The fine art and history behind the scents we wear.
Your first trip to the ocean. A dusty old book. Your mother’s silk scarf. An English rose garden. These are the fragrances you remember, have internalized and equate with a memory. Perfumes are nothing more than the scents that become a part of us, are at once an embodiment of these momentary memories.
Natural fragrances, those straight from nature like frankincense, orange blossom, jasmine and vanilla, reach deep into our core and storied biographies, conjuring to mind poignant memories that comfort us. Long before the Industrial Revolution such scents were all we knew.
“Up until the turn of the last century, perfumes, like Mille fragrances [worn by the ladies of Versailles], were blended in apothecaries for royalty from nothing but natural essences,” says renowned natural perfumer Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes.
“When synthetic chemicals were created in the 1880s, perfumes became a subconscious art,” says Aftel, referring to brands like Coty, Chanel (beginning with Chanel No° 5) and Guerlain. But, she says, their perfumes and all other synthetics lacked complexity, mystery and emotional depth.
“There is no romance in perfume without its close relationship to nature,” Aftel believes.
It’s a simple equation that seems to add up: humans, are natural beings craving the primitive and organic. Ayala Moriel, whose eponymous line of perfumes was originally inspired by Aftel’s book Essence & Alchemy, describes the attraction of scent and our ties to it.
“What’s really unusual, is that it’s not actually our nose that smells. Our sensory system is really part of the brain – part of our unconscious. Our nose is just a breathing organ connected to our olfactory bulbs [our sensory organ that detects smell] at the front part of our brain. That’s why smell is so immediate, and that’s why we have such a strong memory with scents. This is also where our most primal emotions and functions live, things like appetite, libido and fear,” says Moriel.
It’s no wonder that intrinsically, the journey lived by natural essences is entwined with our own. Aftel and Moriel agree that there is a truth to naturals, an authenticity that is connected to our past and even used by our ancestors to perfume their temples and to heal.
Amanda Walker of A Perfume Organic, who also studied with Aftel, takes a modern meets old age approach to perfumes. She began her boutique and certified organic perfume house after working in the fragrance world with the likes of Victoria’s Secret.
“I have really bad allergies and asthma, and I realized it’s from these [conventional perfumeries] putting acetone and unnatural ingredients in their products,” says Walker.
According to an Investigation of Chemicals in Perfumes conducted by Greenpeace, of 36 unnatural eau de toilettes and eau de parfums, all but one contained phthalates and synthetic musks, linked to health concerns such as hormone disruption and lung restriction, along with environmental toxicity concerns.
Simple as it may sound, the realm of naturals is vast – from the variable types of ingredients to the way in which they are extracted. Some perfumiers like Walker, eschew alcohol or a chemical solvent known as hexane, widely used to extract the complete and complex plant essence. Others, like Aftel appreciate their depth.
“With a good absolute, you get the richness and rounded, voluptuous smell of lavender for instance, compared to the pointy, sharp top note of pure lavender essential [extracted via steam distillation—an age old method]. And, all traces of hexane are removed.”
For Aftel, she feels like a painter picking just the right color from her palette, knowing when to use a certain essence or isolate, like geraniol, one of more than 200 components in rose oil and also found in the geranium plant. Moriel advises the super natural at heart, “The purest form of perfume is to just take rose petals and rub them on your wrists.”
True to nature and the volatility of plants’ precious essential oils, natural perfumes tend to blend with the skin, fading from top note, to heart and base note without strong staying power.
Kate Growney, a former beauty magazine editor and now founder of Saffron James Parfum, also takes an “inspired by nature” approach to her line. While not a perfumer herself, she has a clear vision for her line of perfumes, based on exotic flowers like the treasured Pakalana from her native Hawaii. Growney says that her perfumes contain between 80 to 99 percent natural ingredients, depending upon the blend. The mixture of synthetics and naturals is discernable, with her more potent fragrances lasting for hours on end.
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, of DSH Perfumes, offers both mixed media and 100 percent natural perfumes to her clients. As a painter, she also takes a unique approach to aromatic storytelling, pairing perfumes with wall art to create what she calls “aroma art expressions.”
Some, like Aftel, Moriel and Hurwitz, offer clients a bespoke fragrance experience. Each essence these perfumers create, like each wearer, has its own traveled journey. The art is in finding the perfect marriage between the two.
“We take you on an olfactory journey,” explains Moriel.
“We stroll along the different essences, starting with the top notes and moving through the heart and the base, and we select the ones that you really love. It’s really interesting to see people connect to a part of their life they might have left. And the perfume is yours. We will only re-blend it upon your request.”
Coco Chanel once said: “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future,” these perfumiers might add or olfactory connection to their memory.