The Good, the Bad and the Nasty

– on taking a stand…

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a fracas of perfume origins. One of my Primeval Forces of Perfume, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of Parfums des Beaux Arts, was requested to leave the Natural Perfumers’ Guild in a highly unprofessional, undeserved and inconsiderate manner for not being quite natural…enough to suit the Guild. A very sorry state of affairs. It’s not my place to expound on the particulars other than to say you can read all about it here.

This does, however, get me thinking about the whole natural vs. synthetic debate. Both can be equally bad – or equally fantastic. I own a few all-natural perfumes, a large selection of hybrid perfumes to varying degrees, and even three samples from Escentric Molecules that never knew a plant to begin with. I’m no fanatic – I believe that both naturals and hybrid perfumes have their place in my perfume cabinet. Just as natural perfumes contain characteristics – a soul, if you will – synthetics never can, synthetic components of a perfume can add other, equally compelling elements, including longevity. Many natural perfumes have left me less than impressed…and a few others have blown me to dandelion fluff. Some synthetic perfumes have been very complex – and others left me running to scrub them off.

You could argue with some justification that if you really DID prefer a 100% natural perfume, all you would have to do is tuck a highly scented flower behind your ear and call it a day. The labor intensive process of steam and CO2 distillation, cold pressing or enfleurage might capture the essence of the plant in question, but is it really any more ‘natural’ than cooking up a chemical brew in a lab? After all, the very process of creating a perfume, regardless of the source material, is in itself artificial.

When I first reviewed Dawn’s ‘Vert pour Madame’ with only the knowledge of her name and reputation, I immediately recognized a spectacular, visionary and unique talent that definitely registered on the SLS Major Moo scale. Since then, she herself has been incredibly welcoming, friendly and hugely supportive of an unknown perfume blogger and writer whose perspectives have irrevocably shifted and whose life has been enriched by her creations to such a degree that I can’t imagine how I’ve managed to live so long without them.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz may no longer be a member of the Natural Perfumers’ Guild, but she will always belong in that ‘nosebleed stratosphere of badass’ (to quote from Quantum Demonology) that gives her my ultimate distinction – a Primeval Force of Perfume. As such, she will always have my support, profound admiration and a prominent space in my perfume cabinet for all the marvels she has created – and the fragrant wonders that lie ahead for her prodigious talents.


Outrage(o) Us!

Here’s a little thought experiment for you. Say…you are a painter. You are a painter who makes thousands of colors glow on a canvas, colors that emphasize, colors that delineate form and depth and story, colors that glow in the dark. It is your use of color that distinguishes you as a painter, color that has established your reputation, color…that sells your canvases.

Or…you are a musician. For years, you have created beautiful, haunting melodies, glorious soaring choruses, the music of the galactic spheres, even – all contained within the eight black-and-white octaves on your piano keyboard.

Maybe, like me, you are a writer, conjuring up empires of the mind in that harrowing space between your fingers and the keyboard, pulling emotions out of your readers’ minds, messing with their heads as you sing your Scherezade tales.

Now, imagine…the painter being told that nothing but coal tar based paints will be available in future. Henceforward, there shall be no more lapis blue, no more malachite green, no more rose madder or carmine red. The replacement paints are all garish, rather over-loud and obvious, with none of the tonal qualities of those natural hues. There’s no choice in the matter, simply that if these artificial colors aren’t used, that painter will not be able to paint at all.

The composer has been told that instead of eight octaves produced by hammers striking the strings across a richly resonant box, he or she will be limited to, say, five octaves produced electronically, with a MIDI keyboard and sound module.

The writer, used to the full register of a very large vocabulary, will from now on only be allowed to use words less than four syllables long, words with Anglo-Saxon origins, words a fourth-grader can understand, even if the writer has never written for children, but for adults who appreciate the opulence of the English language.

Does this sound a bit Orwellian? Too many totalitarian overtones? Surely, it’s a joke, right?

No. Because this is what the IFRA wants to do to the perfumer’s art, has, in fact, already done. Say you have a classic favorite, Mitsouko, maybe, or Cabochard (one of mine), or in these dark November days, Magie Noire. All three of these timeless scents have been changed beyond recognition, and the sad thing is, the average consumer is none the wiser, because, so the official story goes, many of the natural essences and notes can be sensitizing to certain people, some of them are photo-sensitive, others can be allergenic.

That’s the IFRA’s story and they’re sticking to it. Of course, it’s not even a half-truth, because the truth is even more shocking. There are scores of self-regulating research companies who have a heavily vested interest in marketing their synthetic substances – which may or may not be ‘chemically’ identical to a ‘banned’ resin/absolute/essential oil – right into the pockets of the few international companies thaty create the vast majority of the world’s perfumes, down to and including bath products, dish soap and laundry detergents.
Have you strolled through a department store perfume department lately? Did you happen to notice just how similar everything smells? Sure, there are marketing trends and fashionable themes in perfumery. There was…the Year of the Iris, the Rose, the White Musk, the Wood…(one of this year’s main themes). But they’re all a bit of the same…bland uniformity, the same fruity/floral/woody/wimpy generic…fumes, most of them targeted to a demographic you, alas, are too old and too jaded to belong to.

Too old, because you remember those days when perfumes were glorious, gorgeous extensions of your presence, your New & Improved You But Better. When they had depth and complexity, nuance and color. Before they were killed off by the dreaded ‘reformulation’.

If the IFRA has its wily way, many of the substances – used in perfumes, incense and aromatherapy for thousands of years – on the list (see the full list under Pages and the heading ‘Outlawed and Dangerous?’) will be gone forever, many natural source suppliers will go out of business, and those chemical supply companies will be laughing all the way to the bank, trundling up any amount of dubious ‘proof’ that their formulas are ‘safer’ and ‘less allergenic’ – if they don’t just subscribe to the usual marketing ‘Because We Say So’ Humpty Dumpty school of logic.

Maybe, and maybe not. There will always be perfume sensitive people, and I do believe a certain degree of consideration is only polite. Having said that, they have the option to avoid scented products if they need to, just as I would like the option of deciding for myself whether or not I should brave, say, the Big Bad Oakmoss Wolf should I choose. Just put it on the label, and trust me to make my own decisions and take the responsibility for them.

But all hope is not lost – for now, we have…natural perfumes, made of natural substances, often solely from that ‘forbidden’ list, that fly in the face of those restrictions and reformulations and darn it, dare to create glorious, outlaw statements in rose absolute and neroli concrete, in oakmoss and labdanum, to name a few. All declaring their intentions and their contents right there, on packaging and on their websites, all of them made by hand and with love and very much care, all of these natural, artisanal perfumers very much aware of the outlaw potential in these perfumes – made as they used to be made, with the materials we all know and love, made as even today they still are.

Perfumistas and perfumolics, too, are getting behind them, reviewing them with all the care and attention we give to other perfumes with far larger marketing budgets – because we, too, don’t care to conform, because we care about perfume, because we care about a future that would infinitely diminished without the natural beauty in flowers and resins and plants that inspired perfume making – five thousand years ago, five minutes ago, and thanks to perfume outlaws such as these, five years from now.

The participating blogs in the Outlaw Perfume Project are:
Perfume Smelling Things
Waft By Carol
Fragrance in Portland by Donna Hathaway,
Fragrance Belles-Lettres
The Non-Blonde
Indie perfumes
Perfume Shrine

Photo: Jane Russell in Howard Hughes’ ‘The Outlaw’ (1943), looking several shades of trouble and very much outside the law!