THE FRAGRANT ALCHEMY

Fragrant Alchemy Photo

BY MICHELLE ROQUES-O’NEIL

There’s a subtle dialogue between fragrance and the mind and for centuries this has taken centre stage within the subtle warp and weft of the human journey. Its mellifluous plumes wafting delicious concoctions airily, stimulating vast libraries of emotional memories held in the recesses of our mind and spirit. The word perfume comes from the Latin per fumin meaning through smoke…. think “Gladiator” and the vast urns of smoking frankincense placed through out the palace to mask the scent of ordinary life.

Fragrant potions have been anointed with sensual precision to a mysterious erogenous star map of the body. In the same way that they’ve been used on spiritual and devotional journeys to transcend dimensions. There has always been a sensory link between the sensual and spiritual world, both evoke heightened olfactory responses… albeit at different resonances.

Cleopatra’s mastery of the art of aromatic seduction was renowned with Rose taking precedence…thousands of rose petals were strewn on the floor of her room whilst walls had thousands of rose petals suspended in nets to create a heady, intoxicating temple of seduction. Stories of her seduction of Mark Antony and the perfume drenched sails of her boat heralding her arrival, held on the wind – it seduced him long before he set eyes on her. Marie Antoinette, another great beauty, was a great lover of aromatic alchemy and hired the court perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon to create sumptuous perfumes and pomades for her, to uplift as well as to scent.

Our world has a rich olfactory legacy reaching back as far as biblical times where Hebrew women were said to scent their sandals with Spikenard to entice young men by (accidentally) slipping them off …In the middle east the ritual of incensing visitors before they leave keeps them safe on their journey home. Practitioners of Ayurveda make ungents called attars, generally a simple composition of one oil like rose, jasmine or vetiver suspended in sandalwood and each anointed to specific locations. Indian bridal rituals would scent different parts of their anatomy, each zone with a different fragrance. These precious plant materials have been part of our sensual and spiritual rituals for millennia.

They are harvested globally and each with it’s own scenting sensibility.

Each terrain gives an oil a unique composition and signature. Lavender from Bulgaria is different from it’s South African cousin or New Zealand sister, each has a unique frequency and chemistry, which make them alchemical, unpredictable and profound.  They are not inert but imbued with life-force, the essence of the plant, easily bio-available they have a profound connection with our limbic system where emotional and pleasure memories are stored, it adds an extraordinary dimension to their complexity and key to the natural perfumer’s understanding when layering a perfume.

Perfumes up until the early 20th century were exclusively made of naturals and liberal dosing of the most exotic oils commonplace. Because the materials of natural perfume are highly volatile and unpredictable and can vary from season to season making them expensive and tricky to replicate. With the discovery of the first synthetics modern perfumery was born and for the first time became relatively affordable and consistent. Nowadays there is a movement towards natural and artisan perfumes but in a world that has become used to wearing aromatic signatures like a red rag – (our sensory priority has shifted from smell to sight) and so many modern perfumes are often neither subtle or soulful, a reflection of our hectic and demanding world where dulled senses demand constant stimulation.

A natural perfume is a scenting art based on using essential oils, absolutes, concretes and natural isolates. Breaking this down, essential oils are often the top notes, these can be volatile and impactful and fleeting, they dissipate quickly, they are the introduction that initially entices. Top notes can include citrus, some florals, spice and herbal notes. Absolutes and concretes are at the heart of the composition and include the most exotic and intense florals such as tuberose, jasmine and rose and give texture and intrigue.

Materials such as resins Myrrh and Frankincense being two of the most ancient examples,  roots such as Costus and vetiver, sacred woods like Sandalwood and Cedarwood and Anamalaic notes such as ambergris, civet and castoreum are base notes; as a double bass brings depth to music these notes can add a foundation, as you may imagine they are deeper and longer lasting and fixative, they help to anchor the fragrance giving it longevity.

The construction of a natural perfume can be complex, think of it like a map, a story if you like and how you bring the strands of it together, adding light and shade to lift and colour. There are several ways to compose and unify the materials, horizontally, vertically, sometimes a combination of both. The aim is to create a harmonious blend with no jagged edges. Learning to understand their nuances and how they combine together requires several hours of experimentation and olfactory study to understand the journey of each aroma, what they evoke, how they evolve as they dry down, these are the first building blocks of blending.

The art is constantly evolving, many natural perfumers resorting to old alchemical and herbal methods such as tincturing and maceration. But as use of some materials become restricted, we become more resourceful and find ways to conjure these fragrant nuances by understanding and using the innate chemical structure that resides within the materials. Science, alchemy and the interpretive soul combine.

I’ve been around scent an aroma for most of my life. Growing up in India created an olfactory palette from an early age and the memories they evoke; from enchanted trips to rose strewn temples, the air thick with heady rose and undulating ephemeral mists of soft sandalwood. The heady aroma of jasmine warmed by the morning sun, Meyer lime blossoms infusing the air in San Francisco; the lemony amber of incense as it diffuses, the balsamic sweetness of Palo santo wood. The first time I smelt ambergris I was forsaken…


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