The most fascinating aspect of perfumery is the building blocks – the familiar (and often unfamiliar) materials that come together to create something entirely new. For me, I am endlessly beguiled by the way in which a singular material can, not only be so versatile in its use, but also add nuances to a fragrance that are so far removed from the material when experienced in isolation. One could call this magic, but it’s not, it’s chemistry, and perfumery is a fusion between art and science, where the latter is used to convey meaning and emotion from the medium of smell.
For me it’s always been the synthetics that hold more interest than the naturals. Without synthetic materials (incl. isolates, captives and aroma chemicals) modern perfumery would smell a heck of a lot different. We just wouldn’t have the perfumes that we’ve had for the last 100 years or so – what we’d have is inconsistent naturals that, due to their own density and complexity, often lead to an opaque soup when blended together. Synthetics give the space and definition to these materials allowing them to compliment, contrast and extend each other. They pull the naturals apart and bring new dimensions into play.
One of my favourite synthetic materials is Ambroxan. OK, so it’s not a fancy material, nor is it a particularly expensive one. It doesn’t take 3,000 years to mature under moonlight on an exotic island. No, it doesn’t have to be expressed from the anal glands of unicorns (perfumery has always had a weird fascination with the contents of animal butts, tell me I’m wrong) by golden-locked virgins in the dead of night. But it is an incredibly useful and popular material, and it finds way into many modern fragrances in both prominent, and stealthy ways. I see it as a bit of a ninja – it swoops in quietly, bringing dimension and space to dense compositions allowing them to expand, giving them tremendous lift but also a fascinating mineral facet. To put it simply, Ambroxan is ‘the nuts’.
Ever wondered what an aroma chemical is, where it comes from and why the heck it’s used? This is the episode for you! Thomas and Nick talk about aroma chemicals (often called ‘synthetics’) and share some of their favourites, both in and out of compositions. Get your safety googles on, folks, it’s going to be a big ole sciencey ride.
“By my side, Hermann seemed to me like a shadow” – that’s the name of the latest fragrance from rebellious niche brand, Etat Libre d’Orange. A long, pretentious name in French is no real surprise from a brand that shot to fame by marketing a fragrance using the icon of a spewing dick, but much like all things Etat Libre d’Orange, this particular scent, with its particularly long name is absolutely fascinating, albeit without any erotic influences. Not that sexual innuendo, naughty hijinks and a healthy sense of humour are bad things, mind you!
Etat Libre d’Orange have moved into a new phase. Gone are the hilarious, shocking and hyper-sexualised names, and cartoons, all in favour of concepts inspired by Nijinsky’s ballets and poems by Victor Hugo. They seem to be treading a more serious path and elevating their olfactory art to a higher level. I think it’s a good move, one that will prevent them from being pigeonholed as the antisocial abuser of good taste. That rebellious and crass streak still exists – the spirit is very much alive in the brand’s back catalogue, but for now, Etat Libre d’Orange want to stand out for being innovative, not for being innovative and rude. I say power to them.
Hermann à Mes Côtés Me Paraissait Une Ombre, or ‘Hermann‘ for short, is inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem ‘What Two Horseman Were Thinking in the Forest’ and was created by Givaudan perfumer Quentin Bisch (La Fin du Monde & Ambre Imperial). The perfume plays with the idea of shadows, with shade serving as our companion or even our fragrance. They call it your alternate self – that side of you that is always there, whether it can be seen or not. Perfume too, can be a second self – a character we wear to send a message about who we are and who we want to be. But what happens when that second skin talks back? Etat Libre d’Orange seems to want to find out.
In the perfume industry there is a lot of emphasis on things being natural and people tend to be sceptical of fragrances that aren’t literal in their representation of nature. There’s a thirst for realism and more often than not, people want ‘real’ flowers in their juice, rather than ‘synthetic’ ones. Natural doesn’t always mean better though and it’s a known fact that the use of synthetic ingredients or isolated materials has allowed the industry to move forward in leaps and bounds (it’s also a fact that synthetics are generally more stable and long-lasting than many naturals). Without a mixture of the two, perfumes often feel flat and two-dimensional. Chemophobia may be the moral high ground (or complete, utter craziness, if you ask me), but it’s the embracing of new materials and technologies that allows for true innovation and artistry in the world of fragrance.
One of the most fascinating examples of innovation in perfume is Headspace technology. Developed in the 1980s, Headspace acts as a fragrant camera that captures and decodes the molecules in the air surrounding a particular material or object, providing a perfumer with raw data they can use to piece together a familiar smell using other notes and ingredients. Without Headspace, our perfumes would be devoid of such wonderful things as lily-of-the-valley, caviar and nail polish. It’s an important tool that allows perfumes to truly represent the world around us, and in some instances, an imagined world that is greater than our own.