Perfumes are at once familiar to us, yet mysterious. They summon up fragments from the recesses of our olfactory memory, snatches of childhood recollections, as vivid as they are distant. There is no escaping it. Everybody carries with them through life a waft of lilac, a country lane lined with broom, the scent of loved ones. I clearly remember a moment I experienced as a child in the woods.
It was May, and there was such a profusion of lily of the valley beneath the great oaks of the Rambouillet forest that the air was heavy with fragrance. I was spellbound, troubled by this scent that conjured up images of my mother wearing that sumptuous perfume, Diorissimo, a homage to those little white bells. A sense of intimate familiarity from the interplay of smell and memory, coupled with the mysteriously evocative power wielded by a composition when a flacon of scent is opened. Perfume is reassuring at first, as it reminds us of who we are, then captivating, as its own story is revealed.
Here are fruits, flowers, leaves and branches . . . Verlaine’s familiar verse is a lyrical introduction to nature’s own vast catalogue of scents. Let me expand: here, also, are roots, peels, woods, lichens, seeds, buds, berries, balsams and resins. The plant world, in all its guises, is the wellspring of the essences and extracts that have given us perfumery. Before the development in the nineteenth century of the chemistry of odorant molecules, natural products had for three millennia been the sole materials used in perfumes.
While they have come to symbolise luxury in the industry, perfumers remain resolutely enamoured with these natural scents. They bring a richness and complexity to their creations; indeed, some are perfumes in their own right.
Before evaporating on our skin, the formulae take only a moment to tell the tangled stories of their numerous component parts. Tales of laboratories, in the case of chemical ingredients, and of flowers, spices and resins for natural products. Distilled or extracted, these plants are transformed into essential oils, absolutes or resinoids, to become part of a perfume’s composition, taking their place alongside synthetic molecules. The olfactory depth of natural ingredients renders them indispensable in fine fragrances, and they always feature prominently in the marketing materials of perfume houses…