Evergreen Challenge – Part One

One of the topics I am most interested in covering on this blog is the artistic process behind turning a moment of inspiration into a fully-realized perfume. 

In November, I found the perfect opportunity to illustrate this process. John Biebel (of January Scent Project) and I were discussing the progress on our respective recent compositions when the conversation turned to the difficulty of working with evergreen essences. We both love the complexity of raw evergreen materials with their layers of fruit, wood, resin, and spice notes, but lament how most fragrances incorporating these essences tend to be either too raw and unpolished or bury the evergreen element almost entirely in synthetic fluff. A few days after our conversation, I proposed a mutual challenge to John: create a perfume starring evergreen essences while still being balanced and sufficiently refined. John and I would each create rough drafts of our own evergreen blends and then send them to each other to be critiqued and then further refined. However, to add another dimension to the challenge, we stipulated that our blends should attempt to capture a specific place and moment in time. Perfumes linked to a specific memory or place have a power emotional impact and can truly transport the wearer.

As we are now in the thick of the challenge, this presents me with a wonderful opportunity to document my creative process from start to finish as it happens rather than trying to recall my the experience long after the fact with mediocre results.

John, with characteristic zeal, has already sent me not one, but two different blends of his evergreen fragrance while I am still wandering around in the conceptual phase.

With this prompting from John, it’s high time to get to work on my own composition.

The challenge parameters to choose a specific location and focus on evergreen materials is helpful in narrowing down the possibilities for my fragrance concept. My mind immediately jumps to the Ice Lakes in Soda Springs, California. Located high in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the town of Truckee, these lakes once provided ice for Californians before the spread of widespread electric refrigeration and ice making. The main lake sits in a bowl of low mountains surrounded by fir trees and a few quaint cabins. Though tranquil, there is nothing particularly awe-ispiring about the frozen sheet of white; at least, not during the day. If you venture out onto the ice in the dead of winter on a moonless night you will find a scene of unparalleled majesty. From the center of the lake the Milky Way spans from rim to rim of the bowl and you find yourself standing in the center of an immense celestial dome. The brilliance of the stars and the harshness of the cold air contrive to make one feel truly insignificant and not a little bit alone and vulnerable.

So that is my challenge for this scent. To capture the feeling of being surrounded by that cage of stars out on the ice: at once isolating and awe-inspiring.

Now that I have my inspiration, the first big step is to translate that idea into a sketch of the fragrance’s structure. Making a structure outline or "skeleton" gives the scent much more direction and purpose than if I just pulled out my essences and starting blending at this point. There are many ways to tackle creating a structure sketch, but I often use what I have termed the impressionistic method. Like the impressionist painters of the later nineteenth century, I like to divide my composition into two elements: the mimetic and the abstract. The mimetic elements of the scent try to accurately capture the actual smells that can be detected in a specific location or during a particular moment. For example, a scent based on a pastoral scene might have hay absolute, lavender, and deer’s tongue: all essences featuring aromatic compounds you would likely encounter in a hayfield during harvest. Thinking back to my inspiration, the mimetic elements of my evergreen scent begin to naturally fall into place. 

 Putting the impressionist composition method into practice during a plein air perfumery outing in 2017.

Putting the impressionist composition method into practice during a plein air perfumery outing in 2017.

The forest surrounding the lake is mainly composed of white and red fir trees, which are very similar in scent to a delightful black spruce absolute I have on hand. I would select the spruce absolute over the fir essential oils in my collection as the central evergreen element in the fragrance because the solvent extracted absolute is much smoother in character than any of the fir oils, and also boasts much better longevity, allowing the key evergreen note to remain present into the drydown phase of the perfume’s evolution. I will however, add a touch of fir essential oil to the blend to give a crisp blast of freshly crushed needles right at the start of the scent. Apart from the fir trees, the other prominent scent out on the ice is the peculiar smell of the frozen dirt lining the nearby road. It often clings to your snow boots as you walk out to the lake and has a surprisingly dry and crisp smell for dirt, more like wood shavings than mud. My mind wanders here to a particularly suave aged patchouli that I sometimes use when I want a sharper dirt smell rather than something moist and muddy.

Now that I have decided on the mimetic backbone of the scent it’s time to explore the abstract elements of my inspirational site. The central impression I want the scent to convey is a sense of cold: a chilling, yet majestic cold like the expansive night sky. The tricky bit here is choosing the right element to communicate that precise kind of cold. There are many cooling elements in the perfumer’s palette from the obnoxiously cheery wintergreen to the austere aldehydes. For this scent, I’m definitely searching for something more austere, more sublime. Rather than using one main cooling element, I will try inserting multiple cooling essences into all three layers of the scent (top, heart, and base) so that the sense of cold stays constant on the skin even as the perfume morphs and evolves. For the heart, rose otto is an obvious choice as it has a much cooler and majestic presence than its sister, the warm and honeyed rose absolute. The rose otto will also lend a refined “perfumey” element to the composition and keep it from feeling overly raw. To further chill the heart, I think I am going to add quite a bit of a delightful natural lily of the valley accord. Not only is the lily of the valley accord quite cold and crisp in smell, but muguet is very much linked with mountain scenery in my mind and helps to further transport me to alpine environments. For the top, I am going to try a bit of white birch. This is a risky move as white birch can easily turn a blend into something reminiscent of wintergreen chewing gum, but I just love how cold it is. I will probably need to add a bit of a dry smelling essence to keep the blend more cosmic than candy, but that calculation will come during the actual blending stage.

With the abstract element added to the mimetic core, I now have a more concrete skeleton for the perfume. Here is the outline laid out:

Top

Noble Fir Essential Oil, White Birch Essential Oil

Heart

Lily of the Valley Blend, Rose Otto

Base

Black Spruce Absolute, Aged Patchouli

These are by no means the only essences that will go into the final blend (at least five or six more will figure into the completed perfume) and the outline is bound to change once I begin to blend the first draft. However, this gives me a very clear idea of what I am aiming for in the final blend and the essences I will need to get there; it’s a sort of roadmap for the composition that will keep my blending focused and purposeful. A lot will change between here and the final product, but this starting point is key to building a well-structured perfume.

In part two I will sit down to blend the first draft and send the results off to John!

Welcome to "At the Organ"! New Extrait Fragrance Giveaway Draw.

Step Behind the Perfumer's Organ

I have been itching to start a blog covering the creative process at Fitzgerald and Guislain for quite some time, and Ian and I have finally found the time to get one up and running!

This blog will give you an in-depth look at how we make perfume: not just our ingredients or our blending theory, but the entire creative and manufacturing process: from gathering field notes to our unique perfume aging system. We will occasionally cover perfume history (anyone who has taken our "Perfumers of the Gilded Age" course already knows about our unhealthy perfume history obsession.) We will also cover upcoming company events, our plein air misadventures, and of course: new perfume launches (and yes, there will be frequent perfume giveaways for commenters)!

Without further ado, let us kick the blog off with a profile of our three brand new extrait strength parfums and a fragrance giveaway! 

La Forêt de Fontainebleau

 Claude Monet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe 1865

Claude Monet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe 1865

 

We will begin with La Forêt de Fontainebleau as it has garnered a lot of attention since we created it a few months ago. Forêt is a vintage style fragrance through and through. It began as a result of me lamenting the inferior quality of the reformulated blends of classics from Caron, particularly Bellodgia and Tabac Blond. Both of these fragrances have suffered major revisions due to severe IFRA restrictions on key ingredients such as oakmoss absolute and clove oil. I will not delve into the controversy surrounding these restrictions, suffice to say that I disagree strongly with these decisions and continue to use such treasured raw materials. International fragrance politics aside, Forêt provides starring roles for these two sumptuous ingredients. If you fell in love with the vintage formulae of beauties such as Tabac Blond, Forêt should satisfy your cravings.

I derived the concept for La Forêt de Fontainebleau from the famous French woodland haunt of mid-nineteenth century painters and photographers. The forest's convenient proximity to the metropolis (around sixty kilometers southeast of Paris) and seemingly wild scenery combined to make it an ideal destination for aspiring artists and middle class tourists seeking a respite from urban life. The works of Monet, Renoir, and a veritable slew of more satirical and less revered artists perfectly capture the escapades of these urban visitors as they drink in the woodland delights. La Forêt de Fontainebleau aims to paint an olfactory picture of the same collision between busy urban civilization and tranquil forest. Here is our official description of the fragrance:

"La Forêt de Fontainebleau captures the excitement of nineteenth century vacationers and artists as they explore the forest of Fontainebleau with their cameras, paints, and picnic baskets at the ready. The familiar scents of forest foliage and crushed grass mingle with the new aromas of leather boots, rich Parisian perfumes, and painter’s palettes as the visitors wander about, eager to find the perfect view or the best shaded grove for an afternoon luncheon: a modern olfactory invasion of the tranquil woodland. A must-try for vintage perfume lovers.

The oakmoss-heavy base of La Forêt de Fontainebleau contains our own all-natural interpretation of de Laire’s famous Mousse de Saxe accord: redolent of forest foliage, licorice, and leather. This dark base adds depth to the spicy and sharp heart notes of pepper, clove, and carnation."

Prunier à Minuit

Prunier à Minuit (Plum Tree at Midnight) is part of our ongoing "Forbidden Fruits" project aimed at creating a new series of unconventional and highly wearable fruit-centric perfumes. Central to Prunier is an intoxicating combination of plum and incense. And intoxicating is exactly what we are aiming for with this one as it takes its inspiration from Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai's exceptional "Drinking Alone Under the Moon". Here is Professor Paul Rouzer's English translation of the poem:

"Among the flowers, a single jug of wine;
I drink alone. No one close to me.
I raise my cup, invite the bright moon;
facing my shadow, together we make three.
The moon doesn't know how to drink;
and my shadow can only follow my body.
But for a time I make moon and shadow my companions;
taking one's pleasure must last until spring.
I sing — the moon wavers back and forth.
I dance — my shadow flickers and scatters.
When I'm sober we take pleasure together.
When I'm drunk, we each go our own ways.
I make an oath to journey forever free of feelings,
making an appointment with them to meet in the Milky Way afar."

 Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight by Ma Yuan, thirteenth century CE

Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight by Ma Yuan, thirteenth century CE

Prunier aims to capture the joy of a midnight tipple in a moonlit Chinese forest. Though a plum tree is not mentioned explicitly in Li Bai's poem, both the fruit and blossoms of this tree are of immense significance to the Chinese literary and scholarly traditions, and their rich scents fit right into the perfume's overarching concept. True to the theme of imbibing, the combination of plum and a rich white floral heart of tuberose and jasmine give the fragrance a distinctly boozy characteristic.  However, the fragrance avoids the risk of veering into the territory of cloyingly sweet fruit liqueurs by balancing its sweet top and heart with a dry, incense base dominated by hydrocarboresine (a natural amber material created by a fractional distillation of cistus resin).

Extrait d'Osmanthus

Many modern fragrance enthusiasts (and even industry experts) still hold onto a number of misconceptions about nineteenth century perfumes. Mainly, that Victorian perfumes were fairly boring and delicate floral creations that lacked both creativity and dynamism in their composition. One sniff of mid-nineteenth century favorites such as Rondeletia or Extrait d'Ambre will quickly disabuse anyone of this notion. However, the perception of quaint floral bouquets still lingers and Extrait d'Osmanthus is our original attempt to reintroduce the merits of late nineteenth century style perfume composition to the modern nose.

Extrait d'Osmanthus is an animalic Osmanthus soliflore built along the lines of a nineteenth century perfume. So what exactly is the structure of a nineteenth century perfume? Usually it consists of very few top notes, a large number of heart notes, and a substantial, but very neutral base consisting of mostly animal-derived ingredients. The base of a nineteenth century perfume rarely steals the show; its all about highlighting the heart of the fragrance. The top is generally small (except for in colognes) as perfume atomizers were not popular until the very end of the century, and a big top is designed to create an immediately appealing effect when an atomizer is sprayed into the air. The structure of most nineteenth century perfumes are also fairly linear, but not necessarily in a negative sense. Many perfumistas use the term "linear" to describe perfumes whose scent does not change very much as the perfume progresses: the opposite of dynamic perfumes that morph and evolve in interesting way as time passes. However, when talking about well-crafted Victorian perfumes, I mean linear in the sense of a controlled and precise evolution of the scent: a scent that moves smoothly from one part to the next, balancing all of the notes in perfect harmony.

For the base of Extrait d'Osmanthus we created an exact reproduction of Piesse & Lubin's 1858 formula for Extrait d'Ambre: an unusual base designed to elevate and refine the scent of ambergris tincture. Piesse & Lubin sold Extrait d'Ambre both by itself as a complete perfume and as a base accord to build other perfumes off of. On top of this rosy-ambergris base we have built a very cohesive and transparent Osmanthus accord. Though the materials in our Osmanthus accord did not exist for the Victorian perfumer, we have tried to work with them in a Victorian manner. We used an apricot natural isolate blend and a benzyl acetate natural isolate derived from ylang ylang to smooth out rougher facets of the Chinese Osmanthus absolute and render it more transparent and true to the headspace of the flower (a technique mimicking the profile of a floral extract from enfleurage.) 

The result is a beautiful floral perfume with an unexpectedly musky undertone. The headspace of the autumn Osmanthus harvest.

 Comment at the end of this article to enter our giveaway for a sample of the fabulous Prunier à Minuit, along with the two other extraits.

Comment at the end of this article to enter our giveaway for a sample of the fabulous Prunier à Minuit, along with the two other extraits.

How to Enter the Drawing!

To enter our sample set giveaway, simply comment on this post telling us which of the new scents you are most interested in and what country you are located in. This drawing is limited to participants in the United States and Canada. We are hoping to open up future drawings to a more international audience, so if you are not residing in the US or Canada, stay tuned, you will be included soon! The drawing closes on October 22nd, so be sure to post your comments before then.