Is "Naturalism" In Perfume Valuable?

Nothing wrong with going natural in nature!

This question has come up numerous times over the years among those who enjoy fragrances at varying price points. The biophysicist Luca Turin considers "naturalism" in perfume to be a misidentified value, one that holds some interest from an aromatherapeutic angle, but has very little worth beyond that. Chandler Burr revels in finding accords that combine natural odors with blatantly synthetic constructs, even when the naturals are supposedly repulsive, like the scents of armpits and anuses. Intelligent people understand both Turin and Burr's points of view on this, although there are certainly morons at a sixth-grade reading (and writing) level who express difficulty with understanding these basic descriptive approaches.

Then there's the question of how well the common man perceives the transition between the "real" and the "fake," and how this bodes for his enjoyment. In my last post about Playboy's VIP for Men, I mention in not so many words that its old-school aftershave fern composition is largely synthetic in scope, yet still satisfying to me. I was glad to receive some comments by a man named John, who expressed his issue with enjoying truly "cheap" compositions:

"I find it really compelling the way a single, beautiful rendered piece of rendering (say, the hesperidic opening of Eau Sauvage) experientially anchors the abstraction that follows. At the moment, I'm a sucker for the slight-of-hand entailed by this transit from naturalism to abstraction. And I'm just not getting as much naturalism from the cheaper things I'm trying."

I understand his conundrum entirely. To him, the thrill of a scent resides with the movement from identifiable, recognizable notes into artistic, abstract, man-made accords. The more natural those top and early middle notes smell, the more enjoyable the transition, if such a thing actually moves into a successful place. Unfortunately, he doesn't get this thrill from super cheap fragrances like Brut and Skin Bracer. Neither do I.

However, is "naturalism" really that valuable? To me this is similar to how one refers to women. Some are "natural beauties" who don't need a single particle of makeup to convey their physical attractiveness, relying instead on healthy lifestyles and willing smiles to do the talking for them, while others are "average," and simply glam up nicely. Is one subset of women more beautiful than the other? Perhaps, but does it matter? True love doesn't stop at the surface.

There are perfumes like Garner James' Nature Boy that smell natural from top to bottom, with crystal clear notes that are blatantly representative of their material; they gracefully rope into a set of accords that maintain clarity on two levels, the singular and the collective. While the sandalwood, labdanum, and floral elements of Nature Boy maintain their identities and "separate," they simultaneously convey a new effect, a larger whole, without losing a shred of their natural feel. This is arguably the most difficult feat to accomplish in perfumery, and why Nature Boy is to date the most impressive perfume I've ever smelled.

Then there are fragrances like mb03 by Biehl Parfumkunstwerke that smell natural at first, but then transition into more synthetic and diffuse bases, and "waft" from time to time from skin. These little wafts are somewhat natural, and somewhat synthetic, retaining with clarity at least two of their initial naturals, but eventually rely on the synthetics to carry things forward. With a fragrance like mb03, which has generous amounts of pink pepper, patchouli, labdanum, incense, precious woods, and elemi resin, this works, even if the carrier is a relatively bland musk.

The majority of fragrance enthusiasts, those not wedded to making perfume a lifetime pursuit, encounter upper-shelf designer compositions like Eau Sauvage, and can be won over. This sort of fragrance falls just under the other two for me, because its naturalism is more limited, even in its top notes and early middle stages. While it certainly possesses a crisp citrus-woody opening of bright neroli, bergamot, and rosemary, very easily decipherable, a large dose of the synthetic Hedione is present, and remains prominent all the way to the far drydown. Eau Savage's naturalness is embellished from the start, and marks not so much a shift to more synthetics, but rather a rebalancing of more naturals and fewer synthetics to more synthetics and fewer naturals, a movement hinging on Hedione. The dihydromyrcenol overload of scents like Drakkar Noir and Cool Water are other examples of this type of fragrance (and for a Hedione bloodbath, consider Acqua di Gio).

Last but not least are the hoi polloi splashes like Brut and Skin Bracer. While there are noticeable traces of natural materials in the surprisingly busy opening salvo of Brut, replete with lavender, anise, mint, moss, and lemon aldehyde, they're already fairly tightly "fused" into one soapy, oily characteristic, which only grows more vague and synthetic with time. This is why most super-cheap masculines are often described as being "soapy." They resemble the vague cleanliness of fresh soap smells and not much else, from up close or afar. If you're someone who values that scintillating effect of many natural notes mingling together into a beautiful crowd of new ideas and accords, with fluctuating balancing acts and constant movement, Brut will disappoint.

However, as I've outlined here, there are at least four different types of perfumes out there, ranging from most to least natural and well-blended, which means that people have choice, and probably a wide range of reasons for those choices. If I enjoy Nature Boy, or similar scents (as far as naturalism goes, and not necessarily scent) like Annick Goutal's Duel, Polo Crest, Sunwater, or Oscar (feminine), I'm looking for both note clarity and compositional balance. But I may also enjoy Brut and Skin Bracer when I'm in the mood for simplicity and feeling "clean," with no frills. The first set accomplishes what I'm after beautifully, and so does the second set.

There are some outliers to these broad categories I've mentioned. They are fragrances that smell uniquely synthetic all the way through, yet also smell good. Take The Dreamer, for example. It's a tremendous fragrance, a delicious celebration of woody tobacco delicately blended with a lightly floral soapiness over a nondescript amber. A true postmodern oriental, if you will. It breaks all the rules, defies all the conventions I've listed above, and still comes out smelling great. How?

In order for a perfume to utilize completely synthetic notes and still smell coherent and wearable, it needs to emulate synthetic materials, using the same compositional principles that more traditional compositions employ. So while it is entirely synthetic in material, structure, and scope, The Dreamer uses these synthetics in much the same way Nature Boy uses naturals. Instead of natural tobacco leaf, The Dreamer contains the wry sweetness of treated cigarette tobacco, which is the smoker's equivalent of cured supermarket Black Forest ham. Instead of natural lavender oil, a super sheer, ultra-soapy lavender essence is used. This is meant to convey lavender soap, not actual lavender. You get this gist, and perhaps with an open mind you also recognize that this is a conceptual fragrance, very boldly executed.

People seek this sort of thing all the time. Often they're not aware that synthetic notes are what they seek, and don't notice any correlation between them and the emotions they elicit. One person on Fragrantica, "Manny44," clearly enjoys synthetic compositions, namely scents that employ synthetic materials to deliberately mimic synthetic aromas, but doesn't particularly enjoy certain "natural" compositions, where the opposite approach is at least partially used. For example, he has this to say about The Dreamer:

"GodDAMNNNN this smells good. Worried this would smell dated but it is not in the least dated . . . Rose, Geranium, Fir, Sage, just a touch of sharp vetiver-on top of the 'can't go wrong' base of Lavender and Tobacco. These all make Dreamer a multifaceted scent that women and men love. A Fall and Spring masterpiece I hereby nominate for the Hall of Fame."

But this was his reaction to Tom Ford's austere and surprisingly natural-smelling Grey Vetiver:

"I don't hate this cologne but I don't like it either. Bit too earthy for me. Something in the spice notes here that is too old-school masculine in the way that a strong oakmoss note can be."

His sentiments sum up what I've been saying perfectly - tastes vary, and so too does the value of "naturalism" in perfume.


  1. Great piece. Though I’m sorely wishing that I hadn’t used ‘render’ twice in one sentence, I think you’ve nicely fleshed out what I meant by ‘slight of hand.’ Keeping in mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” I’d say that I like being fooled, and also knowing I’m being fooled, while at the same time admiring the craftsmanship with which the artifice is being carried off. I also suspect that most all ‘classics’ (including Eau Sauvage for the reasons you point out) are both a bit modern (innovative in their combination of ingredients) and a bit postmodern or, as you say, ‘conceptual’. And, more to the point, that this is an escalating engagement… For instance, blogger Colin Maillard in his review of Narciso Rodriguez Pour Homme points out that the relatively cheap fabrication that supports its strangely moving ‘wet cement’ topnotes seem kind of appropriate to what the scent suggests:

    The only flaw I would mention would be maybe its objective quality, meaning that in my opinion the materials here aren’t exactly top notch – especially on the drydown, which is quite linear, a bit cheap, and maybe boring after some hours. But who cares for once – this is evocative, even its “cheapness” may have a creative role here, as in fact we’re talking about concrete and dead leaves – nothing fancy and nothing luxurious.

    For myself personally, the interest in naturalism is definitely with the awareness that I’m in the early stages of learning about this subject. I’ve read some wonderful advice from bloggers suggesting smelling readily available things like freshly cracked pepper (citrusy topnotes, woody-smoky base) to train the nose to detect notes. The other day I stuck my nose into the base of a sprig of sage leaves and for the first time understood its place in the candied lavender accord in Caron’s Pour Un Homme, a fragrance I’ve been wearing on and off for about four months. I think that this early stage – call it a ‘naturalism crush’- is about forming a relationship with aspects of my olfactory life that are subtle, ambient and beautifully blended, that is, the kind of smells one finds on a walk through a field, through a wood or cutting up raw produce. I’d suppose that there is something recuperative about learning to pick apart what feels (smells) good in these things. My guess is that one then moves on to the question of sending a message… If I decide I like to smell like Terre d’Hermes’ mix of like oranges, ‘flint’, vetiver and Iso-Super E, what am I saying about myself? Finally, the bigger deal, the place where I think I can relate to people who develop a love for either certain fragrances (almost) regardless of reformulation, or for certain genres or blatantly synthetic effects that announce themselves as such: communicating a constructed presence. That is, understanding how these smells mingle with whatever it is you have to offer in the broadest sense. To hash up Kant: beauty not in the subject, nor just in me, but in the relationship between it and me and the world, and so (easy on that trigger now) both a private and a public act.

    1. Very deep words indeed, John!

      Be careful though about how you train your nose. Today's perfume market is saturated with "phantom notes," a subject I'll expound upon in one of the next posts.

  2. Please do! I'm curious about that, as I know that the note breakdowns we read in press releases, on forums like Fragrantica, and even in reviews by bloggers who smell a lot -as you have pointed out previously- are not necessarily accurate. I also understand from anecdotal accounts (and common sense) that evernyl and oakmoss are not the same thing, though the latter might understandably be used to represent the former on a fragrance pyramid. I'd still argue for the presence of sage in the Caron though (or some strikingly naturalistic molecular extraction of it)!

  3. I've learned in my recent international fragrance forays that I must be anosmic to some degree to a lot of synthetics.
    I tried Juliette Has a Gun Not a Perfume and Escentric Molecules' Molecule 01 & was not impressed.
    JHaG Not a Perfume's Ambrox smelled faintly sweet & creamy on my skin.
    Molecule 01 vaguely smelled like sawdust on me.
    Most synthetic musks just smell like hairspray to me also.

    1. Synthetic molecules in isolation tend to smell weak to me also. But then again synthetics together can smell weak, too. Not really sure what gives them their oomph!, but when you consider that at least two or three hundred of them inhabit the typical composition, it's no surprise we usually get no fewer than four hours from a perfume.


Thank you for your comment. It will be visible after approval by the moderator.