The Perfumer’s Organ

The recent photo on PerfumeShrine of Isabelle Doyen’s organ at Annick Goutal made all who saw it sigh with appreciation; it’s an elegant and organized way to keep a large array of ingredients within easy reach.   Here’s a photo of Mandy Aftel’s organ that she had custom built for her, crafted of beautiful wood to fit in a window of her Berkeley studio.

Now to the much more modest system… I’ve been using a three-shelf cart for all my little bottles of ingredients that I use for formulating, but yesterday I moved everything to a new larger cart and am still getting it all organized.  

I keep the large main containers of each ingredient in a big cabinet wall system behind doors, but I pour small amounts of many things into small bottles to keep in my organ for blending.  I dilute most of those items in alcohol because when you make small test batches even a drop of many things is too much, so you pre-dilute to make workable concentrations for small formulating batches.  A few things are ok at full strength, but I keep small bottles of those as well so that my big containers of main stock stay pristine while I work with the little bottles day to day.  When I make a big batch of something for sale, I can go to the big containers. 

Most indie perfumers use some sort of system like this, but each person finds his/her method. At the big fragrance companies some perfumers work out formulas on computer and then hand it to a lab tech to go mix and bring back later for the perfumer to test sniff, so they have entirely different systems than small indie perfumers who do all their own lab work as part of the formulating process.

Anyway, I’m going to be a bit lost while I get used to the new system.  I’m trying to keep it organized by note family (floral, wood, musk, green, aldehyde etc), but may need some subcategories. The bottles had gotten out of hand in my old cart so I’m trying to get off to a good start with this one. This one has a nice work surface on top instead of an open shelf (the whole thing is enclosed), so I really like having another work surface.

Happy St Patrick’s Day! Many people are choosing green scents today to celebrate, and my choices if I had a chance to wear something later would be Chanel 19, or a precious drop of my sample of Gobin Daude’s Sous le Buis (have not sniffed this in a long time), or Patricia de Nicolai Temps d’Une Fete, or a second sampling of Annick Goutal’s Un Matin d’Orage to get a better feeling for it.

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  1. I’ve been loving all the organ photo posts lately as well. I’ve got a weird system; I use a series of old schooldesk tops I found at a salvage yard for $5 ea to create tiered shelving, which sit atop an old round tabletop from a bar table I don’t use anymore, and that sits on top of my craft table next to a small card catalog chest that holds dry supplies. I organize actual notes by volatility & then by alphabetical, personally, but I’m always having to reorganize and rearrange when new stuff comes in! I seem to be running out of room every day!

  2. Hi Meredith,
    Fun to hear from someone who has an interesting home-made system; I can relate to the storage space issues! I have the naturals and aroma chems in separate areas and each according to type of note, w/ the most commonly used toward the front, but I’m still refining the system. I’ve loved seeing the organ pictures too! Glad you stopped by. 🙂

  3. That is very cool, I never gave it much thought about how someone would “create” a cologne. This kind of brings everything into a different light. Cool article and very cool pictures. Out of curiosity, is there some company that sells little bottles of fragrances? I think it would neat to try and create unique scents that everyone enjoyed. I guess a better questions may be and one you may not want to go in to due to depth is, how much would it cost to try and become a perfumer?


  4. Hi Tim,

    Your question is a good one, and to give you a really good answer I’d need to think some more and come back with a more complete reply. But I can say a little bit here off the top of my head.

    First thing I’d do is get a copy of Mandy Aftel’s book Essence and Alchemy, which gets people started thinking about formulating with top, heart, and base accords. She uses all naturals and that’s not a bad way to start because you learn the methods and many notes before getting into synthetics. If you do want to start with synthetics, you can buy small amounts from The Perfumer’s Apprentice. There was nothing like that back when I started years ago, so it is much easier now. But you’ll still spend years and many dollars before you’ll learn enough to actually make something you’d want to sell. It really does take time, and there’s always more to learn. You can’t make something that competes with what is already on the market until you have an awful lot of ingredients in your stock, and that takes time and money, unless you have a big lump sum you can put into it at the start instead of building up gradually, but that’s risky to do.

    The market is already saturated with so many new launches that perfumery is not a field to enter with dreams of quick success, but if you love it and have a bit of an obsessive nature that keeps you thinking about your formulas and ingredients and possible scents all the time, you may enjoy it enough to make the hard parts worthwhile. It can be a fun hobby too, if you do it just for fun and don’t make a business out of it. Then the total cost is really just up to you, and you can have a lot of fun and learn a lot just by formulating things for yourself and friends at first. If the bug catches you, then you can move to the next step and invest more into it. Sometimes people start out thinking about bottles and logos and names, but it makes more sense to jump in and blend and see if you develop things you like.

    One thing you do need to do at any level is learn the amounts of ingredients that are safe and know how to do enough simple math to compute your percentages in the final formulas; it’s not hard but is important. And you’ll want to buy in small amounts to start so your materials stay fresh (though a few things like patchouli improve with age).

    You’ve probably already done the first step, which is to sniff lots of perfumes! Next is to sniff lots of ingredients and learn them — how do they start, how do they evolve, how long do they last, what notes do they complement, etc. Good luck if you give it a try!

  5. Thank you Laurie, that is a great reply and definitely gives me some ideas of what goes in to a “cologne”. That may be something for later in life for me, right now I will just enjoy the scents of others hard work and time. 🙂 A wife, kids and a full time job don’t allow much time on the side to become a mad scientist!

    Hope you are having a great weekend!


  6. Hi Tim,

    To do it as a business does take a major time commitment, but you can always buy some basic essential oils/absolutes and play around at your leisure. One other thing I forgot to mention is that a good scale helps a lot and is something people often skimp on when they start, but it’s worth getting a good one.

    Hope your weekend is going well too!

  7. PS With a family and job you probably don’t have much “at your leisure” time though! My brother has two young girls and a job that takes long hours, so I have seen how that goes. What precious free time most people have is used for their highest priority activities, but it’s always fun to think about a new hobby for when there’s more time. 🙂

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