The art of making perfume has been practiced for thousands of years. The word perfume originated from the Latin words per fumum, which means “through smoke”. Perfume making has its origins in ancient Egypt, where the Egyptians refined perfume making to an art. Perfume making was also practiced by other cultures, but Egypt is credited with the first perfumes. Before synthetic materials that are used in perfumes today were available, roots of certain plants were used to create certain scents in perfumes.
There are literally thousands of ingredients used in perfume making, both synthetic and natural. Until modern times, however, people only had roots, seeds, flowers, woods, resins and other components found in nature to use in creating their perfumes.
Over the centuries, recipes that combined certain ingredients were handed down from one generation to the next. These recipes were valued because the combination of ingredients used in them were particularly pleasing to the senses as well as long-lasting.
Eventually these ingredients came to be classified as either top notes, middle notes or base notes. The top notes are the first impression that one has of a fragrance. It usually evaporates rapidly giving way to the middle note. The middle note is considered the “heart” or main note of the fragrance.
The base note is the last and longest-lasting impression of a fragrance composition. Roots that are used in perfumery are usually in the base note category. They tend to have an earthy or musky characteristic that lingers a long time on the skin making them particularly well suited to the base note category.
Iris (Orris) Root
Orris root is the dried root of sweet iris. Most cultivation of orris root for use in perfumery is in Italy. The roots must be aged to produce the sweet, violet type fragrance that is highly prized as an ingredient for perfume. It is used for medicinal purposes also.
Vetiver root is very popular as a base note and is known for its tenacious and earthy aroma. It is obtained from aged roots of the plant. Vetiver was used in ancient times to anoint brides and is native to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. It has many uses aside from perfumery. Black Pearl Botanicals describes the scent as “sweet, earthy, woody, deep, mysterious, reminiscent of a damp forest floor or roots and wet soil. It is pungent, mellow, smooth and tenacious.”
Valerian root is often used as a base note. It has a warm, woody, musky fragrance. It is currently cultivated mainly in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain, Hungary, China, Russia and Scandinavia. It blends well with other essential oils such as lavender, oakmoss, petitgrain, costus and cedarwood. It has been used since Medieval times for perfumery as well as medicinal uses.
Angelica root has a fresh, musky and somewhat peppery aroma. It's used as a base note in perfumery and also in liqueurs. It blends well with clary sage, citrus oils and vetiver. The dry down note, which is the lasting note, is subtle and somewhat sweet.
Spikenard root is used as a base note in perfumery. It is one of the most oldest perfumery ingredients and is even referred to in the Bible’s Song of Solomon. Mary is said to have anointed Jesus’ feet with it before the Last Supper. It is native to the Himalayas in Nepal and is also cultivated in the U.S. The aroma of spikenard is portrayed as spicy, animalic, sweet, woody and heavy.
Sandalwood is probably the most well known base note in perfumery. It makes an excellent base because it possesses extraordinary staying power and blends so well with other perfumery ingredients. It has a sweet, woody and deep aroma that is pleasing to many. It is an exceptional fixative, which means that it lends staying power to other fragrances. Sandalwood is one of the first known fragrance ingredients used.