The Notable Differences Between Natural-Smelling Scents And Synthetic-Smelling, Pre-Fab Perfumes

I think of perfume as being similar to wallpaper. Every wallpaper is different, with pricier patterns, like the one pictured above, costing an arm and a leg, and simpler monochromatic themes costing much less. Sometimes, depending on brand, the price range is quite small. It all depends on who is making the paper, who is distributing it, and who is buying it.

When I consider a perfume to be natural in its overall scent profile, I don't think of it in terms of all-natural perfumery. I've never tried an all-natural perfume, though I've read mixed reviews about them. I'm not sure I understand the people who strongly dislike all-natural perfumery, guys like Luca Turin and Chandler Burr. Their position seems to be predicated on the false notion that perfumery is an art form, and therefore must, by all measures, be a labor of artifice. I think perfumery should be held as a practice of combining safe ingredients, any safe ingredients, in a manner that results in a coherent, congruent product, which subsequently smells better than its constituent parts. Some might complain that "better" is a vague and subjective term. Human beings have reference points for everything, but when you consider man-made materials, you also have to consider the hemisphere in which those materials are commonly known. Truly universal materials are of nature. Therefore, from Seattle to Moscow, Toronto to Cape Town, the fragrances of citrus fruits, flowers, and woods are known and appreciated, with many also doubling as flavors.

Let's argue for a moment that the wallpaper above is one of the cheaper patterns in a relatively inexpensive line. It's not dirt-cheap, mind you, but you could easily afford a roll or two for fifty or sixty dollars. You feel that the white birch wood pattern has a pleasantly retro, nineteen-fifties orientalist character, which would go well in your den, and perhaps on one wall of the master bedroom. When you look at the wallpaper, you know you're not seeing real woods, but a commercially designed rendition of woods. You know this is a two-dimensional space, and that if you walk into these woods, you'll break your nose on sheet-rock. Yet it's tempting. There's something about this pattern that is natural in feeling and ambiance, like the greyest woods of November somewhere in New England. Ultimately it's mostly synthetic (although paper is derived from nature), yet it provides customers with a kind of satisfaction from having a "natural" or "Earth-bound" aura in a living space.

Now take a perfume like Halston's Z-14. When you look at the bottle, you see an earthy brown and dark umber tone in the glass. Spray its contents on skin, and there's a rush of citrus and spice, with clear notes of lemon, citrus aldehydes, cinnamon, pine, woods, and moss. Its dry starkness is arresting. It's a very good smell, suggestive of freshness, earthiness, things from nature. Smelling Z-14 is like taking a stroll through the woods on a cold day in November, except you're well aware that you're not actually taking that stroll. The effect is superficial, a commercial product, a subjective rendition of something using the objective odors of many natural, and some synthetic materials. If Z-14 were wallpaper, it would probably look something like the paper shown above.

While smelling Z-14, it's impossible to not notice the cinnamon, which jumps out at the nose. It's just as difficult to miss the strong, almost tarry odor of birch and pine, and if your nose is a bit more experienced, the moss as well. These notes smell like specific things from nature. They don't smell like the hand of man, as much as the hand of God. I'm not suggesting there's anything divine about the perfume. I'm simply suggesting that, as a partial work of nature, it's something that owes its success to the nuances of the land, with man upholding the rest. Clever chemistry resulted in this interesting structure of citrus, woods, muted flowers, and moss. The clever part isn't the composition, but the choice of materials. These materials were obviously chosen to impart a very specific kind of texture, one where notes can separate and be recognized. This is a natural-smelling fragrance.

On the other side of the wallpaper aisle are geometric patterns in pastel and neon colors, mostly manufactured and sold for contemporary interiors. These papers are anywhere from forty to a hundred dollars per roll. When you look at these bright, hard-lined patterns, you think of all the TV themes of the last thirty years. See a squiggly triangle and a neon square? Does it make you think of the patterns shown during the theme song to Saved By The Bell? And what about those gaudy stripes? Fruit Stripe gum, anyone? The connotations are seemingly limitless, except for one crucial little limit: they're all about mankind's devices. TV, movies, architectural movements, fashion trends, whatever it may be, it's not of nature, but of man. Some would argue that anything from man and of man is natural, as man is a product of nature. A worthy opinion, but we need to segregate ourselves from the raw biological patterns that surround us. We can be self-referential, but not in the same context as oakmoss and orange zest.

Think of perfumes like Armani Code and Bleu de Chanel, and ask yourself whether they possess the same earthy, kinda-sorta dirty qualities of things like Z-14, Quorum, Azzaro PH, and Paco Rabanne. Ask yourself if clear lavender, citrus, and spice notes are easily separated from Code and Bleu. Better yet, take a truly abysmal fragrance like Luna Rossa and compare. But wait, there is no comparison! And with Code, I smell a weird, synthetic, pre-fabricated "vanilla gauze," a semi-sweet, warm-fuzzy texture that smells like fancy Airwick. The entire fragrance smells like room-freshener chemicals. You see splashes of latex paint colors when you smell Code. You don't see dark, gnarled trees on a foggy day. Same for Bleu. Yes, Chanel attempted to place a designer-grade grapefruit and ginger note on top of a massive, bittersweet woody amber accord. Sure, one could argue that the citrus and ginger notes are easily detectable and fairly lucid. The problem is not in the choice of things rendered, but in how they are rendered - Bleu's fruits and spices smell needlessly cheap, with the same "fuzzy" aerosol quality of Code.

The funny thing about this is that classical old-school scents like Z-14 aren't "natural," but are just as synthetic as most of the designer stuff of today - and generally they're much, much cheaper! The difference between the natural-smelling and the synthetic rests in how connected to nature these scents are. With Z-14, Azzaro, Paco, we smell herbs, woods, and musks. Many are synthetic, true, but they are rendered to smell literal, and placed within a composition. Their combined strengths make the perfume. Code and Bleu are from places not connected to nature, but to concrete and metal foundations. They hearken from a mindset of crunching numbers and reaping profits. Their notes are what the Leffingwell and Michael Edwards might have referred to, twenty some-odd years ago, as "fantasy" notes. If I recall correctly, that classification was reserved mostly for "fresh" and "aquatic" perfumes, but in this case, if asked to re-label everything, I'd say a perfume like Bleu de Chanel deserves a "fantasy" tag, simply because anyone who thinks they smell like a pleasant combination of fruit and wood notes is living in fantasy land. The rest of us are wishing we didn't have the deodorant aisle at the drugstore as our reference point in the matter.

In the end, we all use wallpaper at some time in life, and many of us use perfume. We are living in a time when human beings automatically disassociate from their natural surroundings for safety and comfort. We dwell above the soil and grass in abodes built of stone, wood, metal, and plastic. Our interiors are decked out in the same materials. We come in contact with plastic more often than petals, rubber more often than stone, particle board more often than wood. We remember nature, and when we encounter wallpapers like the one in this post, we think of it fondly. The same occurs when we smell a natural-smelling fragrance. It is just the way of modern mankind.


  1. I really like Armani Code. It is a sweet masculine that is safe in public and fuzzy enough to be enjoyed without bothering scent-sensitive people. I prefer a powerhouse when I'm at home, of course. How about a full review for this award-winning Armani Code fragrance?

    1. Like Bleu, Code is a decent fragrance, and certainly worthy of a place in many wardrobes around the world. I think it smells a bit unnecessarily synthetic, but nice. I have a review for Code and Code Ultimate on tap in the near future, stay tuned!

    2. Speaking of Armani everyone thoughts default to Aqua di Gio but more people should try their other fragrances. They actually haven't released that many male fragrances since their inception...it shows more thought goes into each release and personally I think to my nose ingredient quality seems much higher than your average designer that is flooding the market with constant releases. I think they are a very underrated house. Some of the Prive line is also fantastic!

    3. I find Armani to be pretty run-of-the-mill, to be honest, although I respect your opinion of the brand and I do think my feelings are strictly my own, and not reflective of their quality. I prefer Gucci and Versace's offerings by a wide margin - if Armani has ever made anything similar to Gucci Nobile, please tell me! I would love to try it. I intend on revisiting Acqua di Gio in the foreseeable future.


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