Eco-perfumes – how an indie trend went mainstream

Natural ingredients are signalling a softly spoken new direction for scents – heightening the feel-good factor as well as benefiting the environment. Vicci Bentley reports. Styled by Nu Valado. Photographed by Omer Knaz

Clockwise from top left: Petite Histoire Envie Desoir, $65 for 11ml EDP. Parterre A Tribute to Edith, £120 for 100ml EDP. Haeckels for Grenson Queen Street, £160 for 100ml EDP. Sana Jardin Berber Blonde, £180 for 100ml EDP. Clean Reserve Sweetbriar & Moss, £129 for 100ml EDP. Creed Royal Exclusives White Flowers, £675 for 250ml EDP. Abel Green Cedar, £98 for 50ml EDP. Atelier Cologne Iris Rebelle, £115 for 100ml EDC. Prosody Mocha Muscari, £38 for 10ml
Clockwise from top left: Petite Histoire Envie Desoir, $65 for 11ml EDP. Parterre A Tribute to Edith, £120 for 100ml EDP. Haeckels for Grenson Queen Street, £160 for 100ml EDP. Sana Jardin Berber Blonde, £180 for 100ml EDP. Clean Reserve Sweetbriar & Moss, £129 for 100ml EDP. Creed Royal Exclusives White Flowers, £675 for 250ml EDP. Abel Green Cedar, £98 for 50ml EDP. Atelier Cologne Iris Rebelle, £115 for 100ml EDC. Prosody Mocha Muscari, £38 for 10ml | Image: Omer Knaz

A clear coming-of-age marker for any trend is when it fledges from the indie underground to perch on illustrious counters. Now we’re entering a greener age where sustainable resources are vital ingredients, ecology is the new luxury. In perfumery, a quiet revolution is taking place. Natural ingredients are gently capturing the zeitgeist and gaining traction over synthetic molecules that have dominated for decades.

Exemplifying the new wave of covetable eco-age perfumes is watchmaker and jeweller Chopard, whose Garden of Paradise fragrances have arrived in Harrods and are composed of around 25 natural raw materials sourced predominantly from scent lab Firmenich’s Naturals Together responsible crop-to-bottle programme. There is a clarity about this new direction for Chopard perfumes that shines through in Orange Mauresque (£240 for 100ml EDP), where Spanish maestro Alberto Morillas has sensualised Calabrian bergamot and orange blossom with the ambery, woody warmth of Siam benzoin. Likewise, his pairing of Indian and Chinese jasmines with tuberose and sandalwood give Jasmin Moghol (£240 for 100ml EDP) an erotic intensity. Also in Harrods, Sana Jardin offers a seven-strong collection crafted by master perfumer Carlos Benaim, using crops sustainably grown and managed in Morocco. Orange blossom in uplifting, musky Berber Blonde (£180 for 100ml EDP) and velvety rose in ambery, incense-laced Tiger By Her Side (£180 for 100ml EDP) are two of the blooms so harvested.

In Dorset, David and Julia Bridger are growing their own ingredients within the botanic gardens around their 18th-century mill on the River Stour. Crops such as powdery, slightly faecal Cerise Queen yarrow, geranium and lemon thyme, and – an audacious British first – rooty, suede-like vetiver (a grass more usually grown in Haiti) are key influencers in limited edition batches of their Parterre fragrances at Fortnum & Mason. The perfumers are Grasse-based naturals expert Jacques Chabert (who has worked with Guerlain and Chanel) and his daughters Elsa and Carla. Their brief was to the point. “All we had to do was choose some of their interesting oils and create a fragrance around it,” says Chabert. His choice of a rich, jazz-age rose accord to offset homegrown, peppery geranium in A Tribute To Edith (£120 for 100ml EDP) is sublime. 

Since a major facet of scent’s allure is its ability to lift the spirits, one with green credentials should heighten the feel-good factor. “Increasingly consumers are looking for wellbeing products that benefit both them and the environment,” says Bertrand de Préville, general manager of IFF-LMR, the all-naturals arm of International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF), who estimates business has doubled in the past five years. “In the public consciousness, natural ingredients are synonymous with health,” says de Préville, adding that the transition to perfumes was inevitable. 

One satisfied IFF-LMR client is Victoire de Taillac, who with her husband Ramdane Touhani has revived L’Officine Universelle Buly, the Paris apothecary of 1803 which has set out its store of potions and traditional raw ingredients in Selfridges. According to de Taillac, natural ingredients go beyond a purely lifestyle choice to change our relationship with perfume. “Natural oils evolve on skin in a more discreet fashion,” de Taillac maintains. “It’s about perfuming skin, not the air.” Buly fragrances, such as the sweet, almond-woody Eau Triple Héliotrope du Pérou (£156 for 75ml EDP) and the subtly unctuous Eau Triple Tubéreuse du Mexique (£156 for 75ml EDP) are, unusually, encapsulated in water due to Touhani’s dislike of that nose-numbing hit of alcohol announcing conventional sprays. “It makes fragrance softer and rounder,” says de Taillac. 

Clockwise from top left: Officine Universelle Buly Tubéreuse du Mexique, £156 for 75ml EDP. Perfumer H Mist, £450 for 100ml EDP. Romilly Wilde Idle, £90 for 30ml EDP. Prosody Jacinth Jonquil, £135 for 50ml EDP. Chopard Orange Mauresque, £240 for 100ml EDP. Aftelier Oud Luban, $185 for 30ml EDP
Clockwise from top left: Officine Universelle Buly Tubéreuse du Mexique, £156 for 75ml EDP. Perfumer H Mist, £450 for 100ml EDP. Romilly Wilde Idle, £90 for 30ml EDP. Prosody Jacinth Jonquil, £135 for 50ml EDP. Chopard Orange Mauresque, £240 for 100ml EDP. Aftelier Oud Luban, $185 for 30ml EDP | Image: Omer Knaz

Scent’s intimate relationship with skin is also at the heart of British natural skincare range Romilly Wilde, whose wonderfully spicy, green jasmine scent Idle (£90 for 30ml EDP) trails a sweet, almost carnal sensuality. According to founder Susie Willis, fragrance enhances your personal aura by blending with it, not obliterating it. Similarly, US company Clean Reserve is following the “free-from” natural skincare movement lead with its Avant Garden collection. Unexpected pairings such as mimosa, jasmine and lavender in Saguaro Blossom & Sand, or Sichaun pepper and lychee rose in Sweetbriar & Moss (both £129 for 100ml EDP) represent a fusion of natural essences and “headspace” ingredients – aroma molecules obtained by capturing the scented air around a living bloom. 

Not that any aforementioned scents have eschewed synthetic ingredients entirely. At Atelier Cologne, the aim is to offset up to 90 per cent natural ingredients with fine synthetics, such as smooth, buttery Moroccan and Grasse rose with synthetic warm white musks in Iris Rebelle (£115 for 100ml EDC). Similarly, British perfumer Lyn Harris used a seasoning of “intriguing” musks to give lavender absolute from the Drome Valley in Provence transparency and modernity in Perfumer H Mist (£450 for 100ml EDP). 

According to James Craven, Les Senteurs’ fragrance archivist, ‘There is a fancy that all-natural scents take us back to a simple, golden age of perfumery. But it’s a remote age, well before the industrial revolution and its life-changing chemistry.” Craven contends that scents without synthetics to embellish them lack excitement. “Citrus oils can be over-light and volatile, while the earthy notes go solid and clunky.” Natural ingredients are not necessarily the safest option – as active organic compounds, they carry a greater allergenic risk than synthetic, which are more stable and, ironically, 100 per cent sustainable. Nevertheless, he says, “a unique joy of a perfume high in natural oils is that, as a living entity, the scent will vary subtly not only with the wearer but also the vintage.” For example, thanks to terroir and micro-climate, every harvest of apple blossom, rose, jasmine and narcissus will subtly vary in each batch of Creed Royal Exclusives White Flowers (£675 for 250ml EDP). 

Despite a career founded on natural ingredients, Chabert is equally wary of scents without synthetics. “I have never yet encountered a 100 per cent natural fragrance that is appealing,” he confesses. “Essential oils are complex formulations. But synthetic molecules allow perfumers to create new facets that give a fragrance its unique signature.” A further compelling argument for synthetic ingredients is they replace animal notes such as musk and civet, once used to give classic perfumes long-lasting sex appeal, but now banished on grounds of cruelty or cost. After more than 150 years, we have, after all, grown used to the romance of sillage, the invisible calling card left in rooms and on pillows by our perfume. When push comes to pulse point, are we ready to give this up?

Keshen Teo believes we are. As founder of all-natural, British brand Prosody, he is one of the growing number of purist perfumers whose vegan ranges omit animal products and their lab-derived counterparts. “It’s easy to achieve a wow factor with synthetics,” he concedes. “Some people find natural ingredients too simple, but they’re harder work to blend.” With Prosody, the work has resulted in some vibrant interactions. Jacinth Jonquil (£135 for 50ml EDP), for example, offsets hyacinth and jonquil with a honeyed saffron background, while coffee, jasmine and sandalwood in Mocha Muscari (£38 for 10ml EDP; £175 for 50ml EDP) give this sunny floral a delicious dark side. 

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Teo trained with perfumer Mandy Aftel who began formulating her Aftelier artisan blends 25 years ago – Leonard Cohen is reputed to have favoured her resinous, aged-patchouli laced Oud Luban ($185 for 30ml EDP). In the absence of fixatives, Aftel’s defence of her scents’ brevity – around two hours on skin – is both vehement and legendary. Genuine naturalistas, she says, will reapply – an approach that has rubbed off on Teo – although his scents, he claims, tend to linger for at least five hours. 

This issue of transience has been cleverly addressed by Petite Histoire founder Jeff Smith. “Naturals are softly spoken and perfumery becomes more of a ritual,” he says. So that this ritual can be performed throughout the day, his scents come in travel sizes and, instead of alcohol, have a coconut oil base, making them both skin and air-freight friendly. Travel and trysting informs the backstory to this innovative collection, formulated with perfumer Mathieu Nardin of Robertet. Powdery violet and rose Envie Desoir ($65 for 11ml EDP) evokes an exquisite Parisian posy; while there’s the temple dancing eroticism of shaved woods, incense and carnal ylang ylang in exquisite Coup de Courage ($65 for 11ml EDP). 

There is little doubt that what began as an ultra-indie US trend is now an increasingly global niche movement. The aim of Amsterdam-based Frances Shoemack was to create the world’s best 100 per cent natural scents. With perfumer Isaac Sinclair, a fellow New Zealander, their six-strong Abel Vita Odor collection is well on target if Green Cedar (£98 for 50ml EDP), vibrant with dualling cedarwoods – one from the Atlas Mountains, the other double-distilled from Texas – is an example. 

In the UK, Margate-based apothecary Haeckels has created two fragrances that capture shoemaker Grenson’s heritage. Queen Street (£160 for 100ml EDP) celebrates the leathery atmosphere of the Northampton factory, leavened with grass and plant essences, while Elizabeth Street (£160 for 100ml EDP) is spiced with coffee, chilli and cardamom, evoking the restaurants around its New York store. 

Naturally derived scents and handcrafted fashion would seem a perfect fit. For, as Jeff Smith points out, there’s an inherent bespoke quality in the way natural perfumes behave that sets them apart. “Natural ingredients have great personality that evolves and adapts from skin to skin. In perfumery as in fashion, people are constantly looking for customisation, exclusivity and uniqueness,” Smith concludes. “Naturals have this naturally.”

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