The striking fragrance from the ylang ylang makes me feel good. “This flower smells of vacation, holiday and the sun,” smiles perfumer Nora Gasparini. I am at her L’Atelier perfume workshop in Bali, smelling exotic flowers. The champaka, vetiver, and a benzoin… “Jasmine is considered the king, while rose is the queen. Champaka, available in Southeast Asia (the ones available in India are more fragrant) has creamy, green notes and it is used to make some of the perfumes for men,” Gasparini explains.
Inspired by the island
Gasparini, who is from Martinique, a French island, fell in love with Bali when she moved here 10 years ago. She now runs the L’Atelier perfume studio. “I studied perfumery in Paris. Bali is my inspiration. I go to farmers all over Indonesia to discover new raw materials and try and use them in perfumes.” Gasparini says as she enjoys sharing her experiences and listening to the stories of others, she is also an Airbnb host.
The next 30 minutes are spent smelling essential oils, spices, and flowers. Gasparini hands me a white perfume testing strip dabbed in patchouli oil. It is uplifting. “Patchouli grows in Malaysia, and the plant has more than 200 aromatic molecules (normal plants have just about 10 or 15!). About 30% of all perfumes use patchouli,” she says.
We learn of top notes, middle notes and base notes that make up the perfume. Top notes are the first whiff that hits your nose. They have lighter molecules that evaporate within 15 minutes, like the citrus note. While the middles notes have average intensity, and smell pleasantly of fruits, flowers and spices, the base notes are enduring, like benzoin. The white strip dipped in benzoin smells like vanilla, delicate and tasty. “The Benzoin tree grows in Sumatra island and the oil is extracted from its sap. It is low on intensity but long-lasting.”
There is more information in store for us as we sniff at perfumed strips. “Ambergris, the fermented bile of the sperm whale, which is collected from the shores of Australia, New Zealand and Scotland, and used in perfumes for seashore, aquatic and aromatic notes. Some of the Chanel 5 perfumes use it. Combava or kaffir lime has an intense note but disappears quickly. It is used as a top note to push forward the zestiness in perfumes.”
We smell the musk of civet cats and some synthetic scents before moving on to the spices. “In Bali, we cook with spices, we also make perfumes with them,” she jokes. Cloves are widely used in perfumes. “The clove’s vanillin molecule is isolated (after multiple distillations) and used to create a vanilla-smelling perfume. Java pepper is combined with citrusy and floral notes to make perfumes for men. Nutmeg, that gives a woody or oriental feel, is a warm flavour that finds use in men’s perfumes,” explains Gasparini.
Coming to essential oils, Gasparini informs us they come from a variety of wood. “Indonesia has 75 species of trees. In Thailand, more than 30 species of trees are used in the perfume industry. Massoia wood, that grows in Papua, New Guinea and Java, and has a milky, woody, and spicy smell (used in food to create coconut flavour), finds use in the Hermessence Fragrance collection. The essential oil from agarwood, patchouli and mandarin makes some of the M7 Yves Saint Laurent fragrance for men.”
The artisanal way
There are different ways of extricating perfume and Gasparini tells us a bit about the artisanal way, where the raw materials are soaked in ethanol for a week or years to extract the aromatic molecules. Then, there is steam distillation. And, the enfluerage method where the essential oils or aromatic molecules are extracted using lard, which is an expensive process.
The best comes last as we then embark to create our own perfume. A quick test is done and it turns out that my personality is ‘Zen and Romantic’. From a wooden shelf with rows of neatly arranged little amber glass vials of essential oils (called an Organ), I pick bottles of bergamot and aquatic ones for my top notes, and then add a few drops of rose, frangipani, jasmine, lotus, orchids, and white musk for middles notes, and finally pick sandalwood and benzoin for base notes. For the next 20 minutes, I am kept busy sniffing, adding and subtracting notes to create three different combinations. I pick one that smells fresh, and intense. All I have to do is give my perfume a name. I call it Jasmyn, after my daughter.