I was tempted to call this post The War on Nature, since all these Stalin-esque IFRA restrictions seem bent on wiping affordable and complex naturals from the face of the perfumery world. If things get any crazier, we might see a return to the all-synthetic stadium fillers of the 1980s. Sure, the Synthetic 80s gave us Poison and Boucheron, but egads…just start burning books again, why doncha! Restricting citrus and lavender and jasmine and oakmoss smells suspiciously like a ploy to dilute or decimate on those legacy perfumes that people still (understandably) buy in droves.
Of course, natural materials are tricky and expensive. There can be variability in crops and batches. And since naturals include a mix of hundreds or thousands of molecules, it can be harder to know exactly what’s in them. It takes an expert hand (i.e. an expensive, experienced hand) to handle them properly on a big scale. Synthetics are only a few molecules, sometimes just one. You can control costs and predict behavior much more easily.
In the wrong hands, synthetics are boring, and, worst of all, hold forth at the same forehead-melting frequency and volume for much longer than you’d like. Using plenty of naturals won’t ensure a rich and complex result, but aiming for something rich and complex using only synthetics requires some seriously heavy lifting. Still, there’s reason for hope. Two high-end brands are currently killing it with heavily synthetic, heavily brilliant perfumes. Both Amouage and Cartier have the best perfumers in their stable and invest enough money and time in a formula to regularly turn out a good product.
Amouage’s Christopher Chong has big ideas and the money/muscle to put them on the shelves. When he puts out something like Opus IX the nerds and the fanboys take notice. Sure, it’s massively synthetic, but it’s also ridiculously complex. It may not be wholly successful, but it got me wondering if Chong isn’t seeing the writing on the wall, and embarking on a new era of manmade marvels. With any luck we’re in store for years of perfumes as big, strange, and beautiful as his previous high-water-mark Ubar.
If the idea alone of synthetics turns you off, consider this… They’ve been a part of Western perfumery for more than 100 years. The history of French perfumery is the history of synthetic perfumery. And above all, synthetics allow you to introduce a truly novel idea. I’ve been wearing Christophe Laudamiel‘s S-Ex for S-Perfumes quite a lot lately, and that Rakim-level accord of leather and alien new car smell would be inconceivable without synthetics. Without ’em you’re left with a drastically restricted palette and very little hope for the future.
Still, it’s no excuse to go medieval on our noses with a bunch of silly regulations. Restricting materials in the name of allergy restrictions doesn’t hold water for a couple of reasons. First, the studies that IFRA used to determine offending materials had–to put it delicately–issues with their sampling practices. You can’t decide to wipe out 75% of perfumery’s legends because a few Danes got a bit of a rash. Second, the process was far from methodical. Restricted materials seem to have been chosen at random. Or extremely strategically, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, which I am. None of it would pass muster given any oversight or peer review.
The only reason to roll back IFRA’s restrictions is–you guessed it–money. IFRA is made up of the most powerful names in perfume, the leaders of the Big Five: Symrise, Givaudan, Robertet, IFF, and Takasago; designers and producers of essentially all of the world’s perfume. New restrictions mean brand owners have to come back to the firms for a new formula, and pay handsomely for it. It also means that the firms have another opportunity to sell their clients proprietary or “captive” materials, their major cash cows.
In an industry as secretive and insular as perfume, how are you supposed to fight back? Sometimes the little guys do pull it off. Niche perfumers are turning out their own versions of the classics, just as the originals are reformulated beyond recognition. Stateside, where you can still put practically anything you want in a perfume–may it ever be thus, Amen–perfumers are yet to really capitalize on their freedom. Admittedly, those perfumes could never be sold in the EU. But guess what, who cares? The fastest growing markets are in Asia and the Middle East. If France is willing to set fire to the Louvre (so to speak) then fuck ’em. As Etienne de Swardt said, perfume is dead, long live perfume.