Monday, February 18, 2008

The Blender

Natural. What is it?

This is the debate. Always has been, it seems, in this business. Much splitting of hairs goes on in the explanation of 'natural'.

I am no expert in this debate. I don't know all the facts or figures. I suspect my lack of rabid involvement is partially due to not wanting to load more on my plate than what's already on it. And it's a migraine waiting to happen. And I feel it puts limitations on the creative process. As an artist, specifically in this art of botanical based perfumery, I feel the need to expand the natural palette, to bring in more and more that is rare or new to add umph to my finished perfumes; as a conscientious consumer, I try to curb this desire. This brings me to natural isolates in perfumery, something which I have no first-hand knowledge of, and no information on, except that they're derived from nature, plants, and a lot of 'natural perfumers' use them. This is where things get a bit fuzzy. Isolates are isolated molecules derived from a natural, plant-based component, like geranium oil. They are used to add a single scent element to a perfume without adding all the chemical components in the mother plant/oil (my example is geranium). Ok, like I stated earlier, I don't know jack squat about this stuff, this is just my understanding of these things. My question is: Is this natural?

How far from the original source does an element have to be to become 'unnatural'? Let's look at petroleum. It's organic. Dead plant matter, dinosaur bones (I'm being facetious) ~ synthetic perfumery ingredients are derived from the by-product of petroleum oil production. This is decidedly far, far away from the original source, is it not? A few million years, at least. And is that what makes it 'unnatural'? Hair splitting happens here.

Maybe I'm just being lazy not delving into natural isolates. Maybe they scare me. Maybe both of those and more are what is keeping me from venturing beyond essential oils, absolutes, concretes and the lot. Maybe I see the potential of this newest (really, it's quite old) idea in perfumery and want to be a part of it.

Blended ideas ~

A non-meat-eating friend of mine once said that it was ok to wear leather because the cows used to make her boots weren't killed for their skins, they were killed for their meat. So in her eyes, as a by-product, the leather was completely ethical to use. This is a similar comparison to the production of rosewood oil -- some of the plants are being clear-cut for farmland, with the oil being a by-product of the clear-cutting. This is only part of the story, however. The rest is more political than I care to involve myself with. I leave that up to the pit bulls in this business. But it begs the questions: Do we still buy rosewood oil in indirect support of clear-cutting forests? And do we use it with a clear conscious because otherwise it would go to waste? Or to someone else?

The ethical issues in natural and botanical perfumery are mind-boggling.


  1. Natural can cover a lot of ground. From one extreme to the other. I think that in perfumery, (as in life) one must follow their own gut. There will always be those who like to stir things up, politicize and judge. Sadly, this is true regardless of the subject matter.
    In my own work, I have to find a balance that works for me. If others don't like it they can change the channel.
    Technically everything is natural at some point in it's evolution.
    We don't seem to get so bugged, when thinking about whether or not we will purchase all cotton sheets or a poly cotton blend. We don't make a big stink over nylon or spandex. Yet we can get all righteous about perfumery materials. She says as she sits typing away on her plastic keyboard, looking at her plastic computer, clicking her plastic mouse.....
    I think that the more we know about the materials the better. I have many things that I do not use. But have learned from. There's power in knowledge, and at the end of the day it makes me better at what I do.

  2. 'Technically everything is natural at some point in it's evolution.'


    I'm all for learning more -- knowledge is power for certain. But like you, there are several materials in my 'organ' that I don't use and probably never will, all perfectly natural :D

    Thank you for the comment!


  3. I'm still not sure what to think about Isolates....just did an online "course" about working with them that left me none the wiser, but I do now have a little set of them to play with...I feel as though I'm being seduced by drugs...I can create effects unknown before...and they last for hours...which is kinda creepy though too.....

  4. I took an online natural isolates course as well and I am intrigued. I still have friends who think natural isolates go a bit too far, but I'm beginning to open up to the possibilities, one baby step at a time. Yesterday I compounded a soap fragrance with lemongrass, phenyl ethyl alcohol and citronellol, so what I have are soaps that smell like lemon drops and musky roses. I'm quite pleased with the result. It will take some getting used to but I imagine that in two or three years' time, learning to use natural isolates along with essential oils, absolutes, concretes and other natural forms will be the way NBP is taught.

    Thank you for your comment Ambrosia.



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