Chemical Romance

Photo Credits: Mark Mawson/ Getty Images

David Apel, a senior perfumer at fragrance house Symrise, compares the misconceptions surrounding perfume molecules to the hullabaloo that was kicked up recently when beverage company La Croix was accused of using insecticide ingredients in its beverages. The culprits? Linalool and limonene. “Those molecules are incredibly prevalent in nature,” Apel says. “They’re in every citrus fruit, in flowers, and every plant you can think of. Maybe bugs don’t like them, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmful. You’d ingest more of them eating an orange than you’d ever find in a product you can buy. That whole thing happened due to a lack of education about what these things are.”

Not only are the aromachemicals used in perfumery subject to rigorous testing, the screening process has tightened up even more now that U.S. fragrance companies must adhere to EU regulations (and the nitromusks that caused neurotoxicity concerns in the 1980s have long since been discarded). “It’s like whisky from a tub versus whiskey with the proper label on it,” says D.S. & Durga perfumer David Seth Moltz. “You should have no fear of the thing with the proper labels on it. The fragrance companies are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to test everything and make sure there’s no possible sensitivity or carcinogenic risks. As perfumers, we have extremely strict rules about what we can use and in what amounts.” There’s actually less likelihood that a synthetic will cause an allergic reaction than a natural would—a raw material such as a blade of grass or a slice of lemon is mind-bogglingly complex, containing hundreds of different potentially irritating aromatic components, whereas an aromachemical has been simplified and purified so that it is, as advertised, a single molecule.

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Another win for synths? In many cases, they can supersede naturals in planet-friendliness. The use of synthetic sandalwood, for example, means that critically endangered forests are now being brought back from the brink (though, admittedly, the perfumery industry was partly responsible for decimating them in the first place). Since molecules pack such a powerful olfactive punch, smaller amounts of raw material can be used, so their production can be stretched farther; and the creation of synthetics, unlike the harvesting of natural ingredients, requires no land use, nor does it deplete any water resources. Even where synthetics fail the test, as in the carbon footprint associated with fossil fuel use, fragrance companies are working to address the balance. Symrise, for example, is increasing its production of aromachemicals that can be forged from renewable resources and byproducts of the paper pulp, sugar, and citrus industries.

The development of synthetic notes such as musk (originally derived from the genitals of tiny, fanged musk deer, in a process that did not end well for said deer) and civet (extracted unpleasantly from the anal glands of an exotic cat) also means that we can thank molecules for the fact that no animals are harmed in the making of our perfumes. These alluring notes— indispensable for adding depth and character, warmth and sensuality to fragrance—are arguably more versatile in synthetic form because they can be parsed a thousand different ways, and more nuanced than the scents derived from their unsavory original sources. Civetone, for instance, is “this unbelievable musk that has none of the poopiness of real civet,” says Moltz. “It’s magical, and expansive—even just a drop of it in a fragrance opens you up. It’s like you smell it in your third eye.”

Which takes us to what is absolutely, indisputably, the most important role of molecules in perfumery: They allow perfumers—and perfume wearers—to dream. The reason you and I are spritzing scent on our wrists today, really, comes down to synthetics. Before about 1850, perfume was exclusive for royalty,” says Stephen Nilsen, perfumer for Commodity. “Because it was so expensive to harvest and extract enough naturals, perfume was reserved for the select few, like Marie Antoinette, who could afford to take whole communities and have them pick flowers just so she could have fragrance. But the advent of synthetic chemistry meant that people started uncovering what makes things smell, and how to replicate smells.” Once molecule-making took off, it meant that fragrance could be made more inexpensively, because it required less laboriously distilled botanicals. “Synthetics allowed us to bring the beauty, the emotions, and the special communication of fragrance to everyone,” Nilsen says.

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It all started with vanillin, a vanilla-scented molecule first developed from pine bark in 1874. That sweet, luscious note appeared for the first time in perfumery in Guerlain’s Jicky in 1889, along with another new synthetic, coumarin. Ionones, which have a velvety, violet aroma, were discovered in 1893, and soon assumed starring roles in two fragrances that are now considered iconic: Coty’s L’Origan (1905) and Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue (1912). As perfumers grew more audacious with these new materials, they began to use them lavishly—what, in perfumery parlance, is referred to as an overdose—thus creating such unforgettable effects as the signature love-drunk heady vanillin in Shalimar, the fizzy effervescence of aldehydes in Chanel No. 5, and the cotton-candy ethyl maltol in Thierry Mugler’s Angel.

Over the course of the 20th century, more molecules were created to mimic things found in nature that could never be captured in perfume before—and they resulted in blockbusters. Calone, for example, a molecule that replicates the smell of the ocean, defined the ambiance of the 80s and 90s, from L’Eau de Issey Miyake to Davidoff Cool Water. “I created Sunflowers for Elizabeth Arden,” says Apel, “that was my sort of old school Calone hit. I loved to work with it because it gave me an opportunity to express the fresh marine environment that I had experienced as a perfumer growing up on the East Coast of the United States. There’s no way to capture that feeling of the sea with a natural material.

Does your favorite fragrance have fruity note, or a leathery dry-down? Most of those, too—as well as many, many flowers, including perfume mainstay lily of the valley—are brought to us by science. “Thanks to the magic of molecules, I can make perfume with mute flowers”—blooms that have no essential oil extraction—“such as violet, lily of the valley, hyacinth, or even tulip, as I
just did in Cartier Carat,” says Cartier perfumer Mathilde Laurent. “There really is no perfumer’s palette without them. Nowadays we work with 3,000 ingredients, and about 2,500 of them are synthetic molecules.”

They allow the perfumer, as Laurent says, “to do micro-surgery on perfumes,” making them greener, softer, sweeter, or bolder with a minute, targeted tweak. “Synthetics allow you to create spatial relationships,” says Moltz. “They put your fragrance into space, and allow them to extend over time. It’s a little bit like an electric guitar versus an acoustic guitar. There are no tone knobs on the acoustic—you just play it and it sounds like it sounds. But when you plug it in and turn the treble down and the bass up, you can start to really augment and change the sound.”

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Synthetics, recently, have been known to strike out on their own. Cult-favorite Escentric Molecules 01, which was comprised solely of woody, musky Iso E Super, debuted in 2006, and the brand’s second creation, Escentric Molecules 02, celebrated tobacco-y amber Ambroxan, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year with the Power of Ten 02. Niche New York perfume house Nomenclature has released, to date, eight different fragrances featuring molecules as their protagonists, showcasing such game-changing synths as sunny, citrusy floral Paradisone and reimagined-patchouli note Clearwood.

D.S. & Durga’s new I Don’t Know What is also an all-synthetic eau, devised by Moltz to be worn alone or to be used as an enhancement for a natural oil. “It’s like a fragrance with no heart,” he says. “It’s just architecture that holds a fragrance up, and then you can add whatever you want. It’s a great tool to augment anything, but it also has a really beautiful, transparent clarity by itself.”

Virtually every perfumer would agree, however, that molecules do their best work when intertwined with naturals, and vice versa. “A lot of the fabrics we wear are blends of cotton plus synthetic fibers to give the performance that people want, the stretch, the lastingness, and it’s the same in fragrances,” says Nilsen. Even with 2,500 synthetic shades in the perfumer’s Crayon box, “we still love naturals. Naturals have a beauty and a complexity that we can’t get out of synthetics. It’s like we’re never going to replace real flowers with silk flowers. But we can take a natural and add a synthetic to it, and together they create a beautiful smell that we couldn’t have had before. We can have symphonies playing along with a synthesizer.”