About the author: Trish Vawter is the creator of Scent Hive, a blog dedicated to natural perfumes and beauty products. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two boys, and is a practicing nurse midwife.
I come to this guest post with sincere excitement and admittedly, a dose of trepidation. Since I write primarily about natural perfumes and beauty products at Scent Hive, I am acutely aware that discussions can get heated around the "natural" topic. While I do prefer natural perfumes, I don't want this post to become a natural vs synthetic debate, mostly because I don't believe one to be superior to the other. But I do have reasons for my preference which I will share with you.
Beauty is ephemeral, and I appreciate that in a fragrance. It's not quite the first thing most people regard as a virtue in perfume, but there's delight in reapplying perfume over the course of a day. Oftentimes it'll be a different perfume depending on my mood or where I am going. But there's a balance to be struck: a perfume that's too fleeting is frustrating, so I want my perfume to last a few hours, if not longer, which most high quality natural perfumes do. Yet, I don't like a perfume to last into the next day, or to have huge sillage. Less tenacity and more intimacy are the qualities I seek. Additionally, longevity and sillage are commonly enhanced in synthetic perfumes with phthalates, a petrochemical I try to avoid in all beauty products.
While I find the evanescence of naturals compelling, it's the vibrancy of raw materials that is so captivating, be it warm balsams, cozy vanillas, rich blossoms or a sparkling citrus. These botanicals engage me with their fullness and exposed vitality. I imagine crushed rinds, roots, leaves and seeds exuding their precious oils which are complex and multi-faceted. Synthetic aromachemicals can approximate these scents, but it's impossible to portray the distinct nuances of these botanicals via synthetics. On the flip side, there are natural essences that cannot be distilled, like most fruits, therefore synthetics can step in and fill those gaps if the perfumer so desires. Liz Zorn of Soivohlé and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of DSH Perfumes are perfect examples of perfumers who create some 100% natural perfumes, but also use synthetic aromachemicals in many of their fragrances.
As for perfumes made exclusively with natural and botanical essences, here are some favorites from four categories.
Citrus: Red Flower's Guaiac is the most gorgeous citrus fragrance I have yet to experience. There are many perfumes based around neroli that I adore, but Guaiac is pure orange heaven. A vibrant and zesty orange fragrance that is neither the juice nor the pulp of the fruit — it's all about the rind, as if you were actively grating an orange and rubbing its vivacious oils onto your skin. It’s fresh and spirited, but in a new way. It’s not floral (although rose absolute is listed in the notes), and even though resins give supporting body to the fragrance, it truly is the orange rind that predominates. Guaiac is bright and glowing and unlike anything I have in my perfume collection. It's the perfect citrus fragrance that is never sweet and never boring.
Floral: Strange Invisible Perfumes' Prima Ballerina is based around a freshly picked rose. It’s pretty and wearable, giving the impression of sunbathing in a rose garden. Since this is Strange Invisible Perfumes we are talking about here, you know Prima Ballerina is not a typical soliflore, and indeed, sage has been added to the mix. This dried herbal note lends the sense that these sun-drenched roses are at their peak, and some of the petals are beginning their descent to the earth. The subtlest of botanical musk is also present, adding to Prima Ballerina's vegetal side, but thankfully the musk never overtakes this charmingly rosy floral fragrance.
Gourmand: Cabaret from Ayala Moriel Parfums is a gorgeous fragrance centered around the candy rahat loukoum. Like the candy, it's sweet without being cloying. Bergamot gives a hint of citrus and Ayala's amber accord provides Cabaret's underlying creamy vanilla quality. Benzoin, ambrette, and labdanum are key essences in this amber accord, making it musky, resinous and vanillic. Ambrette is the foundation of Cabaret, giving each beautiful raw material — benzoin, labdanum, orris root, rose and magnolia — a sprinkling of dark soil that anchors this sweet floral to its incensey/resinous base. Massoia bark oil from Indonesia gives Cabaret its suggestion of coconut. In keeping with the overall feeling of nuance, the coconut is subtle and earthy but heightens vanilla’s sweetness a notch allowing us to savor Cabaret’s gourmand essence.
Chypre: Roxana Illuminated Perfume's GreenWitch garnered much praise from bloggers when it debuted in March and was quickly dubbed a "marine chypre." It's a lush-green perfume that opens with oakmoss, galbanum and a handful of crushed violet leaves and rose petals. GreenWitch is full and fresh, but not sharp. Its oakmoss takes on a seaside tone with a vaguely nutty, salty air from vetiver and tonka. Floral nuances like boronia, mimosa, and ylang ylang augment this beachy aroma while beeswax adds warmth and sweetness. Wearing GreenWitch after several hours is like a day at the beach coming to a close. It’s the scent of warm skin, salt in your hair, and suntan lotion that barely lingers on your body. After about six hours of wear, a delicious soapy green freshness develops which attests to its staying power and complexity.
Roxana and I corresponded recently about the notion that natural perfumes might spoil faster than perfumes with synthetics. According to Roxana, if a natural perfume is in a base that has longevity, the fragrance will actually get better with age as long as it is kept away from heat and strong light. She also added, "in general there are only certain amounts of truly pure, whole essence available each year to the natural perfumer. Weather conditions have a strong influence on what is available each year. Thus, if I formulate a perfume with a specific lime oil from Costa Rica and the next year that oil is not available then the aroma of the perfume will change."
Not only is beauty ephemeral, it's ever changing as well.
Note: image by the author.