One of the real challenges facing newbie perfumistas (and even some of us seasoned perfumistas) is learning to pick out fragrance notes. As I've said before (see Perfumista tip: on getting to know fragrance notes), I don't think you need to be an expert either to enjoy perfume or to approach it as an art form, but a certain level of familiarity is certainly helpful — if everyone is talking about sandalwood and you have no idea what sandalwood smells like, you're left in the dark.
One alternative is to just keep on doggedly smelling different perfumes until you start to recognize and "pick out" fragrance notes, another is to smell the materials separately. The new Les coulisses du parfum kits from Osmoz, the consumer website of the fragrance & flavor company Firmenich, are designed to help you with the latter approach.
There are 3 kits in the series. Volume III, the one I'm reviewing today, is "Legendary woods & resins", and of necessity is the only one of the 3 made up entirely of natural raw materials.1 Volume III includes cedar, myrrh, sandalwood, benzoin, vetiver, patchouli, balsam fir, oak, galbanum resinoid, rockrose labdanum, oliban or incense and guaiac wood. Each is presented in a 7 ml bottle; the bottles are safely ensconced in foam inside a fold-out case that also includes 100 smelling strips.
The accompanying booklet starts with a brief foreword by perfumer Olivier Cresp. Double-page spreads on each of the 12 essences follow (see the pages for myrrh at right), providing background material on the note's origins, methods of extraction and use in perfumery. It's mostly geared towards beginners — don't go looking for technical detail — but even then, I learned a number of interesting new facts.
Some of the materials in the kit I had smelled on their own before, others I hadn't, and at least one was a revelation: I've never hated myrrh, but I've never loved it either — at least, not until I smelled myrrh "straight up" from this kit. Now I want the "necklace from Africa made of tiny lumps of dried myrrh resin" that Kevin talked about when he reviewed Diptyque's L'Eau Trois.
The first time I tried the kit, I dipped scent strips into each of the 12 essences, and went back and smelled them at various points over the course of the day. This exercise pretty much wore out my nose by the early evening; you might want to start by smelling only a few a time (although I have to say that having all 12 on paper also creates a lovely "home fragrance"). The booklet has space for you to record your impressions.
A few random notes:
The packaging and presentation is very attractive — these would make lovely gifts.
I found this kit very helpful, and it would have been absolutely wonderful to have had one of these in hand back in 2003 when I was brand new to perfume and had no idea what anyone was talking about over at MakeupAlley.
Volume III is an introduction to legendary woods and resins, not a definitive set. The booklet points out, to name just one example, that there are many kinds of cedar, each with very different characteristics — if you're the sort of completist that I am, you'll immediately feel that you really ought to be smelling all of them.
Unless for some reason you wanted to keep the kit over the long term (the essences should last up to 18 months before they begin to "evolve"), these are perfect for sharing. A few days with one kit ought to provide plenty of time to smell all of the materials, and then you could "pass it on" to someone else. I ended up smelling each of the materials on scent strips 3 times — even then, I had made no noticeable dent in the 7 ml bottles.
There was some discussion when I announced the kits of whether or not the essences could be worn on skin, so I should point out that there are warnings on the inside lid of the kit and in the booklet — they are not meant to be worn on skin, and they're in some unnamed solvent other than alcohol. I have no qualms against using things like room sprays on skin, but I did not mess with these, especially since I've already had allergic reactions to individual fragrance components that were appropriately diluted in alcohol. A few of the essences also should not be discarded with the household trash.
The Les coulisses du parfum kits are 59€ each, and can be ordered from the Osmoz website.
1. Volume I, Mythic Accords, and Volume II, Original Blossoms, both contain materials that are either only available as synthetics (such as lily of the valley), or that are now most commonly replaced with synthetics (such as musk).