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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Best & Worst Oils/Absolutes I've Ever Purchased. An Insider's Guide to buying Botanicals Without Wasting Money

Let's face it, essential oils and absolutes are expensive.  Whether you are buying a pound of lemongrass E.O. for scenting soap or an ounce of lemon petitgrain for perfumery you want to make sure you are getting what you pay for.  Adulteration of oils runs rampant.  Quality varies wildly.  While I'm not a professional nose per se, nor do I have access to a spectometer gizmo which measures the components of essential oils and can detect adulterants, I'm pretty sure I've been ripped off by a few companies.  I've received oils that smell like . . . nothing.  That's right--NOTHING.  I've received oils that smell glorious, only to find out at a later date they're not real (more on this later.)  Because I'm a cost conscious perfumer (a misnomer if I've ever heard one), I decided to compile this list of the best and worst botanicals I've purchased recently.  I want to help you avoid the pitfalls I've succumbed to and help you discover the hidden gems available while saving you money.  Please note I have no affiliation with any of these suppliers.  I'm just writing my own opinions on what I found good and what I spent way too much money on.

The Good Guys

Let's begin with the positives.  Moving from left to right in the photo.  The following seven botanicals rank high on my list for quality, aroma and price.
  • Eden Botanicals Organic Vetiver-Sri Lanka: A fantastic high quality vetiver, resinous, smooth, green and grassy with a hint of smoke.  Great tenacity and blends well with most botanicals.  The organic costs a little more bit it's worth it.  This is my favorite vetiver Eden Botanicals offers.
  • Eden Botanicals Jasmine Sambac Absolute-India: My favorite Jasmine Sambac. This is saying a lot as I'm a "jasminaholic" and have tried every Jasmine I can get my hands on.  This one's plump, fruity, musky, green and indolic.  LOVE!
  • Essential Oil University Rosewood-Brazil: (EOU claims this is the lowest priced Rosewood available on the internet AND it's good!) Before getting this rosewood, I believed rosewood smelled like pledge furniture polish.  The rosewood's I had used previously smelled astringent, lemony with a hint of oily wood in the background.  I marveled when people described rosewood as "floral" and "rosy."  Now I understand.  EOU's Rosewood is a clean, sweet rose-lemon.  You can really smell the rose!  I love this rosewood and am happy I finally got to smell a good quality oil, especially as my guilt at rosewood's over harvesting may prevent me from ordering more.  FYI--EOU claims the rosewood is from a "renewable source" but call me a wee bit skeptical . . . 
  • Liberty Natural Products Carnation Absolute-Egypt: One of the smoothest carnations I've tried.  It's much less spicy and clove-like than most carnations and very floral and sweet, reminiscent of champaca.  I've noticed as it ages the spicy notes seem to be  decreasing, and floral tones increasing.  This could be a plus or a minus depending on how you like your carnation.  I like it very much and it's priced much lower than other carnations on the market.
  • Liberty Natural Products Lavender Absolute-Bulgaria: Sweet blueberry vanilla lavender with creamy notes of green tea.  Beautiful emerald green, delicious aroma, and blends with a wider variety of botanicals than most lavenders do. Very economical, one ounce costs less than $14.00!
  • Liberty Natural Products Bitter Orange Absolute-Egypt: I'm a little nervous to write about this one.  It's always been my little secret.  Every perfume I make with this absolute garners rave reviews.  It seems to have mass customer appeal.  I LOVE it madly, and worry once I write this I'll discover my readers (all 13 of you-smile) have gone and bought all the remaining stock available from Liberty, which you should do immediately because it's that good!  I refer to this paranoia as "coffee flower syndrome."  Ahh, my beloved coffee flower absolute.  I discovered you on a whim when placing an order from Liberty.  Proceeded to make the most amazing, special, beautiful perfume with you and then, alas you were gone.  Never to return back into stock.  R.I.P. my darling coffee flower absolute.  Wherever you may be . . . Getting back to the Bitter Orange Absolute.  It doesn't smell much like traditional Orange Blossom Absolute.  It's less sharp and citrusy.  No indolic notes or sharp neroli aromas.  It's a very smooth, almost lactic orange blossom with tea notes and a vanillic undertone.  It's sensational.  It blooms in alcohol, expanding and radiating it's smooth white blossoms.  It's my favorite hidden gem.  p.s. If you decide to buy some make sure you order Bitter Orange Absolute-Egypt as Liberty has strangely named it.  The other Orange Blossom's offered are not similar.
  • Eden Botanicals Vanilla Bourbon Total CO2:  My favorite vanilla.  It boasts 26% vanillin and it's very strong.  I like that I can use less and still get lots of vanilla aroma.  It blends seamlessly in alcohol and is easy to use after warming in a hot water bath.  I find vanilla absolute hard to work with, vanilla bean tincture is wonderful but significantly colors perfumes, vanilla Co2 is perfect, and Eden's is the best I've found.  
p.s. Additionally I really like Liberty's Tuberose absolute (buttery, waxy, rich white floral) and Jasmine Grandiflorum-Egypt (sweet, creamy and powerful) as good as many higher priced jasmine grands.  Also their Osmanthus Absolute smells just as good as many higher priced options.

The Bad Guys

Now let's talk about the duds.  I would avoid these botanicals at all costs literally.
  • Liberty Natural Products Palmarosa-India:  This is definitely a case of you get what you pay for, and I umm paid very little.  This palmarosa is terrible!  It starts off sharp and acrid and only gets worse.  There's a persistent strong back note of burnt rubber and chemicals.  I get faint whiffs of peppery lemon.  Spend a little more and get something better than this, I'm sure almost any Palmarosa you can find will smell better.
  • Liberty Natural Products Kaffir Lime Leaf-Thailand: I love Kaffir Lime (Combava Petitgrain) and have ordered samples from at least four different companies.  This is the worst.  There's no sparkling bright limey green notes.  It's faded and sweet.  Why is it sweet?  It has no spunk or clarity and is a muddled sweet mess.  Stay away. Try White Lotus or Anatolian Treasures instead.
  • New Directions Frankincense-Eithiopia:  This was the first frankincense I bought when I started making perfume.  I didn't understand what all the fuss was about with Frankincense.  Mandy Aftel was raving about it.  People were blogging about "magical frankincense" and I just didn't get it.  Turns out I had the worst frankincense ever bottled.  This smells like eucalyptus mixed with turpentine.  As it ages it grows more camphorous and terrible.  I've since smelled better versions and realize I was ignoring frankincense as my initial impression was a bad one.  If anyone has recommendations for a great frank. send it my way!
  • EOU Yuzu-Japan: I am a huge yuzu fan.  I adore it's fresh zippy scent.  I've sampled a few and have always been happy, until now.  This yuzu is not good.  I actually do not believe it's real yuzu.  It smells like white grapefruit mixed with something.  Maybe another citrus oil.  I'm pretty sure it's bunk.  A big letdown as I now have one whole ounce of bad yuzu.  I thought about contacting EOU and asking them about the yuzu, but I haven't had good experiences with their customer service.  I assume I will have to chalk this up to a bad choice, money lost and move on.  Don't buy yuzu from here.
  • Eden Botanicals Tuberose Absolute:  I'm not a fan of the tuberose here.  It's floral and fussy and reminds me of old lady cologne or Fracas before I even begin blending.  I prefer my tuberose big, creamy and buttery.  I find this tuberose thin.  It's not waxy.  It's just lackluster, and it's expensive.
  • Eden Botanicals Carnation Absolute:  Again I find this absolute lackluster.  The fragrance is faint, with a weird undertone of decomposition.  I do not like it.

So, in summary there are hits and misses with most suppliers.  It's hard to write off a supplier for one bad botanical when they offer others that are good.  There's lots of opinions regarding which suppliers are the best, which have the best or worst quality.  I think it's all a roll of the dice.  A company may offer a great rose otto, but their citrus oils are awful.  Some offer beautiful but pricey absolutes but the selection is limited.  That's what's so tough about finding good ingredients.  Unfortunately, we often find out through trial and error and it can be easy to make pricey mistakes.

I usually order my botanicals from Eden Botanicals, Liberty Naturals, White Lotus, and Aftelier.  I have experience with products from many other suppliers.  I have listed my personal impressions below.

LIBERTY NATURALS: Great citrus oils.  Some great absolutes.  Website is not user friendly or informative.  Shipping takes a very long time.  The best prices.  I have had bad luck with some lower priced essential oils like palmarosa, juniper berry, nutmeg.  Avoid their Sco2's.  They don't blend in alcohol and their scent profile is faint.

WHITE LOTUS:  Amazing high quality oils, great customer service, and informative newsletter.  Website is awkward to navigate and you must email your orders.  Prices are very high.  I wish I could shop here more often.

EDEN BOTANICALS: One of my favorites.  Great website, and generous free samples.  Try before you buy.  Middle of the road prices.

AFTELIER: Rare botanicals in small sizes.  Very nice website.  You can often find botanicals here that you can't find anywhere else.  Remember the botanicals are rare and you may not be able to get them again.

NEW DIRECTIONS:  I have had bad experiences with this company ranging from them double charging my credit card, to receiving adulterated rose absolute.  Prices are low, but trust me.  It's not worth it.

ESSENTIAL OIL UNIVERSITY:  All oils are available in 1 ounce size and up.  NO samples.  I was not impressed with the absolutes I have ordered, however some oils such as patchouli and rosewood were good and very reasonably priced.  After the yuzu I received I don't think I will place another order with them.  However, for soapers or those who need larger quantities of essential oils (not absolutes) they are a good option and very economical.  Also, great prices on bulk disposable droppers here.

I'm hoping this will spur those who read this to leave comments regarding their own hits and misses.  I love trading tips and sources and maybe next time you can save me from wasting money on bad yuzu.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Halitosis or Heavenly? What To Do When Critics Pan Your Perfume & Why Gin & Tonic is Not The Answer

As the Mystery of Musk project draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on things I've learned from my participation.  I never expected the experience to be so educational.  One of the biggest lessons I've learned is on accepting criticism.

Let me be clear, I've heard my share of negative comments.  Of late, I've been hearing quite a bit.  I've been out in the field, meeting and greeting.  Talking up boutique owners, attending fashion events, networking, selling my perfumes.  People have told me they don't care for a particular scent, or that my fragrances are too expensive.  While I accept this, I do try my best to educate these people.  I try and explain the differences between synthetic and natural perfumes, the difference in cost of materials, the art of creating natural perfumes, my philosophy as a natural perfumer.  But when it comes down to it, my perfumes may not be what he or she is looking for.  My mantra has become: You can't please all of the people all of the time.  Sometimes I become entrenched in my natural perfumery world; speaking exclusively with people who make perfumes, write about perfume, or have an interest in botanicals.  It's when I step outside this world, and interact with people who have no idea what I do or why I do it that I discover I have an uphill battle ahead of me.

I'm learning to toughen up.  Rejection is tough.  Being the sensitive type, my feelings can be easily hurt when people don't respond the way I want them to.  (Which is gushing enthusiastically by the way.)  My perfumes are an extension of myself, and when people don't like them it's hard not to take it to heart.  Working in sales for years, it was a bummer to hear customers criticizing a product.  When this happened it meant I most likely wouldn't be hitting my sales target, or receiving a bonus.  Now when a customer criticizes a product, it's all mine!  A baby I slaved over for months, trying to perfect!  I realize one cannot run a successful business with this level of attachment, and I'm working on distancing myself.

Speaking of distancing myself . . . all hail the powers of a stiff gin and tonic!  The first critique posted of my new perfume Musk Nouveau described it as (having the scent of) "halitosis."  The review ended with, "After a number of hours, that note-from-hell dissipates, but the damage is already done." WHAT?  After reading this, I promptly poured myself a drink and called my Mom.  And yes, I am 35 years old.  Needless to say, my Mom was less than thrilled by my garbled (tipsy) complaints and gave me a tough love response I was not seeking, which was: "Charna--get over it.  Are you drinking gin . . . again?  It makes you maudlin, and really the review could have been worse." Really???  Worse than your perfume being described as smelling like bad breath in a blog that's read by thousands of perfumistas?  Thankfully future reviews were much more positive, and I glowed from head to toe when reading comparisons between my Musk Nouveau, and Tom Ford and even Caron perfumes.

Lesson learned.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Musk Mania

How lucky am I?  I am the recipient of 10 musk samples from fellow perfumers as a participant perfumer in the Mystery of Musk project.  The project involves eleven natural perfumers from all over the world.  Each of us blending our version of a musk perfume in a short time period, then submitting the perfume to critics, bloggers and fellow participating perfumers.  I have been sampling perfumes from some of the finest, most original perfumers out there.  I spray and sniff and muse.  The variations on the theme of musk are amazing. 
Some of the perfume samples I've received are pretty innocent florals with a light musky dry down.  Some are "hit you over the head" dark blends that scream musky, earthy, dangerous.  Some are unlike anything I've ever smelled (Dionysus I'm talking to you.)
I've always been a fan of sampling other perfumers creations.  I'm often surprised when speaking with perfumers who admit to not sampling other natural perfumes.  By sampling I learn many things.  I learn something about the perfumer, their partialities, their strengths.  Are they drawn to woody earthy blends?  Do they excel at sparkling florals?  What is their best selling scent?  I marvel at how some samples last forever.  I pour over the list of perfume notes trying to discern how the perfumer created such longevity.  I discover new botanicals I've never worked with.  Sampling perfumes is a great barometer for any perfumer.  Are my blends stronger, weaker, sweeter, louder, softer?  Compare and contrast, sniff and muse.  Admire and contemplate.
That being said, I'd like to post my thoughts on my fellow perfumers Musk creations.  Each is highly original and no two are remotely similar.  I'd like to highlight this fact as some folks inexperienced with natural perfumes tend to lump all natural perfumes in together stating they all smell the same.  Au contraire!  Considering each perfumer was given the same task, time frame and suggested botanicals I find it amazing to note the differences with each creation.  This is a stark contrast to the mainstream perfume industry which of late seems to be releasing the same syrupy fruity floral scent over and over again.
Tallulah B.2 by A Wing & A Prayer Perfumes: I really love this scent.  It's pretty, feminine, floral, with a soft vanilla-musk baby powderish drydown.  I believe this fragrance would be a good introduction to natural perfumes for a wearer accustomed to traditional synthetic fragrances.  It's very clean and free of any dark, musty earthy notes that can scare off some natural perfume newbies.  Tallulah B. also has good staying power and seems to be a what I can only describe as a "skin scent" that lasts for hours.
The color of Tallulah B.2 is crystal clear (!) and causes me the dreaded perfumer's envy as my blends are darker in color.  Hmph.  Is it a crime to like oakmoss (dark brown), pink lotus (orange) and violet leaf (green)?  On a side note, the crystalline color of the beautiful scent has prompted me to try and create a clear perfume.  I sat down at my blending table and after much examination pulled approximately seven bottles of oils and absolutes from my extensive collection . . . gulp.  Dear Jane, how did you do this?  Kudos.
Craving :  I was eagerly waiting to receive this delectable scent from down under once Ambrosia let it slip that it was a gourmand creation.  Craving was worth the wait!  Craving impressed me as I found it:
1. gourmand but not overly sweet; a sophisticated edible
2. unisex (hard to do with ingredients like cocoa and hazelnut)
3. lasted for hours
To me Craving smells like coffee, cocoa, toasted hazelnuts, honey, maple syrup and smokey vetiver.  I enjoyed wearing this scent, and kept sniffing every few seconds noting the subtle changes.  I appreciate the linear notes of Craving.  This is not a scent that changes drastically as one wears it and I appreciate this, as I know the difficulty involved with creating a natural perfume that is seamless throughout the stages of drydown.  Craving screams autumn to me.  I want to wear it on a cool fall evening, while taking a walk, listening to the leaves crunch underfoot, and smelling the first faint whiffs of chimney smoke.  Definitely appropriate for both men and women.

Kewdra by Anya's Garden:  Disclaimer: I am biased against kewda, a.k.a. pandanus flower, a.k.a. psychotically strong sharp floral that overpowers everything I blend with it even when heavily diluted, a.k.a umm, I think you get the idea.  To be fair, I've only sampled one kewda absolute from Liberty Naturals.  Maybe there's a kewda out there I'd like better?  I'm not sure how Anya tamed the kewda beast, but she did.  This scent grows on me more and more each time I try it.  Anya seems to have enhanced the elusive velvety almost chocolate note that kewda has, something I try to do each time I work with this botanical and never succeed.  Not that Kewdra is a gourmand scent, but there's something lurking underneath there that's elusive, soft and yummy.  Normally I don't care for ambergris either, but I do in Kewdra.  I think I can smell it, and I LIKE it.  I found Kewdra risky, completely original and full of moxie.  The drydown of Kewdra is my favorite part.  It's delectable and very long lasting. Kewdra makes me want to don a low-cut bohemian dress with lots of gold bangles and eyeliner on a sexy date for Indian food and flirt with the waiter when my husband goes to the restroom.

Dionysus by Lords Jester:  This is one crazy scent.  There's an intriguing yeasty top note that I can't get enough of.  It's odd and I like it.  It smells like malt or brewers yeast.  I can then smell honey and a vegetable aroma, then comes an animal musky note.  Like goats or sheep.  Growing up on a farm with hippies in the middle of nowhere (Oh alright, it was a commune) my father was partial to pouring warm freshly squeezed goats milk on our morning cheerios.  Needless to say, my little brother and I were no longer hungry or amused by this turn of events and dreaded the warm musky invasion into our morning cereal.  Consequently, I'm not wild about the smell of goats as it brings grisly flashbacks of morning cereal gone wrong.  That being said, I think some perfumers such as Adam and Anya successfully use this animalistic note in their perfumes.  For me Dionysus is a roller coaster of smells and memories in the coolest way possible.  Definitely unisex and unique.  I'm off to to my happy place now where the milk is cold, from cows and my cheerios smell of oats.

Drifting Sparks by Artemisia Natural Perfumes: There's something oceanic about Lisa's Drifting Sparks perfume that I love.  It's a clean floral woody scent, with a salty musk that weaves in and out of the fragrance.  I smell notes of lightly smoked woods and salt water and sunscreen.  Drifting Sparks reminds me of the New England sea coast, with it's untamed rocky beaches, cold water and crashing waves.  The fragrance lasted quite awhile on my skin, and each time I sample this fragrance I become more and more impressed.  Lisa mentioned she used the blossoms of the nyctanthesus aboritistus in Drifting Sparks and I'm unfamiliar and now curious about this botanical. 

Sensual Embrace by JoAnne Bassett:  Very refined, sophisticated and french.  I smell the clementine, rose and tobacco and it blends beautifully.  I find it very clever that Sensual Embrace contains tobacco as it lends itself perfectly to the 1920's theme of the Mystery of Musk project.  I inhale Sensual Embrace and I'm instantly transported to the leathered backseat of a car, where an elegant flapper lounges sullenly puffing a cigarette in a long black holder.  Her earrings flash in the dusky light as she pouts waiting to arrive at the dimly lit jazz club where she can imbibe her first gin fizz of the evening.

Grains de Paradis by Sharini Parfums Naturels: I'm in LOVE!  Grains de Paradis is amazing.  I can't stop smelling myself.  Nicolas made this creation in two strengths.  It's with deep sadness I write that I only received the first, lighter version.  When the second envelope from France arrived, I gleefully pulled it from the mailbox only to find it had ripped and the precious, intense version of Grains de Paradis was gone, lost forever.  I believe there is a postal carrier here in Rhode Island who smells divine!

Out of all the musk samples I received, this one smelled most like the traditional musks I am familiar with.  It has a Jovan white musk type aroma and I mean this is the best possible way.  It's a compliment.  I was surprised that such an aroma I associate with synthetic musk perfumes could be created with naturals.  Strangely, the first time I tried the perfume I found it a beautiful crystalline musk.  The second time I tried the perfume, it smelled less musky and more floral and the cherry notes seemed more predominate.  Either way, it's lovely.  My green eyed monster reared it's ugly head as I realized it would be nearly impossible for me to create something similar myself.  The more I read about the labor intensive process involved with creating this scent the more discouraged I became.  I realized I must complete the following checklist in order to even come mildly close to recreating this amazing perfume: 

1. Promptly move to France
2. Pick bushels of wild cherries in the Herault valley for tincture
3. Use no absolutes (what? How the heck . . . ?)
4. Create enfleurage pomades from scratch during a month long harvest of genet blossoms.  Blossoms will be hand picked by myself and partner, followed by an 18 step enfleurage process. 

See?  No problem at all.
Grains de Paradis has above average sillage and a feminine musky, slightly floral/fruity aroma.  I adore this perfume.

Musk Eau Natural by Parfums des Beaux Arts:  This potent beauty packs a musk wallop at a 30% concentration and I appreciate it!  I smell ambrette, beeswax and angelica (?) and the scent transports me back in time.  For some reason Musk eau Natural makes me think of Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.  Maybe it's the beeswax, or the sexy musky aroma that can only be smelled at very close range.  There's something taboo or forbidden about Musk eau Natural that I can't put my finger on.

Verdigris by Bellyflowers: I smiled when I inhaled the complex aroma of Verdigris.  I have been working on a similar blend, with similar components for the last year.  However, in the case of Verdigris, Elise has created a masterpiece whereas my various blends languish in sample bottles with notes reading "too sharp" or "too much sage, add more orris." I love the ambergris here and the smooth, suppleness it adds to the bright clary sage and lavender.  I detect a light sweet musk in the base.  I find Verdigris a unisex green fragrance, which I enjoy wearing.

Temple of Musk by Strange Invisible Perfumes:  This sample starts out with a blast of black currant bud, followed by a slightly medicinal note of myrtle, slowly the aroma of a soapy ambrette arises, followed by a slight sweetening.  This is the cleanest musk I've ever smelled.  I know a "soapy ambrette note" makes no sense, but I swear it's there.  I found this perfume interesting as I've not smelled such a combination before.  I always think of "dirty" when I think musk and it was refreshing to smell something so totally unexpected.  

Whew.  Done for now.  Look for my next post coming soon titled "Halitosis or Heavenly? What To Do When Critics Pan Your Perfume & Why Gin & Tonic is Not The Answer"  :)