Natural vs. Synthetic: Bridging the divide

Current cultural tendencies are pointing us towards more ethical ways of life, why wouldn’t our perfume purchases undergo the same scrutiny?

Modified on
March 2nd 2021

Elizabeth Kupervaser-Gould

Anton Darius @thesollers via Unsplash

Often the debate surrounding "ethical" perfume boils down to a simple polarity: natural vs. synthetic. Up until the 19th century, all fragrances were composed exclusively with natural ingredients, but scientists soon began to experiment with synthetic compounds and found it was infinitely less expensive and easier to make vast quantities of scent molecules. Furthermore, the chemical capacity to replicate natural scents broadened the palette of possibilities tenfold. Suddenly, molecules could be created to reproduce scents that couldn't otherwise be extracted in their natural state, like certain marine odors or lily-of-the-valley, which is a 'mute' flower whose scent cannot be extracted naturally. All of a sudden, perfumers had hundreds of different isolated notes to work with – all without having to harvest a single blossom.

This was one of the greatest attributes of synthetic perfumery; many endangered raw material's scents could be replicated in a lab, which in turn slowed the usage of raw materials that needed preservation, such as rosewood and Indian sandalwood. Another great gain came from the creation of chemical musk scents, eliminating the need to extract musk from the animals themselves. If the advancement of synthetic fragrances facilitates the preservation of the earth's flora and fauna, why do we continue to favor the natural over the synthetic?

In truth, our opposing ideas of "natural" and "synthetic" actually overlap considerably. Perhaps, the only "artificial" thing here is the language we use to define each term. Many of the synthetic extracts are chemically identical to the compositions found in nature, a logical conclusion given that experts begin by observing the natural ingredient's chemical makeup and then work to replicate it manually. Additionally, many of the smells we consider to be the "pure" scent of an ingredient are only possible through synthetic production because their scent on the stem does not translate successfully to natural, oil-based extraction. Finally, many chemically engineered scents have long since entered the mainstream, and we have come to expect them in the perfumes we purchase. After all, what would Chanel No. 5 be without its signature aldehydes?

In pure olfactory terms, the main difference between natural and synthetic lies in the purity of the component. While a rose note can be recreated with just a handful of molecules, the natural essential oil  contains hundreds of them and would thus have a much richer scent; something that can of course vary from harvest to harvest. If we compare things from an environmental standpoint, the problem with synthetically-created molecules is that their “precursors” are often sub-products of the petrochemical industry. The term itself may sound harsh, but it is essential to consider that extracting and transporting crops is extremely energy-consuming. As an example, let’s look at vanilla. Growing natural vanilla in Madagascar, harvesting the pods, extracting the vanillin (via distillation, another energy-intensive process) and then transporting the essential oil to Europe is arguably much more energy consuming – i.e. dependent on the petrochemical industry – than producing vanillin in a lab.

Perhaps balance is the key. Many active perfumers are finding that synthetic fragrances give them greater freedom of expression, and the possibility of giving life to abstract ideas like fresh air, fire, and the earth after a rain shower. Others hope to preserve the tradition of natural ingredients and are finding ways to harvest materials through ethical means. Coincidentally, both approaches are manifest in Nicolas Chabot, whose two brands Aether and Le Galion could not be more opposed in their relationships to ingredients. 

Chabot reinvigorated the historic fragrance house Le Galion, a major perfume powerhouse during much of the 20th century. Its iconic fragrances were created using only the finest raw materials, and the house even supplied Christian Dior Parfums with their flowers for over 30 years! This nod to the genius of Paul Vacher has not been lost on Chabot, who has maintained the integrity of the original scents with great success, updating only a few for the modern palette.

Even though his resuscitation of the cult brand has received great recognition, Chabot didn't stop there. His avant-garde brainchild, Aether, brings a radically different idea of perfumery to the table. Together with perfumers Amélie Bourgeois and Anne-Sophie Behaghel, Chabot created a line of fragrances that offered the same level of respect to synthetic scents. In one interview the perfumer explained, "In the same way as for example with Le Galion, where we are focusing on the finest raw materials, we want to focus with Æther on the best synthetic molecules, [...] We are really bringing something new to the market - a real new composition, entirely based on synthetic molecules." Moving away from the idea of synthetic notes as mere supports, Chabot reimagines what a perfume can represent, invoking ideas of quantum physics, ancient poetry and space exploration.

2020 may indeed be the year of reimagining perfume. Certainly, Nicolas Chabot sees it this way. His newest project, Corps Volatils, beautifully combines these two approaches to perfumes. Divided exactly down the middle with 12 synthetic scents and 12 naturals ones (though it's impossible to tell which is which!) Chabot's collection is a cutting-edge combination of the best synthetic and natural formulas one can access. Together with perfumers Jean-Christophe Herault, Caroline Dumur, Julien Rasquinet, Domitille Michalon Berthier and Nicolas Beaulieu, the line was created with the modern wearer in mind; the scents are meant to be layered and combined, freedom and exploration are encouraged. The divide between natural and synthetic is further blurred in the way the brand focuses on the capacity all of the scents have for provoking emotion. Finally, there is extraordinary attention placed on ethical production mechanisms, everywhere from material harvesting to bottle design, confirming Corps Volatils as a truly modern pioneer in holistic perfume practices that place environmental impact at the forefront.

Moving forward, we can look to artists like Nicolas Chabot (together with his teams) as exemplifying a true balance between this "yin-yang" of the perfume industry. As he has demonstrated, one can preserve affinity and appreciation for traditional methods as well as explore the nuance and innovation that technology brings. As our patterns of consumption and tastes change, we will see these movements reflected in the world of perfume. Perhaps it's time to let go of old, binary paradigms and embrace the good that each approach has to offer, as well as the magic the two can create together.

Le parfum idéal est à votre portée.