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Fragrance Memories Past and Present

By: Nancy C. Hayden
Posted: September 4, 2009, from the September 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

We often remember the wonderful fragrance imprints that went into our sensory memory bank long ago. The first time you bathed yourself in Intimate by Revlon and your date was drenched in Aramis by Aramis. How wonderful we remember those scents, with their rich woody notes and spice of the amber sandalwood. When considering Aramis, it is possible to “envision” a smell of rich leathers and woods; with Intimate, the sexy, wafting scent of gardenia, cedar wood, ambers and mosses is pulled from memory.

But at the same time, sampled blindly today, those fragrances may smell of retro nostalgia. What was once thought of as great, may now smell out-of-date. In many cases, scents become heavy, old-fashioned. When looking at the old classic formulas, one realizes the limited palette of ingredients. Take, for example, what went into the creation of the classic Chanel No. 5—natural civet, sandal, vanilla, jasmine, rose, orris ylang and a heavy addition of aldehydes is required. Though still available, still a great perfume and still a classic with the same formula, many of the raw materials or their original sources are not available anymore. There are now adaptations or different sources for these materials.

Adding to the changing perception of fragrance and the challenges in maintaining classics unaltered, safety requirements have also changed. The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) works to make fragrance standards as safe as possible as regulatory and consumer demands increase, but this has made, in some ways, the perfumer’s job more difficult, requiring those creating to be abreast of what materials can and cannot be used. Issues of availability and sustainability must also be considered.

This does not mean that modern perfumery, the fragrance houses and the noses are not up to the task—many are active in seeking solutions to the challenges. For instance, Givaudan is working on an innovative naturals program through which it is now harvesting wild sandalwood in Australia. But these solutions are only a step in facing the tremendous challenge of recreating the classic formula, which is to match each raw material identically. Still, for many noses, consumers included, the old formulas simply smell different. Fragrance professionals are very familiar with consumer comments such as: “I have used this fragrance forever, and it just does not smell the same anymore.” The slightest variation of sourcing can make a difference in the scent, along with the duplication of the flower scent with a new aromatic.

Fooled by a Memory

In my fragrance library of classics, I have a sealed bottle of Crepe de Chine—a direct descendent of the grandfather of today’s chypre fragrance category: Coty’s Chypre. Crepe de Chine was the classic chypre formulas, including the oak moss labdanum civet musk and styrax base notes combined with ylang-ylang and lilac with natural citrus top notes. When thinking about the fragrance from memory, enthusiasts rave about what a wonderful rich, sexy fragrance it is. Funny how memory plays tricks in this case, because the wonderful rich ingredients in Crepe de Chine, when actually smelled on skin, are heavy and very old-fashioned. However, there are elements of the scent that remain desirable; the natural animal tinctures of musk, civet and ambergris were often used in the classics to meld and give warmth to the floral notes. But formulas today cannot afford to use or are prohibited from using many of these natural materials, and, if all the naturally derived animal notes were still used, there would likely be a backlash—when the musk oil craze hit, fragrance houses fielded calls inquiring whether they were killing the Himalayan musk deer, which is where the true musk was derived.