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March 22, 2011

Perfume Vocabulary & Fragrance Notes : Indole, Indolic

Petals

Jasmine, lilac, honeysuckle, gardenia, and orange flower all have diverse olfactory profiles, yet they share the presence of indole, which gives them a rich, narcotic fragrance. Without this unique material, which in pure form looks like white diamond dust, it would have been impossible to recreate the true scent of blooming flowers. A tiny amount of indole is all it takes to infuse life into a composition of floral notes, to make an abstract, vague petally form to appear as a lush, nectar suffused flower.

Indole is often described as “fecal and animalic,” which is a complete misrepresentation. In its pure form, indole smells like moth balls, possessing the same heavy, sweet, tar-like pungency. In fact, it is so strong, suffocating and diffusive that smelling it pure one is hard pressed to imagine that it could be a lovely floral note. Yet, indole changes dramatically in dilutions. It suddenly displays its radiant, floral quality. The suffocating moth ball effect disappears to give way to a completely different image--a handful of gardenia petals or a branch of jasmine flowers.  The opulent, narcotic effect of indole is employed whenever a perfumer wants to create a floral effect or else to give a lift to a heavy, oriental composition.

For a beautiful indolic effect in a jasmine composition, Serge Lutens A La Nuit is my favorite choice. To see the interplay between indolic and animalic notes, Serge Lutens Sarrasins is a great example. As a side note, when jasmine is described as animalic, it is not the indolic notes that give it that quality, but rather other compounds reminiscent of horses. It turns out that jasmine and horse sweat share some of the same molecules.

On the other hand, fragrances like Chanel Cristalle, By Kilian Love & Tears and L’Artisan Parfumeur La Chasse Aux Papillons rely on a delicate touch of indoles to give radiance and bloom to their floral accords. 

Aside from fragrances, indoles are used to create chocolate, coffee and various fruity accords in flavors. For food preparations, it is used in trace amounts, yet the indolic presence is often essential to create a natural quality in imitation flavor accords.

Photo credit: White petals by Harry Chisling via flickr, some rights reserved.

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