Natural and Synthetic- Some Reflections
Natural ingredients available to the modern perfumer number somewhere between 400 to 500 and are extracted from different parts of aromatic plants. This compares with at least 5,000 aroma chemicals. These are either constituents that have been separated from a plant oil (isolates) or manufactured from coal tar or other petro-chemical derivatives. We must not forget that coal and petro-chemicals started life in plant form and can also from a broad perspective be called natural. One could think of them as well aged ferns. There are of course sustainability issues with all petro chemical derivatives. For anyone who is seriously interested in exploring the natural and synthetic question we would advocate reading Luca Turin as well as Mandy Aftel.
From the perspective of the perfume industry there are several advantages to using synthetics. The most obvious one is cost. Many of the most expensive floral absolutes are so costly because the yield of oil is so low. In order to make 1 Kg of Rose Otto for example 10,000Kgs of roses are needed. It so happens that these precious floral absolutes are also very labour intensive to harvest. Some like Jasmine and Tuberose must even be picked at night – usually by hand. I have never heard anyone claim that a synthetic rose or jasmine can entirely replace a natural one but judicious blending can achieve a compromise with which many are happy. It is largely a question of economics, taste and education.
At one time nylon, polyester and corfam were going to transform our lives by making us modern and fashionable. Who would not prefer silk, cotton and wool assuming they could afford them and that the choice was available?
Some of the best ingredients for perfume making were of animal origin - musk, ambergris, civet and castoreum being the main four. There are serious ethical issues around using any of these ingredients now as either cruelty or slaughter is needed to produce them. Ambergris is usually sold alongside a claim that it was found on a beach but there is no way of knowing for certain (please see below for a description of ambergris). Reputable companies are unlikely to use them but an illegal trade still carries on in some of them. These products gave a magical ‘tweak’ to perfumes and could literally transform a blend from being quite interesting into something sensational.
Some people who are firmly in the natural camp can fall into the error of believing that natural is synonymous with safe. At worst this can lead to a closed minded tendency to demonise anything that is not ‘natural’. Mild allergic reactions to many aldehyde-type chemicals are well documented, as are some more dangerous reactions to common ingredients in mass produced perfumes and cosmetics. Let us not forget that there are also some serious issues around toxicity and photosensitivity with certain natural oils not just synthetics.
Mild allergic reactions to orange oil are not that uncommon. Inhalation can cause light wheezing and direct contact with the skin can cause mild inflammation. Orange oil remains an ingredient in many household products from floor cleaners to soft drinks. Bergamot oil needs the furancoumarin removing from before it is safe. Cold expressed lime oil is phototoxic but a steam distilled one is not. There are several oils, which have a question mark over their safety when used in other than trace amounts. Any natural oil precisely because it is so concentrated needs to be handled with care.
Towards the end of the 19th Century a method of constructing fragrances according to the spectrum of volatility of the constituents evolved. Those constituents with the lowest boiling (top notes) points will evaporate first whereas those with higher boiling points (base notes) will take longer to fade away. Individual constituents were grouped into base notes, middle note or top notes. The proportion of constituents in each group is important if one is to blend a balanced composition. Too many top notes and the fragrance will lack tenacity whilst too many base notes and the fragrance has got no lift or radiance. Further it had been found that blending notes from different parts of the spectrum could influence their tenacity as well as their odour. Many of the base notes were found to have fixative properties, which could help to ‘fix’ the fragrance so it didn’t dissipate too soon. Thankfully there are lots of quality fixatives available to the natural perfumer.
One of the main characteristics of low quality fragrances is the use of cheap fixatives. The natural perfumer has a plethora of high quality very effective safe fixatives at their disposal. Likewise with the oils that contribute the middle notes that make up the body of any blend. When we get to the top notes it is more difficult for three reasons. Firstly, there are fewer natural top notes to choose from, secondly their tenacity is low and finally some are restricted. It is true that oils from the other categories are likewise restricted but because there are` so many more to choose from it is not such a blow. Bois de rose (rosewood) should not be used for environmental reasons (Guenther towards the end of the 19th Century warned about de-forestation and over exploitation of Brazilian rosewood). There are supposed to be tight controls in South America but much finds it’s way into the United States. Bitter Orange and nutmeg should only be used in small amounts. The question is:- if one could enhance the quality and performance of an entirely natural product by the addition of small amounts of safe chemicals should one do so? Should we have synthetics added to woollen socks to make them more hardwearing? I do not intend to answer this question merely to pose it.
Whilst it is true that the cheapest perfumes contain very cheap aldehydes there are also some that are more costly and subtle. First used at the end of the nineteenth century these synthetics were not initially seen as a substitute for natural oils but something which could add some radiance, lift and staying power to a natural blend. Chanel no 5 was one of the first aldehyde perfumes to become famous. Shalimar was born by adding synthetic vanillin to an earlier Guerlain fragrance called Jicky. Edmound Roudnitska beautifully crafted Diorissimo after being commissioned by Christian Dior in 1957. Though based on Muguet (Lilly of the Valley, which is synthetic) it is much more than a single flower fragrance. It achieves what all good perfumes should; namely a beautiful homogenous scent that feels complete and rounded rather than an obvious blend of disparate elements that seem to lack harmony.
For the sake of completeness I shall outline the four main animal derived ingredients that have been highly valued by perfumers both ancient and modern. There is no justification for using these today and it remains a topic of debate whether it is possible to replicate what they brought to a perfume. I know many in the perfume trade who believe that most perfume of today is not what it once was because these fixatives are no longer used. Please see our botanical musk fixative.
Musk is produced by a small deer (Moschus mochiferus), which is native to Western China and Tibet. The stag has a small pouch just in front of the abdomen, which gives off sexual signals by releasing the prized aroma. Apparently it is about the size of a walnut and can be removed without ‘harming’ the donor. The sac is dried before being offered for sale. The material removed from these sacs is in the form of grains, which are so concentrated as to be putrid before dilution when it becomes extremely pleasant and sweet.
Genuine musk can still be found but it is not used much because of its cost. It is also quite rightly considered unethical. There are apparently musk farms in China as well as many synthetic substitutes.
Produced by the sperm whale (Physeter catodon). This large mammal feeds on cuttlefish, which contain a porous central bone as sold in pet shops for sharpening the beaks of birds. As this bone is indigestible and abrasive it irritates the stomach lining of the whale. The whale to protect itself from the irritation secretes ambergris. Sometimes the whale will cough up these aromatic lumps and they may float around for months being tossed by the sea and warmed by the sun. A process, which mellows, softens and adds complexity to the aroma. Lumps of ambergris could be trapped in a fisherman’s net or washed up upon a beach. Whaling ships would also find the substance when a whale was cut open providing the Captain with a welcome perk which could be sold for large sums. When fresh it is oily and repugnant. There are stories of sailors vomiting after smelling it. Ambergris was one of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world and aged ambergris found by beachcombers or caught in nets was more valuable than the fresh material.
Most common in the Indian Ocean it became known to the Arabs who appreciated its sweet odour and its fixative properties. Most commonly the oily lumps weigh a pound or two but have been found weighing up to seventy pounds or even more. Its fragrance is very persistent and it is said will last for three centuries. Ten different types have been identified as coming from different geographical areas and classified according to colour and aroma.
The growing scarcity, cost and concern about killing whales have all contributed to its demise. Aged ambergris has a similar aroma to labdanum and there are also synthetic substitutes.
Civet is a glandular secretion of a cat (Viverra civetta), which is native to East Africa. A fatty substance forms by the genitalia of both sexes and can be removed twice a week from mature cats. Like most fixatives it has a revolting faecal odour that becomes pleasant with magical fixing properties once diluted. There are civet farms in Ethiopia where the cats, which only grow as big as four feet in length, are kept in cages. As it is secreted by both genders it probably has a role in marking territory as well as sending sexual signals. This view is supported by the fact that when the cats are made aggressive they produce more civet. I have heard stories of these cats being prodded with sharpened sticks to stimulate the production.
There have been attempts to farm the cats elsewhere but Africa remains the main source. The key constituent ‘civetone’ is now made synthetically. Historically civet has been the most important of all the animal fixatives and could be found in most of the top quality perfumes.
Both sexes of a beaver (Castor faber) found in Russia and Canada secrete this substance into two abdominal sacs. It is also know as beaver musk or oil and castor. It was used as a diluent in wine and favoured for particularly heavy oriental type fragrances. Being rare and costly it has gone out of fashion but is imitated in some modern fragrance.
So what’s the alternative?
We have developed a 100% natural botanical musk fixative. It is a blend of some very unusual essential oils. Incorporation at low levels enhances a fragrance making it possible to use lower quantities of aromatics to get the same effect. In this way it pays for itself. We recommend incorporation at between 1% and 5% of the scent content. For example a 50 ml bottle of extrait (20%) would contain 10 ml of oils/absolutes so for a light floral blend 1% fixative would be 0.1ml or for a heavy musky creation 5% would be 0.5ml. The fixative affects the odour profile of the blend with the addition of a musky note but it can be used below the level of conscious detection.
Most fragrances made today use a high proportion of synthetic ingredients. If all fragrances attempted to be natural there would simply not be enough natural raw materials to make this a reality. There are already environmental issues around illegally felled and smuggled logs along a trail from East Africa through parts of the Middle East to Asia. Rather than the emergence of strongly polarised natural and synthetic camps we should rather see ourselves as being part of the same industry. That does not mean that we cannot have preferences or differences or that each camp doesn’t have issues that need addressing. Some big businesses can behave badly and can mislead to turn a profit for the shareholders. There are many companies that are unethical either by default through ignorance (lack of training) or blatantly making claims that cannot be substantiated (about origin and grade of raw material, organic status etc). To quote a friend ‘honesty, originality and skill have always been in shorter supply than greed, imitation and stupidity.’
Many people would be shocked to discover that it is perfectly legal to say that a fragrance has notes of jasmine when it actually doesn’t contain any jasmine whatsoever. The blend of chemicals that attempt to replicate the odour profile of jasmine are simply referred to as jasmine in promotional literature and advertisements but need only appear as ‘parfum’ in the listing of ingredients.
As the perfumer for Essentially Me I have no axe to grind. I have worked commercially with natural aromatic raw materials for twenty years. This has given me some understanding of their properties but I am still learning every day and hope I continue to do so. My love of cooking, which I have had since I was 14 and professional studying of wine combined with my experience of absolutes and essential oils inform my blending. The final ingredient is passion.
In Ottoman cooking the cultivation of taste is preferred to following recipes. When one encounters a great wine something transcendent is present that can be recognised but never described. Hugh Johnson calls the process of creating such wines art. Our art should be about cultivation of aesthetic so that we can create in the service of beauty. How else can we know whether or not it is present ?