Olfactive Chemistry: Indole- The Sour Inside


In the middle of the movie America Hustle one of the characters has this quote, “It’s like that perfume you love, that you can’t stop smelling even when there’s something sour in it.” Of course I have no idea exactly what she is referring to but in my mind while watching there was only one perfume ingredient which fit this description, indole.

Indole is the “bad girl” of perfumery. Cue Donna Summer. They are found naturally in the group of floral notes dubbed “white flowers”. Jasmine is the leader of that family and in the specific species of jasmine called jasminum sambac you will find the highest amount of natural indole. It is why the synthetic jasmines exist, to remove the indole, to get a brighter fresher version of jasmine. I very often make the distinction in reviews with the essential oil being a little more experienced and the synthetic being a scrubbed-fresh debutante. Both have their place on the perfumer’s palette.

indole skatle

Indole gets a bad rep because of the methyl-substituted version of indole known as Skatole. As you can see above there is only the addition of one methyl group different between Indole and Skatole. Skatole is the smell of feces and it is what many associate with the word indole. Indole by itself in high concentration smells more like mothballs. What is particularly magical is what happens as you dilute indole down in alcohol solutions. When you have a 10% solution of indole in alcohol it smells like an old closet. Dilute it in half to 5% and you get that dirty skin smell. Dilute it again in half to 2.5% and now a subtle kind of decaying sweetness becomes evident. Take it to 1.25% and an almost floral-like quality comes out. Reduce it finally to 0.5% and you have a building block to work with.

Indole is easily synthesized in metric ton quantities and is one of the more cost-effective perfume materials to use. Once you get used to handling it in its different iterations depending on the concentration. It allows a perfumer on a budget to take synthetic jasmine and a bit of indole to create a simulation of jasminum sambac.

Good examples of indolic perfumes are naturally the jasmine-focused ones. Serge Lutens A La Nuit and Diptyque Olene really wear their indole on their sleeve. One which is composed of indoles and synthetics is the original Calvin Klein Eternity which not only sports a high concentration of indole but also Iso E Super, and Galaxolide. Eternity is one of the best-selling perfumes of all time. While the time period is not right it is the perfume I think best represents the quote I began this with.  

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Jasmine

As spring begins to take hold I find I am already looking forward to the summer nights when the jasmine scents the air. Jasmine is one of those ingredients which has multiple faces in perfumery. The reason is there are very few perfumes with a high quantity of jasmine essential oil. It is there in small quantities to flesh out a synthetic source like Hedione. That hasn’t kept it from still being one of the most popular florals in fragrance. I already mentioned that Serge Lutens Sarrasins is my Gold Standard but that is a beast. Here are five more which are a little lest feral.

Jean Patou Joy, I think, was my first introduction to jasmine when one of my parent’s friends wore it to a party and I was fascinated with how she smelled. It would be years later that I found out Henri Almeras took the very best florals of Grasse in rose and jasmine and combined them over a musky base. Joy is a masterpiece because of that attention to quality.

For those of you who think Sarrasins is too much Serge Lutens A La Nuit is a much more genial alternative. Christopher Sheldrake mixes two sources of jasmine and layers it over spices, honey and musk. While it sounds similar to Joy it is entirely something else and it is entirely pretty.


Calice Becker might have created the most stunning jasmine soliflore in By Kilian Love and Tears. In this perfume the jasmine pretty much stands alone. For most that kind of scrutiny would cause it to wither and die. Mme Becker creates a multi-faceted jasmine from a whole group of different florals and multiple jasmine sources. It smells like no single jasmine; it smells like all of them. It is utterly fascinating to try and dissect. It is much better to just let it whisk you away.

Krigler Juicy Jasmine 30 is a different take on the soliflore. It is a light fun perfume where the jasmine is lifted up by orange blossom, muguet, and hyacinth. Juicy Jasmine 30 always feels like it is taking me to a fabulous garden party.

Le Labo Jasmin 17 by perfumer Maurice Roucel is what happens when you take a bouquet of white flowers lead by jasmine and capture them in sweet sticky amber. This is the richest jasmine I own and the one I most often wear during the winter. It is comforting and warm underneath the jasmine.

If you like jasmine these five should be on your sampling list. If you want someplace to start these are great starting points.

Dsiclosure: I have purchased bottles of all fragrances mentioned.

Mark Behnke