Comparative Study: Neroli and Orange Blossom

Oranges In Hiding

Oranges in Hiding by Tim Samoff

The Bitter Orange Tree, Citrus aurantium var. amara, gives us so many fragrant gifts: Neroli, Petitgrain, Bitter Orange essential oil, and Orange Blossom Absolute. To my mind, it’s a tree of wonders.

I needed to select a Neroli oil for a recent project, and so bought the Neroli & Orange Blossom Sampler Pack from Eden Botanicals. Convenient! Here are my notes.

  • Neroli, Egypt – A very earthy Neroli. It still has the fresh, green, crisp, sharp character of the scent – there’s no mistaking it – but there is a heaviness here. Not the lush heaviness of the indolic flower, but rootier with a little smoke – more like Vetiver. Also a powdery quality, almost like Orris. How unusual for Neroli! As it drys down, something about this makes my head go, “wet dog.” Ha! Wonder why? On closer sniff, it’s a note of intense green-orange bitterness. Foliage. But I still can’t shake the “wet dog” association.
  • Neroli, Egypt, Organic – At first, almost indistinguishable from the first one. Same rooty/earthy quality, more complex but far less intense.
  • Neroli, Morocco, Organic – Sharp, green, fresh, with a bitter top note – straight-up, classic Neroli. Reminiscent of Petitgrain, but lighter and more floral. Overall strong, bold character for a Neroli with excellent tenacity for this material. Nicely unisex. A touch of lime. All-around winner!
  • Neroli Extra, Tunisia – Another classic Neroli. Prettier, more floral than the Moroccan. Soft, delicate, by comparison. As it warms on the skin it becomes much sweeter. Pretty with a sprinkle of sultry. Another winner!
  • Neroli, France – Ah, this one makes me sigh and flutter my eyelids! Most delicate creature of all, ethereal and fairy-like, but still with that classic Neroli sharp/green/dry/bitter profile. It’s sweeter than most, but not as sweet as the Tunisian. It might be fun to blend the two for the perfect femme Neroli note? Drawback: Extremely fleeting. But so pretty and innocent!

Now for the orange blossom…

  • Orange Blossom Absolute, Egypt – Dark green viscous liquid. Yea gods – NO, I do not like this. Dark green, and at first smells green, dank, musky and of vegetable rot to me. As it dries out, it lightens a bit and smells heavy and spicy. Others have waxed poetic about its sensual quality. It is likely that I need to smell this very diluted – then perhaps I’d have a better appreciation for its character. Sniffed straight up, however, it makes me want to run for the hills! My body vibrates with, “NO!” I keep sniffing anyway, trying to understand it, but this one is tough for me to love. That said, I think this might blend beautifully with Sandalwood or other woody/spicy notes. Okay, as this warms up, it’s growing on me. Strikes me as a masculine, powerful, spicy, and sensual floral. Not my style, but an intriguing and powerful note. Okay fine, I’m fascinated. What IS this stuff?! So complex. There’s another weird, almost herbal-leathery facet happening here. Never once have I thought “floral.” This might smell amazing on a man. Spice, spice, and more spice. And sweet leather. Wow! DARK SEXY ORANGE BLOSSOM.
  • Orange Blossom Absolute – Fine, Morocco – Eek! Double the price of the first one, but this is the one I bought blind, unsniffed, before getting the sampler pack. Lesson learned. Dark amber-orange viscous liquid. Again with a nasty green rotten vegetable top note, though not as instantaneously off-putting as the Egyptian. I have experimented with this one in a couple of perfume blends, and I find that the green note lingers, and goes “tobacco-y” in compositions, at least to my nose. This is one reason it works so well in the Orange Blossom-Tobacco solid perfume. As it dries down, it becomes a very rich green-white floral note. The rotten compost nasties linger too long for my taste. Again, this stuff is so powerful I probably should be smelling it diluted. Maybe I just don’t know how to work with it properly, and it can only be used in trace amounts. Or maybe next time I should buy the Egyptian? I try and try to like this but am disappointed. Tenacious stuff though, I’ll grant it that.
  • Orange Blossom Organic Extract – Spicy food. What on earth? This has a pungent, earthy, spicy aroma that makes me think of some Asian dish that I can’t quite put my finger on. Very warm and deep. Cooked / stewed citrus vibe. Smoky? The material itself is viscous dark brown liquid. No harsh green notes! The organic extraction method (no hexane) means it’s safe for therapeutic uses and even food. The tenacity on this is pretty incredible, and several hours later it’s morphed into something animalic, rich and musky. Weird. Wonderful.

Comparative Study: Jasmine

Confederate Jasmine

Confederate Jasmine

For a formula I’m trying out, I need a single drop of jasmine. Just one! But which jasmine?

My favorite jasmine is the one that grows wildly over my back courtyard wall – Confederate Jasmine (also called “Star Jasmine” or “Chinese Jasmine”) – which loves hot climates and flourishes all over the Southern US. It has an aroma that’s honey sweet, fresh, and narcotic. At the height of blooming season (late April-early May) just walking out into the garden is like walking into a humid blanket of scent. The intoxicating fragrance brings an immediate smile to my face, and a quickening of the senses – while at the same time making me feel lulled and drowsy. Meanwhile, my ears fill with the thrumming buzz of the honeybees. The combined effect is nearly hypnotic, and I often find myself drifting over to smell the blossoms like a sleep-walker.

Still, this is a fresh jasmine, and the scent of a living flower is impossible to capture perfectly in the natural raw material. When we smell a flower, we are actually smelling the volatile molecules in the air around it. The air around the flower has a different chemical makeup than the essential oil, concrete, or absolute once it’s extracted from the plant – so the flower extracts can never smell the same as the living flower on the stem. Perfumers are forever using their noses and intuition or more recently, fancy headspace technology and gas chromatography to analyze the “living scent” of a flower and try to reproduce it.  The late, hilarious Alec Lawless of Essentially Me UK created some videos explaining how gas chromatography can be used to fake an extremely expensive rose otto. The whole thing spoofs the clandestine nature of the perfume industry through an “interview” with a masked man whom I suspect is Lawless himself. Anyhow, it’s informative and funny, and worth watching if you’re curious about gas chromatography.

ANYWAY. Back to the matter at hand: Choosing a jasmine.

Eden Botanicals conveniently offers a jasmine sampler pack – so I purchased that and began sniffing my way through it to compare the scents and pick one for my blend.

Eden Botanicals Jasmine Sampler Pack

Eden Botanicals Jasmine Sampler Pack

  • Jasmine Absolute, Grandiflorum, India – Grandiflorum is the classic jasmine. This one is beautiful, white floral, narcotic, extremely sweet with great longevity. There is no plastic-y note that I sometimes detect in jasmine. This one is rounded, rich, and voluptuous. It’s so sweet there is almost a boozy-quality to it. The liquid itself is dark yellow-orange.
  • Jasmine Absolute, Sambac, India – Sambac is typically a spicier jasmine than Grandiflorum, and this one is true to character. A gorgeous jasmine that is spicier, greener, and less sweet (though still very honey sweet!) – fresher even? – than the Indian Grandiflorum. Reminds me instantly of honeysuckle and sparks a flood of childhood memories. Lots of character. Intense. Perhaps my favorite of this set. Liquid is dark amber color.
  • Jasmine Absolute, Grandiflorum, Egypt – This Grandiflorum is very similar in character to the one from India, but to my nose of lesser quality. Less sweet? Less fresh? Still very pretty and nice though! It just doesn’t elicit the silent “wow” of the other. Drydown is very soft and pretty, and less intense/strong than the one from India.
  • Jasmine Grandiflorum Organic Extract, Egypt – This jasmine was altogether unique – very different from what I am used to. It’s extracted using benign solvents, so it’s certifiably organic and very safe for aromatherapy. Neat! It is a green color, with some particles. The scent itself is soft, very slightly medicinal?, cooling, sweet, a bit spicy/tangy – almost with a hint of Anise? It’s very hard for me to describe, and doesn’t read as classically jasmine, but is a beautiful, tranquil, and very calming and pretty scent.
  • Jasmine Grandiflorum CO2, India – This would be hard to work with for the beginner (moi!) it’s a waxy yellow concrete paste. Might be good for solid perfume? At first, I did not like the scent of this one very much. But I noticed that it lasted a long time on the scent strip, and lingered pleasantly.

Ultimately for my blend I chose the Jasmine Grandiflorum from India. It’s voluptuous, rounded quality might work well to bring together the spicy notes I will be working with. Still…the Sambac and the Organic Extract both piqued my curiosity – and I’d love to work with them in the future.

Compartive Study: Rose Absolutes

Rosa damascena

Rosa damascena “Jacques Cartier” (Moreau Robert 1886 ) by Patrick Nouhailler

The first recipe I want to make calls for “Rose Absolute” – and ah, that can mean so many things! Figuring that there’s no such thing as “too much rose” I ordered three different small samples when I was stocking up on essential oils.

To test them, I put a drop of each on its own fragrance tester strip and sniffed, made notes, rested my nose, sniffed again, made more notes.

Rose de Mai Absolute

It’s amazing the degree of variation in such similar materials. The most unique one was “Rose de Mai” – which makes sense, as it’s a cabbage rose, Rosa centifolia, a slightly different species than the other two, which are both Rosa damascena.

Although this particular essence came from roses grown in Egypt, “Rose de Mai” is the rose famously grown in the region of Grasse, France and so it’s intimately connected to French perfumery. The liquid itself was the lightest in color, a light green-yellow, with a piquant, fresh, sweet, and a lightly spiced / peppery character with hints of green. This is a sprightly rose, rather than a sultry sexy rose – I found it to be my favorite, and also the most unique. It seemed..individual, pretty – but perhaps a bit unwilling to blend? It has its own precise character. And while the scent was strong, after I had smelled the other roses, I found myself unable to pick it up after I had sniffed the others, and so I wondered if it would bury easily when mixed with other strong scents. On the tester strip at least, it turned out to be surprisingly tenacious, given its “airy” character. Another thought: it immediately brought to mind Serge Lutens’ Sa Majeste la Rose.

Rose Absolute, Bulgaria

Bulgarian rose has a reputation for being most prized among perfumers. My 5 year old daughter immediately named this one her favorite. “This one smells strong! I like strong smells!” Wow, this is a rosy ROSE!  From my notes: Spicy, sweet, more vegetal than Rose de Mai – less light/fresh/green – denser, fruitier, apricot(?) – STRONGER, more savory. A maximum strength ROSE – the classic, straight up and intense. ROSE ROSE ROSE. Dark orange-red juice. Not a fussy and fickle beauty like Rose de Mai. This damask rose from Bulgaria was more a gorgeous country girl, rosy cheeked and sturdy, strong and beautiful. It turned out (not surprisingly) to have the best tenacity.

Rose Damascena Absolute, Turkey

From my notes: Beautiful! Fruity, sweet, jammy. A honey rose, soft, round, and mellow. Yellow-orange juice. Since the recipe I want to make is not a floral blend at all (rose plays only a supporting role) – I chose this one since it seems like it may blend well and round things out. This one had the least tenacity on the tester strip though.

Beginning with Mandy Aftel

Mandy Aftel's Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

I suppose I have to begin somewhere, right? The world of fragrance is like a forest – it’s easy to get lost. When wandering, it’s best to have a guide. When I first starting smelling all the smells (sniffing all the sniffs?) I read Luca Turin’s and Tanya Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide and sniffed along with the help of samples from Luckyscent, The Perfumed Court, and Surrender to Chance. I didn’t agree with everything that Turin and Sanchez said, and yet – by using their ideas as a North Star, I was able to begin sampling dozens, then hundreds of perfumes (yes, really, hundreds – the sampling habit became rather addictive! not that I’m sorry…), and as I followed along I understood more of what I was encountering.

Similarly, now that I’m dabbling in the world of DIY fragrance, I have to put my toe in the water somewhere, so it might as well be with Mandy Aftel. Aftel is a bit like the Alice Waters of natural perfumery – she takes French ideas, peels them back to their simplest and most essential forms, and make them accessible, natural, Californian, and relaxed. I’d had Essence & Alchemy on my shelf for ages, and never quite made time to read it – and then, when the urge to mix my own scents suddenly hit – I devoured it in a few days, then moved on to Fragrant.

So, I’ll be taking Mandy as my Beatrice, my first guide on what is likely to be a long and circuitous tour. Both books are a pleasure to read – modeled, I’m guessing, after some of the wonderfully hodge-podge alchemical texts Aftel has in her collection. There’s a lot of lore, history, and delicious information – sprinkled here and there with recipes, some old, and some Aftel’s. Fragrant in particular, structured as it is around cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine, lends itself to being a beginner’s cookbook of natural perfumery. For each essence, there is a recipe for a solid, oil, and alcohol-based perfume – so that it’s really possible to explore the nuances of each scent and how it morphs in different carrier media.

I’ll take these as a guide for conducting some of my first experiments…and we’ll see where things go from there.