Two days ago, Guy Robert came to our school as an honoured guest. We began with an evening cocktail party out on the lovely terrace off the side of the school building with champagne and canapés; followed the next morning by a lecture and question & answer session in the fantastic boardroom I have mentioned in previous posts. Guy Robert is a Master Nez, about 80 yrs old, a 4th generation perfumer, the past head of the French Society of Perfumers, and the creator of such masterpieces as Caleche, Madame Rochas as well as fragrances for Hermes and Dior. A question I addressed to him was ‘how do you feel about natural perfumery?’ I was curious what such an old master who has seen many changes in the industry would think about this return-to-the-old growing niche concept. He answered simply, saying basically that-: ‘It is all raw materials. I don’t differentiate or limit myself by what is ‘natural’ or not. Besides, what is natural?” I realized after, it was like asking an accomplished artist such as a painter what they think about using only paints made with natural pigments, or a composer to consider instruments made only of wood, skin and hair. From his perspective, you cannot create a truly beautiful work of art without the full palette.
The synthetic vs. natural argument in relation to perfumery is discussed in many forums, blogs and articles with a growing platform being supported by many new perfumers who work quite religiously with only ‘naturals’. I too have followed this path. However, here is another question-
Is the fear of so-called ‘not natural’ partly, if not completely due to a fear of the unknown? Think about it, does anyone have a succinct definition of what is and what is not natural? Can many people you know list 10 synthetics and say why they may or may not be dangerous?
So what is natural, anyway???? Is it something that only occurs in plants? Is it something unrefined or not chemically altered? Is it chemical? Does natural mean that it is good for us? Does ‘synthetic’ mean that it is bad for us?
I am learning a great deal about chemistry here as part of the curriculum, and, when you begin to look at any essential oil, you see it is a complex composition of many chemicals. If we isolate and extract one of those chemicals, is it still natural? Is it safe? And how about the safety issue? If we consider the common belief that petroleum products are not safe, then why is acceptable for ‘natural perfumers’ to use absolutes in their products? These are extracted by a petrochemical solvent called Hexane. Then the concrete is washed with ethyl alcohol, which may or may not be of a petrochemical source. Given, very little residue is left, but is an absolute natural? I personally think that jasmine or tuberose absolutes are exquisitely beautiful which has a positive effect on my well-being, so as long as I use them in moderation (just like anything), they are healthy. But what about methyl ionone- with its beautiful powdery rich woody violet/orris notes- it’s been around since the late 1800’s and there is no indication, as far as I know, that it is any more dangerous than bergamot or ylang ylang oil, so is it good or is it bad????
Don’t get me wrong, I have always been and still am a proponent of ‘natural’ ‘organic’ ‘healthy’ food, cosmetics and lifestyle. However, I am learning a lot about what was completely unknown to me before, and with this understanding, comes less fear. Hence my current contemplations on this subject.. Let me give another example. Coumarin and vanillin occur naturally in some essential oils. They also can also be synthesized in a lab. What is synthesized in a lab is not ‘natural’ of course, but does that make these substances bad if they are made synthetically and good if they are in an oil? The ‘natural fruit flavours’ that enhance the juices sold in natural food stores are created in a lab, so why are they accepted as natural?
When the incredible Guerlain perfume Jicky was created in 1889, for the first time, synthetic materials were available- coumarin and vanillin- which were used in the formula not in place of naturals but, according to a Guerlain spokesman, to enhance them. Contrary to this approach, current mainstream perfumery is based primarily on synthetics, for many reasons, and naturals are added to improve the synthetics. Then, recently, there are the purists who use only direct botanical extracts and in between, a fairly large divide filled with misunderstanding and just a touch of ignorance… Keep in mind, that in the old days, naturals were used exclusively only because that’s all there was.
Today I watched a film clip of a well-known ‘natural’ perfumer from California who has marketed herself fantastically and is recognized as an authority on the subject, and I was astonished to hear her say that ‘natural perfumes never go bad, only the synthetic ones do’. (All perfumes will decompose with time, exposure to heat, light etc, and the mainstream ones just might actually last longer because they have added UV filters, and preservatives) Here is a good example of the commonly held idea that just because it’s natural, it’s better, more stable etc and of the immediate condemnation of the synthetic just for being synthetic.
So consider this- the other day, I was working on a Honeysuckle accord. As there is no natural honeysuckle oil, the goal is to recreate it. Most of my classmates were using synthetics with some essential oils and absolutes added to enhance the formula and make it seem more ‘natural’. I was desperately sorting through my olfactive memory, trying to remember and create the flower using only naturals, but I couldn’t capture the clear sparkling aspects of the fresh flower. What to do? I realized, ok Jess, just open your mind and see what happens; using a synthetic or two is not going to kill you! (maybe some of you are now thinking..’ya that’s how I started smoking!’) So I reached for the Hydroxycitonellal (this one extracted from Citriodora), and cis-3 hexenyl acetate, (which occurs in nature) plus a touch of Aldehyde C-10 (synthetic but also occurring in many essential oils) and added just the tiniest bits possible to my formula. Voila! Well sort of. Although I didn’t quite acheive what I remember as true Honeysuckle, I did create a perfect Sweet Pea that brought back memories and made me very happy.
My jury is still out on the above subject , but I do think that the artistic creation of beauty in whatever medium is fantastically important, not only for the improvement of humanity, but for the basic enjoyment of life. The art of perfumery is a secretive realm, and the palette from which the artists work has been kept shrouded for too long. Perhaps it is this that has bred some of the blanket fear we have of the constituents within the juice. Based on my recent understanding, I’m trying on some new ideas for size and realizing that I want to have an open mind in all areas of life, learning before I condemn, whether it’s about fragrance materials or my neighbours. And I hope we all remember that balance, ethical consideration and a deep concern for nature and the well-being of humanity is what matters. It’s time to break down the walls.
ps. (besides with the new REACH rules, anything that could possibly be considered risky, whether natural or synthetic, will be restricted….or at least that’s one way to look at it!)