Perfumes combine essences charged with volatile aromatic molecules that disseminate a fragrance. Since ancient times, perfumes have been made by combining natural essences in a more or less random way, according to the availability of local raw materials and the tastes of the time. But it wasn’t until the twentieth century that molecular perfumes as we know them burst onto the scene.
Perfume laboratories leaped the creation of synthetic molecules, capable of reproducing the fragrances found in nature or of recreating very peculiar smells – metal, gunpowder, rain – thus bringing surprising and highly creative nuances to fragrances. Nowadays, molecular perfumes is facing a new challenge: designing biodegradable perfume molecules that contribute to the development of eco-designed perfumes (sustainability throughout the process of elaboration, manufacture, and handling of perfume, from the supply and production of raw materials to the design of packaging and logistics). The aim is to achieve a sustainable perfume industry with a zero environmental footprint.
Greater creativity and nuance richness in fragrances, thanks to molecular perfumes
Master perfumer Alberto Morillas argues that modern perfumery “would not exist without molecular perfumery”. As the nose, Beatrice Aguilar also recognizes, that “synthetic materials bring nuances and long lasting” to a fragrance since perfumers can control the intensity and duration of any perfume without compromising on the freshness of its composition.
Natural vs synthetic molecules
Which materials are more sustainable, natural or synthetic? There is no easy answer, as factors such as the production of the materials, the sourcing and the methods of extraction, as well as the production of the odour molecules, whether natural or synthetic, come into play.
Natural raw materials come directly from nature, while synthetic raw materials can be obtained from two sources: they can be either natural or synthetic. A good example of it is galaxolide, which is a musk component created in a laboratory.
In turn, synthetic molecules of a natural origin are divided into biosynthetics – their synthesis is done through a natural process of biotechnology that normally uses sugars for the fermentation processes – and those derived from natural materials – which can be synthesized through natural or non-natural processes.
Here are some examples:
Linanol: It is obtained from lavender. Therefore, it is of natural origin.
Dreamwood: reproduces the fragrance of sandalwood and has a sustainable nature, as it is obtained through biotechnology.
Coumarin: is an organic chemical compound found in tonka bean and serves to add a sensual note to the fragrance, as it suggests a “warm skin” sensation and has an atabactyl nuance.
Hedione: This molecule is obtained from natural jasmine and is used in perfumery to add a soft, powdery floral note to the fragrance, without the animalic potency of pure natural jasmine, which sometimes has a hint of indole – a potent molecule whose odour has faecal overtones – that can be unpleasant.
Ambroxan: this molecule reproduces the scent of driftwood and has a tinge reminiscent of ambergris. It is synthesized from the plant sap sclarea.
Calone and azurone: are the main molecules par excellence of aquatic perfumes. They recreate the sensation of the sea breeze and sea foam. Calone is found in the excretions of some species of algae.
Mute flowers in perfumery
Despite having a fragrance that is appreciated and recognizable in nature, many flowers and plants are silent or mute for perfumers, who cannot extract valuable molecules from them to include in a fragrance: lilacs, gardenia, carnation, iris, poppy, and fern are some examples.
For instance, in order to recreate the fragrance of gardenia, perfumers combine natural and synthetic molecules – most of the time it is not enough to use a single molecule to evoke the scent of a flower – such as Methyl Anthranilate, which has floral and fruity accords and gives volume to gardenia scents. Another example are lilies, which until now were reproduced by the synthetic note lilial, recently banned in the European Union, and which now have a safe alternative, thanks to the combination of laboratory molecules that reproduce the fragrance of this flower.
In the case of the lilac, there is a synthetic molecule from green chemistry that is biodegradable and capable of reproducing the delicate fragrance of this flower (Terpineol Normal).
Molecules are born from imagination …
Aldehydes are probably the most popular synthetic molecules in perfumery. They are responsible for the success of the Chanel No. 5 perfume and have the power to make the perfume sparkle, giving it a unique metallic and powdery nuance.
Other molecules transport us to the world of confectionery, such as Ethylmaltol, which evokes the scent of candyfloss. It has a fruity and toasted sugar scent that brings a slight gourmand touch to the fragrance.
The challenges of the new molecular perfumes: sustainability and creativity
Molecular perfumery has made a great leap forward in the creativity and quality of perfumes, but it has also made it possible to enjoy essences that come from raw materials that must be preserved and that cannot be exploited on a large scale because of the damage it would cause to the environment, as is the case with ambergris, sandalwood, and vanilla.
Originally, ambergris came from the secretions of the sperm whale, but today its scent is recreated by molecular perfumery, which produces a warm scent with sweet and marine overtones. In the case of sandalwood, it is more sustainable to use the Dreamwood synthesis molecule than to obtain sandalwood essence from its natural source, which are the trees that can be found in Australia and India, whose exploitation has been banned in some places to preserve their protection. Since 1876, vanilla has had a synthetic alternative, vanillin, which is a molecule naturally present in the plant.
For master perfumers, there is no possible argument between molecular perfumery and natural perfumery. Laboratory molecules are born of chemistry. But what are molecules extracted from flowers and plants but chemistry? Molecular perfumery also faces a major challenge: biodegradable molecules that degrade in the environment without leaving a trace. Although there is still a lack of a homogeneous standard in the industry, most perfume manufacturers are already working with biodegradability protocols in order to replace non-biodegradable molecules with others that are biodegradable in formulas already created or directly develop formulas that are born under the philosophy of sustainability.
In addition to making perfumery more sustainable, synthetic perfume molecules open up almost infinite possibilities for the perfumer’s nose. While natural molecules limit the work of perfumers when it comes to imagining new olfactory compositions, there are new synthetic molecules that are being discovered every day which allow new fragrances to be created in an unlimited way.
At Àuria Perfumes we work with first-class perfumers, and masters in combining the best performing essences to formulate perfumes for third parties that are totally personalized and capable of composing unique fragrances with soul and with a sustainable approach. We are ready to offer you all the solutions you need for your next perfumery project.