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On the Scent: The Naturals

In the absence of a working knowledge of the art and industry of fragrance, it seems, well, natural to assume that natural materials are better than their synthetic counterparts, the word “synthetic” carrying most of the negative connotations of “fake.”

But it doesn’t make sense to say that one or the other is better until we have an axis for comparison. It depends whether we’re evaluating the materials for longevity, complexity, eco-friendliness, tendency to provoke allergies, adaptability, or any of the other qualities that could make an aromamaterial useful – and in each of these cases, the answer would still be, “It depends.”

 

Fuzzy or downright untruthful marketing claims to the contrary, the majority of commercial perfumes in the “fine fragrance” category (that is to say, not fragrances added to otherwise functional products like soap) combine natural and synthetic components, if they contain natural components at all. An all-natural perfume would stick out like a sore thumb at the perfume counter in a department store, as they smell and behave in a fundamentally different way and lack ingredients found in the majority of commercial fragrances (such as synthetic musks, dihydromercenol, and Iso E Super); perhaps counterintuitively, it’s usually synthetic chemicals that make a contemporary perfume smell “fresh.”

As perfumer Olivia Giacobetti put it in an interview in the LA Times, “The big difficulty in natural perfumery is to be deprived of essential raw materials, limited to 200 components instead of the 2,000 in classic perfumery. It’s like painting without primary colors.” This reduced vocabulary of natural materials consists of extractions from plants – not just flowers but also fruits, vegetables, herbs, trees, roots, and so on – as well as plant resins and fungi, and historically, animals as well.

The first perfume to make use of a synthetic material was Fougère Royale by Houbigant in 1882; the material was synthetic coumarin, which occurs naturally in tonka beans and smells like sweet hay, a nutty, vanillic, tobacco-like scent. (It is also used in the synthesis of anti-coagulant drugs and rat poison.) Heliotropin, vanillin, synthetic musks, ionones (the smell of violets), lactones (creamy-fruity smells like coconut and peach), and hundreds of other lab-synthesized molecules followed.

Recently, more and more mainstream perfumes appear to be almost if not entirely synthetic, presumably for economic reasons, because one category where synthetics clearly win is cost. Molecular production in a lab is scalable and dependable; natural harvesting is neither. This can be disconcerting for the buyer for several reasons. One, purely synthetic compositions generally have less depth and complexity (natural materials contain a much greater number of different molecules). Two, there is some worry that certain synthetic aromachemicals, which proliferate in household and beauty products, never go away and are contaminating our water supplies.

Finally, one is apt to feel ripped off paying fine fragrance prices for low-worth juice. A flagrant example is Escentric Molecules, which bottles and sells simple compositions designed to show off a single aromamaterial – see its Molecule 03, based on vetiveryl acetate, a vetiver-like molecule. An economics major would just order the material direct from the supplier and dilute it with alcohol. (Blogger Tom Pease’s response to this hypothetical bargain-hunter: “Sure, but are you going to do that? You could also make yourself a hamburger but sometimes it’s easier to speak clearly and direct your order into the clown’s mouth.”)

This is not to say that single molecules cannot have interesting smells – part of Escentric Molecules’ project is demonstrating this. Also, you can’t assume that natural materials are always better for the environment. Some classic perfumery materials are now restricted in use due to overharvesting, extinction, or animal cruelty concerns (such as sandalwood, ambergris, and natural musk); these materials have largely been replaced with modern synthetics. The replacements do not smell the same, but the vast majority of today’s perfume-buying public – at least in the U.S. – is not interested in animalic smells like civet and castoreum anyway. (Perfume nutjobs like me are the exception.)

Allergies are yet another consideration. Many natural perfumers seem to believe that synthetic fragrances are more allergenic, but I can find no evidence to support this; if anything it appears that natural materials are more apt to cause allergic reactions, if for no other reason than that they contain a greater number of molecules and, therefore, potential allergens. Some of the most common allergens found in perfumes are cinnamic alcohol, an ester found in hyacinth, cinnamon leaves, peru balsam, and storax; eugenol, found in cloves, roses, and carnations; and oakmoss, which comes from tree lichen and was historically critical to the chypre genre. Known common sensitizers like these are now restricted in use in mainstream perfumery due to pressures from IFRA (the International Fragrance Association).

If, despite my attempts at fair-and-balancedness, the thought of voluntarily spraying synthetic molecules on your skin makes you shudder, you’ll be heartened to know there’s a lively cottage industry of all-natural perfumery. In June 2010, The New York Times did a long piece on perfumers who cater to “the desire to smell good – without the aura of chemicals.” According to the article, natural perfumers believe “commercial perfumes can have all the subtlety of the men’s room at Yankee Stadium” (which surely gets most of its perfume from natural urea – incidentally, the first organic chemical compound ever synthesized) and that “synthetic fragrances cling indelibly to the body for 12 hours or more” (which I’d say is a feature, not a bug). Anya McCoy, the nose behind the all-natural line Anya’s Garden, told me in an email that she sees “no disadvantages of natural aromatics” whatsoever, though she charmingly admitted she “may be prejudiced.”

The NYT piece quotes Mary Ellen Lapsansky of the Fragrance Foundation, a nonprofit group, in defense of commercial fragrances: “In the ‘80s, perfumes were very potent, over-the-top and long-lasting” but new fragrances are “not so in-your-face.” I’d argue this new subtlety in commercial fragrance is not entirely due to changing fashions; it’s also just cheapening of the product – add more alcohol and less actual fragrance and the perfume won’t last long, whether it’s natural or not.

Natural perfumery’s reputation isn’t spotless either. “All-natural fragrances are for the most part soggy herbaceous decoctions with the bone structure of a sea cucumber,” Luca Turin writes in Perfumes: The Guide, and “with few exceptions, you can have natural fragrances in any color as long as it’s brown.”

In the end, whether you prefer your perfumes natural or “regular” is a matter of taste. So far, my favorite perfumers are using the full spectrum of available materials, including synthetics, but with a strong emphasis on naturals – something only independent perfumers like Laurie Erickson, Andy Tauer, and Liz Zorn, along with a small group of niche houses, seem willing to budget for.

This month, I review some all-natural perfumes as well as several that appear to contain more natural materials than the industry average (though this is difficult to verify).

SOIVOHLE’

Liz Zorn is an Ohio-based independent perfumer creating both all-natural and mostly natural fragrances, as well as a painter and multimedia artist. Her SOIVOHLE’ line (pronounced see-vo) follows trends in the niche market (see Serge Lutens, By Kilian) for rich, complex compositions containing notes like tobacco, leather, and oud (agarwood). They’re priced in the luxury bracket – i.e., too rich for my blood – but I found all the ones I sampled to be of exceptional quality. The fragrances below are all “mixed media” (mostly but not all natural).

Journeyman is a “man’s man” kind of fragrance I quickly fell in lust with – it goes on smelling like peaty scotch and leather, rich and smoky and dry, but with the warmth of amber lurking in the background. It gets sweeter the longer you wear it, the way bourbon tastes sweeter the more of it you drink, and vaguely fruity in the way of real vanilla, but without losing its texture of soft-worn leather. Journeyman also contains oud, a note that has been done to death by niche lines in the past year or so, but usually in its synthetic form. It’s often interpreted as a medicinal, Band-Aids-esque smell, so it might be the oud that gives Journeyman its single-malt top note. However, the Oud Laos sample of agarwood absolute she sent me smells more like barbecued meat, and after taking a whiff of that, I clearly recognize its animalic signature in Journeyman, a sort of Slim Jim accord. Who knew scotch whiskey and sausage had something in common? Very nice.

Honeysuckle Bird, originally created for a bride, smells to me like a fruity floral, that much maligned category – a good nine out of ten mainstream feminine launches in the past couple of years have been ho-hum fruity florals – but an utterly charming one. It slants gourmand, with a tart note like strawberry or cassis and an almondy, cookie-like sweetness from the vanillic base. Honeysuckle Bird reminds me a lot of Hanae Mori Butterfly, with a more prominent fresh floral heart, part green and part buttery, and not as prickly as real honeysuckle. If they carried this pretty, user-friendly scent at mall stores like Sephora, I predict it would be a hit with teens, not that I wouldn’t wear it myself. (Note that Zorn’s website describes this scent quite differently, as a honeysuckle floral with “jasmine, earth, moss and musk,” but I discern no earth or moss, and don’t miss them in this context.)

Nightjar feels closer to Zorn’s description of Honeysuckle, a clean, natural floral (mimosa, frangipani, and osmanthus) without too much adornment. It’s very fresh and pretty, with a touch of the lemony, mushroomy aspect of gardenia in the top notes, but none of gardenia’s thick headiness. The apricot facet of osmanthus is more apparent after half an hour or so, and eventually this combines with the woody vanilla base for a peachy, dessert-like effect. Nightjar achieves a tropical feeling without any suntan-lotion references or otherwise overt or trashy gestures. I think this, like Honeysuckle Bird, would be a crowd pleaser if it the crowds had easier access to it. (This limited edition from Fall/Winter 2010 isn’t even currently available on Zorn’s website.)

Meerschaum is a peppery-spicy, green-tobacco and leather scent that, like Journeyman, seems to vacillate between rugged and refined, calling to mind saddleries and gun rooms at one moment and libraries and luggage shops at another. After a slightly meaty opening (more oud, I imagine), the rest of the ride is pretty smooth, and never as sweet as Journeyman gets. Meerschaum reminds me strongly of the dad of my childhood – weekend hunter/grillmaster, weeknight car hobbyist – and the smell of his old work gloves stained with the various oils and resins that lived in our garage. It’s probably the first fragrance I’ve encountered that I’d consider buying for him, though I’d end up wanting to steal it. (And at $220 for 15 ml, I’ll probably let him stick to Old Spice deodorant.)

Anniebelle’s Rose is a terrifically green, fruity rose, which I suspect gets its sharp, grassy top note from blackcurrant buds, though it may have some bitter galbanum too. It’s similar to Diptyque’s L’Ombre dans L’Eau, which I love, but Zorn’s version feels more natural and with more actual rose, and with a sweet, comfort scent drydown similar to the other florals of hers I tried. This altogether lovely scent makes five for five winners from SOIVOHLE’ – a must-try line.

Aftelier

Mandy Aftel of Aftelier is a high-end all-natural perfumer and the author of several books for wannabe perfumers or anyone interested in the mechanics of perfume. Her Essence and Alchemy is a useful introduction to naturally available materials (the essences) and how to put them together into a viable structure (the alchemy).

I find that natural perfumes tend to be less abstract, more representational, than synthetic perfumes, but what they lack in abstraction, they may make up for in strangeness. Though minimalist in composition, Aftel’s scents are complex by virtue of the materials (natural absolutes can contain hundreds of different molecules), quite frequently with bitter, slightly medicinal edges.

Exemplary of Aftel’s strangeness is Cepes & Tuberose, which seems to draw more of its character from the cepes (mushroom) absolute than the tuberose – a surprise, since tuberose tends to dominate compositions. But Aftel has probably latched onto a connection between the materials – I recently bought some tuberose stems and though their scent was subtle, creamy and mentholated at first, as they began to fall apart the smell became almost overwhelming and approached something like cooking meat. Initially, Cepes & Tuberose smells not floral but foody in an indeterminate way; it’s rich and earthy, reminiscent of beef broth or dark chocolate, though not very salty or very sweet. There’s also an herbal element, green and slightly pungent, like sautéed celery. It becomes softer and less savory with time, eventually settling into something not unlike Dior’s Bois d’Argent, though less powdery-metallic. This is a little too weird for me to imagine wearing, and lacks a certain three-dimensionality in structure that I crave, but could make an interesting, umami-ish masculine.

Since it’s all natural, it shouldn’t be surprising that Fir smells amazingly true to life. Nonetheless, it is. Smelling Fir on your wrist feels like sticking your nose into a fresh Christmas tree. The holiday associations are definitely there, but pleasantly, Aftel hasn’t tarted this up with other yuletide notes like cinnamon and clove – it just smells woody and green, slightly smoky if only by association, and concentrated in the way of fir absolute to a dense sweetness, like dried fruit. This seems perfect for guys with beards, but is perhaps a little wanting if you’re in the market for a full-on perfume – single notes are rarely complex enough to be entirely satisfying on their own. (In addition, the nose seems to tire of a simple smell more quickly, so you cease perceiving it.) Still, Fir smells great, and makes a good candidate for layering if you’re so inclined – its solid format is especially conducive to this. (The texture is very nice, a soft balm that melts into your skin.)

Blond Tabac initially reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum – a strange effect sometimes seen in tuberose perfumes – possibly due to a lime top note. After a moment on skin, the real referent is apparent, chewy but also a bit sharp and green. In perfumery, tobacco is often sweetened up with vanilla, balsams, or fruity notes to create a cozy comfort scent; here it’s kept truer to the source, and it retains an acquired taste feel, more chewing tobacco than pipe. It has a clear similarity to Fir, and they smell great layered together.

Anya’s Garden

A largely self-taught natural perfumer, Anya McCoy began collecting natural essential oils and absolutes in the late ‘60s. In the ‘90s she sold a line of natural perfume oils, but her current line, Anya’s Garden, is alcohol-based. Her scents on the whole are brighter and sweeter than Aftel’s, and impressively radiant – when my set of samples arrived, the cap on the vial of StarFlower, an intense tuberose gourmand, was a bit loose and had leaked onto the outside of the container and the pouch that held them, and I smelled its very rich, sweet scent every time I walked into my room for several days.

McCoy sent me her full range of eight scents, which comes with a card suggesting the best sequence in which to smell them, a nice touch.

Kewdra smells very earthy and herbal, reminding me simultaneously of soil and black tea. (Tea scents so rarely smell like real tea, to me, especially the green tea genre, which only ever smells like other green-tea–scented products, the way cherry-flavored candies taste like cherry flavor but not cherries.) This contains “rare Tasmanian gold boronia” (an evergreen shrub) and gardenia, but the boronia wins: Kewdra is more reminiscent of a desert breeze than a tropical one. It’s a little bit flat on its own and seems wanting of more of a top note.

With a name like Temple you’d expect something resinous, and happily, that’s what you get. I love the word “resinous” because it so perfectly embodies its referent: resins feel somehow resonant, like the hum of a tuning fork. Temple smells to me like citrusy incense, an accord apparently built out of orange peel, warm spices (clove and cinnamon), and smoky oud. Here, the oud smells woody rather than leathery and animalic, as in Zorn’s incarnations. Impressively, the orange-spice combination doesn’t turn into Constant Comment tea. This reminds me of Andy Tauer’s work, and Tauer is a master of the incense genre.

MoonDance, like Aftel’s Cepes & Tuberose, brings out some of the peculiar, unfloral aspects of tuberose absolute with the addition of chamomile, creating a strange herbal accord that’s half minty, half dusty. MoonDance and Cepes & Tuberose are both acclaimed, award-winning perfumes, but this tuberose lover finds them too far afield from the tuberoses of classic perfumery to really enjoy. For that reason, people who usually hate tuberose may love these concoctions.

RiverCali is perhaps the most abstract of the natural perfumes I have tried, and I almost made myself high trying to figure it out. It reminds me most of lemon pepper, I eventually decided, but the definite presence of rose and vanilla keeps it from smelling literally like chicken seasoning. Instead it’s a little spicy, a little sweet-and-sour – almost vinegary – and tinged pink like the clouds in El Paso in the evening. RiverCali is interesting and stimulating, and I’d recommend it as an alternative to her cologne offering, Light, which is nice but a little heavy on the lemon initially, which unfortunately tends to evoke cleaning products.

The aforementioned StarFlower is about as over the top as natural perfumes get. It opens with a bright, lemony tartness and a cherry-almond note, like an amaretto sour, and melts into something like the chocolaty tuberose of Cepes & Tuberose, but served up with caramel. At times it reminds me a little of a kid’s breakfast cereal. I really appreciate that it’s not intellectual. A bit of a “hot mess” in the best sense of the term, this makes natural perfume seem fun.

YOSH

I found the website of perfumer Yosh Han confusing, even misleading – in the FAQ, she claims that she doesn’t use any alcohol in her fragrances, “only perfume oils and natural essences,” yet her “Evanescent Collection” (her six primary fragrances), are described as “hybrid eau de parfum with organic alcohol.” Elsewhere she writes that “Most people who think they are allergic to perfumes are actually allergic to the alcohol found in most commercially produced perfumes.” This is not true; allergies to ethanol are rare. It should also be noted that the proper level of dilution makes perfume more “palatable” to our noses, as pure perfume oils are quite dense. Even what is sold as “parfum” or “extrait” is not pure perfume but a concentration in the 20-25% range. Oil-based perfumes are diluted in a carrier oil instead of alcohol; perhaps she used to carry oil-based scents and hasn’t updated her messaging.

Yosh Han creates all-natural fragrances on a bespoke basis, but her commercially available line contains both natural and synthetic ingredients.

Sottile is a very pretty, fresh near-soliflore of rose with some lily of the valley and an almost watery smell, as though you could smell what the stems were sitting in, in addition to the buds. It’s a little peppery and soapy as it dries down, which I ascribe to the lily. (See Pure White Linen for a more pronounced version of lily of the valley’s pepperiness.) The name means “subtle,” and it’s certainly subtle compared to Tea Rose, which is a little more true to life but also much louder and sweeter. This is very polite, and not at all in fashion. Most people would smell this and think of gift shops, but a select few will fall in love. (For another perfectly pretty, straightforward solifore without the antique feeling, try her Stargazer, an equally clean, fresh lily.)

The amusingly named U4EAHH! (seriously, I enjoy this without irony) has the most realistically crisp, green apple-pear top note I’ve encountered in a perfume – pear is especially hard to pull off without a sickening synthetic vibe. It’s impossible not to associate this scent with shower gel and shampoo, but at least it smells like a fancy salon brand and not Suave. When dabbed from a sample vial, however, the intensely fruity notes evaporate very quickly, leaving a barely perceptible skin scent. Disappointing, but maybe it performs better sprayed. If not, it doesn’t seem worth the cost. An anonymous commenter on the LuckyScent site (a niche perfume retailer), speaking in defense of aspirational pricing, wrote, “Perfume is a luxury and if you can’t afford the price of Yosh, you should stick to Wal-Mart!! No one is forcing you to try to afford this perfume!” If you’re looking for something between Wal-Mart and $130 for 8 ml, try Calyx or DKNY Be Delicious, both crisp and fruity and a noticeable step up from “body spray.” If fruity is not your thing, this won’t be either.

Ginger Ciao, with ginger, basil, coconut and some white flowers, is another one that smells like high-end soap or a $16 candle: a good smell, but very hard to justify at these prices. I think Ginger Ciao and U4EAHH! are designed for people who don’t usually like perfume, finding it too “heavy” or “floral.” There’s a definite market for that, but I’d be more likely to use this as room spray.

Lest you think Yosh herself doesn’t like perfume qua perfume, sample Omniscent (not “Omniscient”), an extremely perfumey, powdery floral oriental that feels like an ‘80s version of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, with the same bittersweet quality that evokes anise and almonds and sarsaparilla. The long list of notes mostly blurs together in a floriental haze (an ex-boyfriend of mine used to call all vague colors “taupe”), but with concentration you can pick this complex composition apart into pepper; the minty, green-white aspects of basil, geranium, tuberose, and gardenia; and the incense and vanilla base. This is probably an homage to YSL’s Opium, but I’m not familiar enough with Opium to do a side-by-side comparison. Applaudably self-assured – and more appealing to me than L’Heure Bleue, even if it still isn’t my style – this is the YOSH that would get you the side-eye at the office.

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Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.