Perfumery is undergoing a quiet revolution. The emergence of natural perfumery has ignited a strong interest in the genre, but many still don't understand the difference between a natural perfume and its synthetic counterpart—until they smell it on their wrist.
So what differentiates a natural perfume? For one, they are made entirely of materials derived from botanical (or natural) sources as opposed to molecules that are synthesized in a laboratory. Most commercially available perfumes are made with a high percentage of synthetically derived ingredients (around 95 percent). Many niche and indie brands also use synthetics but tend to include higher percentages of naturals to add complexity to their blends. These perfumes are usually referred to as "mixed media."
Before the invention of synthetically derived aroma molecules in the mid-1800s, vanillin being the first, perfumes were made with traditional extractions such as steam-distilled essential oils, tinctures, and enfleurages. The sources for these extractions were either botanical—flowers, leaves, twigs, buds, bark, resins, seeds, and roots—or animal such as ambergris (sperm whale sputum), castoreum (beaver gland), deer musk, civet (paste from anal gland), and hyraceum (fossilized urine).
Natural extractions are highly complex combinations of naturally occurring chemical constituents. A chemical analysis of a rose otto (steam distillation of rose petals) will reveal upward of 400 different and distinct naturally occurring chemicals that are present in various concentrations. Certain molecules such as geraniol, citronellol, or phenyl ethyl alcohol are present in higher concentrations and are responsible for the smell we recognize as "rose." But there are other components that help round out the scent. These ratios vary from flower to flower, season to season, and terroir, the location where the plant is cultivated. Soil conditions, water, sunlight, and climate conditions all contribute to the makeup of these chemicals and to their yield. Nature is a brilliant perfumer!
The rise of synthetically derived materials expanded the perfumer's palette. It also allowed perfumers to add constituents that would enhance or increase the concentration of a particular odor, rose, for example. Synthetic perfumery ingredients are individual molecules that are either found in nature (linalool, for example) and replicated from a non-botanical source or designed and created by a chemist (iso E super). A perfume made with synthetic ingredients often includes many notes blended into accords that build up a complex composition (some perfumes can have over 200 ingredients). By comparison, a natural perfume combines fewer ingredients that must be blended judiciously so as to maintain a clear structure that holds together during dry-down.
All perfume compositions have a structure made up of top, heart, and base notes. Top notes are ingredients that have small molecular masses, which are more volatile. These include citruses, herbal, and high vibration notes that the nose experiences first. They are the introduction to a perfume. Heart notes include florals and spices, which have greater longevity and create the main plot of a perfume. Base notes like musks and woods are large molecules that have low volatility, which the nose does not pick up immediately. These have the greatest longevity and serve as the conclusion of a perfume.
Natural perfumes have less longevity and do not contain fixatives, which can help top notes last longer and remain linear. This allows the wearer to layer or change their perfume wardrobe throughout the day. The morning nose tends to favor lighter, brighter notes, but by evening the nose is fatigued and needs heavier notes, which is probably why perfumes like Opium or Shalimar are best worn at night.
Natural perfumes also have less sillage or throw. They go on strong but quickly conform to the body. Synthetic perfumes, however, have greater longevity and sillage. They go on strong and can remain strong for hours. This is because synthetic aroma molecules break down more slowly than natural compounds and persist in the environment for longer periods. Some musks can remain on clothing for years.
This is an exciting time for perfumers because there are more creative options to explore. Gone are the days when commercial perfumery dominated the market. The rise of niche (independent perfume houses) in the 1990s opened the doors to artisan perfumery, individual perfumers who conceive, compound, bottle, and market their work themselves. Most natural perfumers are artisans who also make some of the ingredients in their perfume compositions. These can include tinctures, enfleurages, and essential oils that revive traditional methods lost to the commercial world. This sets natural perfumes apart from commercial fragrances, which lack variety and smell the same from batch to batch. Artisan perfumers, like winemakers, work with variable ingredients that make their perfumes unique and one-of-a-kind.