Perfumer’s Nose: Lavender Love

pretty lavender 750 pxThere are places in the world that you immediately recognize and that feel comfortable to you. The Provence area in the South of France is one of those for me. The climate is Mediterranean, which refers to the deep blue sea that is such a part of the coastline there, but also to specific climatic characteristics. A Mediterranean climate is hot and dry in the summer, often receiving little to no rain for 4-6 months during the warm season, with mild to cool winters that are wet. In addition to coastal areas of the Mediterranean Basin, other areas with a similar climate include much of California, southwestern Oregon, parts of West and South Australia, parts of South Africa, sections of central Asia, and central Chile.  These are generally coastal areas where the ocean is a moderating force in the winter. In these areas, mountains and highland areas provide for cooler temperatures during the summer but also in winter.

The characteristic shrubby vegetation may be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Maquis of the Mediterranean region, the Fynbos in Africa, Chaparral of North America and the Kwongan of Australia. These ecosystems are shaped by fire and many of the plants are fire-loving and will re-grow readily after fires, outcompeting those not adapted to a fire regime. Their tough leaves are well adapted to retaining water during times of drought and they are often aromatic. The aromatic plants rosemary, thyme, and lavender are native to this area as are evergreens, olives, figs, citruses, bay laurel, sages and various grassland species.

Provence EVP_5566Does this explain why I love Provence? Perhaps a bit – the landscape is open and rugged, dramatic, often aromatic, and with a wonderful diversity of life. It just feels like home to me.

This is the home of lavender and, depending on what you read, there are between 30 and 40 species in the genus Lavandula that have originated in these areas. These also tend to be the areas where lavender is being grown commercially.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Variations on Orange

Orange with Mint Copyright Elise PearlstineWhen I teach about essential oils and talk about the citrus group, I mostly talk about their cheerful nature. Citrus essential oils, especially orange, will uplift you and make a great room spray or kitchen countertop cleaner. I remind students never to use citrus essential oils on their skin neat, or in any fashion, before exposure to the sun due to the potential for phototoxicity. I remind them that citrus essential oils are best used within six months to a year and should be refrigerated. And always date your oils when you receive them.

We then have a wonderful time blending orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot. Then we might add in a touch of lavender or some peppermint. Citruses are easy and forgiving and everyone goes home with a lovely blend for diffusing.

There’s something to be said for easy and there are times a nice orange essential oil does just what you want it to, whether it’s a bit of lift in a perfume topnote or just diffused into a room to cheer you up. And I love it in our orange spice soap too!

But, really, an orange is not an orange is not an orange. There are several types of orange, all with varying degrees of intensity, deepness, sweetness, and orange-ness. For this post I evaluate four types of your basic orange essential oils from the fruit Citrus sinensis.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Amber Perfume Accords’s not the gem but it has a golden aura about it. It’s not the whale product, ambergris sometimes called ambre, but it can be sweet and earthy at the same time. What is it? Amber, when the term is used in perfumery, is an accord or blend that has the basic formula of benzoin, vanilla and labdanum. I found my first formula for an amber base in Mandy Aftel’s iconic book Essence and Alchemy. Her formula is about 4:1 benzoin to labdanum with just a hint of vanilla. She then uses her amber accord like another fragrant ingredient. Other ingredients that she mentions are styrax and civet.

Labdanum is a favorite base note of mine and I have found that just a tiny bit can do wonders to extend and sweeten the base accord in a perfume. I reach for the dark and rich absolute that is thick in the bottle as often as I reach for the ‘clear’ version which is a bit easier to work with but still thick. A note here: I love working with thick and gooey botanicals in their pure form. I don’t warm them to make them easier to pour but I use a variety of ‘tools’ to scrape and chop the absolutes. Basically getting my hands fragrantly dirty as I do this perfume work. This takes time but I love the connection with these amazing and deep botanical ingredients.

Benzoin, as I write about in my last post, is golden and sweet—a pure vanilla. Add anywhere from a touch to a smidge to a healthy dose of vanilla to get just the right amount of rich and deep. Or use a lighter vanilla CO2 for a more easy-going vanilla note.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Balsamic Ingredients, Golden and Sweet


Styrax benzoin


If you take thick, sweet golden honey and pure vanilla, mix in a bit of elegant wood, pay special attention to the vanilla, and think about sunshine and trees you begin to get a feel for balsamic fragrances. Mellow, lasting, golden, sweet, always with honey and vanilla, these are the fundamental descriptors of balsam. Then, well, then you can find resinous versions, lighter versions, aged and oaky versions, spicy ones, or even unobtrusive versions that sit quietly in the background of a perfume adding a bit of sweetness and longevity.

The traditional balsamic fragrances are generally the product of resinous trees. This means that the balsam is produced as the tree grows and ages. This substance may be very thick or just slightly viscous. It may be pathological, a response to disease, or it may simply be a physiological product produced by the plant for other reasons, such as protection from injury. This means that to harvest these resins, the tree must be wounded to allow the resins to escape and harden.

Stamps_of_Indonesia,_001-04Balsamic ingredients like benzoin are ancient fragrance ingredients and were often burned as pure incense throughout Asia and the Middle East. In fact, benzoin was thought to purify the air and was also used to deodorize a room. Ancient Egyptians used various balsamic resins in mummification and in cosmetics. However, the local environment was probably not suitable for growing most balsamic trees and Egyptians probably imported their balsams.

The strength of the balsamic fragrance, the presence of other notes such as wood, spice, or leather, the thickness of the product, the method of extraction, and the presence of any diluent, all affect the type of balsam that is right for your perfumery goal.

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Perfumer’s Nose Cinnamon: Hello There Hot Stuff

cinnamon sticks orange 700 px

More than the taste of cinnamon rolls or spiced dishes, for me cinnamon is the taste of the tiny ‘red hot’ candies my mother would add to applesauce. The taste of the ‘red hots’ is pure cinnamon hotness on top of sugar. Overnight we would have a wonderful hot pink cinnamon-apple dish that seemed like dessert. My mom’s recipe is not to be confused with cinnamon applesauce that uses the tamer yet more complex-tasting ground cinnamon spice. Which is also good, just different.

The same goes for cinnamon essential oils, they are not all created equal. And it’s important to know the difference. All cinnamon oils may be irritating, both to skin and mucous membranes, and the bark can also be a sensitizer.

The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy explains the issues of irritation and sensitization better than I can: Continue reading

Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood Attars

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Rain in the Desert Copyright Elise Pearlstine


There is an ancient method of capturing delicate floral essences and the product is an attar. The making of an attar uses the essential oil of sandalwood to receive the distilled fragrances and support them over its rich and woody note. Used as perfumes, these attars may be as simple as a single flower essence distilled into sandalwood oil or it may be a secret and proprietary blend of flowers, spices, roots, and woods. While many attars possess a complexity and richness that makes them quite assertive, some of the floral attars are wonderfully delicate and balanced.

Attars are made according to strict tradition with the knowledge of distillation often passing down through family lines as are the secrets of the formulation. The area of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, India is known as the Grasse of India and is home to many traditional distillers and perfumers. This is also where they make mitti attar, a blend of baked sacred earth and sandalwood that, to many, smells of rain.

Attars are made with the Deg and Bhapka system of distillation. There is a copper cauldron called the ‘deg’ that holds the material to be distilled and a ‘bhapka’ which is the receiver. The receiver has a long narrow neck and is connected to the ‘deg’ by a bamboo pipe. The setup is sealed tight and the heat and length of the distillation is controlled carefully by skilled workers. Once distillation is finished, the resulting attar is sealed in a leather bag. The leather bag is important because it allows any water in the attar to evaporate, leaving behind only the pure fragrant oil. For more information visit the blog from White Lotus Aromatics here: and here:


Traditional Distillation of Attars. Credit White Lotus Aromatics

Attars (also called Ittars) are traditionally sold in very small amounts, often in cut crystal bottles. They were common gifts given to guests in the Eastern world. When used as perfumes, they tend to be oil based and quite strong. The fine scents of attars were also thought to discourage evil spirits and assist in the journey towards enlightenment.

Before I talk about floral attars, a quick word about Mitti Attar in which the sacred earth of the Kannauj area is dried and distilled onto sandalwood. This sacred attar mimics the fragrance of the first rains of the monsoon season hitting the dry, baked earth and is the essence of rain and renewal.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood, The Aroma of Healing

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Sandalwood Fan Copyright Elise Pearlstine

The lovely fan was hiding at the back of the shelf I was cleaning, behind an odd assortment of books, keepsakes, and seashells. It had fallen behind a little box full of old letters and was a bit dusty but in remarkably good shape. The delicate carving was all intact and the only thing missing was a fragrance, which I was sure it should have. I don’t remember where I got it, whether from my travels in Japan and Korea or from my parents. My father was in India during WWII and brought home some souvenirs so I imagine it could be from there. When I was looking for images of sandalwood carvings for this post, I found many images of sandalwood fans that matched this one. So, I am calling it a sandalwood fan and will put it somewhere safe.

Sandalwood essential oil is distilled from the heartwood of the tree and seems to be richest in the large trunk, larger limbs, and the roots. It is the sesquiterpene oils, mainly α- and ß- santalol, and a variety other aromatics that give the oil its characteristic fragrance. Production of the heartwood oil is not consistent among trees and may vary widely in trees in nearly identical growing conditions. Scientists hypothesize that both genetic and environmental factors are at play in the production of the oil. These oils most likely function as a defense against both herbivores and pathogens.


Sandalwood Illustration from Wikimedia Commons

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Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood, The Heavenly Oil

L0038494 Catu-tsjambu, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus

Santalum album (Source Wikimedia, see below)

Ancient and sacred sandalwood trees were said to grow in the heavens where they would fill the celestial world with divine fragrance. On earth, true East Indian sandalwood is one of the oldest known perfume materials and has been in use for over 4000 years. This will be a three part series on sandalwood, beginning with a bit of ecology, history, and a description of the species.

Santalum album is the classic Indian species with a beautiful woody, buttery fragrance. It is native throughout China, India including Tamil Nadu, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It grows in dry forests and is hemi-parasitic, growing on the roots of other trees. The species is vulnerable to extinction due to overharvest for the essential oil and for wood for carving, in addition illegal poaching has contributed to the vulnerable status of this species. Trees must be at least 30 years before a good harvest of the essential oil can be obtained. The richest oil is in the heartwood of the trunk and the roots requiring the tree to be chopped down. Trees will regenerate from suckers and from seeds that have passed through the digestive system of birds and need their host trees nearby.

There are several other species from various areas around the tropics and sub-tropics. Santalum spicataum grows in Australia and is being managed on plantations where it may be grown in relation to various Acacia species, using them as hosts. It seems to do well is the dry habitats of Western Australia. According to the Forest Products Commission of Western Australia, sandalwood is currently being grown from wild stands but they manage over 6,000 hectares of sandalwood plantation for future production. The native Western Australian sandalwood was exported to China beginning in 1844 in powder form for making incense. A small Australian marsupial, the woylie, was once responsible for much of the natural re-seeding of the native sandalwood trees. Woylies would gather seeds and bury their cache in a shallow hole much like squirrels do. When local foresters mimicked the actions of the woylies, they were able to increase regeneration of the trees (From:

Santal_austrocaledonicum_Denis Prevot

Santalum austrocaledonicum showing host tree at the back. Source: Wikimedia, Denis Prevot

Another wonderful source of lovely sandalwood is Vanuatu and New Caledonia – S. austrocaledonicum. Because I don’t use Indian sandalwood, this has been an excellent choice to substitute. However, a bit of research indicates that, as of 2007, wild sandalwood in Vanuatu was being harvested for wood and oil, possibly leading to depletion of the wild population. Plantations are in the ground and should be producing within the next 10-15 years. In the meantime, the government of Vanuatu is attempting to control harvest of sandalwood trees to within a sustainable level. (From: An inventory of wild sandalwood stocks in Vanuatu, 2008, published by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). I have not found any information on the status of New Caledonia oils, still looking. Some research shows a close similarity of New Caledonian oil with S. album.

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Perfumer’s Nose Clary Sage: Narcotic and Radiant

clary sage stalk 1000

Clary Sage USA Copyright Elise Pearlstine

There are some essential oils and absolutes that I just pull out sometimes for a sniff (or a rather deep inhale). It may just be that I am sitting in front of my perfume organ and something catches my eye so I uncap the bottle and spend a moment. Clary sage absolute is one of these lovely experiences. I don’t know whether the absolute has the same emotional effect as the essential oil but it definitely takes me to my happy place. On the other hand, I have sometimes thought of the aroma of clary sage essential oil as a beautiful note sung by a soprano, it is intoxicating but goes on and on and on just a bit too long. I need space to walk away from the essential oil at full strength.

Having said that, it was really lovely spending time with several dilute samples of the essential oil and finding that there is really more of a difference between my samples than I had thought. Mostly I use the essential oil for soap-making and the absolute for perfumery so I haven’t paid a lot of attention to my various clary sage EO samples except to give them a quick sniff and approve.

Most of you who use essential oils regularly are familiar with the ‘clary sage’ note and I found that Arctander mentions that distinctive odor. This is what remains on the scent strip after the nuances have evaporated. It was the nuances I was interested in and I began armed with my own descriptors of herbal, warm, sweet, and green. After reading a bit I added floral and hay-like. Also, tobacco features in many of the descriptions but may be one of those circular things because clary sage is used as a flavoring in tobacco. In fact, one of the early growers of clary sage in the US was RJ Reynolds, the cigarette company, who began growing it in North Carolina.

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