Intelligent Scents

Patricia Ronning gives us some insight into her process of creating a perfume.

I equate making a perfume to making a soup. Soup has to have a good aroma when you first smell it, but then it also has to have a good heartiness and flavor on the inside. Perfumes need something to keep them stable, like sandalwoods, rosewoods, or vetiver, otherwise the top notes will fly away. When you smell, you smell in layers.

Using perfumes or oils has been around forever. Eight or 10 of them are mentioned in the Bible. Egyptians used ingredients to make incense for the sarcophagus.

Perfumes have to have a certain feeling. Take citrus—it’s bright and cold and sparkling. Florals to me are smoother, warmer, and sweeter. The woods are heavier, earthier, and deeper. Patchouli adds a velvety warmth.

We get oils from India, France, China, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka. We get our mint from Oregon. Roses come from Turkey and Egypt. We support small farmers or co-ops in third-world countries.

Climate change is really making sourcing consistent oils difficult. I just read an article about a citrus-fruit crop in Peru that used to come in December, but now it starts in February. That affects how it will smell because the earth is different at different times of year. And it affects the economy: now you might not get two full harvests out of it.

Smell is a trained thing. Some people are super smellers, but mostly, it’s a trained thing. French perfumer George Chapoulie was my mentor. He really knew his smells, and he’d tell me to breathe in, think about the smells, register them, and file them away in my memory—to later match smells with memories of smells. I drove a convertible for a long time, and I would just smell, smell, smell as I drove.

For more from Patricia Ronning, read “An Educated Nose.”