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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Special Edition fragrance: Deco

I'm starting something new today - an irregular series of Special Edition fragrances - each is a one-off or very small edition (never more than ten) of a special fragrance.  Each is sold in an interesting bottle, perhaps an antique or collectable bottle from years gone by, perhaps a beautiful art glass container originally sold empty but always something a bit special.
Deco: A Pell Wall Special Edition

The first of these is Deco and it will be on sale, to just one or two lucky buyers, at Big Red's House art gallery in Whitchurch Shropshire.

I've made just enough of the fragrance to fill the bottles you see here including a tester, plus a reference sample that I'll keep. Of course the buyer of the fragrance will be able to purchase a re-fill should they wish to - I have the formula for Deco safely stored away - but it won't be available for anyone else (though I do reserve the right to produce a further Special Edition featuring Deco, on a similarly tiny scale and sold in a different bottle, at a different concentration).

A Pell Wall Special Edition is almost like having a bespoke fragrance made just for you.

Deco recalls the classic scents like Channel No 5 and L'Air du Temps from the first half of the 20th Century but with an unusual twist: in Deco as well as the lovely bergamot top notes and smooth, floral and aldehydic tones you might expect, you'll find the unique spicy-floral scent from the rare and precious oil called Plai: Zingiber cassumunar a member of the ginger family from Thailand where it is widely used as a therapeutic oil.  In addition to the characteristic spiciness of ginger it has a lemon-floral character that brings something quite special to this complex fragrance, which also features notes of narcissus, rose, carnation and orange flower on a base composed with sandalwood, ambergris, vanilla and musk.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

A sad weekend at Pell Wall

It's been a sad weekend here at Pell Wall.  For 17 years I've been owned by a small dog named Jet who passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Jet: 28th January 1996 to 16th February 2013
She was a special friend and will be missed very much.  I've put together a few pictures of her around the house over the last few years as a little remembrance.

The picture of her peering up at me through the bamboo was taken late summer 2012 - I think she was supervising me while I took out the rubbish - like any responsible owner, she supervised whether I needed it or not.

Jet by Kat Foster
I'm sure I saw a snake here somewhere . . .
The painting was done for us in December last year by Kat Foster, a young artist working at the same shop in Newport where I sell my range of perfumes.  Kat worked from a photograph I took of Jet on her 16th birthday, when it hardly seemed possible she would stay with us for another year.
Checking for evidence, Spring 2012

In the snow, January 2013
Here you can see her exploring the garden in differing conditions.  By January this year running in the snow was no-longer an option, but she still enjoyed going out in it.

It was hard to imagine for those who only knew her in her later years, but she got her name not so much because was mostly dark coloured as because she was so fast - a jet-plane among dogs.  Chasing birds was one of her earliest pleasures.

The indoor picture shows her sat in the middle of some paperwork I was trying to do sat up in bed: evidently on this occasion close supervision was required.

Jet, not doing the filing
Seventeen is a remarkable age for a pedigree Sheltie (normal lifespan for the breed is 12-13 years) and she was fortunate to remain happy and mobile  (albeit slowly and not too far) right up until her 17th birthday.  She was still waiting at the door to give a wagging welcome when Angela came home from work late on Friday evening.
Later that night she became suddenly very distressed, we stayed with her to comfort her through the night but by 5.30am she'd already chased off Death several times (no doubt leaving him with the seat of his robe torn) so we decided, very reluctantly, that we'd have to call in help.  In the event by the time the vet arrived at 6.30 Jet had already slipped into a coma so she was unaware of the injection.

 A peaceful final resting place for Jet
We buried her at a spot at the end of the garden yesterday morning and went to choose some plants to mark the place in the afternoon.  I took the picture of the spot today - if you're interested in these matters the flowering bush in the middle is Hamamelis x intermedia 'Aphrodite' and we chose it because it is beautiful, slow growing and with luck it will flower each year around the time of her birthday and be still flowering by the anniversary of her death.

~~~~ updated 17th April 2013 ~~~~

Two months to the day today and the new Pell Wall Pack that have come take on Jet's mantle have been dominating our time and attention for some time now, but I thought I'd take a moment as the sun went down last night to capture the way her resting place looks now: the snowdrops are gone and Hammamelis is more-or-less over now - though it flowered on throughout the March snows - but the heather looks even better and now there are dwarf daffodils in flower, with more to come as these go over and the first shoots of lilies have emerged too.
Jet's grave in April 2013

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Violets on Mothering Sunday

A Posy of Violets on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday has been celebrated here in Britain for a very long time.  Here I'm exploring some of the history of the Day and it's links with scented flowers.

The terms Mother’s Day and Mothering Sunday are used more-or-less interchangeably, but historically they are different events.  The modern Mother’s Day was ‘invented’ in the United States by Julia Ward Howe who wrote The Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870 and Ann Jarvis and her daughter Anna who, in the early years of the 20th Century first founded work-groups and later started a campaign for an official US holiday.  President WoodrowWilson signed that into US law in 1914, establishing the holiday and fixing the date as the 2nd Sunday in May.  Many other countries, often replacing or incorporating existing traditions, have taken up this form and date since.

Wild Violets for Mother's Day
painting by artist Paul Wolber
Here in Britain, the much older tradition of Mothering Sunday retains its status as a movable feast, celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent.  Thought to go back to the 16th Century practice of returning to one’s mother church – usually the nearest Cathedral – on this day, dispersed families were thus enabled to be united.  This in turn is thought to derive from an earlier Roman festival honouring the mother goddess Cybele which was held in mid-March.

In the Church of England, during the Mothering Sunday service in many churches it became usual for children to give small posies of flowers to their mothers and violets in particular often featured in these: the practice was common in the 50s and still happens in some churches today.


Violets – the scented kind – Viola odorata – have a special place in perfumery.  The scent of violet flowers is sometimes described as ‘flirty’ because it seems to come and go – a feature of the ionones from which the scent is mainly composed.  It has been valued in perfumery for at least 400 years but the scent has always been difficult to capture.  Around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – just about when Mother’s Day was being established in the United States – violet perfumes were all the rage.  At this time something very special was available – violet flower absolute – made by solvent extraction from violet flowers and distilled down to the essential principle of the scent of violets.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Even then it was very rare, very expensive and exclusively used in the very best perfumes. We think that the last time violet flower absolute was extracted was around 1902: after that the increasing cost of labour made it uneconomic.  Estimates of what it would cost to produce today vary from $10,000 to $500,000 a kilo – not even the biggest perfume houses can afford that.  Today when you smell violet in a perfume it will be made with a clever combination of synthetic ionones and other chemicals present in the natural scent, recreated and combined by skilled perfumers at a fraction of the cost of extraction.  Perhaps surprisingly, that is true of many flower scents.

Oddly enough though, the little violet has the last word: even today perfumers the world over use one of a tiny number of natural green notes: violet leaf absolute with just a touch of the violet flower hidden within it, it is a lovely material.  You’ll see this romantically described in the scent notes of a perfume as crushed violet leaves – so next time you see that in a description, you’ll know what it means.

Flower Essences

Jacinth by Pell Wall
A posy of violets isn’t something you’ll see in many florists any longer and you certainly shouldn’t pick wild ones, but you could give the perfume equivalent of the posy of spring flowers as a gift this Mother’s Day. If you want real, natural essences they are few: the only spring flower still routinely extracted is narcissus – a fabulously beautiful, complex material made from Narcissus poeticus – unfortunately it has two disadvantages, first that it has a fabulous price to match it’s beauty and second that, however lovely, it does not smell at all like putting your nose to a narcissus flower: a challenge to the perfumer.

One option is a posy of mixed flowers – in my own range I have Jacinth – a sparkling mix of roses, orange flower, ylang and lily and that precious narcissus absolute is in it too. 

Deep Purple by Pell Wall
Alternatively there’s the Spring Flowers Collection of light transparent and cheerfully springlike fragrances in which you will find notes of violets, narcissus, and hyacinth plus of course, crushed violet leaves . . . 

Deep Purple is a true violet scent that might make a perfect alternative to the traditional posy of violets on Mothering Sunday.

A version of this article was first published in the March 2012 edition of the Shropshire Magazine.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Aldehydes: identification and storage

One of the fragrance ingredient groups that many people with a bit of knowledge of fragrance have at least heard of is the Aldehydes. Made famous by their inclusion in Chanel 5 they have been in widespread use in perfumes since the 1920s.

When we talk about aldehydes in the context of perfumery what is usually meant is the group of odorous chemicals more accurately called saturated aliphatic aldehydes.  There are in fact quite a lot of other aldehydes routinely used in perfumery including such commonplace materials as vanillin (the key component in vanilla) but in this post I'm focussing on that particular group with the characteristic aroma, described by perfume people as 'aldehydic'.
The structure of C12 MNA - one of the key aldehydes used in perfumery
Besides being olfactorily interesting these materials also have some special characteristics from the perspective of storage and use.  All are very powerful and hence tend to be used in very low doses but they can have a very high impact on the scent.  Several are found in nature, notably in citrus oils where they contribute to the bright, sparkling, fresh nature of those materials.

Here are some details I put together in response to a question about what exactly they are and how they should be stored and handled:
What are Aliphatic Aldehydes?
  • Octyl aldehyde (AKA Aldehyde C8 or octanal)
  • Undecenyl aldehyde (AKA Aldehyde C11 undecylenic;Aldehyde C11 enichendecenal or Aldehyde C111)
  • Undecylic aldehyde (AKA Aldehyde C11 undecylic or undecanal)
How do you store aliphatic aldehydes?
Aliphatic aldehydes (saturated) are the ones most people mean when they talk about aldehydes in the context of perfume:
But notice that the so-called Aldehyde C14 (AKA Peach Aldehyde or gamma-Undecalactone), Aldehyde C16 (Strawberry glycidate or lots of alternate names) and Aldehyde C18 (Coconut Aldehyde or gamma-Nonalactone) are not on the list because they are not in fact aldehydes at all*.

There are lots of other aldehydes but they don't exhibit the same special characteristics for storage purposes as the saturated aliphatic aldehydes - the ones listed above are the main ones used in perfumery, though there are a few others used by some manufacturers as captives*.
All the saturated aliphatic aldehydes are best diluted in a primary alcohol* as soon as you get them - in alcohols they form hemi-acetals which smell like the aldehyde they are formed from but are much more stable (in solution). Personally I like to keep my aldehydes at 1% for blending purposes but for storage 10% is more practical as it keeps the volume you have to store more manageable.

If you keep them neat they tend, over time, to either oxidise into the corresponding acids, which smell nasty; or polymerise into trimers, which have no smell at all. The presence of any acid (including oxidation products) will accelerate the trimer production significantly. The really counterintuitive point is that trimers continue to form at very low temperatures and seem to form faster, so you should keep your aliphatic aldehydes at room temperature until you've diluted them in alcohol.

You'll know if your aldehydes have trimerised because, besides smelling less strong than they should, they will have become thicker & will eventually be solid at room temperature as the trimer has a much higher melting point.

Adding BHT or other anti-oxidant can help with both problems, though won't eliminate them completely. There is also some evidence that they keep better in aluminium than in glass.

At Pell Wall we’ve found in practice that by far the worst culprit for trimer formation is Aldehyde C12 Lauric.  It’s so bad that we don’t sell the undiluted material at all: as soon as fresh stock arrives we dilute it to 10% in ethanol and benzyl alcohol and sell it in that form so that it remains in good condition.


* these materials came to be called Aldehydes because when they were first discovered the manufacturer wanted to conceal their chemical identity and so deliberately mis-named them to confuse those who might want to copy the new molecules.  It helped that they had a comparable power to the true aliphatic aldehydes.  In many quarters the names have stuck and they are still widely referenced and sold as aldehyde C14, aldehyde C16 and aldehyde C18.

* a captive is a molecule that is either patented by or kept secret by a manufacturer for use only in their own fragrances.

*the obvious primary alcohol to use is ethanol (or Perfumer’s Alcohol), since you are probably going to use them in an alcoholic fragrance in the end anyway, but phenyl ethyl alcohol or benzyl alcohol work too and might be preferable in some applications.

Much of the information in this post is sourced from Perfume and Flavouring Synthetics by Paul Z Bedoukian

Sticky Leather Sky

The new fragrance that was developed as part of the Penning Perfumes project and unveiled at the Birmingham event last night can now be revealed.

Luckily Claire and I had similar images in mind

First I want to share with you the poem that was the inspiration for the fragrance, reproduced here with kind permission of the poet.

Listening to Charles Ives
by Claire Trévien

The street vainly imitates a theatre,
dropped pennies and reflectors footlight my walk
the rumble of a crowd gathers and storms.

Beats rain down and hide in the gutter,
rivulets form around the clutter
of the pavement’s percussion orchestra.


Sticky leather sky.

The air vibrates still
through drum-buildings.

I think of us listening to Charles Ives.
You heard cacophony, I heard the silence
after the tempest, when the bells

had ceased, but their ripples
reached to our seats like
the promise of a tomorrow.

Listening to Charles Ives appears in the collection Low Tide Lottery by Claire Trévien.

The fragrance takes its name from that striking central line - Sticky Leather Sky - it conjures such a clear image.  The fragrance was well received by the audience at the event so I'm planning on bringing it into the range as the first leathery fragrance from Pell Wall.  It will be available soon at Big Reds House, the art gallery in Whitchurch, Shropshire that showcases most of my range as well as some one-off creations alongside lots of other fascinating art work.  There will also be some for sale at the Craft Cafe in Newport Shropshire alongside all the standard Pell Wall range.

Sticky Leather Sky

Sticky Leather Sky opens with light, bright, familiar notes of bergamot that shade into fresh clean air heavy with damp.

There is a slightly metallic edge and a light woody background representing the orchestra while jasmine and orris recall the opulence of the Paris Opera.

The strong leather accord comes into play quickly and lasts and lasts providing a dominant, persistent theme.

The top notes and the leather base are a little uncomfortable with each other, just like the couple at the concert, who are discovering how different they are.

Can they stay together?

Monday, 4 February 2013

Penning Perfumes, Birmingham

I wrote previously about the Penning Perfumes project but now the moment of revelation is fast approaching!

The fragrance I created in response to a poem will be officially released for the first time at the Penning Perfumes event on the evening of Wednesday 6th February 2013 at Le Truc in Birmingham's Ladywell Walk.

I will be there, so will the poet Claire Trévien and we'll be talking about the experience - Claire will be experiencing the fragrance designed from her poem for the first time and giving her reactions live (gulp!) and I'll be talking about how I got from one to the other.  Everyone will get to smell the new creation and if it turns out you love it I'll even have a few bottles for sale.  If you don't already have one you can buy tickets now for this and future events.  Speaking of future events I see that my friend and mentor John Stephen will be creating a perfume live on stage on 21st Feb in Oxford - brave man!

I'm looking forward to a fascinating evening in Birmingham.  Ahead of the event I was asked some questions about the experience - these appear on the Penning Perfumes tumblr page, but I'm also repeating them below.

It looks as if I'm working on something in this picture - but what?

1. As a perfumer, is poetry something you’ve used to stimulate new fragrance ideas before?
There have been a lot of different sources of inspiration and different kinds of brief, but this is the first time I’ve had a poem to work from. More usual for me would be a cocktail, plant or individual scent note, sometimes just a name. Or there could be a more prosaic, conventional kind of perfume brief. This has been a great experience and has made me look back at the poetry I wrote in my youth (I don’t write much any more) to see if there might be a fragrance hiding in there somewhere …
2. What has been your experience of turning a poem into a scent for Penning Perfumes - anything you weren’t expecting, or that was easier/more difficult than you expected?
I suppose the thing that was most unexpected was how easy it was - I don’t mean to say that the perfume came together first go - no such luck! But I expected to struggle to find a match between poetic phrases and imagery and scent notes, but in fact I found they came together very quickly and within an hour or so of first reading the poem I knew roughly the direction I wanted to take the fragrance. I did cheat a bit by exchanging emails with the poet though and that caused a couple of course corrections and added dimensions to the work that I’d not seen before. One of the things that fascinated me was that the poem was itself inspired by a performance of music - so three forms of artistic expression are layered in my perfume only one of which is mine.
3. Which is the one commercially available perfume that you’d love to see turned into a poem and why?
I’d love to see Terre d’Hermes turned into a poem partly because it’s one of my favourite scents and designed by a perfumer I admire very much but also because it’s such an abstract, minimalist creation I’d love to see how it might manifest in verse.