What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


This recent article on natural perfumes was brought to my attention by Dee Howe on Botoblog. Overall it’s quite a good write-up on the use of natural materials in perfumery, but I was struck by a quote in the article stating that natural perfumes, unlike synthetic perfumes “are not a cocktail of chemicals”. I did a double-take on this one. If natural materials are not chemicals, what are they? Some sort of magical ether that contains no molecules at all?

There seems to be widespread misuse of the term “chemicals” as a pejorative when, in fact, everything in nature is made up of chemicals. Every molecule, natural or synthetic is a chemical. Our bodies are complex collections of chemicals. The food we eat is nothing but chemicals. The plants that grow in the wild and in our gardens are sophisticated aroma chemical factories that produce odors to attract pollinators to their flowers. On the flip side of the coin, their vegetative parts often produce chemicals that repel, disable, or even kill pests.

Many of those attractants, repellents, and insecticides are exactly what our own noses find attractive. It’s tempting to speculate that, historically, plants with pleasant odors have been domesticated, thereby increasing their chances of survival in a world where more and more of wild nature is being destroyed by an exploding human population.

I sometimes feel like the odd perfumer out, standing in no-man’s-land in the pitched battle between two opposing camps of extremists. On the one side there are those who advocate aroma chemicals for their “purity”, “reproducibility”, “hypoallergenic properties” and all of the other virtues attributed to chemicals made in factories. On the other, arguably more vocal, side there are those who advocate the use of nothing but natural materials, simply because they are mysteriously produced by plants (or in some cases, animals, but that’s a different issue).

The truth is that toxic chemicals are made both in factories and by plants. Helpful chemicals are made both in factories and by plants. Some of the aroma chemicals made in factories are the same molecules as those made by plants. Most essential oils, absolutes and tinctures that are lauded for their simplicity and “purity” are actually cocktails of dozens or hundreds of different molecules (i.e., chemicals). In fact, that’s what I love about natural materials. They are cocktails with a richness of fragrance and a “personality” that’s not often found in synthetic molecules. Give me a good cocktail of chemicals like an aged olibanum, Mysore sandalwood, Bourbon vanilla, coffee absolute, kewda attar, rose de mai -- or even a good mojito -- and I’m a happy perfumer!

[Cocktail photos all adapted from Wikimedia]


  1. And chemistry has to be used even to make "natural" perfumes. After all, no one call it perfume if you just jam some rose petals in a bottle. You have to extract (a chemical process) the chemicals responsible for the rose smell. And if you want more than rose water you have to concentrate the juices, usually starting with distillation (a chemical process). Anyone who can make a real perfume starting with flowers, herbs, fruits and tree bark probably uses more chemistry than her high school chemistry teacer.

  2. Ed, This is a good point. In fact, we all use "more than high school chemistry" every day when we cook. The chemical reactions that go on every second in our own bodies would boggle the mind.

  3. Whenever I get cranky about this - and I do, more than I'm willing to admit! - I always argue that if you are a diehard devotee of natural perfumes, then you should just tuck one scented flower behind your ear and call it a day! Voilà! That's a natural perfume!

    I'm planted firmly on the fence...I love perfumes made with natural essences, and I love mixed-media hybrids, and most of all, I love that someone, at some point in dim prehistory came up with the idea to extract all that vegetable matter in ways we humans have loved ever since!

    All perfume - as the word is usually understood - is 'synthetic'. Someone, somewhere, cooked up the idea of, say...rose+patchouli+benzoin, and it's all a question of chemistry....

    Which even applies to whether you can wear it on your skin - or not! ;-)

  4. Hi Ellen,

    I am still confused about how the IFRA and EU banned and regulated lists are applied to the creation of fragrances. My understanding is that these regulations aren't applicable to individual perfumers here in the US but how do the lists impact european perfumers? Are the natural compounds on the lists totally banned or are certain percentages allowed?

    The so called natural or "unnatural" is not the issue for me. The composition is what matters. I just wonder to what extent the new regulations have changed the balance and composition in today's commercial fragrances? While I know from personal experience that restrictions can often stimulate creativity, I simply can't abide the odor of most of the newer commercial fragrances (please suggest some that you like). I tend to stick to older and vintage scents or fragrances created by individual/small business perfumers. I can't even stand the new Bigelow's Earl Grey Tea. I remember someone comparing the flavor of the faux bergamot to lemon scented dish washing detergent and I have to agree. I rarely drink earl grey tea so that is not a big loss to me. Perhaps this is just another sad manifestation of the Brave New World we live in or worse, a reflection of my own age related fragrance prejudice?


  5. Tarleisio, I agree that it's amazing that people long ago came up with the idea of extracting fragrances from heaps of vegetable matter!

    Gail, the whole "banning" of natural materials by IFRA and the EU is indeed confusing. It is my understanding that some things classified as "allergens" need to be listed explicitly on the label, there are upper limits for many materials, and still others are banned outright. None of it makes any sense.

    I think the regulations have definitely changed the composition of commercial fragrances, and not in a good way. I'll have to go through my review files and see which (if any) new commercial fragrances I like.

    Yikes! Artificial flavor in Earl Grey Tea? That's disgusting. I don't like Bigelow tea in general, so don't drink it. However, I do drink Stash Earl Grey Double Bergamot Tea, which claims to use natural bergamot. Maybe I should organize a tea review session on here.