The Science Behind Scent

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Oct 19 2015 / 13:51 PM

When it comes to perfume, natural doesn't necessarily mean better...

The Science Behind Scent

Fact: We have chemistry to thank for some of the most iconic fragrances in history. "I want to give women an artificial fragrance. I say artificial because it will be fabricated. I want a fragrance that is composed," Coco Chanel declared in 1921 at the launch of the iconic Chanel No 5.

Nowadays, however, we all know someone who proudly proclaims that she only dabs her skin with the purest, most natural creams and oils. The notion that natural elements are superior to, and safer than, laboratory-produced ingredients is prevalent – and, in some cases, not unjustified. However, in the olfactory world – where the scents that you choose evoke memories from your childhood or transport you to exotic hideaways – synthetics are vital. "Natural notes, extracted from raw ingredients, provide sophistication and richness, while synthetics, made by scientists, give shape, structure and elevation," explains the master perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. "A balance of both is imperative."

Jacques Guerlain was an early adopter of the scent-boosting ingredients known as aldehydes and used them in his first scent, L’Heure Bleue, Dhs1,228, in 1912. Coco Chanel, too, understood the need for balance, incorporating aldehydes in the composition of No 5 to complement the jasmine and tuberose, both grown in Grasse.

The advent of a steady stream of new scents and noses is challenging the received wisdom that scientists cannot be trusted to create alluring scents. "It is silly to think that natural is lovely and beautiful and synthetics are bad," says Mathilde Laurent, the in-house nose for Cartier, whose latest fragrance, L’Heure Perdue Eau de Parfum, Dhs1,080, celebrates the rich, warming scent of artificially created molecular vanilla. "I wanted to make it completely synthetic," explains Laurent. "The childhood memories we hold of vanilla are often of the synthetic version and I wanted this fragrance to be completely honest and transparent."

Vanilla isn’t the only note that is often better in its artificial form. Florals such as gardenia, hyacinth and peony cannot be extracted naturally, so ingenuity must supply what nature cannot. In Miu Miu’s debut Eau de Parfum, Dhs371, real jasmine and rose absolute are blended artfully with synthetic green notes to replicate the scent of lily of the valley. Other ingredients, such as ambergris and musk, are animal produced and now illegal to use; hence, the creators of fragrances such as Armani Privé’s Ambre Eccentrico, Dhs872, and Dior’s Les Elixirs Précieux in Musc and Addict Eau de Toilette, Dhs320, had to rely on synthetics to replicate nature.

"Synthetic ingredients widen the perfumer’s palette and help create the exact scent you want," says Jo Malone London’s fragrance director Céline Roux, who used synthetic heliotrope, a powdery floral note, to amplify the soft mimosa in the brand’s new Mimosa and Cardamom Cologne, Dhs478. The perfumer Francis Kurkdjian used the man-made molecule hedione HC to heighten the rose notes and convey the freshness of a British garden in the new My Burberry Eau de Toilette, Dhs422, while yet another lab-produced chemical, transluzone, gives the first Alaïa perfume, Dhs348, its invigorating, aquatic scent.

Experimental perfumer Geza Schoen, who founded Escentric Molecules, points out that "it would be hard to name a world-renowned fragrance made with natural notes alone". As with everything relating to perfume, the genius is in the blend.

Via Harper’s Bazaar UK