By courtesy of Luca Turin
NZZ Folio 4/06
There are now officially four kinds of perfumery: normal, niche, vintage and natural. Normal is what you find everywhere; niche is what you hope others won’t find; vintage is what you find only if you know what to look for. Where’s the natural stuff ? In health stores, next to the rock-salt lamps. They carry aromatherapy oils, so people have had access to a wide range of plant extracts previously accessible only to perfumers. This happened at a time when this wonderful-smelling stuff has almost disappeared from the mainstream. The big six perfumery firms are aromachemicals manufacturers, and it is in their interest to keep naturals, with their attendant problems of price and quality fluctuations, to a bare minimum. Just how bare that minimum can be has become clear in the last five years, during which the cost of a «fine fragrance» formulation has gone down by half and the quality by nine tenths. Good perfumes have almost disappeared: there are 500 launches each year, but only a dozen are worth smelling twice.
Capitalism hates a vacuum: by popular request, aromatherapists have started composing fragrances. Unsurprisingly, their creations are supposed to be Good For You. This marketing strategy is no worse than the usual «Wear this and every man/woman will lust after you», and just as easy to disprove empirically. But never mind the therapy, how’s the aroma? I recently received a sampler of the work of several US-based natural perfumers. Some were inept. Some were imitations of well-worn themes, i.e. recipes lifted from a book, competently executed with natural materials. Some were not natural at all, either knowingly (crooks are uniformly distributed among the population) or unknowingly (including among fragrance suppliers).
But a tiny number smelled good in a surprisingly new way. I’ve always believed perfumery is virtual cuisine, not pornography for the nostril, and these fragrances confirmed this. Natural perfumery may be waiting for another Guerlain, armed not with vanilla, but this time with a spice no-one outside Szechuan Province has yet heard of. But hasn’t all this all been done already before the invention of chemistry? Surprisingly, no. Serious natural perfumery was indigenous to only a handful of countries, each using a small number of traditional ingredients. New extraction methods and global trade now conspire to provide an unprecedented palette. Natural perfumers claim not to be bound by the aesthetic criteria of classical perfumery: if it survives EU regulations and New Age nonsense, their art may yet deliver on this promise.