CHEMISTRY and PERFUME

(© Article by Lightyears, Inc.)

I've been following a natural perfumery discussion group this month and one member wrote that he was interested in learning something about the chemistry involved in the perfumes he was creating. Almost immediately a particularly vocal member of the group assured him that this was folly. Perfumery was an art and there was no need to learn chemistry in order to pursue it, not even just a little chemistry. As a reference, the poster mentioned Roure's famous perfumer-teacher, Jean Carles, who in fact discouraged perfumery students from studying chemistry. But Jean Carles has been dead for over forty years and even in his heyday, the owners of Roure were hiring perfumers who DID have backgrounds in chemistry, Germaine Cellier being the most prominent example.

But where do things stand today? Chemistry and perfumery have been intimately linked since the first half of the 19th century when synthetic aroma materials began to make their appearance, gradually finding their way into perfumes. For the 19th century and early 20th century perfumers, synthetic aroma chemicals were not substitutes for natural materials. Rather they represented an broadening of the perfumer's palette -- new smells to work with that led to the rise of modern perfumery and fragrances more refined and more complex than any that were possible in the pre-synthetics era.

But for these early perfumers who incorporated synthetics into their formulas, this addition was a bit "hush hush" -- not something boasted about or even mentioned. Houbigant, for example, was an innovator using synthetics -- Fougere Royal in 1884 and Quelques Fleurs in 1912 -- fragrances that survived well into the 20th century.

Yet when Houbigant published a history of their company in 1925, not a word came be found about synthetics or the revolution in perfumery in which Houbigant played such a leading role.

Today we are seeing a division in thinking about perfumery. Perhaps we might even refer to a three way split in thinking. These schools of thought are represented by (1) mass market fine fragrances (Edmond Roudnitska referred to them as "industrial perfumes"), (2) high end niche fine fragrances, distinguished not so much by their price but by the marketer's willingness to allow the perfumer the use of costly natural materials, and "Natural Perfumes," where the perfumer's challenge (often unfulfilled) is to use ONLY natural materials.

It is this third group of perfume marketers I have been following (from a distance) of late and it is from within this group that the discussion of chemistry arose.

Because many in this group (and many of the rest of use!) are not well versed in chemistry, there is a good deal of confusion and ignorance as to what is really natural. Thus you find Aldehyde C-12 Lauric used in an "all natural" formula. Correct me if I am wrong but I know of no source other than the chemist's wizardry of producing it for perfumery.

I also take interest in the attempts to use certain essential oils in fragrances intended for soap. Have these people explored all the -- chemical -- issues of stability, particularly in relation to color shifts?

But I think the real issues for many would-be "natural" perfumers are (1) the limitation in the number of materials that are both available and affordable and (2) a lack of understanding as to HOW certain natural materials are sourced and processed and what the realistic price of these materials SHOULD be (i.e., in the case of what should be very expensive materials, if the price is too affordable, something isn't right!) Of course the seller at the source knows that in certain markets -- (the casual perfumer, for example) -- the use of GC/MS technology to uncover fraud is not an option. Most casual perfumers wouldn't know that this technology exists.

While I personally admire the beauty of high quality natural materials, I suspect that a good deal of the impetus toward "all natural" perfumes is driven more by laziness than by art. When I read a statement by a perfumer who claims to be "allergic to synthetic fragrances" I wonder if they really know what they are talking about. Have they really pinpointed the source of their allergic reaction or have they simply gone overboard after being exposed, in confined quarters, to too much of someone's perfume or cologne. I think we have all that THAT experience. But I've also gotten pretty sick from eating too many deserts.

I short, no matter how we try to get around it, to make perfume is to work with chemicals. The more aroma materials we keep in our inventory -- our "library" if you will -- the greater our risk of encountering some sort of nasty reaction with one of our own materials, be it natural or synthetic. I still have vivid memories of spilling lime oil on my desk and, even after the cleanup, I had to keep the windows open wide for several days.

I think that to blindly trying to shut chemistry out of our lives is pure laziness. We live in a world where everything we breath and touch is chemical. WE are chemical. The natural world is chemical. So while chemistry might not be on our minds night and day, and we don't think of the toxicity or lack of it of oxygen when we take a breath of air, blindly shutting out what we are too lazy to understand is counterproductive.

I know that for the part-time practitioner, gaining an understanding of the art of making perfume involves enough "data" that adding chemistry just complicates matters. So my suggestion is NOT that you feel compelled to study the chemistry of aroma materials right away -- but don't disrespect it. In time, as your skills increase, you'll begin to have more and more questions about why this happens or why that doesn't happen and, at that point, dipping your toes into chemistry just might give you some of the answers you are looking for.