & subsequent extraction with ethyl alcohol – common when distillation not possible due to heat.

Fragrant Extracts can be categorized into absolute (soaking in ethanol), concrete (dissolving in hydrocarbons), essential oils (distillation or expression à oily liquid), pomade (form oily, sticky solid as adsorbed into fat), tincture (direct soaking and infusing raw materials into ethanol – thin liquids).

Making of a Perfume

A perfumer (maker of a perfume) a.k.a. Nez (Fr: nose) has a keen sense of smell, receives a “brief” as a mandate, upon which series of blending and modification to multiple perfumes occurs – either enhancement of other products or a sole “fine fragrance” results.  Other than the aromatic portion, colorants and anti-oxidants (the latter to increase shelf-life) are added. Ingredients include: Primary Scents (aka “Heart”) + Modifiers (e.g. esters or citrus to create a “fresher” smell) + Blenders (smooth out “layers” – e.g. linalool & hydroxycitronellal) + Fixatives (support the original scent – e.g. resins, wood scents, amber bases).  Ethyl alcohol & water blends, over weeks, allow removal of sediments/particles and homogenize the consistency.

“Fragrance bases” are combinations of multiple ingredients into a common theme – e.g. “cut grass” concept – after a “base” is acquired, it can be altered or “smoothed out” depending upon feedback.

Reverse Engineering or “Figuring Out” a Perfume

Gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy can reveal the formula of a perfume, made more complex with natural ingredients (and more “peaks” on analysis).  However, many of the main ingredients can be realized in this manner.

Health & Environment

Allergies, carcinogenicity (from nitro-musks such as Musk xylene), hormonal imbalances (from certain polycyclic synthetic musks), and toxicity (tricyclodecenyl allyl, to insects, as an insect repellant(!)).

Pleasant smells have led to increased use of musks, etc., contributing to their presence in the water supply.  Illegal trafficking/import/export has been observed.

The FDA indirectly regulates via “Generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) criteria the perfume industry.  Though all ingredients are never listed (due to trade secrets), mandatory 26 recognized fragrance allergen presence, for example, was noted in Europe in 2005, at 0.001% for skin-remaining products, has resulted in re-formulation of some perfumes (e.g. chypres and fougère classes).

While easily mistakable for a pet poodle’s name, the “FiFi” is a prestigious award ceremony recognizing fragrances annually.

Proper storage of perfumes (and hence preventing other ill-effects, including not losing their scents) considers heat, light, oxygen, other materials – hence, light, tightly sealed aluminum bottles, cooled to 37-45 degrees F.  Hence, spray bottles help keep oxygen from entering and dust/other contaminants out to a greater extent than an open bottle might.

(Portions of this article and others related to this topic were obtained from information from various research sources, including:, articles such as,,, and others)

Ravish Patwardhan, MD