Despite centuries of acquired knowledge, the symbiosis of perfume ingredient processing skills with the artful touch of the perfumer’s alchemy, some flowers remain frustratingly ‘silent’ – their fragrance impossible to extract through traditional methods such as enfleurage (the labour-intensive process of placing trays of scented petals in wax to capture their often capricious perfumed oils).
Other blooms are disappointingly ‘mute’, with no scent at all, instead enticing pollinators with pulsating light shows akin to something from a laser-powered party night in Ibiza. Scientists may have only recently discovered this disco of seduction, but these nanoscale ‘come hither’ halos around petals – irridescent patterns acting as landing lights, tailored to the colour spectrum of the insect they hope to entice – have presumably existed since the very first flower fluffed out its petticoats and invited onlookers to sample its wares. Which is all very well, but very few things are quite as keen as the disappointment of burying your nose in a glorious bloom, breathing deeply and getting… nothing. Nada. Not a hint of a scent.
Synthetic vs Natural
In a world where we unintentionally anthropomorphise everything – giving ‘faces’ to clouds, rock formations, plug sockets and street signs alike – is it any wonder we eventually must dream up fragrant fantasies to form a hypotic hook and fill the gap that nature left? Luckily, with the help of modern methods, some flowers can now be coaxed, captured and reconstructed for us to to enjoy; while others with no scent at all can conjured due to the magic of synthesis. Discussing how perfumers walk the fine line between ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’, a report in Chemical & Engineering News celebrates the fact that:
‘Thanks to synthetic chemistry, fragrance lovers can enjoy all the best scents that nature can provide and many that nature cannot. Perfumers work their invisible art by carefully selecting from a palette of thousands of compounds, of which only a small fraction are from natural sources.’
Various organisations and people have recently clambered on the wobbly bandwaggon that is the ‘clean’ brigade: claiming that ‘all chemicals are bad.’ Which is terrible news for those of us who require oxygen, like to eat apples or drink water – all of which (along with pretty much everything in the known universe, including you) is made from ‘chemicals’. What they mean, of course, is manmade chemicals or synthetic aroma molecules. But these have revolutionised perfumery since their discovery in the 1800s – they can add structure, longevity and the feeling of a finished fragrance, as well as often being more sustainable, environmentally friendly and, crucially, safer for the skin than their ‘all natural’ chemical counterparts.
These synthetic fragrance ingredients can be seen as the equivalent of granting a voice to those frustratingly silent flowers, conjuring new and unique smells undreamed of even in nature, and in the hands of a perfumer, equivalent to gifting never-before-heard notes to a musician, or aquiring never-seen colours to an artist.
What’s more, these miraculous molecules are heavily regulated, for the protection of health and environment; in 1973, the International Fragrance Association being created to implement a code of good practices around all scented products. IFRA is in charge of controlling these materials the perfume industry utilises, and their strict controls over safe use mean that out of around 2000 new aroma molecules emerging from laboratories every year, only ten will eventually breakthrough the rigorious testing procedure and make their way into perfumes.
Frédéric Malle: ‘Interesting perfumery really started at the end of the 19th century, because there were some synthetics available. Perfumery as we know it today has big doses of synthetic, and furthermore, if you want to recreate nature you need synthetic. The name, Synthetic Jungle, is a way of opening the debate, I love nature, it needs to be preserved, don’t get me wriong; but this idea that everything from nature is great and everything from man is awful is a new kind of facism.’
How do you synthesise a molecule?
Chemists isolate the fragrant compounds present in an ingredient, purify them and determine their molecular structure. When the molecules have been identified, they can go through a process of fractionation – separating their essences, distilling via differing boiling points – which enables them to discover smells completely different to the original ingredient, hidden deep within their DNA: ‘Geraniol’, distilled from lemongrass but smelling distinctly rose-like, was discovered via this technique.
Scientists can also use Headspace Technology (which fragrance expert Nick Gilbert writes so brilliantly about for CNN’s blog), but bascially involves covering an ingredient in a glass bell jar filled with sensors, filling it with a neutral gas and analysing its compounds so it can be exactly recreated for a perfumer to use. This method means the scent of those plants that cannot be naturally extracted can be captured, along with a wide expanse such as an entire forest, the smell of the sea, or a thunderstorm, bottled.
Fact is, synthetics are just as much a part of perfumery’s past as they are a key to the fragrance industry’s exciting future. Of course natural ingredients have their place, and hopefully always will (climate-change and world economies allowing), most perfumers agree that it’s the mix of natural and synthetic ingredients that most ignite their imaginations; and entirely natural fine fragrances are still very rare – despite what the ‘green washing’ gang will imply: beware deliberately sly phrases like ‘with natural ingredients’, or ‘chemical free’ – accounting for around 5% of the market. As we hold our breath and await as-yet unimaginable scientific discoveries being distilled into our scents, let’s take a sniff at some of the fragrances already awakening those ‘Silent Flowers’ and daring us to dream…
Inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s vibrant strokes, the painterly pairing of bright, zesty bergamot and luscious mandarin burst into bloom with a tingle of amber, plum blossom and a dusting of orris powder. Deliciously optimistic.
From £25 for 10ml eau de parfum
Fetch your finest broderie anglaise frock and sashay to a field of those slowly swaying flowers. Pure sunshine refracted through sparkling citrus, ice cold melon, ripe peach and luminescent jasmine on a mossy bed of nostalgia.
£24 for 100ml eau de toilette
A theatrical side-step from the name conjures white flowers, a bouquet of trembling snowdrops pulled from a magician’s hat and lasciviously thrust into the ample bosom of an incense-y imagined black tulip and chocolate smothered plum.
From £30 for 30ml eau de parfum
Frolic awhile in this emblematic flower, travelling to Amsterdam’s floating Bloemenmarkt. Swagged with tumbling ivy, freshened by freesia, shady woodland violet nestles beneath languid jasmine and an amorous fluff of musk.
Poppies kissed by a cosmetic-y powder, motes of soft muskiness floating on the breeze to a somnambulous stage that’s sweetly balsamic. Light as a feather yet comforting as a weighted blanket, it’s a beautiful perfumed paradox.
[Psst! This stunning collector’s edition, showcasing a 200-year-old Japanese art form, is limited in number]
£67 for 50ml eau de parfum
An historic, poignant reverie reimagined in 2017 – a wooden box that once held spices now conceals bundles of love letters. Sunlight pierces the simmering lemon studded with pink pepper, sweet orange blossom swagging soft jasmine.
£117 for 100ml eau de toilette
Effervescent lemons and Calabrian bergamot gleam into the powdered, lipstick-y heart. Snuggled on a base of supple, buttery leather, imagine aftertoon tea on a terrace, Earl Grey spilled on a Birkin bag; and you’re halfway to paradise.
£95 for 30ml Cologne absolue
Beloved as a symbol of purity and eternal love, in the Far East winter is punctuated by the ritual of a bright, perfumed bath filled with bobbing citrus fruits. Creamy magnolia, icy clary sage and the tea-like scent of camelia beckon spring.
From £90 for 20ml eau de parfum
Brimming with piquant blackberries, a wander through a dappled woodland of jasmine, bluebell, and lily of the valley leads to a sunlit glade with a washing line of crisp, air-dried linen and peachy peony petals dancing in the breeze.
From £5.00 for 50ml eau de toilette
Snapped stalks, peculiarly ethereal yet pungunt hyacinth and the fleshy, orange flower / melon-like clarity of cyclamen are hiding beneath a cloak of early morning mist. Pierced by dawn’s break: a carpet of bluebells shivers awake.
£115 for 100ml eau de toilette
The allure of purity – a flower celebrating fresh starts, new loves – becomes an alchemist’s anamoly (the ‘simple’ scent coaxed, in fact, from a composition of ‘over 250 perfume oils.’ ) Dynamically dewy, optimistically green, utterly timeless.
£80 for 100ml eau de toilette
Frédéric Malle Synthetic Jungle
Bravely slashing through lush leaves (and preconceptions) a furry beast lurks. Startling blackcurrant verdancy stalked by ferality. Says Frédéric: ‘When Anne [Flipo] added the lily of the valley it was a huge turning point, it was the key.’
From £38 for 10ml eau de parfum
Written by Suzy Nightingale