We present a systematic investigation of the formation mechanism of carbogenic nanoparticles (CNPs), otherwise referred to as C-dots, by following the pyrolysis of citric acid (CA)-ethanolamine (EA) precursor at different temperatures. Pyrolysis at 180 °C leads to a CNP molecular precursor with a strongly intense photoluminescence (PL) spectrum and high quantum yield formed by dehydration of CA-EA. At higher temperatures (230 °C) a carbogenic core starts forming and the PL is due to the presence of both molecular fluorophores and the carbogenic core. CNPs that exhibit mostly or exclusively PL arising from carbogenic cores are obtained at even higher temperatures (300 and 400 °C, respectively). Since the molecular fluorophores predominate at low pyrolysis temperatures while the carbogenic core starts forming at higher temperatures, the PL behavior of CNPs strongly depends on the conditions used for their synthesis. © 2011 American Chemical Society.