Friday, 24 February 2012

Blend Collective

I have just finished a breakfast PR launch presentation for the Blend Collective at the Herschel Rooms in Portland Street. Blend Collective launched an exciting new range of body care products, which divide into three categories: - Enlivening, balancing and unwinding. A different perfumer formulated the fragrance for each category. My own contribution was the fragrance for the get up and go enlivening group of products.

What’s different about the Blend collective is their commitment to naturals goes further than the usual aromatherapy considerations for such products. Secondly, they are prepared to fund quality ingredients above and beyond the all too common inclusion of a few exotics in miniscule amounts in order to get them to appear on the inci list (international nomenclature for cosmetic ingredients ie list of ingredients in a product using standard terms recognised internationally).

As we know incis can be misleading, for example neroli, petitgrain and bitter orange are all obtained from the flowers, leaves and fruit respectively, from the same tree. Neroli is currently approximately 300 times the price of bitter orange yet the inci for each is exactly the same (citrus aurantium). The cheapest steam distilled lemon and the finest cold pressed Sicilian lemon again share the same inci (citrus limon).

Aroma therapists are trained to blend considering assumed therapeutic or physiological effects of the oils that they use. However, the odour profile and tenacity of the blend is not a consideration. Those of us who work with naturals, as perfumers need to understand the interaction of oils in terms of their collective aromatic profile. There are certain structural rules concerning the molecular weight of ingredients in a fragrance and their distribution in terms of top, middle and base notes. These rules need to be understood and obeyed if one has a hope of producing professional quality fragrances.

When formulating fragrance for an aromatherapy product I start by making a list of the ingredients associated with producing the desired effect. The budget of the client is a major determining factor. Personally, I feel most comfortable formulating products for a physiological purpose, as I believe that on this level the effects of essential oils are most easily demonstrable. Evidence also shows that synergistic blends work better than single oils. For these reasons I was delighted to be asked to formulate a fragrance to be enlivening.

The oils in my list were yellow grapefruit, sweet fennel, petitgrain, cedrat, West Indian bay, lime, litsea cubeba and lemon myrtle. I wanted to celebrate the fragrance of cedrat (citrus medica Linn), which is a very special kind of lemon from Sicily. It looks like an overgrown Brueghelesque lemon painted by Rubens and its use is stipulated in certain traditional Sicilian recipes. The oil produced by cold pressing the skin is exquisite, unmistakably lemon like but it has a delicate, elegant, floral quality lacking in even the finest Sicilian lemon oil.

I chose to use several citrus oils to create a structure to support and project the fragrance of the cedrat forward but due to its delicacy great care is needed not to overwhelm it. Yellow grapefruit and petitgrain were used to give a clear fragrant citrus message. Lemon specifically was alluded to by the addition of litsea cubeba and lemon myrtle. Citrus oils have an overlapping odour profile (ie they have constituents in common albeit in different proportions) so it logically follows that to some extent it’s possible to replicate the odour of a particular fruit by skilfully blending oils derived from its cousins. In this way it is also possible to amplify and project or mute a particular characteristic in a fragrance.

Lime is quite crude but very tenacious. The cold pressed quality is photo toxic whereas the steam distilled one is not so safety determines the use of it in its most crude form. It easily dominates so must be used with caution but small amounts provide a sparkle and I like to think of it as a citrus glossy varnish.

West Indian bay blends beautifully with citrus so this was included primarily for its aromatic profile to add some interest. The sweet fennel has some fresh herby notes in common with the bay, which I wanted to amplify. It also supports the stimulating effect of all the fresh citrus oils.

During the presentation smelling strips containing steam distilled Brazilian lemon oil, cold pressed Sicilian lemon oil and cedrat oil were passed around the room. The exercise demonstrated that if the three were compared simultaneously than everybody was able to assess the relative quality as the oils spoke for themselves.

I am very pleased to have been a part of this project and am confident that the Blend Collective steered by Clive and Pippa will achieve great success once a discerning public discover their range.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Scents Inspired by Turkey

Apart from Moorish Spain, Turkey is the nearest European destination where one can really feel the profound long-term influence of non-European culture. In Istanbul the smells, the sound of the Muezin calling the faithful to prayer, the architecture, the markets and the bustle of people being about their business combine to create an atmosphere that to many Europeans is mysterious, exotic and beautiful. It is a place where an open mind can sense the relativity of mainstream European cultural values.

The Bosphorus being the narrowest water crossing that separates Asia from Europe was destined to be a crossing point and meeting place of important trade routes. Inevitably this also involved an exchange of ideas from many diverse origins.

People’s relationship with scent is culturally conditioned and in Turkey’s case their preferences are an inheritance of Islamic culture. The two main factors are the importance of scent in Islam and the most precious natural aromatic materials available within Islamic countries.

The impulse to modernise and globalisation with its conformity of brands and attendant conspicuous consumption are changing things slowly but deeper down the love of heavy Orientals prevails.

In terms of European scents inspired by Turkey a friend of mine drew my attention to a website (Turcopedia) containing a short article on scents inspired by Turkey albeit to European perfumery. One wonders about certain Victorian painters some of who were highly accomplished technically but saw the ‘other’ from a fixed cultural standpoint. Edward Lear is a possible exception.

The oldest one mentioned, ‘Hammam Boquet’ was created by William Penhaligon in 1872 and is described as being animalic and golden. Wouldn’t be wonderful to be able to smell a bottle, as it would have been when it was made? This is probably the scent out of all mentioned that would match most closely scents revered in Turkey itself. Looking at the ingredients it appears not to have been to far away from either Empress of India or Souk.

Traversée du Bosphore is the next scent mentioned and is described as being a ‘the link between cutting edge French and its ancient Oriental roots.’ Cutting edge French perfumery sounds like a euphemism for synthetics. Apparently inspired by the smells Turkish delight and Anatolian leather.

Finally, ‘Fumerie Turque’ we are told ‘evocatively weaves references to the honeyed tobaccos smoked in the seraglios of the Ottoman Empire and exotic cigarettes flaunted by the Garçonnes in the gender bending 1920s.’

I don’t know about exotic cigarettes from the 1920s but I recently spent two evenings in Tophane, which is the part of Istanbul famed for smoking water pipes. We were made very welcome in a particular establishment and took tea by a nice hot stove and were able to examine many of the tobaccos on offer.

Tobacco absolute as an ingredient in perfume can be glorious and is indeed preferable to the smell of the real thing in atmosphere, hair and clothes. In fact for some reason Turkey remains the place where in my experience more people are still smoking heavily than anywhere else I have been.

The cigarette packets have graphic images of the consequences of smoking on them. My favorite is a picture of a couple sitting up in bed looking glum. It is left to our imagination whether conversation without a post-coital fag is elusive, impotency or erectile dysfunction is suggested.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Heart and Soul of Paxos

Some of the ancients believed that the aroma of a flower was its soul. Be that as it may scent can certainly evoke the spirit of a place in one’s memory. I love Paxos with its ancient olive groves at different times of the year but undoubtedly the best time to come for aromatic adventures is in early summer. I have recently finished working on the two perfumes inspired by the angeliki tree that I blogged about earlier in the year, which I hope to make available soon. We have to finalise the artwork but I've included here one of the evocative images created by our incredibly talented designer.

A very dear and old friend of mine took his last ever holiday on Paxos at my recommendation. Shortly before he went I had an email from him telling me that according to a national Sunday paper Paxos was the most boring of all the Greek Islands. ‘It sounds great and I’m really looking forward to it’ was his comment. I, too, am looking forward to returning to Paxos in just a couple of weeks time for a three week stay.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

In the Heat of the Night

Image from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Beyond My Ken

One would expect New York in July to be warm, but in a heat wave with temperatures constantly hitting 37C or 38C and the night storage effect of all that concrete it was at times almost unbearable. Having visited the city since 1976 I know parts of it quite well but still benefited enormously from having Amanda Walker as my guide. Apart from a whizz round some of the main perfume shops I also had the opportunity to enjoy her company in an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants.

The purpose of my visit was to teach a couple of perfumery courses, a five-day intensive and a weekend course. As ever attendees came from diverse backgrounds and had different levels of experience from complete beginner to knowledgeable veterans like Andrea Butje.

The extraits (aged single note tinctures in prepared alcohol), which I use for blending, were well received and attracted much interest. Sian and I had spent many nervous days wondering if the courier would get the equipment for the courses over the pond in time. We had several disasters with parcels going astray so we needed to get replacements out fast.

The day before the weekend course began I requested that some parcels were sent back to the UK as I had been assured that I would not receive them in time for the course. This did the trick and they were delivered instead on Saturday to my hotel mid morning.

In my approach the use of extraits is emphasised along with precision measurement and accurate record keeping. Without this discipline repeatability is not possible and without that there can be no learning. Because the extraits have been aged for many months and in some cases years the consequences of blending can be assessed almost immediately. If aromatics are just added to unprepared alcohol it can take several months for some to mature sufficiently to allow them to be evaluated.

People also liked the fact that we can measure awkward absolutes like linden blossom in extrait form in quantities of 100th of 1ml. This means very little wastage and being able to make up finished perfumes in sizes as small as 1ml.

I was pleased to spend time in New York and make some new aromatic friends so thank you to all participants for making this possible and a very big thank to Amanda whose help and support was invaluable.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Uncorked! - 5th Anniversary of the Natural Perfumers Guild

The natural world became a refuge that got me through difficult times during childhood. Interestingly, if one reads or hears first hand reports of peak experiences they are almost without exception expressed in terms of unity with the natural world. Psychologically speaking this experience can be described as witnessing the natural world with a very low level of pre-occupation with self. Moments in this state of mind are a consequence of any sensible meditation training.

I take this as a starting point because the natural world is our best resource for getting in touch with our natural inherent sanity. Words like awe and gratitude commonly appear when people describe the experience. Awesome doesn’t count because it has been devalued by overuse when referring to trivia and even on some occasions trash.

As an adult I found myself running Aqua Oleum and essential oil Company, which gave me access to many natural raw materials. This combined with my love of cooking and wine evolved into six years of experimenting which resulted in Essentially Me and working as a perfumer.

Recently I spent a couple of weeks on a Greek Island and it was early summer. The island is strewn with olive trees, various citrus, wild herbs and scent rises from the warm earth mingling with floral and citrus notes that are wafted around by a gentle breeze. The odour of sanctity.
In fact the local name for a particular tree is angeliki meaning angel. Smell was a very important and intimate part of the experience of being on the island. I was so inspired by the scent of angeliki that my next project is to create a fragrance based on its gardenia, orange blossom notes. That will be another blog.