How do I reverse engineer a smell?
April 13, 2007 11:57 AM   Subscribe

How do I reverse engineer a scent?

Well over a decade ago I purchased a small vial of homemade perfume/cologne in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show. I am getting close to using the last of it, but I love the smell so much I want to figure out a way to copy it.

It is not patchouli, or any of the other common scents you find in that crowd. I do believe that there is some Frankincense and most probably Myrrh. Unfortunately these oils are quite expensive (around $50 an ounce) so I want to avoid just buying oils and mixing them. I also have no idea what the carrier oil is.
I have read Jitterbug Perfume and it did not answer my question.

Are there any Master Perfumists out there?
posted by iurodivii to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Any co-op or natural foods type store will have scads of these scents out for you to sample. Dab some frankincense and myrrh on your wrist, mix together, and see if it smells the same. For many perfumes, the scent will change after about 20 minutes, so sniff at different points in this process.
posted by yohko at 12:44 PM on April 13, 2007

Our eyes have four kinds of sensors in the retinas. Hearing involves only one kind of sensor. Our skin has six kinds of touch sensor. There are four (or five, or six, depending on who you ask) different kinds of sensors in our tongues.

But the best recent evidence is that we have upwards of a thousand different kinds of sensors in our noses, all of which are sensitive to different things. For a long time people wondered if there might be some sort of minimal list of "primary scents" comparable to the primary colors, and I've seen proposed lists of seven. All hope of that is dashed now.

Given that smell is the primary way we "taste" food (surprisingly enough) and all of the difference between "good" food and "superb" food is in the sense of smell, there's been a lot of research into this, and all of it shows that it's really F**KING difficult.

There are people out there that create synthetic scents. But what they're doing is a black art because waht they create is extremely valuable. These are the folks who create the "artificial and natural flavoring" which you'll find listed as an ingredient on nearly every kind of processed food you buy.

Perfuming is another aspect of this, and that too is very big business. Which means that their knowledge and techniques are closely guarded.

What you bought may or may not have been professionally produced even if it seemed to be sold in informal packaging. If it was professionally produced, the formulation might be extremely complex. Some perfumes have literally hundreds of different scent compounds mixed together.

But if you're really serious about this, the place to start is with a gas chromatograph.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:17 PM on April 13, 2007

Maybe you can take it here?

I have spent time crafting my own scents at a similar place locally, and as the staff was knowledgeable and helpful there, your local perfumery may be the same, whether in helping you deconstruct the scent or approximating a recreation of it!

Synthetic essential oils are much more affordable and more widely used.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:21 PM on April 13, 2007

The movie (or book) Perfume actually has a lot of fascinating technical info about perfume, scent mixing, extraction and preservation. Just don't start killing virgins for their scents, please.
posted by kamelhoecker at 5:38 PM on April 13, 2007

This would be an extreme, but I once had a chemical engineer friend tell me that she could take nearly anything and break down the compounds and reverse engineer it. Whether or not it can be done, I'm not sure.
posted by perpetualstroll at 7:36 AM on April 14, 2007

I would take it to a competent local natural perfumer and ask them to match it for you.

The process of blending scents is complex and nonlinear: scent A plus scent B does not necessarily equal a blend of the two.

For example, according to scent expert Luca Turin, banana + lemon = jasmine. Also, mint + rum = black current.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:03 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

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