When master perfumers begin to create a new fragrance, they have approximately 3,000 raw ingredients with which to work with. Five hundred of those are natural raw materials from both the vegetable and animal kingdom. The remaining 2,500 are synthetic materials, many produced using pure chemistry.
“When I start working on a new scent, it always begins with a marketing brief,” explains Francoise Donche, Givenchy’s Olfactory Specialist in Paris. “This document outlines who the target customer is, what the mood of the fragrance should be and the budget with which to work with. It gives the perfumer a clear idea of who the customer is he or she is creating for.” She says that budget dictates the quality and quantity of ingredients that the perfumer can use. For example, Sicilian lemon can cost $10 per pound compared with more common varieties you find at the grocery store that are priced at $2 per pound.
“Every perfumer has his or her fragrant ingredients,” adds Annette Green, founder of the Fragrance Foundation. “You’ll notice that they will go back to certain notes like vetiver or a certain type of musk again and again. It becomes their signature.” When it comes to natural materials, perfumers can incorporate fruits, berries, flowers, grains, herbs, leaves, moss, lichen, bark, resin, wood, rhizomes or roots into their formulas. What’s interesting is that chemists can now recreate floral notes perfectly using ‘headspace technology’ in a laboratory. There’s no longer a need to harvest flowers and distill their essential oils for perfume. It can all be done in a lab – a more environmentally-friendly option.
Caroline Deguay, L’Oreal’s international fragrance expert in Paris, says that synthetic raw material science is advancing at a rapid rate. Not only are chemists improving artificial products produced using pure chemistry such as aldehydes (Chanel No.5) and dihydormyrcenol. But they are also better isolating substitutes from natural products such as vanillin. She says the average modern perfume contains between 20 to 100 ingredients. Of those, six to eight define the personality of the scent. Many are used in tiny amounts to properly stabilize or balance the fragrance or give it a certain colour such as pale pink or soft aqua hues.
What’s most interesting about how perfumers work is the final testing process. “It’s one thing to create samples in a lab,” says Donche, “but it can become a challenge to make the formula work in large quantities. When we are producing a new fragrance for a worldwide launch, we have to be able to blend it in huge vats. Sometimes, a formula will work in small batches but the ingredients won’t work together in large quantities. So we are always adjusting the formula.”
“Most modern perfumes contain 20 to 100 ingredients.”