Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can you make more of what you just made?

I ask this question for a reason. I've been reading some notes about so-called "natural" perfumes ... attempts to formulate perfumes using only natural materials, with some of these materials being created by the perfumer.

What is being rediscovered is the ancient art of turning natural materials from the environment into aroma materials. And, from what I am reading, tincturing appears to be a favorite current method.

To create a tincture of a natural material, that material is placed in alcohol -- the most odorless alcohol available -- and allowed to sit there for about a month. The plan is for the alcohol to take on some of the aroma of the natural materials being bathed in it.

Traditionally in perfumery this method was used to extract aroma from "difficult" materials such as hard-as-a-rock resins and lumps of ambergris. Flower smells would have been achieved through distillation or solvent extraction, the commercial successor to enfleurage, an older method employing fats to extract aroma and which always left a bit of a fatty smell along with the desired aroma.

These traditional methods, used commercially today, require equipment and precise quality control. Quality control is important because the perfumer, having established a successful formula, wants to be able to scale it up to larger batches and thus profit from his or her creation. If the quality of the materials being used is erratic -- the characteristics of a subsequent batch of an aroma material is not a match for those of the original batch, the success of the formula is destroyed.

So, for any commercial perfumer -- any perfumer who wishes to develop formulas which can be properly duplicated, year after year -- consistency from batch to batch in the characteristics of the aroma materials being purchased is very important. This is also why a large perfumery will not buy from a small supplier, no matter how high quality the materials may be. The small supplier simply cannot provide the volume that the larger perfumery needs and hence the large perfumery might be forced to discontinue successful fragrances.

Now personally I have great admiration for those who are experimenting with natural materials possibly grown in their own back yards. Certainly transforming your own garden's bounty into aroma materials is exciting. But what happens when commerce raises its ugly head?

From a commercial point of view, repeatability is essential. If you have made a perfume that people like -- and are buying -- you certainly want to be able to make more of it. If your new batch doesn't match the successful fragrance, you're in trouble. And the more people and stores that have placed orders with you, the bigger your troubles will be.

It is for this reason that commercially inclined perfumers vet their sources for continuity of consistency of supplies. For a large perfumery, in an "emergency" a skillful perfumer may be able to rejigger the formula to achieve the same smell with different materials. Most of us are not so skilled.

From my own experience I can think of several instances where I used a particular material to develop a formula only to find, within a mater of months, it was no longer available and my formula had to be either reworked or abandoned.

It would be nice to think that, when we find a material that we like and want to make great use of, all we need do it stock up on it.

Unfortunately with many natural materials and even some synthetics, there is a shelf life even under the best storage conditions, so that the excess we have squirreled away might very well be worthless when we finally go to use it.

The hard lesson is that we must think twice about our sources and continuity of supply before we make a big commitment to a new formula.


  1. I think your "hard lesson" is indeed a valid point, but one that pretty much goes without saying. My feeling is that there is some arrogance in thinking something like that even needs to be pointed out to a natural perfumer. Of course anyone who has the intention of makeing perfume on a large scale would have to consider the availability of the raw materials, etc.

    What you end up doing (without coming right out and saying it ) is putting down the idea of making perfume from solely natural ingredients. Your condescending tone gives the impression that doing something like trying to make a perfume without synthetics is silly and naive.

    The problem is, you don't appreciate the challenge and difficulty a natural perfumer has in doing this very thing or the fact that they take this challenge on by choice.

    What you seem to be missing is the art of natural perfume making is more like wine making. I am a hobby winemaker and, really, I have to say my experience with wine is part of the reason I am drawn to natural perfumery in the first place. There is something quite as special about creating art with these elements of nature.

    The bottom line is, you are comparing apples and oranges and completely missing the point.


  2. Dear Philip
    I think you've completely missed the point about the nature of art, and are imposing some other kind of intent and aesthetic on your explorations into 'natural perfumery'.

    Some examples with which no-one ever argues:

    One can attend a live performance of a famous symphony, and maybe go several times in the season... each perfomance will have nuances different from the previous performance, and the one which follows... yet the notes, as written, remain unchanged, forever.
    One can hear a recording of the symphony - the commercially mass-produced version - over and over again, but will it be as alive and nuanced as the representation created by a group of artist-musicicans under the baton of a conducter who seeks perfection in a constant state of evolving expression?

    We might also look at print-making in the visual arts.... who on earth expects that every print will be identical?
    Print-artists number each print, they become limited editions, yet still sell - if they're any good, of course.
    Those who come to love the work of such an artist, may choose to collect subsequent works, knowing that one will never be the same as another.

    We might only take the works of Shakespeare to see that there can be variance, and reproducibility... yet the words never change....and the demand for his work never dies. Macbeth is Macbeth. Hamlet is Hamlet. Yet the players and the staging change over generations, and still we buy our Macbeths and Hamlets.

    We could also move into the nature of impermanence in all things... and that brings us to philosophy....

    .... and so our celebration of the transient, of the subtle and the finely wrought, of precious and soul-filled... continues...

    Do you really think that the earliest 'modern' perfumers ever imagined a time when the production of hundreds of thousands of bottles of a specific scent would be necessary to be called 'successful'?

    Can we really say that those early, great perfumers may - or may not - have argued with the diminuition of true artistry which industrial mass-production imposes on the process of scent creation?

    Margi Macdonald

  3. Hi, Chris --

    If I sound arrogant, condescending or whatever, it's only the frustration I sometimes feel when confronted with two issues --

    First the misconception that "all natural" means "no chemicals." I was once shown a bar of soap in a crafts co-op and told by a well meaning crafter (not the maker of the soap) that it was "all natural -- no chemicals."

    While it may have been "all natural" is was also "all chemical." All soap is, as is all perfume.

    The second issue is the questions I am often asked by perfumers, the leading one being "why doesn't my perfume last longer?" The answer of course lies in the nature of the materials being used and the perfumer's lack of understanding of the materials in his or her own perfume.

    I once picked a rose from my garden for my fiancee (now my wife) but by the time I got it to her house, it had wilted. A florist's rose would have lasted longer having been bred for greater endurance.

    But let's talk about winemaking, which is an art close to perfumery. Some make their wines from a kit; others pick their own grapes, dandelions, or whatever. From the kit you get consistency. When you stomp your own grapes or mash your own dandelions you get variations from batch to batch. Does this sound familiar?

    And with wine -- as with essential oils -- much depends on the climate, soil, and growing conditions. So we have good vintages and poor vintages. Getting into it in depth can be expensive -- more expensive than I could afford.

    Yes, natural perfumery is a challenge. And I understand the excitement of working within self-imposed limits.

    I don't mean to beat up on anyone but I do sense that some who are working with natural materials ultimately bump up against (natural!) limits and begin to feel frustrated over those limits.

    I wouldn't suggest that we change our limits, only that we understand why we are running into these problems. In short, that we develop a better understanding of the materials we are working with -- and the technology of perfumery, be it natural perfumery or whatever.

  4. Hi, Margi --

    How true; how beautiful.