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Smelling the Forest for the Trees

By: Christian Thwaites and Nathan Janz
Posted: May 4, 2010, from the May 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.
  • The number of essential oils available for use in fragrance is modest.
  • The widespread use of many essential oils has its downside, particularly when the goal is to create innovative new fragrances.
  • Too often, new natural ingredients come from areas of the world where sustainability standards are either poor or nonexistent.

Like architects, painters and other artists, perfumers seem to have a special appreciation for nature. This is perhaps an uncontroversial point. After all, it’s nature from which essential oils are derived, providing unmatched complexity and uniqueness. These facets mean that natural ingredients, particularly essential oils, continue to be an important tool in the perfumer’s tool kit.

The number of essential oils available to perfumers, however, is modest. Compared with the thousands of synthetic fragrance ingredients on the market, the number of essential oils totals just a few hundred. And many of these oils have supply problems, are very expensive or face regulatory pressures. As a result, few oils end up being used over and over again. One of these exceptions, cedar oil, has reportedly been found in more than 60% of commercial fragrances.1 Like many natural ingredients, it’s familiar to virtually every perfumer, from the most senior to the most junior.

The widespread use of many essential oils has its downside, particularly when the goal is to create innovative new fragrances. A perfumer can, of course, create a new fragrance using well-worn ingredients, but familiarity makes the job more difficult. A new ingredient can often provide a perfumer with just the spark needed to create a new fragrance and a point of difference for the brand owner.

It is, of course, easy to say that innovation is necessary. And it’s easy to say that new ingredients are necessary to facilitate this innovation. The hard part is finding out exactly where such new ingredients are to be found.

The Northwest Rain Forest