Any of a few species who can be infected by the mold that causes the production of oud. Unaffected trees are processed to give us agarwood which is very woody jungle spice flower without the overtop funk of oud.
A very early discovery of fragrance chemists, aldehydes recall a deco world when used as the main thrust of a fragrance. More often we employ aldehydes to lift heavy hearts, recall fresh breezes/air around flowers, or to push the boundaries of space in forward thinking compositions. Aldehydes generally have a stratospherically fresh aroma, with shades of metal, citrus, green, or ozone.
A catch all term for tree resins that smell vanillic-balsamic. Most have been with us for thousands of years partly because they can be used with very minimal processing (i.e., pick off tree, light on fire).
The scent of ambergris is the other main base note of perfumery. No one uses the real stuff (sea cured whale vomit worth its weight in gold and illegal in the U.S.) anymore. Instead we have a host of molecules that make up its aroma—stratospherically powerful woody amber aromas that fix modern perfumes. Their power will make your teeth chatter. Desert island stuff like ambrox, cetalox, and ambrocenide.
Pure plant-based musk beauty. Painstakingly extracted from a hibiscus plant, ambrette is exorbitantly expensive. Adds realness & petal freshness to all perfumes. A natural “skin” aroma—soft, oily, umami & fatty with a heart like the inner wet parts of flowers & animals. Blends with anything, especially flowers, ouds, ozones, & citrus. It smells delicately peachy and vegetal (like the best tomato soup) and lasts 4-eva.
Soft and powdery, ambrox and its cousin ambroxan all but created the scent of the 90s (when added to ozonic materials like Calone and Melonal). Ambrox smells fine and pure, like a clean slightly green ambergris. Boney, marine, wonderful.
Basil is fascinatingly complex. The more you sniff, the more shades of aroma are observed. Beside its obvious fresh green gourmandness, basil has a strong spicy bite like cloves that make it useful in building accords of flowers like carnation, wisteria, narcissus, and anything frosty like lily.
The extract of bell pepper is an entirely new material to the perfumer's palette. It was released by Firmenich in 2021 and gives us a very unique fresh, bitter green heart note. It is vegetal but soft and watery with overtones of Earth.
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A prime amber. Used in folk medicine for thousands of years, the extract of Styrax Tonkinensis (Siam Benzoin) is brown with soft pink notes of fine sugar, maple, powdery gourmand vanilla, and shades of cinnamon and dry tobacco.
Also called bigrade, this oil is pressed or distilled from the fruit of the same tree that gives us orange blossoms. It is juicy and ahem, bitter and sings in the top of fragrances with a European flair.
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A spicy flower with a deep powdery heart like pink sugar.
South American wood that smells of fine teak, pepper, and roses. Extremely rare and expensive, but probably one of the five best smelling single oils on the planet.
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We only use synthetic reconstitutions for ethical reasons. Castoreum smells like wolves’ bait used in trapping—which is to say fermented feces and leather tanning. The synthetic is decidedly more leather—richer dark brown and mahogany. Fancy jazz age elegance, horses, upholstery, gloves, cars.
There are many cedar oils crucial to a perfumer’s pallet. The wood of Virginia is fine, warm and dry. Texas is pinier. Chinese is smokier. Many molecules mimic various parts of the wood. The leaves of red cedar give us the fruity, sinewy thuja aroma which is nice in small doses.
This molecule is everywhere. It is beautiful and powdery and like ambrox can be used for almost everything. Ambroxan has a greener herbal (minty) shade in the drydown compared to Ambrox.
The Mediterranean shrub rock rose is called “cistus” when the whole plant is distilled or extracted. The same plant produces a resin perfumers readily use called “labdanum” which is oft made into an absolute. Cistus distilled is a spicy leathery amber top note. Labdanum is spicy and herbaceous (dill), with a more animalic-conifer overtone than other ambers. Essential to the perfume genre “chypre” (bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum).
I only use synthetic reconstitutions for ethical reasons. The real stuff is scraped from a tortured mongoose’s nether regions. Our reconstructions have all the fecal power that lend richness and beauty to flowers, amber, ouds and the like. Disgusting in small doses but has its own beauty.
A wild herb native to the Mediterranean reportedly used to cure weird eye situations in older times. Its powdery green airy herbaceousness recalls grasslands and gardens.
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An iconic European construction that perfectly balances citrus (often lemon, bergamot, orange), flower waters (neroli, rose), and herbs (rosemary, lavender). Light, fresh, coastal airs.
I’m fascinated with the idea of Occidental Ambers, as we often associate amber with the east. Since many balsamic and resinous trees thrive in tropical weather, we can find many such plants in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Many of these resins (palo santon cabreuva, cascarilla) display woodier characteristics and would not necessarily be categorized as an “amber”. However, Copaiba Balsam distilled from the resin of the Copaifera Officinalus tree works as a “white amber” with its peppery dry musky aroma.
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Fir balsam recalls old forests. It is a dank ambery balsam that recalls the land of faeries, dryads, druids, Robinhood and the like. It is strong with maple sweet power that modifies chypres, fougere, and amber bases.
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Also called Plumeria, a tropical flower that loves to be where good times are had. Soft woody green tones over white flowers. Called champa in India, not to be confused with champaca which is a magnolia species.
Another flower that doesn’t give up its oil (except via old fashioned enfleurage methods that we no longer use much). I use a gardenia base I built over the course of 2 weeks—copying a blooming plant I owned in 2017 (it died in 2019). It is creamy, tropical, & multi-faceted. It recalls tropics but also Fred Astaire’s elegant lapel.
Our generic term for burning perfumes “incense” comes for the common name for Olibanum: Frankincense (from various Boswellia plants in the family Burseraceae). Frankincense features heavily in ancient religion —Egyptian, Hebrew, Christian, Greek, and others. The bark of 10-year-old trees are cut, allowing the resin to bleed and form “tears.” These tears can be dissolved in a common solvent and used as base note (producing a balsamic orange amber note) or distilled for a complex citrus, smoky pine aroma in the top note section of a perfume.
Everyone’s favorite aromachemical. Pour over anything to give radiance and presence. It softens, fills, and gives a “skin” effect. Warm and ambery like patchouli with all trace of its aromatic profile sucked out. Left with the ghost of otherworldly radiance. As it ages it can take on a useful coffee note.
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The ultimate perfume material. Jasmine can blend and elevate anything it touches. Jasmine grandiflorum is pure class—green, sugar, overripe, beyond rich. Truly kaleidoscopic. Jasmine sambac is more vegetal, aquatic, and indolic.
Ubiquitous clean flowery herb famous in soaps and perfumes. There are many varieties—some floral, others green and bitter like rosemary. Solvent extraction brings out a deep grassy hay and vegetal absolute.
Lily is a construct—the flower does not give its oil through extraction. When realistic, lily is a frosty complex flower that is spicy and animalic. A non-realistic “lily” accord is important in the functional aroma of powder fresh laundry.
Lime oil provides zest and freshness with the added bonus of giving us a green top note. Limes get along with flowers, chypres, and earthy fragrances. Lime flowers smell of green orange blossom and are a nice accord in colognes.
Magnolia doesn’t give up its oil for use in perfume and must be reconstructed. Magnolia is narcotic. In spring it displays a bouquet of husky white flower with lemon overtones. Smells very “mom” to me and like fancy skin cream.
A powerful oil that can help boost many famous accords in perfume. Spearmint is especially useful in fern and colognes. Blends well with many oils in small doses.
Musk is probably the most misunderstood concept. There are many musks—decedents of research into what made real deer musk smell so attractive. Think of musk as a white canvas on which to paint. They help fix, round, and elevate a perfume but stay in the background; more of a feeling than an aroma. Musks can be clean, dirty, creamy, fruity, fine, cheap, sweet, and many other silly adjectives to describe the indescribable.
Dry red scent of the desert. Myrrh’s scent is medicinal (being one of nature’s great medicines) and camphorous with a soft Earthy floral (indole—mothballs) undertone. It’s been holy since holy was a thing.
Called Sweet Myrrh and sporting the coolest sounding name of all perfume materials, Opoponax is in the same family as myrrh (Burseraceae). It is stronger with complex lactonic buttery balsamic properties.
Orange blossom is the giving tree to perfumers. The fruits give us bigrade or bitter orange oil. The flowers can be distilled to make neroli or solvent extracted to give orange flower absolute (also the biproduct orange flower water and an absolute of it called eau de brouts). The leaves and twigs give us petitgrain. And there’s even a distilled mixture of petitgrain with flowers called petitgrain sur le fleur. Fancy!
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Besides oud, orris—the root of iris—is the most expensive material in perfume. It takes three years to extract its miraculously penetrating powder of fancy blue-violet bliss. Chalky and umami, orris root concrete spruces up the heart of many perfumes. An absolute is also made from it which brings out its chocolate gourmand characteristics.
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Oud is a resin that is formed in the aquilaria species when the tree is infected with a specific kind of mold. Very little real oud is produced and it can go for staggering sums of money (as much as $100,000 USD per kilogram). As such, many things labeled “oud” are recreated—not such a bad thing for a perfumer, as it highlights one the core purposes of our industry —to copy, redesign, and expand upon a natural material. Using a raw material (“musk,” “amber,” “oud”) as a starting point for a fragrance is probably the most basic inspiration to a perfumer. Oud is a complex scent that does not have too many analogues in other natural materials. It smells of aged wood, camphor-mint, and not-quite-rotten milk, with nuances of flowers, spices and fruit. It has an underlying richness that is musky, woody, and penetrating; a folksong from the East that we continue to rework.
No single group has the power to make a scent smell more lifelike than ozones. The scent of air and humidity place the sniffer inside the fragrance world. Oceanside, lakeside, rains, even inside factory air; all can be created with ozones.
Deep red ironlike earth oil of my dreams. Patchouli began as an herb added to pashmina scarfs to keep away moths on long journeys, but soon became a staple of perfumes. It goes in and out of favor with the general public but never with its dedicated fans. Even small amounts are able to hide and embolden base of perfumes.
Peach is recreated from a few molecules - mosty lactones, which give us fatty, often fruity aromas. Peach lactones can recall the soft skin of the fruit & sweetness of the juice.
An emerald green sticky balsamic oil with a bitter almost alcoholic mushroom and wood scent. Good pine oil has a mushroom note (Matsutake Alcohol) which isn’t surprising as many mushrooms grow on decayed pine wood. Pine Absolute is useful in conjuring the deep woods of deciduous and sub-arctic forests.
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Rose is too versatile to disregard as old fashioned. Like jasmine, rose is a crucial heart enhancer to many perfumes. Just a little of distilled rose otto can drastically change and enliven a formula. Rose absolute is rich, green and bring-tears-to-your-eyes-beautiful.
Since being overharvested, we now rebuild the aroma of the bitter rosy fresh wood that provides such interest in the top notes of perfumes. Shellac, boxes, paint, and furniture vibes.
Sandalwood is complex but one of the most balanced oils with tones of milk, peach, musk, cedar, rose, coconut, and violet. A fixative, it can also disappear into the background, letting other notes shine through until hours later when it returns. Traditionally grown in Mysore, India, but over harvesting has left it out of the commercial perfumer’s pallet for about 20 years. We now use sandalwood grown sustainably elsewhere and reconstruct its aroma with molecules.
Spicier (cinnamon) than Siam Benzoin, it is heavy and powdery smelling of red potpourri. Tolu is powerful and perhaps the most gourmand of the ambers besides vanilla.
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A desert island flower at DSD. Tuberose absolute is a different fragrance than the flower. It is much more compacted—earthy mushroom with fine fatty pink flower aromas, suggesting subterranean caves and chalky earth. Real tuberose is more delicate but strong with fatty cheese tones over creamy white flowers.
Penetrating, powerful, old world elegance with a touch of smoke. Global warming, demand and weather have destroyed many of the crops of this particularly labor-intensive plant product, making it extremely expensive. Synthetic vanilla molecules (like vanillin) are just as important to perfume as the real stuff.
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Vetyver is a perfume in and of itself. Qualities vary heavily due to how long the roots of this grass are distilled, The Haitian is the finest. It has a coffee roasted peanut tone over straw-toned grass. Earthy and green, but it also screams yellow like the color of the finest distillates. Vetyver can be the base of almost anything from florals to woods. Vetyver from Indonesia is ashier like caramelized smoke.
A perfume in itself, ylang is the smell of paradise isles real and fantastical. I have found it growing in the Caribbean and was astounded by its depth. Overripe banana, vanillic, with a bready malt. It is a well-known cheaper alternative to modifying white flowers like jasmine and gardenia. Ylang ylang has a watery quality that is fresher and more calming than other tropical flowers. Indeed, it is used to relax in aromatherapy (I bring it on planes to sniff).
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From the Top Secret Files of D.S.