In a previous article, we explained that the scent of certain plants was naturally impossible to catch. However, these “mute” flowers are at the core of many fragrances. So how can some perfumes claim to be made of lily of the valley, lilac or lily for instance? Thanks to synthetic materials! In the perfume industry, synthesis is a well-known term and its use intrigues as much as it fascinates. Confound received ideas about synthetic perfume and discover our point of view on this inspiring couple that make Perfume and synthesis…
Origins of synthesis
Synthetic materials appeared in the 19th century with the rise of industrialization and organic chemistry. The chemist Luigi Chiozza was the first to synthesize the natural aroma of cinnamon in 1856. Since this discovery, chemists have been interested in this new process by synthesizing other olfactory molecules. In 1868, the British Sir William Henry Perkins discovered the coumarin, a natural organic substance contained in the tonka bean. This molecule, which smells almond, tobacco and dried hay is still used today, especially in the most gourmand of our fragrances: vanille. Other discoveries followed such as vanillin, an odorous component present in the vanilla pod, or the ionone that reproduces the perfume of the violet flower.
From the early 20th century, to distribute these new molecules, the producers of synthetic ingredients have the idea to create “bases” to facilitate the perfumers work. These ready to use mini-compositions reproduce the scent of natural products, until now only available in essence or in absolute. First advantage of the synthesis: its most affordable cost!
But these bases were also the scent of odors impossible to extract naturally such as honeysuckle, sweet pea or freesia. These mini-compositions combine synthetic and natural materials, allowing the perfumer to create new original bouquets.
Synthetic perfume, what is the point?
Synthetic materials offer many valuable assets to the perfumer but not only. It especially allows to:
- 🌼 reproduce the scent of some raw materials that can not be extracted naturally.
- 🌊 recreate an ephemeral and immaterial smell, such as the odour of sea spray for example.
- 🐐 protect species by avoiding the intensive exploitation of certain protected raw materials or animals threatened with extinction. To give you an idea, animal musks from the musk deer are banned by WWF. But this ingredient is almost essential in perfumery, used as fixative in formulas. To reproduce its warm and enticing notes, the perfumer can now use plants with a musky smell (truffle tincture or ambrette for example) or even totally artificial synthetic materials. The work of the perfumer-creator is then to find the right balance between the materials chosen to create his own version of musc.
- 💶 democratize the use of perfume by ensuring the production in large quantities of very rare ingredients, thus lowering their cost. Formerly reserved for the highest social classes due to the important cost of natural raw materials, perfume is now more accessible.
- ⏳ improve the quality and lifespan of perfumes thanks to the stability of synthetic materials.
- 🔬 make formulations safer, by containing less allergenic ingredients because synthesis is strictly controlled.
Therefore, synthetic materials sublimate the natural ones to create balanced and harmonious fragrances. Thanks to the synthesis, perfumers have now thousands of different scents to create their perfumes, against 300 before. And the number keeps growing facing the perfumers’ curiosity and creativity…
Fight the clichés regarding synthetic perfume
Perfume brands have long adopted a position that confused the consumer on the composition of their fragrances. Indeed, the assets and exoticism of certain ingredients from all over the World had become a real marketing argument. But without synthesis, there is no Chanel No. 5 and its aldehyde, no Shalimar by Guerlain and its ethylvaniline or no Eau Sauvage by Dior and its hedione! It is true that the sensuality of the leather or the sweetness of the carnation may seem more eye-catching than isobutyl quinoline or eugenol… Synthetic perfume has long suffered, and still does, from a bad reputation because of misconceptions. Yet, many of them do not reflect the truth. Some examples…
❌ Cheap products to increase profitability
It is true that the use of good natural raw materials can be very expensive because of their rarity, their origin or a long and complex cultivation process. However, synthetic molecules are not always cheaper than natural raw materials. The use of synthetic ingredients is also part of an ethical and ecological approach. It allows not to overexploit some natural raw materials, such as rosewood for example.
❌ Dangerous for health and environment
Synthetic molecules have long been blamed by various associations for the protection of health and environment. But in 1973, the International Fragrance Association was created to implement a code of good practices around scented products. IFRA is in charge of controlling the materials used in the perfume industry. Since several decades, IFRA subjects the ingredients contained in perfumes to very strict controls at European level to guarantee a safe use. About 10 out of 2000 new molecules that emerge every year in laboratories will eventually be marketed, as tests are extremely expensive and rigorous.
❌ A perfume made of 100% natural ingredients is more qualitative
Today, very few perfumes can really claim to be 100% natural. We estimate that less than 5% are. Thanks to synthesis, a perfumer can rely on constant smells without fearing the seasonal variations of the crops. Indeed, the quality of synthetic products remains the same all year long. This stability improves the persistence and the power of a perfume. Finally, synthesis is widely used to sublimate natural ingredients. For example, the perfumer can add ethyl maltol to his composition, whose caramel note will reveal the gourmand shade of a vanilla pod.
You understand why synthetic perfume is not a swear word, and some brands (finally) admit using this phenomenal olfactory palette. This is the case of Mathilde Laurent, Cartier’s nose, who wanted to create a fully synthetic perfume to show that synthesis is “olfactory qualitative and rich”. AuParfum and its passionate and inspired authors agree! In 2015 already, they invited us to forget the stereotypes claiming that only natural perfumes were qualitative. Spread the word: Perfume and synthesis make a beautiful couple!
How to synthesize a molecule?
Since the birth of organic chemistry in the 19th century, progress were made to purify chemical component, isolate and analyse the structures of molecules. Chemists can thus isolate the odorous compounds present in an ingredient, then purify them one by one and finally determine their molecular structure. When these molecules are clearly identified, they can proceed to the next step: reconstitute the molecules by chemical reactions from other more accessible and simpler components. These components are then gathered to form the desired more complex molecule.
First step: isolate the molecule
But concretely, how can we isolate the molecules of an ingredient? Chemists have several options for separating and identifying these odoriferous molecules:
- the first technique is called fractionation. This process separates the essences by isolating their chemical components. A liquid mixture is thus distilled into several successive fractions with different boiling points. Geraniol (whose smell is similar to the rose’s) has been discovered thanks to this technique, which has been distilled from lemongrass essence. With fractionation, chemists can obtain a different smell from the original ingredient.
- To reproduce the smell of a natural material, perfumers generally use the “head space” technique. The smell is then captured “in vivo”. For example, a flower is placed into a glass bell equipped with sensors and filled with a neutral gas that will absorb the scents under the bell. Then, the sensors analyse the gas collected to identify the scent’s components and allow the perfumer to recreate it accurately. This modern method allows the chemist to catch the fragrance of immaterial spaces such as the forest or the sea.
Second step: the synthesis
Once the molecules are isolated, the second step consists of reproducing them in the laboratory. Chemists use two methods:
- total synthesis which consists of “making” a new molecule from scratch thanks to chemical reactions.
- the hemisynthesis which uses a first molecule resulting from natural chemical species, and whose molecular structure is close to the one we want to reproduce. Chemists will slightly modify this basic molecule, called precursor, to give it new olfactory properties.
There are two types of synthetic materials:
- the isolates that come from natural products. This is the case of many synthetic raw materials. We think of the coumarin that comes from the tonka bean, the indol found in jasmine, the eugenol in the clove…
- Totally artificial synthetic materials that are only obtained by chemical reactions such as aldehyde, methylionone, etc.
Synthetic perfume: our point of view
When we jumped into this adventure in 1988, the debates regarding synthetic perfume were much less present. Our goal was (and has always been) to create high quality perfumes at fair prices, highlighting mythic ingredients and bringing them our touch of originality. Therefore, using natural raw materials in each of our fragrances was an obvious choice. Thanks to the inspired advices of our perfumer, we decided to enhance these beautiful natural ingredients with synthetic ones. A way to explore wider olfactory territories and improve the quality and durability of our perfumes.
Each of our fragrance is created from an inspiration, a memory, a journey, an ephemeral thrill that we want to live over and over again… By selecting qualitative natural raw materials and associating them with the creativity of synthetic ingredients, we can materialize these emotions into a bottle. These scented stories will then be interpreted differently by each one of you. We are proud to tell you that alõ combines 17 natural essences with calone (a synthetic ingredient with an intense marine scent). Or that vanille uses coumarin to make it even more gourmand! The key is to find the balance so that natural and synthetic ingredients match harmoniously and male a perfect perfumed couple…
As you can see, perfume and synthesis are according to us a good and essential duo. A great tool which, used sparingly, offers to the perfumer a way to express his creativity and create daring, innovative, qualitative while affordable fragrances!
And you, what do you think of the use of synthetic materials?