Image by user Thander, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Are these fragrances natural? Yes and no. Surely a great fragrance has space for both natural and synthetic ingredients. Natural materials are exquisite, familiar yet unpredictable, and some are nearly finished perfumes on their own. If I thought I could provide affordable, consistent, and environmentally sustainable products with the effects I need just from natural materials, I’d use them in greater quantities. Even so, I see no need to limit the palette from which I work by arbitrarily avoiding lab-created materials. Aromachemicals allow for spectacular effects, defying the conventions of perfumery as an art, while holding up their natural counterparts like a good bra.
We’ve become increasingly preoccupied with “natural” and “clean” beauty and personal care products, suspicious of anything created or manipulated by chemistry. “Chemicals” are viewed as unclean and unnatural, despite everything in the natural world being comprised of them. To a reader seduced by the idea of naturalness and pronounceable ingredients, citronellol, geraniol, nerol, beta-damascenone, beta-ionone, linalool, and phenylethyl alcohol sound like poisons, but they’re the main chemical constituents of natural rose otto. Rose otto is breathtakingly beautiful. It also runs about $1000 per ounce. I can source those constituents individually for pennies on the dollar and reconstitute my own rose, turning up or down its characteristics as I see fit. It can be made anywhere, any season, and never has a bad year.
Mysore sandalwood has been exploited to the point of near extinction, and the tightly regulated, slow-growing trees are farmed on a continent that is extremely vulnerable to climate change. They’re cut down and sent through the wood chipper as soon as the oil can be extracted, never reaching their full potential as trees. As with rosewood and atlas cedar, demand for this natural ingredient outstrips supply in the natural world. There just isn’t enough nature to go around. Synthetic sandalwood materials have gotten very, very good. So good, in fact, that most people would smell real sandalwood oil and prefer one or a blend of its lab-created counterparts, all of which are completely sustainable.
And yet I can’t imagine regularly working without natural fragrance materials. Their individuality, imperfections, and variance are moving in a way that can’t ever be truly duplicated, as aromachemicals have no story or terroir. They’re a bit like the Hebrew mythological Golem, blindly following their creator’s directions without nuance or understanding, ever a reminder that we aren’t gods. Of course, the happy medium lies in the use of both. Whether it’s using aromachemicals to support, enhance, and prolong natural materials, or using each for completely different effects, Symbolist Perfumes seeks to create fragrances that are supernatural.