The Art of Perfumery: Where Natural Is Not Always Better

December 9, 2013 • Culture


Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark of man’s genius.

A Rebours, J.K. Huysmans


We have become conditioned to understand the term “natural” as Nature in its purest, most sacred form; as a result, it has become intrinsic that natural is always better. Before deciding what is good and bad and before dividing parts into poles, we should question whether this system of classification continues to be relevant; modernity at it’s best is often the synthesis of contrasting elements. Perfumery is a poignant illustration of the benefits of synthetics and the potential of the artificial as an art form.

Some of the benefits of using synthetic ingredients in fragrance are sustainability, health, manipulation of “natural” claims, and the pure possibilities of science. It takes a room full of rose petals to create one drop of pure rose absolute.* The fragrance industry has single-handedly obliterated India’s sandalwood population. With methods like gas solid-phase microextraction and headspace, perfumers can take olfactive photos of incredibly endangered species in their natural habitat (without causing any harm) and recreate them identically in their labs in New York, Paris, and Geneva.

It is not uncommon to hear a perfume enthusiast remark pridefully about the abundance of naturals in their fragrance of choice. Perhaps the largest hurdle in defense of synthetics is the challenge of overcoming the notion that naturals are pure and synthetics counterfeit; this opinion is steeped in misinformation and arrogance. In fact, the average perfume is 80 percent synthetics** and a perfumer’s palette will include 300-400 natural ingredients along with approximately 3,000 commonly used synthetics.*** Modern perfumery combines naturals and synthetics, with synthetics often said to give a fragrance order, focus, or rhythm.

There is much misinformation and blatant false advertising surrounding the use of naturals. More often than not, one need only look at the ingredient list of a product to find that it contains chemicals. Brands will use terms like naturally-derived ingredients or nature identical ingredients to comfort the consumer into believing that what they are buying is as pure a plant as it was when pulled from the ground. The problem with the zealous devotion to natural and organic is that these are not always the most beneficial for topical usage or for environmental efforts. Synthetics allow us to interchange certain allergens with molecules that are universally benign. Let’s not forget that many naturals in their pure state are poisons and allergens. Synthetics are useful from a medical perspective, but also exciting from a creative viewpoint – a person with a serious allergy to orange blossom can now wear a fragrance that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. Of the 3,000 regularly-used synthetic ingredients, more than 30 percent do not exist in the natural state.**** A synthetic ingredient can be masterpiece itself, an invisible dream made present and a wholly new contribution to the olfactive orchestra.

Some plant and flowers cannot be used in perfumery in their natural state, too fragile to survive the damage incurred through the process of extraction. Many orchids, whose sweet scent sings of divine, untouched jungles, and honeysuckle, whose smell conjures images of wild summer at it’s grandest, are not present naturally in perfumes; however, these flowers are present synthetically and are experienced as vibrantly as when smelled in nature.

Innovation allows an ever-changing world to persist and evolve. As our climate continues to change, the predictability of certain farming standards becomes less and less assured. Some seasons, a specific crop may not grow. This can be fatal for a brand whose fragrance depends heavily on a certain ingredient. Entropy, nature’s tendency towards randomness, challenges the consistency of any naturally-occurring ingredient. A flower can change from one field to another, from one Spring to the next, changing the odor that it emits, the cost it commissions, the way it interacts with other fragrance notes, and the overall effect it adds to a finished perfume. With synthetics, we have greater control of these nuances.


Today, musk and animalic notes are almost exclusively made of synthetics. Many of these notes come from animals or their byproducts and once their value in fragrance was discovered, it did not take long for humans to begin exploiting and eventually killing animals such as the musk deer, the civet cat, and the sperm whale. These animals must be living to create the molecules used in perfumery, but this logic was not enough to deter humans.

Ambergris was originally taken from whale excrement – cuttlefish would swim into the mouths of whales cruising along the coast of Chile and cause an itching sensation in the whales’ throats. The whales would spit up liquid, washing away the fish and soothing the itch, and then rid themselves of this mixture as they would with any other waste. The hardened waste would float along the ocean and be swept onto the beach. A tennis ball size of ambergris (called “floating gold”) is worth millions.  It is said that some fragrance houses keep original ambergris samples around as trophies, but perfumers have created synthetic forms that replace the ingredient in commercial fragrance. Ambergris in its raw form is a musk with marine facets, a glowing amber quality, and intermingling notes of sweetness and earthiness.

A synthetic created as a result of the restriction on ambergris is called ambrox or ambroxan. Ambrox (like all musks) is a base note, meaning it is a heavier molecule – it adds weight to fragrance, pulls the fragrance to the skin, intensifies the complexity of the other fragrance notes, and helps the fragrance to last longer on the skin. Ambrox has the salty skin-like odor of ambergris, but also has a creamy, blond wood, labdanum-like odor (labdanum is similar to leather). A lovely example of the use of ambrox in fragrance is AnOther 13 by Le Labo; the fragrance has the sexiness of heavy breaths and moist skin and the freshness of a golden pear.

Civet is another interesting ingredient that is now used only in its synthetic form.  Civet is the name of a wild cat species. The cat rubs it’s anal glands against trees and leaves behind secretions that smell animalic, metallic, and a bit like warm sweat and cold fecal matter. When you smell this ingredient alone, it is quite disruptive. However, when used in fragrance, the ingredient adds sparkle and “makes florals bloom.”


A classic examples that showcase the prowess of civet is Rose Poivree created by Jean-Claude Ellena for The Different Company. Smelling Rose Poivree, a beautiful rose fragrance with smokey and animalic currents, one is startled by an odor reminiscent of the delicate mortality of a rose; amongst notes of vitality, death and decay lives vividly in this fragrance. It is not surprising that this perfume was created by Ellena, a master perfumer who has never shied away from synthetic ingredients. In Perfume, The Alchemy of Scent, Ellena remarks, “While chemists sought primarily to understand nature, the perfumers experienced the use of synthetic products as a release from the compulsory reference to “nature,” opening up new creative possibilities.”*****

While evaluating a fragrance, opposing words are commonly used to describe it; a scent can be simultaneously dry and moist, fresh and dirty. It is this sort of duality that makes perfume as a industry and fragrance as an art form such an interesting and worthy subject of consideration. Natural and synthetic ingredients cannot be labelled as good and bad; rather, each has a purpose in a fragrant composition well beyond scrutiny of its origin. And a mixture of naturals and synthetics creates harmony in fragrance, where opposites are allowed to exist and where just one whiff startles notions of time, geography, and all matters of emotion.




*Absolute yields vary depending on the plants processed. Thus, 1 kg of absolute requires 4 tons of tuberose flowers, 2 tons of violet leaves, 1 ton of rose petals, 800 kg of orange flowers, 600 kg of jasmine flowers, 300 kg of mimosa flowers, 100 kg of lavender blossoms, or 50 kg of oak moss. Source: Perfume, The Alchemy of Scent. Jean-Claude Ellena

**Source: The Perfect Scent. Chandler Burr

***Source: Trapping, Investigation and Reconstitution of Flower Scents. Roman Kaiser

****Source: Perfume, The Alchemy of Scent. Jean-Claude Ellena

*****Source: Perfume, The Alchemy of Scent. Jean-Claude Ellena


  • Miriam

    This is fascinating! Would love to learn more about this. Fragrance is something that is so rarely written about. Keep ’em coming @Julia_Davis

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