“In order to distinguish living from inanimate matter (earth, water, air and fire), Aristotle invoked a fifth element or quintessence, which he called spirit…… Adherents of the Aristotelian philosophy believed that by heating plant material they were removing the spirit (or quintessence) of the plant and so the oil they obtained was called the quintessential (later shortened to essential) oil.”   Understanding Fragrance Chemistry, Charles Sells, PhD


Welcome to ~QuinteSCENTial: the art of composing a perfume


Quintescential: the focus of my journey in learning the craft of perfume composition; understanding the alchemy, the chemistry and the art. I have been pursuing a study of aroma materials (natural and synthetic) and the art of perfume composition and my recently acquired summer school Attestation de Formation from the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in the south of France affirmed that I have been on the correct learning path. I returned in 2016 to complete the next level of training. GIP training is both humbling and invigorating, giving me a healthy boost in my appreciation and understanding of this very complex art. My current interest leans toward future composition of original personal fragrances created from quality aromatic material from around the world: unique perfumes that reflect who we are at any given time.

There is so much possibility in this art form.  The perfume world is full of wonderful brilliant imaginative artists who, it appears, are often constrained by the profit driven shareholders and marketing departments of billion dollar cosmetic and fashion corporations. You can feel the artists in this profession aching for the freedom to create, and to NOT be governed solely by what an uneducated consumer focus group, or a mass media hyped “superstar” think they need in a smell. This is one of the reason you now see niche perfume houses blossoming, natural perfumers and the creation of enterprises like Frederic Malle.(well… until it was sold to Estée Lauder). Some large perfume houses see the wisdom of placing perfumer at the top of the decision making process. It is a win win win situation; quality, imagination and profit… but the decision makers have to be willing to take the risk of imagination and individuality. Here is a Grasse Institute of Perfumery 2013 address to the students by drom CEO, and it speaks to the constant need to be imaginative. Skill and ability, imagination and vulnerability, joy and exploration. I will also say that it is these large companies, because of the profit focus, that are also performing the vital research and creation of new aroma material that keeps the art alive and always new. Those R&D scientists are magicians in what they create, and research would not be happening without huge $ investment.

For me, there is everything to learn right now from the creators of masterpieces like Chanel 5 (1920-Ernest Beaux), Tresor (1990-Sophia Grojsman), Shalimar (1925-Jacques Guerlain), L’Air du Temps (1948 – Francis Fabron), Miss Dior (1947-Jean Carles), Eau Sauvage (1966 – Edmond Roudnitska) and more recently Terre d’Hermès (2006-Jean-Claude Ellena), and thankfully many more…..


So…..WHY perfume?

Our individual smell is very personal, unique and intimate, and yet smell has no boundaries, only proximity. Everyone we come in contact with has the ability to, more or less, experience our private world. Perfumes allow us to control and present our  “fragrance personality” to the world around us and are seen by many as simply “part of a complete wardrobe”. Studies show that a perfume can even add to our confidence when interacting with others.

Smell evokes very powerful emotions and memory transporting us to another place and time. As with my music studies, I am drawn to the mystical ability of a scent to transport us to alternate realities. Our sense of smell, the most primal of our senses, reaches deeper and into more distant memories than any of our other senses;  and does so without any permission from us. There is nothing more sensual than experiencing a wonderful fragrance on ourselves and others.


As a musician I am intrigued and fascinated by the parallel of perfume composition to musical composition, the shape and length of each aromatic note and “a-chord” in a perfume composition determines the effect on the “olfactory listener”….. creating other realities within us that stretch over periods of time.

Music in the western world uses 12 notes……..

Stravinsky spoke of a revealing element – that the possibilities for compositional combinations are infinite.

“As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.” Faced with such a large amount of material to work with, Stravinsky limits himself with musical boundaries.

“I shall overcome my terror and shall be reassured by the thought that I have seven notes at my disposal, that strong and weak accents are within my reach, and that in all of these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that had just frightened me.”

This “limitation” technique is easily transferable to Stravinsky’s composing process – in his sketches all that is seen are the completed, post limitation ideas. Stravinsky held strongly to this idea in both a musical and philosophical way.

“If I were asked what I want I would be hard pressed to say. But I should always give an exact answer when asked what I did not want. ” Stravinsky goes on to allude to another rather creative mind, Leonardo da Vinci, who is able to sum up the whole process – “Strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom.”

-The Compositional Process of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
Dima Gharaibeh ’96 – Illinois Wesleyan University

The availability of literally hundreds of aromatic “notes” for a perfumer make the permutations unimaginable and ensures that the true art, as in most things, is to simplify and distill to the smallest elements while still communicating the image. Here is what a master perfumer has to say about the infinite possibilities…

“What I do is far removed from what a composer does. After all, there are only 12 different notes that provide the foundation in music. Okay, yes, you can vary those notes in an endless number of ways, but you have to consider that my foundation consists of 200 scents. And, even more importantly, the equivalent of musical harmony is created in a very different way in perfumes. In music, for example, there is the triad: C-E-G. I can play those three notes simultaneously on the piano and then I have harmony. With perfumes, though, I can mix two ingredients, as we just did, but they don’t actually meld. Each scent evaporates in a different way and, ultimately, the individual scents continue to exist in parallel. Things can truly blend in music, though not in perfume. That creates a challenge, but also an opportunity.”

– Master Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena

Perhaps composing a perfume is more closely related to composing for a full orchestra, with the number and types of instruments adding further permutations to the possibilities of composition?

We do not know HOW we smell. The generally accepted theory is that it is similar to a lock and a key. (i.e. very simplified….the lemon-shaped aroma molecule key unlocks the lemon-shaped aroma molecule lock in your nose and then sends a message to the brain that you are smelling lemon). There is a theory gaining support and credibility that we are actually able to smell because the vibrational  frequency of aroma molecules, unlocking that nose lock by molecular vibration not by shape, and then speaking to the the very core of our brain. This would mean that vibrational frequency is the way we sense the world with at least three of our senses; through sound (audio), colour (visual) or scent (smell) vibrations. (See Luca Turin’s TED talk at the end on the page.)

For now… watch the BBC article on Quantum smell….


Smell, more so than any other sense, is intimately linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion and associative learning. The olfactory bulb in the brain, which sorts sensation into perception, is part of the limbic system — a system that includes the amygdala and hippocampus, structures vital to our behaviour, mood and memory.”

Tim Jacob, a smell researcher at the University of Cardiff, said the work was “supportive but not conclusive”.

“But the fact is that nobody has been able to unequivocally contradict [Dr Turin],” he told BBC News.

“There are many, many problems with the shape theory of smell – many things it doesn’t explain that the vibrational theory does.”

And although many more scientists are taking the vibrational theory seriously than back in 1996, it remains an extraordinarily polarised debate.

“He’s had some peripheral support, but… people don’t want to line up behind Luca,” Prof Jacob said. “It’s scientific suicide.

What’s the science behind a sublime perfume?

With charm and precision, biophysicist Luca Turin explains in a TED talk the molecular makeup — and the art — of a scent.

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