by: Serguey Borisov
The Soul of the Rose - John William Waterhouse, 1908
Ask sale assistants in most perfumeries about a perfume's naturalness, for any brand, and you get in response: “We sell only the best, all-natural perfumes!” Oh really? EachChanel № 5 flacon, the most classic women's gift in the last century, consists of a dozen roses surrounded by 1,000 jasmine flowers, plus ylang-ylang, vetiver, sandalwood oil—and a little bit of synthetic aldehydes and musks ... In principle, this could be the end of a quest: Is there anything natural in modern perfumes? But we will go further and find out: are those 12 roses enough for a 30 ml perfume bottle?
There's a fragrant farm just 4 km from Grasse in the south of France. Joseph Mul`s family has grown the May rose there for five consecutive generations. The entire crop—which is 35-40 tons of May rose petals from Grasse annually—are processed here only for the production of Chanel № 5 extrait (rose materials from other sources are used for Chanel № 5 EDP, EDT or different Chanel fragrances). Despite the fact that this amount is clearly not enough, Chanel perfumer Jacques Polge never them asked to produce more—he only requires that they keep the quality at a constant high level. In 1987 Chanel created a commercial partnership with the Mul family, to keep rose and jasmine crops for the iconic perfume quality, and Chanel buys the entire crop at good prices. Now the family gathers petals from 50,000 May rose bushes and flowers from 60,000 jasmine bushes for Chanel Parfums only.
In 1930, Parisian fashion designer Jean Patou decided to make perfume present to 250 of his American clients, to cheer them up. Jean Patou was not happy with all the offers of Henri Almeras, till the desperate perfumer passed him the most expensive fragrance that was in his laboratory. So there appeared a scent of Joy, each bottle of which contained a hidden bouquet of 330 Grasse roses and 10,600 flowers of Grasse jasmine. Then, Jean Patou Joy surpassed Chanel № 5 not only by the amount of flowers in one bottle, but also with its price: it used to be the most expensive fragrance in the world.
Once a unique Rose Centifolia from Grasse was the foundation to all the French perfume industry. Grasse was processing 750,000 tons of petals in a year, right before World War II! Now Grasse grows roses only for three perfume houses: Chanel,Jean Patou and Christian Dior. Other brands use less precious and more convenient rose materials from Bulgaria, Morocco, India, Turkey, Iran, China and Russia.
Perfumer Dominique Ropion used Damask rose from Kazanlak, Bulgaria as the main color for his olfactory picture Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady. There are 600 living roses hidden in a 100 ml EDP bottle of fragrance. However, 600 roses give only 400 milligrams of rose otto only. Is that enough to smell the rose?
And here we come to the main point: how much rose essential oil (or rose absolute) can be obtained from a single rose flower, and what amount of rose essential oil is needed to bring a clear and distinctive rose smell to a perfume? Different sources give approximate but similar data: 3-4 tons of damask rose petals give 1 kg of rose oil by steam distillation in Bulgaria; 10 tons of May (Centifolia) rose petals bring 1 kg of oil in Grasse. Yields differs due to different distillation technologies. 500 Centifolia roses=1 kilo of petals.
The main Grasse extraction technique is hexane extraction that brings 1 kg of rose absolute out of 1000 kg of petals—that`s more effective. To understand how much natural rose and synthetic raw materials are needed to create a giant rose ghost of perfume, let us recall some of the classic rose perfumes. For example, the gorgeous, sweet and rich rose marmalade of Guerlain Nahema.
It contains only 0.5% (!!!) rose absolute in its concentrate (without alcohol, water, dye and so on)! Is this enough? Yes, especially when you consider that the rose absolute is supported by one of the most powerful-smelling rose molecules, alpha-damascone (the percentage of it is just a hundredth of a percent!). Rose ketones (alpha- and beta-damascones, alpha-, beta- and gamma-damascenones) are an integral part of rose oil. Their contribution to the natural scent of roses is the greatest, although their content in rose oil is only a tiny few hundredths of a percent. Now they are made by chemical synthesis—and now rose perfumes can be much more expressive, baroque, bright or transparent. For example, if you have ever tried Annick Goutal Ce Soir Ou Jamais, you remember the rich rosey smell. The Turkish rose in the perfume was supported by the record dose of beta-damascone (0.45% is considered to be an overdose!), so this is a Rose turned into a fountain of rose champagne!
More examples? Yves Saint-Laurent Paris, a classic rose fragrance, was formulated upon only 0.5% of rose oil from Turkey. Guerlain Rose Barbare is based on May rose absolute (0.2%) and Damask rose oil from Bulgaria (0.5%). The record content of May rose absolute in contemporary fragrances was established by Edouard Flechier in hisEditions de Parfums Frederic Malle Une Rose (1%), while the Damask rose absolute record belongs to Serge Lutens Sa Majeste La Rose (2%). Just stop for a moment and think again. When just one hundredth of the concentrate's weight is rose absolute, that's a world record! Also take into consideration that from an eau de toilette to a perfume the concentration varies from 10% to 25% by weight (the remainder is alcohol, water, additives and colors).
Let me omit all the calculations and go straight to results. There are about six thousand fragrant roses in each Une Rose 100 ml bottle! Thus, by pressing the sprayEditions de Parfums Frederic Malle Une Rose, you release into the air the breath of three or four roses.
Now, another question arises.
We know that rose oil is a perfume by itself, a complex mixture of more than 400 different chemical substances, odorous and non-odorous. What if the fragrance composition includes rose oil and also some added damascones and rose oxide, linalool, citronellol, nerol, geraniol—the substances which are components of the essential oil of rose and rose absolute? Can we consider these synthetic additives as non-natural? Indeed, none of the world's noses can distinguish the chemically pure substances—natural or synthetic—by smell, neither alone nor in a mixture with others.
Assume that the perfumer had to strengthen one aspect of the rose scent—its transparent freshness or a sweet flowery or fresh berry aspect. For example, perfumer Pierre Guillaume wanted to pass through all phases of the flower life in his “rose burn”Parfumerie Generale PG13 Brulure de Rose, from the fresh bud in green leaves through the flower's sweet intoxication to dry petals, trampled into the ground. He creates all these phases with accents made by synthetic materials. Can we assume that by these additions the perfume and smell became unnatural or harmful? No. Does the perfumer have the right to deviate from the natural smells? Yes, of course! Otherwise, what is the art of perfumery, if not the development of natural fragrant ideas?
The addition of molecules is not so different from the addition of geranium oil to rose oil (the two have a shared odorant—geraniol), or carnation flower absolute or sandalwood oil to the rose oil (another ingredient in common—eugenol). That's just a logical rule of perfume building.
Should we consider a rose fragrance that was created entirely from nature-identical ingredients to be natural? Could you add something that will make this fragrance more resistant or more airy, more spicy or cooler? For example, perfumers have created and are creating rose perfume bases, such as Wardia, Dorinia, Cetylia, Damascenia from Firmenich and Rose Givco from Givaudan, as well as individual rose-smelling molecules, such as Centifolether or Rosalva.
Guerlain Chamade is adored by all Guerlain fans; does your love fade when you find out that rose base Damascenia from Firmenich plays a very important role in the perfume? Synthetic materials were key to François Coty's success—his famous La Rose Jacqueminot (1906) and Coty Chypre (1917) were built on rhodinol, phenylethyl alcohol, ionones and some other synthetics. So do new fragrant molecules make the scent of roses better or worse? Should we stay with rose absolute's smell ... or let perfumers play with it to find some new smells and necessary variety and novelty?
Same story with jasmine.
Eight million jasmine flowers weigh a ton, and bring only one kg of jasmine absolute.Ernest Beaux used 4% jasmine absolute in the Chanel № 5 perfume formula. Even then, it was prohibitively expensive, and the perfumer made that to be sure no one will be able to copy and release a similar scent at a low price; for the modern perfumery it's just history! And do not blame IFRA or effective perfumery managers: inexpensive jasmine bases were used in approximately 80% of perfumes in the 1950s! In modern scents, the maximum content of jasmine absolute in perfumes is hovering around 1%—so Christopher Sheldrake needed only 0.35% of jasmine absolute to create Serge Lutens A La Nuit, one of the best contemporary jasmines.
Benzyl acetate, linalool, indole, cis-jasmone and of course, Hedione with its modern versions (Hedione HC, Paradisone, Splendione, Delphone, Magnolione, Veloutone) help to make modern jasmine perfumes more accessible and attractive.
So, perfumers need just a little of the natural oils to create a bright floral scent, especially if the oils are expensive. Are there any more natural things in modern fragrances?
In addition to expensive natural absolutes of rose, iris, tuberose, there are also low-priced natural essential oils. Like lavender and lavandin, patchouli, vetiver, cedarwood, cinnamon, orange, lemon ... All of them has a huge markets. By the way, patchouli oil is the most popular natural raw material now, with an annual production and consumption of about 1,000 tons. And if it really is necessary to write advertising text about “our fragrances are half (or two-thirds, or 99%) natural,” then you can just use cheap essential oils. Or use the individual molecules that have or may have an organic origin—so-called isolates, like the above-mentioned rhodinol. And improved oils (eg, Vetiver Coeur from IFFLMR). True faith (does not matter if it's in Mother Nature or in mighty chemistry) can do miracles. And if you cannot create religion out of your perfumes, then you just spend your time playing with the perfumes!
Peter Severin Kroyer, portrait of painter's wife, Marie
Still, in the last words I need to articulate my own personal point of view.
It does not matter what percent of a particular component a perfumer puts in perfume; it does not matter if it is an expensive or cheap material, rare or ubiquitous oils. Here's what does matter: is the perfume beautiful or not? Is it able to move you out of your space or time? Can it touch souls and make people jump for joy? Can it make you shed a tear? With perfumes, as with music or art, the particular notes or paints are not important. To awaken the soul for compassion is most important by far.