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Fragrance Memories Past and Present

Nancy C. Hayden

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 What was once thought of as great, may now smell out-of-date.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.

Besides, one cannot expect that consumers would wear these original formulas, as they would be far too heavy for modern tastes, but finding comparable notes using modern materials can recall a classic and create a new winner on the shelf. Cosmetic & Fragrance Creations worked with a client who sought to emulate Secret de Venus, the predecessor to Youth Dew. But when presented with the original, it was not at all what he had conjured in his memory bank, so work had to be done using modern raw materials to create something more commercially acceptable.

As previously noted, today’s perfumer is challenged to learn the chemistry and interactions of a myriad of fragrance materials along with issues raised by increased safety concerns, regulations of fragrance materials, and environmental and sustainability concerns. This reality coupled with an increased interest in naturals has fostered the creation of new and different methods for extracting scents—as well as new partnerships with growers globally toward production of new raw material sources.

Today, for example, the natural and nature-inspired floral palette has expanded incrementally with head space technology. International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. was among the first to introduce such technologies with its Living Flower Technology—which captures the essence of exotic plants and flowers, and uses modern synthesis to duplicate the odoriferous molecules in the plant to create unusual scents. With this synthesis, a new world to the naturals opened and complemented other efforts, such as Givaudan’s partnerships toward growing sandalwood and exploring opportunities to create new growing regions.

And these advances may also lead to and/or foster other trends. Nectaryl, for example, is a new material produced from orange terpenes during the distillation of orange oil. The biodegradable specialty product is widely used in flavors, and is the type of material that plays a role in the gourmand trend—leveraging the close tie between flavors and fragrances. Fruit and food notes have recently been used to create interest and a “newness” to scents. According to Carrubba Inc., perfumers have developed a closer relationship with the flavorist, thus expanding the perfumery palette to create a myriad of flavor type fragrances—evident in the plethora of bath and body products driven by creative gourmand notes in a fragrance base. The momentum seems to have begun in the candle market, then made a big splash in bath and body before finely becoming integral in the palette of today’s fine fragrance designer.

Modern perfumery is an evolving art that has become increasingly scientific and interactive as the global market demands. The changing palette has expanded and continues to expand due to trends, the replacement/duplication of natural raw materials and new extraction processes. “The science of perfumery has advanced because the properties of perfumery materials are better understood,” says Ed Burke, perfumer, Carrubba Inc. And the fragrance world has taken giant leaps to open up infinite availability for new aromatic materials. Though this challenges the perfumer to become proficient in learning the chemistry and interaction of new materials, the noses are orchestrating the final formulation that push the boundaries of finished scent, gain the hearts of consumers and become today’s classics.

Nancy C. Hayden is a chemist and a pharmacist with more than 30 years in the fragrance industry. She worked as a nose for Jovan from the company’s beginnings and as fragrance director for Jovan Beecham until 1988. Currently, she is a consultant to the fragrance and cosmetics industries.

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