What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Friday, July 29, 2011


For certain perfumes, a smoky note is needed - the smell of a campfire sticking to clothing, a burning cigarette in the cold air, Indian cooking fires made from burning cow dung, a driftwood bonfire on the beach, old paper love letters being burnt, the smell of meat barbecuing, the burning of incense for worship, the burning of incense for pleasure, the burning of wax candles or a petroleum lantern for light, the smell of burnt sugar, the burning of logs in a fireplace, … for better or worse, the smell of smoke is emotionally evocative.

I’m continuing to explore the materials that provide a smoky note both by themselves and in combination with other things. All of the smoky materials are made by “destructive distillation” of wood or other organic materials, which just means that the original material is converted to charcoal as it is distilled. i.e., slowly burned. It is not surprising that materials produced by this process smell like smoke along with traces of the original material.

Choya loban is one of my favorite smoky scents. Made from burned olibanum wood, it gives a strong impression of a campfire or the smoke hanging over an Indian village, but it also has an incense note. I used it for the smoky note in Gujarat. Choya ral is made from burnt Shorea robusta, a tree that is harvested for timber in India. It’s similar to choya loban, but sharper and even more like a campfire. Choya Nakh is made from burnt seashells, and it smells exactly like burnt seashells - a smoky scent with a definite sea-animalic note.

Other natural smoky materials are cade, which is made by distilling burnt wood of Juniperus oxycedrus, a Mediterranean juniper tree, and birch tar, which is made from burned birch wood and leaf buds and is a gentler smoke than the others. The cade and birch tar used in perfumery are “rectified”, which means that they are distilled a second time to remove impurities.

I have recently been exploring a smoky aromachemical called guaiacol, which smells like smoke with phenolic and clove-like notes. It’s a very “clean” smoke smell without the primitive campfire associations. I’ve been reading a little about guaiacol, and have learned that it actually occurs naturally and is one of the molecules that contribute to the flavor of whiskey and coffee, among other things. It is one of the many products of “destructive distillation” of wood, so is probably a component of the other, more complex smoky fragrance materials. I think I may try mixing guaiacol with one or more of the natural materials for the smoky note in Alyssum, since it may be just what is needed to bridge the gap between flowers and smoke.

[All photos from Wikimedia]


  1. "bridge the gap between flowers and smoke" - what a beautiful phrase!

    Smoky notes are generally a challenge for me, but I'm rather intrigued by your description of guaiacol. Clove-like clean smoke sounds paradoxical. I love a good perfume paradox, so I look forward to hearing more about your exploration of this aromachemical.

  2. JoanElaine, Every time I get a new material to work with it opens up a whole realm of new possibilities.

    Your samples are packed and ready to mail tomorrow.

  3. This may sound ambitious--I am trying to put an incense note into a blend I am doing with frankincense & myrrh. I am looking for something with the smoke I smell in Heeley's Cardinal or Avignon by Comme des Garcons. I am anchoring this with vanilla. It's almost there except for the smoke. I tried the Choya loban but it seems to get swallows up by the essential oils of frankincense & myrrh. As does any 'woodsmoke' or 'fireplace' type fragrance oil that I add to it. Any suggestions?

  4. Smoke notes are a challenge for me... Most EOs to me smell of "woodsmoke" or "campfire" type aromas, but very little offer the more sooty, ash-like qualities of smoke. What aroma chem or EO would make for a woodless smoke note? Or the acrid burnt paper aspects of cigarette smoke? Capturing the right notes for a smoke-accented perfume is very challenging!

  5. Tyler, for a cigarette-smoke note you could try galbanum and a tiny bit of a smoky material.

  6. Galbanum huh? Never would have thought of that. Thanks Ellen.

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