Perfumery is fascinating. It is an art that people want to get in to but often don't know where to start. I am often asked questions about how to get in to this wonderful world and having started as keen hobbyist to now running my own fragrance house - I am more than happy to share what I have learned along the way.
Can anyone be a perfumer?
Yes. There is an enormous amount of snobbery in this industry. I have heard people who themselves started with no formal training, say things like "Well everyone thinks they're a perfumer these days." Rather like any art, just because you don't like the output, it doesn't stop the creator being a creator. As a painter uses paint to paint, a perfumer uses oils. The only thing that is going to stand in your way is the enormous amount of reading and trial and error you will need to do to develop your skills, and you own fear of sharing your creations because of the risk of people not liking them. Ditch those fears immediately. In the world of niche perfumery it is often as important to me who DOESN'T like my scents as who DOES like them. As an artist you want to stay true to your taste and vision and to serve your key customers. Those that like your work will come. You just continue to work with integrity.
Where should I start?
Let me tell you where I started. I used to order fragrance oils from a fantastic company called Plush Folly. Fragrance oils are essentially pre-made parfums that contain many ingredients which together produce a particular note or accord. These are essentially the building blocks of perfumes and it is often easier to start with larger blocks before you break it down in to its more complex parts. Each of these fragrance oils has an associated material safety data sheet (MSDS) which lists many of the ingredients within it. I would for example take a leather fragrance oil and start to buy individual ingredients listed in its MSDS and start to work out how the final leather scent was created. A rose fragrance oil helped me to learn about ingredients such as phenyl ethyl alcohol, the demascones, citronellol, geraniol, rose oxide etc. which together blend to produce a rose note. After you have done this with a handful of fragrance oils you will find you end up with quite a significant collection of aroma chemical and essential oils. I do at this point want to clarify the definition of note vs ingredient. If you smell it, it's a note - a rather more abstract notion. An ingredient is what the scent actually contains, eg. iso eugenol.
Other than oils, there are some staple ingredients all perfumers need. Amazon will provide most of these. A variety of glass beakers - I use anything from 5ml to 500ml beakers depending on what I am trying to achieve. You will definitely need weighing scales that measure down to 3 decimal places (ie. 0.001g) - many ingredients are extremely potent at even 0.1% dilution and you will end up ruining your blend with even a drop too much. Talking of drops - you will need pipettes. Both the plastic disposable ones and glass pipettes are washable and reusable - though the plastic will eventually fail. Once you start using solid ingredients such as ambroxan, cashmeran, eugenyl acetate etc. you might want to invest in a magnetic stirrer. This one has served me fine but patience and a warm radiator often does the same job. You should also invest in a selection of empty bottles so you can pre-dilute your more potent oils in an appropriate base. If you prefer you can buy oils pre-diluted in an appropriate base. You will also need plenty of perfumers alcohol which tends to be a blend of ethanol, iso propyl myristate and dipropylene glycol. You can find sources to buy this below.
How do I know how much of each oil to use?
Just play. If you take the lid off a bottle and the oil is so pungent it makes you cough, it's a safe bet it needs some diluting before use. If you can't smell it at all, its either an ingredient which you are anosmic to (often musks - thats why many scents contain up to 30 musks, you are bound to be able to smell one of them) or its an ingredient that can be used at higher concentrations before it sings. That is a very very very very loose statement. Some ingredients only need tiny amounts to completely modulate a scent - the damascones are a good example of this - you will start to learn that as you go on and I learned a lot from overdosing particular ingredients. Call it swinging the pendulum. At the beginning of your learning process you need to expose your nose to as many aromas as you can. Try blending them with other oils and seeing how they behave. Get used to what you like and don't like. The world is not going to end because you made a bad perfume.
Are there any legalities or governance I need to know about?
Yes. All fragrances you create should conform to IFRA who produce guidelines on the safety of individual perfumery ingredients. Each ingredient has a CAS number which can be entered in to their standards library. If the ingredient appears on searching you can download the guidance as to the legal limit for use. For perfumery you are interested in category 4 limits. If the ingredient doesn't appear it probably has no limit. There are however some ingredients that are not "IFRA transparent" but let's not get in to that now.
What sources do you recommend?
1) The Good Scents Company - this website is incredibly useful. It lists almost every ingredient and describes its purpose. It also has suggestions for ingredients that blend well together and a recommended amount for usage in your fragrance blend or final product. This is often a good place to start with new ingredients.
2) Pell Wall - A vast selection of ingredients and blends. Pricey though.
3) Plush Folly - Ingredients, perfumers alcohol, fragrance oils, bottles, caps etc. They have it all and a more curated collection for the beginner.
4) Perfumer's Apprentice - Based in the USA so shipping can be expensive if you're not in the UK. Has some rarer musks and blends the other resources don't.
I hope you found some of the information above useful. Never forget that perfumery is supposed to be fun and relaxing and so take your time and love what you're doing. Drop any further questions in the comments below and I will try to answer them.