Whale spit-up can smell like a bunch of roses

By Sharmistha Khobragade

I am a sucker for classes. Tell me about a class and my antennae stand up. Sometimes I wonder why I do this — attend as many classes as I can, any that I find even remotely interesting. It’s not just that I have time on my hands; learning new things, facts and perspectives makes me feel alive.

At some point the majority of us need to hang up our boots. If we don’t have interests then because we didn’t make the time to cultivate them, or can’t find joy in new things, we could be in trouble. So I tell myself that by exploring new subjects is preparing for retirement, albeit 20 years earlier than most.

Yes, I envy everyone who has a career, but I tell myself that I will have the last laugh, when I will be a merry 60-year-old flitting from one class to another, while they are languishing and down in dumps, missing having an office to go to.

My latest venture was a master class on perfumes. Fragrance is something a lot of us use on a daily basis, without giving much thought to what goes into the making of it. The master class was about blending fragrances to create your own signature perfume.

When I walked into the venue, each table had paraphernalia out of a chemistry lab — test tubes, droppers, beakers, strips of paper. Unsurprising, as chemistry and math both have a role in perfume-making, as we were to learn. For even though perfume making is an art, not a science, it does draw heavily from chemistry and needs math to add up the blends in the correct proportion. And here’s fun fact number one: the iconic perfume Chanel No 5 was the product of a mistake — when a ‘nose’ added far too much of musk into a perfume blend.

A ‘nose’ is a perfumier, someone who creates a perfume. While most of us tend to associate the perfumes we wear with a single fragrance, say, rose, or musk, each perfume is a blend of many different fragrances or ‘notes’.

The ‘nose’ — or the perfumier — blends different fragrances, in different proportions to come up with a winning fragrance.

Fun fact number two: there are fewer perfumiers/noses in the world than there are astronauts.

Our class began with an overview of the process of perfume-making. Then it jumped right into the practical, hands-on stuff, the smelling of single notes.

Notes on a fragrance

Melanie Jane, or MJ, our fiesty instructor, put a drop of perfume on a slim, rectangular strip of paper — like the ones they hand you at malls —and passed it around. We smelt many single notes in this manner, courmarin (which comes from tonka beans), vanilla, musk, sandalwood etc.

I noted the names of the ones I liked on my notepad, with the intention of using them later for blending my signature perfume.

Fun fact number three: one of the notes we smelt was called ambergris, which is actually derived from dried whale excrement (or vomit) and has been referenced in Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. We all made faces when we heard that. But then, people also drink ‘civet’ coffee, don’t they?

The notes are divided into top, middle and base. Top notes are the ones that hit you right away, the ones you can immediately smell. Middle notes are what give the perfume its character. And finally, base notes are what give the perfume its longevity.

Know your seven perfume bases

Notes can be grouped into ‘families’ based on how similar they smell. There are many fragrance families: citrus, mint, spice, floral, wood, aromatic, animalic, resin and balsam. These were laid out on different tables in an adjoining room.

We learnt about and smelt perfume bases; the starting point of any pefume. There are seven perfume bases, floral, woody, oriental, cologne, chypre, fougere and gourmand. By volume, the base constitutes the majority of the perfume. Mix the base with a combination of different single notes from different families in different proportions, and magic can happen.

MJ explained to us that the starting point of creating a perfume is to think about how you want to feel when wearing it and the emotions you want to experience. Depending on those, you could reach out for the single notes most likely to elicit that response. First we were to identify our mix, and then we were to blend that mix in proportions dictated by the volume of the perfume we were going to make — 30ml.

Identifying our mix involved putting a drop of a perfume base on a strip of paper, then putting a drop of a single note or fragrance of our choice on another strip of paper, waving the two strips around to dissipate the perfume and then sniffing it. We could use up to five different single notes. We could clamp the strips of paper together with a little pin, thoughtfully provided. Soon the room was full of women going from one table to another, with what looked like a fan in their hand, waving the clamped strips to let the fragrances mix with each other, and then sniffing it. If we didn’t like how the fan smelt, we could start afresh.

Once we had identified the mix we liked best, we could do a dry run of the 30ml perfume, by adding the drops of base and single notes in a test tube. And if we were satisfied with the test tube, we could mix in actual proportions in the 30ml bottle for our own signature creation.

By this time, we had smelled 20 to 30 kinds of fragrances, bases and single notes. I had been noting down the ones I liked, and these amounted to no more than six. I thought I was sorted. I would just blend the ones I liked and come up with my signature perfume in no time. I mentally patted myself on the back for having had the foresight to note down the notes that I liked.

A little bit of this and a little bit of that

What happened next surprised me, but it reinforced an important life lesson. I mixed together the base and the single notes I had liked onto a fan, and waved it in the air — I didn’t like the result at all. I was disappointed. I’d have to discard the fan and make another. Not having a choice, I started experimenting, keeping some of the notes I liked and adding to the mix some of the ones I didn’t. And yes, I added the ambergris, the whale poop derivative. Finally, after a couple of tries, I arrived at the blend I liked.

That’s what real life is like, isn’t it? And whale poop/vomit does have a role in making perfume. The sooner I accepted it, I told myself, the better for my peace of mind. And then I could get on with the business at hand.

So I first mixed a test tube-full and then a 30ml bottle of perfume, which I took home with me and which I use, regularly. It is unlikely that I am going to try and blend more perfumes on my own. But I had so much fun and am so proud of having created a signature perfume, that I’d recommend that everyone spends an afternoon doing this. Or at whatever class your heart fancies.


Sharmistha is a management
professional, with a passion for writing

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