In The Studio – Xesty

Crafting Perfection: A Decade of Love, Trials, and Triumphs in Perfume Making

The story of Xesty begins in 2012, when I first became aware of natural perfume as an art form. While ten years may seem long to most people, when it comes to making perfume it seems a fleeting journey of delight. The concept for this perfume seized me and refused to let go. Somehow I was convinced that I could, should, MUST make a perfume that reproduced a particular smell memory; something deliciously sensual. 

Reflecting on how Xesty came to be, I realized that it is the singular example of my journey as a perfumer.  Never giving up on that seminal idea, as I learned about natural perfume materials and finally began to practice the Slow Scent® method of perfume making, I clung to my hope to create a perfume to manifest that vision. In fact, if it weren’t for my obsession with the idea behind Xesty, I would have never had the determination to stick with perfume making.

 

Learning about Perfume, Transforming into Perfumer

Luckily, I have a vast reserve of patience; and fortunately, I don’t have too much pride, because my first attempts were not only unsuccessful but—honestly—embarrassingly bad. Not only did I lack the fundamental knowledge of how to construct a perfume, but I also didn’t know the materials.

Knowing the materials includes not only scent memory (recognition) but also understanding how each ingredient interacts with others. Did you know that many natural perfume materials don’t smell “beautiful” in the bottle? Nor do multiple “beautiful” materials make a beautiful blend. One way to think about this is that a beautiful purple and a beautiful yellow may tempt you to mix them together to make another beautiful color, but the result will be a muddy brown. Conversely, two “ugly” materials can blend in a way to make a fabulous new scent. These and many more concepts are what a natural perfumer learns through trial and error.

Being patient allows the beginner to be frugal, too—it is painful to throw away expensive oils, and mistakes are more frequent than successes. It comes down to being practical and staying in budget. Mistakes bring wisdom to learn to go slowly, using economy and discipline. Going slowly makes deeper memories and richer associations; associations with seasons, with experiences and emotions, and with all of the senses.

My first ‘perfume organ’ was a small tiered shelf and a hodgepodge of little sample vials and small bottles of my favorite oils. I had to learn slowly with this small treasure. 

Learning the materials was difficult. The only thing I had going for me was a natural appreciation for smelly things and maybe a subtle multi-sensory sensitivity. Analytical mind – definitely. Intuitive – yes. Artistic – far from it! 

Though I had to start from the perspective of a scientist, my natural inclination, this approach was fraught with roadblocks. To cultivate my creative brain I listened to a wide variety of music, started sketching things from my garden and china cabinet with colored pencils, and practiced visualizing 3D buildings and interiors. Creativity is not linear, I have come to learn. Somehow these things helped me to learn better, and to make lasting memory associations. 

Trying to do things on my own, I learned lots of things to not do. Then one day I made a reproduction of a historical perfume that was quite lovely, and I felt bold enough to work again on my original concept.

As for any endeavor, you have to start somewhere even if you don’t go in a straight line, and for my obsession I chose to start with yuzu. 

YUZU i love you

YUZU - Citrus and Floral Bouquet

According to my records, my first encounter with yuzu was at the time of the autumnal equinox in 2012. It was a life-changing experience! This enigmatic fruit was fascinating and compelling to my untrained nose. It quickly became one of my favorite essences to work with. It has been described in many ways, such as:

  • A citrus explosion; tart elegance; aromatic symphony; and citrus bliss.
  • An intoxicating fragrance with a hint of floral sweetness, reminiscent of blooming citrus blossoms. 
  • A complex and exotic bouquet that combines tartness with a delicate sweetness and subtle floral undertones.

But yuzu alone couldn’t conjure the fragrance I envisioned: a seductive blend of wearable musked candy. Picture this: skittles melting into skin, fruit lollipop flavored romantic kisses, or even gobs of marmalade on butter slathered English muffins, all harmonized with lush fruits and flowers. The grand finale? An exotic dry down, rich with sacred woods, lingering like a whispered secret. 

Most of my mistakes at this point were to keep choosing my favorite flowers and resins. But these beautiful things were not working well together. I kept gravitating to champaca absolute for the middle note, though I couldn’t bring myself to buy it at $1.00 per drop (~$560 per ounce today’s prices). 

On top of this, while building my perfume organ—my personal scent library—it became glaringly obvious: snagging a truly exquisite yuzu oil is a Herculean task. Time and again, I watched prime opportunities slip through my fingers, each missed acquisition a bitter blow. There were entire years when my project lay dormant, paralyzed by the scarcity of this precious citrus gem. Add to that, yuzu must stay refrigerated and even then has a short shelf life.

When fortune favored me with time, good yuzu, and champaca, I took the leap with these top and middle notes. 

PINK MARMALADE

In the late 1990’s Nag Champa, champaca incense, was all the rage. The flower is from the Magnolia champaca tree, originally from southeast Asia and also grown in India. Since antiquity it has been used as offerings and for personal beautification. It naturally conveys itself as unusual, sacred, and sensual. 

Champaca flower essence offers a distinctive fragrance that is both exotic and complex. It has a rich, floral aroma with hints of spice, tea, and fruit, which can add depth and sophistication to a natural perfume blend. 

Smelling red champaca absolute off the top of the bottle, it is harsh – very concentrated. When it is blended, however, it is truly luxurious without the indolic heaviness of other flowers. A little champaca goes a long way in a perfume blend. Without it, my tart candy perfume would be missing a principle harmonizing ingredient. Champaca is intriguing, exotic, and complex, but it also serves as a fixative giving cohesion of the top notes with the base notes. 

Yuzu and champaca worked really well with sandalwood, naturally, so these three formed the spine of the formula.

Despite making some lovely accords, the first trials did not have any candy qualities. It needed something daring, something sweet and toothy. It took some trial and error, but suddenly my yuzu, champaca fruit and floral accords began to smell “sticky.”The secret ingredient that made it jammy is – surprise! Douglas Fir absolute.

I still have a tiny sample of Pink Marmalade, made in 2015. It lacks the lipsmacking appeal of musk and candy but it’s good, quite good. 

Natural Isolates Graphic

Transforming a Good Perfume into a Great Perfume

In February 2019 I took the leap and went to Mandy’s studio in Berkely for my first in-person perfume class. What a game-changer! That first weekend was one of the most intense learning experiences of my life; a huge amount of information was covered experientially.

There, I used natural isolates for the first time and found the missing ingredients for a candy perfume, one of which is maltol. This is sugar, cotton candy, and even caramel in a bottle. You can smell this as the Veltol in Angel and every candy perfume that has followed. 

After that class I made several perfumes that proved to me that I had a shot at being a perfumer. Much was happening business-wise and I couldn’t work on perfume making for most of the year. The next time I could work on it was not until October of 2019. I called it Krush, because it reminded me so much of Orange Crush soda; others smelled skittles and gummi bears. Success! 

 

Lessons Learned from a Finished Perfume

For the past four years I have worn it, shared it, explored it over and over again in different seasons and for different reasons, and it never let me down. Yuzu is used at winter solstice in Japan, and I rely on Xesty in the winter when the doldrums hit. 

And it’s also great in the summer, especially those ‘hot summer nights’ when the moon rises. While I smell warm citrus wood on the skin at six hours, other smell the musk. This is exactly the intention. 

It has incredible tenacity, staying on skin for up to a day. The silage is also impressive for an all natural perfume. It’s not offensive – it’s office safe.

And here it is, updated in 2024; a couple of modifications to it, making it even more refined and sophisticated. Not only loving to wear it, but now feeling proud to show it off. 

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