You might be wondering why I’d write on how to sample botanical perfumes when surely our approach to smelling and testing all perfumes, whether synthetic, part synthetic or botanical, would be the same. I am not talking about how to hold the perfume testing blotter nor about its ideal size, shape and paper weight; and nor am I going to say even a brief word on how to actually sniff test perfume the ‘proper way’, which is not on your wrist along with a dozen other tester spritzes as you hastily walk through duty free.
Here, I will take you through some of the components that go in to botanical perfumes that do indeed make how to test and buy them that bit different from sampling largely synthetic fragrances.
Let’s take a look at some of the facets you need to keep in mind when learning how to sample botanical perfumes
Linear vs complex fragrances
Botanical perfumes are complex numbers not perhaps because they can rival the sheer number of molecules and synthetic fragrance blends that go into some mainstream scents, but because the very plants they derive from are as diverse and complex as nature can get. Even if I buy the same, let’s say, rose absolute from one year to the next from the same supplier, the scent will never be the same.
Naturals are created with a level of uncertainty; they are at the behest and vagaries of terroir, to use a wine-making term, as well as individual harvests, seasons and climates. That’s just the start of the wonderful world that you enter into when you sample botanical perfumes.
In these days of hurried airport testing or even blind, online fragrance buying, no large fragrance house wishes to disappoint its customers by offering scents that vary over time as can natural botanical perfumes. It also can’t afford to rely on natural botanical materials because of the tonnage of perfumes they create and sell. Market demands and consumer expectations come into force and unreliable supplies would prove a nightmare to large commercial fragrance companies which distribute millions of bottles worldwide under prestigious brand names.
Consistency and predictability are their watch words and while some do include a portion of naturals and try to keep proprietary control over their production as Chanel does with its own Grasse farms supplying its botanical materials, they rely on synthetic molecules as the mainstay, if not the accent notes, in their perfume formulae.
Only synthetics can give the level of assurance that a perfume will be the same this year as next, IFRA allergen restrictions and any obvious reformulations to ignored. Conversely, if you sample the same botanical perfume over several years, it will almost definitely not smell the same.
This is why many artisan, botanical perfumers run limited editions to avoid the issue of not finding the same raw materials twice. We indie brands don’t of course have the purchasing clout to buy in bulk nor store tonnes of material either. Also because we like to indulge our creativity by moving on, we have more freedom when operating leaner in harmony with nature’s provision of raw materials. We can dabble in choosing more expensive natural perfumery materials than many of our counterparts in mainstream fragrance development who are writing formulae based on the accounting departments budgets. Synthetic molecules aren’t necessarily cheaper I hasten to add. But price is another story I chat about here.
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Take your time
A fragrance dominated by synthetic molecules can be complex and contain up to around 200 different molecules and blends. However, the way a synthetic of today develops over time from first spritz to dry down may be, somewhat surprisingly given the number of molecules, linear even in comparison even to synthetic forerunners of the mid 20th century.
So, if you are testing a largely synthetic fragrance it may well take a path from opening notes to dry down that is not only consistent (heat, climate and skin biome aside) but one that offers up more facets of all the so-called tiers of notes – top, heart and base – throughout its life cycle. It may have a less overt peel off of molecules as time lapses. Many are designed with markets in mind so the mantra is that the fragrance is required to let consumers know what they are getting from that very first test spray.
Not all take this approach, as anyone testing Andy Tauer‘s complex fragrances will know. Interestingly, Andy also decided to buck the trend by creating his Pentachord range of fragrances built on just five accords, and devised with pared back simplicity for synthetics. He also says that even synthetics can have variances as each batch may have a different level of impurities. Tauer, as a self-taught niche and indie perfumer probably hasn’t the materials’ buying power of large fragrance firms, so in some senses he operates more along the lines of the natural independent perfumer and will therefore have slight variances from one batch to another.
But, do be aware that the development of a natural botanical perfume will take incredible twists and turns that only time can offer up. The first impression is usually very, very different from the dry down a few hours later. These are not perfumes to decide on with an impulse buy.
The natural perfumer will of course have aimed to control any leaps in the perfume’s development (unless creatively desired) so as to smooth and round it out. However, you will for the most part discover that naturals need to be tested on several occasions to be fully understood and appreciated. They do not offer up the beauty of their complexity and may not be love at first spray.
My advice then is not to rush into a decision about a natural perfume. Luckily, I’ve found most natural perfumeries sell sample vials of around 2ml, so you can try before you buy. This is something I will be offering with Parfums Clandestins in a discovery set of the four Sicily Quartet EDP.
A Word About Notes in Sampling Botanical Perfume
Firstly, don’t believe all the marketing copy. As there is no legal obligation (as yet in the EU, but perhaps on the cards) to force perfumery brands, whether those producing natural botanical or synthetics, to detail each ingredient in a fragrance, you as a consumer rely on the more prosaic descriptions.
Be aware of these key things:
Even we in the botanicals business, may list only those notes that make sense to the consumer. So, while Bergamot and orris are intelligible, perhaps benzyl acetate, which can be a natural isolate and therefore compatible with natural perfumery – might sound very chemical and less transparent.
Few consumers would understand benzyl acetate as a jasmine or ylang ylang scent nor know it can be natural even if not strictly occurring in nature in that form. Processing does take place to arrive at a natural isolate. I personally will be listing each ingredient, INCI nomenclature and common name format for my perfumes.
Second, just because a note is listed doesn’t mean you can identify it in the perfume. Perfumers may use just trace amounts of particular raw materials to create an effect but not to be present in and of themselves. This is part of the magic and art of the perfumer and comes with their experience in the trade. Again, it’s more common to list those that you are more likely to detect so as to indicate more explicitly what kind of fragrance to expect.
Lastly, note that the natural perfumer has to work to some restrictions, which most of us however see as benefits and challenges to enjoy fathoming our way around. For example, it can be difficult to achieve a lasting citrus note as these are the more volatile notes and would require some synthetic molecule artifice to ‘fix’ them in a perfume and make them last longer.
Similarly, it can be challenging to achieve a light, white, crisp effect using botanical materials only. Many natural perfumes are criticised for being base note heavy. They needn’t be, unless desired, and under the nose of a skilled natural perfumer you will find light floral and even marine notes that dance to a tune similar to those we’re used to in synthetics. However, in general be aware that designing with botanicals does means working with a very different palette.
Let’s round up the advice on enjoying and sampling botanical perfumes.
- Be aware that naturals will have an ever-evolving dry down on your skin.
- They need more time than most synthetics to be understood and appreciated.
- Don’t impulse buy nor expect to know them from first test spray.
- Realise that sparkling, light crisp top notes aren’t easy to achieve in naturals…
- So don’t compare the first spray and impression of a natural perfume to the effect you’d get from a more synthetic blend fragrance
- Botanical perfumes, even if the same brand and blend, will vary from batch to batch, year to year.
- Try before you buy and seek out sample vials from artisan botanical perfumes.
Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash.