Perfumery: Natural Materials, Traditional Methods

PHOTO FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Tuberose blooms at Mercado de Jamaica, Mexico City, Mexico 2018

The traditional craft of perfumery was the result of centuries of accumulated knowledge.  We gathered especially fragrant varieties of flora and learned to extract the scent from the plant matter. When natural was the norm, before the commodification of fragrance and the expanding ubiquity of scent into greater categories of products, perfume was made by hand in small batches.

For example, the history of our love affair with the scent of oranges is a minor epic of human ingenuity; it is a story of agriculture, the creation of new varieties through our careful cultivation and selection, and the development of steam distillation to make orange oil from rind. In addition, it’s the story of the challenge of preserving the ephemeral fragrance of the short-lived flowers of orange trees and the complexity of formulating with ingredients that change constantly with the conditions of life on earth. To produce the amount of orange blossom extract used in a 50mL bottle of Cultus Artem’s Amara EDP, two kilograms of fresh flowers must be harvested.

In short, the era of discovery for traditional perfumery was focused on exploring the magic of living things—the process began and ended with nature. This process is comparable to distilling cognac from grapes in France, weaving linen from the fibers of flax plants, deriving vanilla from the orchids of Madagascar, and extracting gamboge yellow pigment from the resin of evergreen trees in Cambodia.

Modern perfumery is quite different.  It shares a history with the production of chemically synthesized fertilizers, pigments, fibers, and even pharmaceuticals.  Everything used in perfumery is, at a fundamental level, chemicals. This is true of all natural ingredients, and synthetic ingredients, so the most important differences between “natural fragrance” and “synthetic fragrance” are the source, and the process.

Instead of starting with orange rind, jasmine flowers, tree resin, or bark, synthetics mostly start with various petroleum products. The first perfume to use synthetic ingredients in combination with natural ingredients was Jicky by Guerlain, which was released in Paris in 1889.  Natural vanilla extract was in short supply and of poor quality, so the perfumer opted for a synthetic alternative produced by the only manufacturer that had the rights to the patent at that time.  The purity of synthetic vanillin has improved in the following century, and this may, in part, account for Jicky’s gradual loss of character (Stamp). 

Since Jicky’s original release, synthetics have largely overtaken naturals. Some of these ingredients can be found in nature as well as in industrial production from petroleum, but there are also entirely human-made ingredients that cannot be found except when we have synthesized them. The manufacturing process is a series of chemical reactions and conversions from the initial starting material to create a more desired result. These industrial processes are the domain of innovative chemical engineers and large manufacturers, and are made in large batches or, often, continuous processes, to minimize cost and maximize efficiency.

Natural sources can be difficult to work with due to variations in weather, crop failures, and the many challenges of global trade. To this day, the production of natural extracts necessitates a wide range of knowledge and specialized techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. Cultus Artem is a small fragrance house, so we prefer to work with family-owned companies throughout the globe with whom we’ve developed relationships and whose products are rare and exquisite.  We hand-blend the ingredients in limited-quantities at our facilities.  This is how we’ve created fragrances with the inimitable nuance and depth of the natural world.

 

Works Cited

Stamp, Jimmy.  “Jicky, The First Modern Perfume.”  Smithsonian, 17 Jan. 2013, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/jicky-the-first-modern-perfume-2355884/.  Accessed 10 May 2019.