Category Archives: Natural Perfumes

Fermentation Fragrances—A rose from a yeast?


Poppy and Flask

They make fine wine and the loaf of bread to go with it. Tiny single-celled members of the fungus kingdom, yeast cells may be one of the oldest domesticated organisms. Throw in some bacteria and you have the cheese as well.

Yeast and bacteria have been used since ancient time to produce our food and drink through fermentation. They have also played a role more recently in the production of various drugs including insulin and antibiotics, whether through natural pathways or using genetically modified strains. In just the past few years, yeast has been modified to make fragrance molecules. A few startup companies including Gingko Bioworks, Amyris, and Allylix propose to develop designer yeasts for production of test tube patchouli, vetiver, and even rose fragrances that can be scaled up to industrial-size vats. Hard-to-find fragrances such as mango, apricot, and coconut are also in the plans. Working with large companies like Robertet and Firmenich, they describe these products as cultured fragrances.

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Distillation Manipulations

Ylang ylang blossoms

In my blog post about naturals (Part 1), I talked briefly about distillation. Distillation is the process whereby we get nearly all of our essential oils, cold-process being the other method that is used for citrus oils. In many cases, distillation begins at the beginning and continues to the end with temperatures and timing strictly controlled for highest quality and to yield a blend of desirable constituents. Various combinations of distillation techniques may be used to adjust oils, remove undesirable components, and otherwise produce a desirable and commercial product.

Fractional Distillation

In the case of the ylang ylang flower, the distillation process is interrupted at very particular times to yield different products. The distillation of ylang ylang is an example of fractional distillation. By timing the distillation carefully, four different fractions can be separately created. Generally referred to as ylang ylang extra, ylang ylang I, II and III they are quite different in fragrance with the extra being quite sweet and ethereal for perfumery while the 3rd is more suited to making soaps, the other fractions are less commonly used. Over the course of about 24 hours, distillers interrupt the process and pull off each fraction separate from the others. During the first 1 to 2 hours the essential oil is collected and separated as the ‘Extra’. Using experience, fragrance, and specific gravity measurements distillers remove the other fractions in their time. Or, distillers may simply continue the distillation uninterrupted to create the ‘complete’ which is sometimes referred to as ylang ylang VOP or Very Old Process.

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Flowers Through the Year in Our Florida Garden

Most of my formative years were spent in the western United States and I love the spare landscapes there where colorful flowers are treasured and often rare. Imagine my surprise when I found myself in southern Florida sixteen years ago and the even greater surprise of being still here. Since most of my life has been a story of moving fairly frequently, I have learned to appreciate the places I live and find things to enjoy. There is much to enjoy and appreciate in the natural landscape of Florida. And in my yard!

Unlike more temperate areas, the changes in season here are more subtle and it’s fun to track them through the flowers that bloom and disappear in the yard. Some appear very reliably within a certain month and some are more associated with the season.

Taking photos of my flowers has also provided much joy and learning. So it was fun to put together a ‘calendar’ of my photos of flowers from the yard. We live almost equidistant from Ft. Lauderdale and North Miami but inland about 15 miles inland.

January is actually fairly abundant with flowers, being cooler and more dry. I have chosen the Amazon Lily that thrives in the shady areas of the yard and has a beautiful soft fragrance. The flowers actually look like white daffodils, taking me back to more temperate gardens.

Amazon Lily (Eucharis)

February One of my favorite things as the winter progresses is the sight of our large (15 foot or so) frangipani tree putting out flowers before leaves. By April the leaves are on, the flowers are abundant and standing under the tree is a sensual wonder with a peachy and tropical fragrance surrounding you.

Frangipani aka Plumeria

March is quite a nice transition time in the yard with the winter flowers hanging in there and some of spring flowers beginning to show. Sometime between December and April the dendrobium orchids in the back yard flower. Dendrobium anosmum smells richly of raspberry and this similar one, without a smell, is smaller and more delicate but I love the furry aspect.

Dendrobium Orchid

March We don’t have a lot of luck with citrus trees in our small yard but this lemon tree hangs in there. This year it bloomed abundantly and we have several small lemons already.

Lemon Flower

April Right about early spring, the jasmine flowers begin to bloom. This Jasmine sambac Grand Duke of Tuscany with double flowers looks like a miniature rose and smells of heaven! The fragrance is a bit more fruity and sweet than the traditional Jasmine grandiflorum and I love it!

Jasmine sambac Grand Duke of Tuscany

On again, off again, we keep trying with magnolia. Our current Little Gem magnolia is hanging in there. It’s hard to find a good sunny spot in the yard for best blooming but we get a few each year. Mostly, I visit the ones in our neighborhood always looking for bees rolling around in the stamens.

Magnolia flower with honeybees.

I am looking forward to May this year and hoping that our water lily, Blue Dauben, blooms as abundantly as it did last year. It is lightly fragrant and I love watching the flowers close up each night and re-open in the morning.

Nymphaea x Dauben Water Lily

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Naturals for Perfumery

Wild Roses from France

The news in fragrance (and flavor) seems to be ‘natural’ and sustainable. This is something I have been thinking much about since, well, since I started making natural perfumes. More so since last year when I attended the World Perfumery Congress in Miami. Consider this the first of several posts on the subjects of naturalness, sustainability, and how fragrance materials are created.

Let’s start with the questions  “What is natural?” in perfumery. The answers are varied, multi-layered, and up to the perfumer and customer to search for and answer for their own particular needs and desires.

An important note here: This post is intended solely to express my thoughts on natural with the best research I can find. It is not intended as legal or business advice nor am I preaching the theme of ‘natural.’ I welcome your comments and thoughts.

Firstly, where can I find a definition of natural, specifically as it relates to perfumes?

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Perfumer’s Nose: Oud, The Nuances

Deep Earth Scent Vision

The second time around I switch the order of the oud samples. For my first sniffing trial, I randomly lined up my little sample vials which were all diluted to 10%. The dilute samples on the scent strips yield the nuances in different ways as the fragrance dries out. A few things happen as I go through the samples, mainly I confirmed that evaluating oud is a learned skill and that I could probably go through these few samples many more times and get something different each time. But I also found that some aspects come through whether it is the first sample of the day or the last sample.

I like to think I have a well-trained nose but I have known all along that the determined character of agarwood essential oils would put my nose to the test. Which happened. What also happened was that I walked around with the smell of oud in my nose – kind of a nice effect that fragranced the world around me. But it also limited any other evaluations I could conduct for at least a day.

It won’t be surprising that the more subtle aspects of fruit and fine wood are lost as your nose becomes a bit overloaded with oud. I did pretty well the first time through, picking up nuances of woody notes, spice, water, and even honey in all samples even though some of the stronger and more animalic samples came up early in the evaluation. For the second evaluation, I used my notes from the previous one to put the samples in order from lightest fragrance to strongest. By doing this I was able to find the more subtle nuances: hints of cedar, definite floral aspects in more of the samples, and green notes appeared as well. But the best find in my second time through was a wonderful deep fruity and wine-like note in two of the samples that I missed the first time around. In one it was intertwined with spicy berries and the other it appeared as a sort of wine-y wood. Honeyed tones also shone through a bit more. I seemed to detect smoke less often and used watery and mossy descriptors less often as well.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Oud, The Beginning

AquilariaAstragalusRoyle US Public DomainSo many names – agarwood, oud, oudh, aloeswood, kyara, jinkoh, gaharu, eaglewood, kynam, sinking wood.

So many nuances—incense, wood, smoke, barnyard, balsam, sandalwood, ambergris, animalic, civet, fruity, fresh, minty, herbaceous, vetiver, spicy, peppery, galbanum, honey, castoreum.

Nuanced? Actually, yes, there are quite a few nuanced oud essential oils out there. There are also some with their fair share of stank. To be fair, when I walk out of my studio leaving the many scent strips on my workbench, it is the skank I smell when I come back in. But up close and with my eyes closed there are nuances, themes, accents, touches, and even choruses. But more about that later.

Perhaps I should define the stank part of agarwood; it’s a tough one but here is my take on it. The stronger ones seem to have a strong woody smell with tones of something like armpit or perhaps civet, if civet were a plant. But it’s a really nice armpit, one that maybe not long ago was daubed with honey or some sort of exotic spicy wood essence. You want to smell it again and maybe add a bit of rich fruit or a touch of smoke.

But don’t forget, there are some oud oils with no stank, beautiful worn alone on the skin, and endlessly interesting.

First the tree—there are a number of Aquilaria species comprising agarwood. In its natural state it has a relatively pale heartwood with little or no fragrance. It’s not the wood but the resin, produced as a result of wounding or infection by a fungus, that is aromatic. Age and level of injury act together to produce a highly resinated wood that is aromatic and darkly patterned. The pattern or dark striations on the light wood evoke the pattern of eagle feathers, thus the scientific name Aquilaria meaning eagle. Infection occurs naturally in a portion of the living trees, about 7%. From looking at the tree, it is difficult to determine whether it has produced a resin; cutting into the tree (or cutting it down completely) is often the only way to determine the level of aromatic resin. Over-exploitation has led to a drastic decline in this wood growing naturally in its native habitat throughout Asia with the result that many countries are exploring, with some success, the production of agarwood through cultivation.

Oud or agarwood oil is the product of steam distillation of resinous wood. So many things are involved in the fragrance of the agarwood—infection, wounding, terroir, age of the tree, and even species. In addition, once the wood is harvested it may be treated in a variety of ways before and during distillation. The wood is generally soaked for various lengths of time, water used for soaking may be local water or purified, distillation units may be traditional iron or modern glass, and the length of distillation can extend to days.

world soulThe story of oud is ancient and complex, the ways we use it seem to be the same. In pure form it serves excellently as a personal fragrance, as an incense it has an ancient history continuing to modern times, and more recently it has served as a unique note in perfumes.

Do you have a definition for skank? Do you use or collect agarwood/oud? How do you use it?

Next time I will talk about my search for all the above words and nuances in my samples of agarwood. Many thanks to JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfume and Katlyn Breene of Mermade Arts for beautiful products, lovely artwork, and free samples.

Read more about oud in my article for CaFleureBon here:

The image of agarwood is from WikiMedia and is US Public Domain, Deep Earth Vision is courtesy of Katlyn Breene.

Perfumer’s Nose: The Lovely Frangipani


Frangipani Plumeria alba Copyright Elise Pearlstine

The absolute of frangipani comes in a jar; the true fragrance from my side yard in the early morning and early evening. Also known as plumeria, it is an amazing tree with a luscious tropical fragrance that is strongly floral and just slightly fruity. It has just the slightest hint of the decadence that characterizes some tropical flowers. The one above is my favorite and was grown from seed pods scavenged at a local nursery. Another planting yielded a more familiar yellow and white variety that also smells lovely with a slightly stronger hint of peach. The branches seem to be quite fragile and I will sometimes find them broken off and growing leaves as they lay on the ground beneath the tree. Since this is Florida, such things happen.

golden frangipani 750 px

My yellow one.

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The Cannonball Tree Couroupita guianensis

bee on cannonball flower 700 px 20150711_082316

Cannonball Tree Flower Copyright Elise Pearlstine

This is a story of color, fragrance, pollen, structure, and bees. As usual, the first time I saw one I followed my nose to this amazing tree with spikes of brightly colored flowers. The tree at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is my favorite, it is 100 years old and looks to be dressed in flowers from the stalks that cascade down the trunk. I have seen younger trees where the blossoming stalks project right out of the trunk. A member of the Brazil nut family, it is native to the rainforests of South America.

With pink petals, pink and yellow stamens, and a diffusive fragrance, the tree attracts a variety of bees to the blossoms where they are given a meal of pollen in exchange for cross-pollinating the flowers. Flowers that are cross-pollinated yield more fruit that those that are bagged to keep the pollen within a single flower, if they set fruit at all. The flowers do not produce nectar but do produce fragrant droplets that volatilize on the surface of the flower.


Cannonball Tree Flowers Copyright Elise Pearlstine

The hood of the flower is an extension of the pollen ring (where the fertile stamens are found) that extends outwards and curves around. This forms a chamber where pollinators enter to feed on the sterile pollen and at the same time pick up the fertile pollen on their fuzzy bodies. After watching honeybees working the flowers for a while, it became clear that larger bees such as bumblebees would probably be a better fit and more efficient at depositing pollen, which is what my research found.

Another wonderful story of pollinators and flowers!

Perfumer’s Nose: The Other Lavenders


Lavender Flowers Copyright Elise Pearlstine

There are lavenders that are wild, lavenders that are hybrids, and lavenders that are not distilled but extracted via solvent. I’ll go through this varied group today. The same descriptors I used in my last blog apply: floral, herbaceous, sharp, woody, balsamic, coumarinic, refreshing, and clean notes.

For my last blog (Part 2), I evaluated 12 varieties of Lavandula angustifolia here (, and Part 1 was an introduction to lavender here (

Today I sniff other lavender types and species:

Lavandula angustifolia Wild—is sharp, woody, and slightly rooty. The floral lavender is apparent underneath the woody notes and the dryout is mild and fresh. It definitely has a wild aspect to it but is not harsh. Continue reading

Perfumer’s Nose: Lavender: A Purple Haze

IMG_3180 bees on lavender mound adj 750 px

Lavender Copyright Elise Pearlstine

True or English lavender belongs to the species Lavandula angustifolia (previously/also known as L. officinalis). Lavandula comes from the Latin word ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’ and angustifolia refers to the narrow leaf. Officinalis is often used as the species name for medicinal plants. As a valuable horticultural and economic plant, this species of lavender has been the subject of selection and breeding to produce a variety of sizes, colors, and fragrance profiles. It is easy to grow if you are in the right zone, hardy and drought-tolerant, beautiful, and everyone loves a fragrant plant. Some examples of the variety of characteristics to be found:

  • Size—dwarf or compact varieties in particular
  • Hardiness—cold, soil, drought
  • Leaf color—variegated or silver
  • Flower color—shades of purple, pink, white, and even yellow or red
  • Growth habits—fast or slow
  • Fragrance—everything from sweet and floral to medicinal and camphoraceous

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