Aldehydes triggered a revolution in perfumery. Think of them as something like ‘rocket fuel’, boosting the ‘whoosh’ of a fragrance, when you first smell it: they’re like the fizz of champagne, having the power to make a perfume truly sparkle and effervesce. Aldehydes may be found in natural materials – rose, citronella, cinnamon bark and orange rind, for instance – but are also a family of synthetic chemicals, formed (here’s the science bit) ‘by the partial oxidation of primary alcohols’.
Contrary to legend, aldehydes first made their fragrant debut in 1905 in a scent called Rêve D’Or (Golden Dream), by Armingeat. They also feature in Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs (created 1912) and Lanvin’s Arpège. But it was their appearance in Chanel No. 5 that changed everything – literally sending perfumery on a new, modern trajectory, opening up a world of richness and strength.
So the story goes, Ernest Beaux – Chanel’s original perfumer – either misread his sums, or accidentally tipped a much greater quantity of aldehydes into the sample of perfume he was preparing for the discerning Mademoiselle Chanel, creating an overdose with almost 1% aldehydes. She loved it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Aldehydes are actually a family of ingredients: they can be metallic, starchy, citrusy, waxy. Take C7 – or heptanal, naturally occurring in clary sage, with its herby-green odour. Or C8 – octanal – which is reminiscent of oranges. C9 – nonanal – smells of roses. Aldehyde C10 – decanal – powerfully conjures up orange rind. Citral is lemons, while C11 gives a ‘cleanness’ to fragrance (it’s naturally present in coriander leaf oil). C12 – well, that’s lilac or violets. C13? Waxy, grapefruity. And where would Guerlain’s Mitsouko be without the peach-skin warmth of C14…?
Smell aldehydes in: