The DIY Perfume Lab

99 Bottles of Tonic on the Wall ...

Niagara Apothecary in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

Designing Your Workspace

When designing your workspace, one of the first things to consider is air quality. Essential oils and aroma chemicals are, of course, smelly! Good ventilation and odor containment are important considerations when setting up your lab. For your own health, and also for your ability to detect differences between scents, you need to keep the fragrant “noise” to a minimum. Some options to consider:

  • Install an exhaust fan (like the kind you find in bathroom ventilation).
  • Manage the trash. Use a can with a lid that seals.
  • Store raw materials in cabinets with doors that shut (glass or plastic doors allow view of bottles).
  • When testing perfumes on scent strips, consider using a bell jar, or a homemade one out of plastic bottle.
  • Wear disposable latex gloves to avoid contaminating your fingers.

Your “bench” or worktable may be subject to aroma chemical spills from time to time, so choose a non-reactive, non-absorbent surface that’s easy to clean. Some options:

  • Stainless Steel – food prep tables from restaurant supply companies work well, for example.
  • Formica
  • Glass top – tempered is best.

Refrigeration. Some aroma chemicals, like the citruses, will have a longer shelf life when refrigerated. Consider getting a mini fridge or a wine fridge.


Lab Equipment List

Lab Notebook – Always take notes. Take notes when smelling and familiarizing yourself with a new chemical. Take notes as you formulate a new blend. Note what works, note what doesn’t. Note everything.

Digital Scale accurate to 0.01g – Perfume industry professionals measure raw materials by weight. Ohaus makes a pricy but nice scale. And there are less expensive options, too. Several good people on Basenotes recommend this one from Old Will Knot that seems to have all the right features at a good price.

Tiny Glass Beakers – If you are working by volume (many recipes are in drops/ml), you’ll want to be able to measure accurately in ml. Look for beakers with small graduations (10, 15, 30 ml). You can find these at lab supply companies or nifty vintage beakers on eBay. These 25 ml graduated beakers at Aqua Oleum in the UK are some of the most ideal beakers I’ve seen, and very reasonably priced.

Pipettes or droppers

Stirring rods

Tiny funnels. You can also get them in glass.

Fragrance Tester Strips

And maybe something like this to hold all those test strips, or like this. Or possibly this. I’ve also heard you can use chopstick rests.

Casseroles – for melting small quantities of beeswax if you are making solid perfumes.

Curettes for scooping out viscous and resinous absolutes like vanilla, benzoin, and fir. You can find them in bamboo or stainless steel.

Hot Plate
If making solid perfumes, you will need a heat source. You can work over your kitchen stove with a double-boiler – or if you’d prefer not to work in your kitchen, you can get a hot plate as an alternative heat source. There are a range of options.

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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.