“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years that you have lived” Helen Keller
Natural perfumery draws on the art and science of creating fragrant, aesthetically pleasing compositions using ingredients of natural origin which include:
- Botanical raw ingredients, such as essential oils and resins from flowers, bark; seeds; leaves; twigs; grass; roots and rind.
- Ethically sourced and harvested animal ingredients such as Ambergris and hyrax stone.
- Distillates, such as Floral waters/hydrosols
- Tinctures, which are derived from macerating a botanical raw material, such as Vanilla, in ethanol (naturally derived alcohol) or an Infusion, where botanical material is infused in oil such as jojoba or coconut.
- Concretes, pomades and absolutes
- Attars and choyas
These are not only incorporated in the soulful pleasure of perfumes either oil, solide or alcohol based, but any ‘juice’ or ‘recipe’ can also be incorporated into ambient fragrancing such as candles, potpourries, incense, scented papers as well as body products such as milk, lotions, oils for bath and skin, powders and body butters, you are only limited by imagination (and sometimes technical know how!!)
Really we create nothing. We merely plagiarize nature. ~Jean Baitaillon, quoted in Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, 1997
The majority of mainstream and commercial fragrances though inspired by nature, are predominantly composed from artificial or ‘synthetic’ compounds that are produced through chemical manufacture, these are called aromachemicals. In some instances, they can provide an ethical or humane alternative especially in replacing the prized animal derived materials such as Civet, Castoreum and Musk. Civetone, skatole and Musk Ketone/Galaxolide/Cashmeran are respective examples of aromachemical replacements, so beloved of perfumers to give longevity, depth, warmth to a base note structure and provide a desirous animalic note.
There are some natural ‘musk’ alternatives too, such as Ambrette Seed (Abelmoschus moschatus) and others such as Angelica Seed (Angelica archangelica) which have musky elements that can be isolated – however, that is a whole other separate issue about ‘Isolates’ – which I shall save for another time!
I am in no way against the use of synthetics in Perfumery per se, in fact I own many beautiful, soul inspiring fragrances, but I am just much more selective now in what I choose to wear. I now find I am over-sensitive to some aroma-chemicals in perfumes (and other fragranced products), perhaps due to a clumsy composition or heavy handed use of materials – who knows? So I mainly choose unscented/naturally fragranced products and perfumes I know I can tolerate (which surprisingly turns out to be be in the higher price bracket – darn!).
My preference for working with naturals, is predominantly due my original aromatherapy training, which has continually served to pique and nurture my interest but also because natural materials are multi-faceted, dynamic, soulful and ephemeral. They are an education to work with, ambiguously possessing complexity, subtlety and richness. Once you delve into the long history of discovery and use of many raw ingredients and plants, their botanical stories; countries of origin and terrain; smell and properties, a sense of the metaphysical and metaphorical reveals itself as stories of love, drama and adventure unravel! Where would poetry, literature, music, film and art be without nature’s fragrant offerings and their symbolic links to romance, seduction, murder, legend, myth and folklore, ritual, magic and religion?
The Helen Keller quote is a favourite of mine, a brief inhalation takes you on a journey and pulls you back in time, some oils, such Rose Otto, Orange Blossom or Jasmine are perfumes in themselves revealing different facets of their personality and history with each inhale.
Of course they have their own limitations, there are safety issues (as with everything in life!) and ecological concerns for certain species; but for me this enhances their attraction, it provides a delightful chinese puzzle-box of a challenge to sensitively create nuanced and complex perfumes and aromatics using natural ingredients and working in harmony with what Nature offers us.
Alas, I do not have scratch and sniff technology embedded in this picture!