Lifestyle Articles

Fragrance: A Little Philosophy and A Lot of Facts

Feb 6th 2013

Fragrance: A Little Philosophy and A Lot of Facts

Feb 6th 2013

Fragrance: It’s So Personal; It’s Hard to Talk About In Public

You’re walking down the street, minding your own business, when a beautiful stranger walks by and the faintest whiff transports you back in time, to your first girlfriend or boyfriend on a summer evening, to a vision of your mother dressed to the nines about to go out on Saturday night, to that magical spring afternoon in Paris when you were so young and the air was so rich with the fragrance of rose or linden that you just wanted to disappear in its embrace forever. Whew.

Our namesake Baudelaire put it best, of course:

“My soul travels on the smell of perfume like the souls of other men on music.”

Fragrance can certainly inspire transcendent writing. But if you really want to be overwhelmed by the sheer effort and incredible nuance that are expressed in each drop of a real essential oil, track down a copy of Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin by Stefan Arctander. During the 1950s, Dr. Arctander assembled an amazing collection of natural perfume and flavor materials–and information on their production–from growers, distillers, and exporters all over the world.

In the process, he cleared away centuries of misinformation and tall tales, while somehow simultaneously enhancing the timeless mystery of fragrance. 

He explained, for example, that the “lavender oil” in your soap could come from true lavender (Lavandula officinalis) or the newer lavandin (a hybrid of true and “spike” lavender whose essential qualities vary widely), and that it may have been obtained through any number of bewildering combinations of distillation and/or solvent extraction methods, passing through brief incarnations as lavender concrète, absolute, and/or flower water along the way.

To further complicate things, single note fragrances don’t really stand the test of time very well. For example, if our “vervain” fragrance is to smell true immediately, and linger true for hours, the vervain heart note may need the support of head notes of lemon and orange and a bottom note of mint (and, depending on the harvest, not always in the exact same ratio).

Our company started as a quest for the real thing. But our culture is so “loud” that people have come to believe that the stronger the taste or more overwhelming the fragrance, the more “real” or “natural” it is. Fortunately there are many–and we’re happy to include our customers among them–who still treasure the seductive subtlety of simple, natural fragrances, used in just the right proportion.

As our friends Stephane and Natacha Lecaille of Provence Santé explain it: “A fragrance seems right when it has perfect harmony–moving seamlessly from the head notes to the heart notes to the bottom notes. It is derived, of course, from the natural elements that surround us–but, ultimately, depends on the sensitivity of its originator.” And, we might add, the sensitivity of the person who uses it. Thanks for helping us keep the tradition alive!