Our sense of smell is ten thousand times more sensitive than any of our other senses (Shaath 2017). It is one of the first senses that awakens in a newborn infant and helps guide the baby as it makes its initial few movements outside of its mother’s womb (Aftel, 2008). With direct access to the limbic system, also known as the emotional part of the brain (Shutes 2017), the olfactory system is the most connected to our deepest memories and can enhance other senses to expand our sensory perception of the world. In fact, up to 80% of human “taste” is actually smell; without olfaction, we wouldn’t even be able to fully savor the food we prepare (Shaath, 2017).
Despite significant research and a general understanding around how we smell, olfaction continues to be mysterious in nature, tapping into a deeper consciousness; its connection to emotion and mood, however, comes as no surprise to the aromatherapist.
Today, our sense of smell is bombarded (and exhausted) by all of the aromas that exist in our environments (Shaath, 2017). Think about the range of smells you encountered in each place you visited today — from home, to the workplace, school, crossing the street — and even on that crowded subway platform. The average human can detect about one trillion different olfactory stimuli (Bushdid, C., et al, 2014) — each molecule evoking a different reaction or feeling, oftentimes without us even being aware of it.
In fact, our sense of smell is generally the most neglected of the senses (Aftel, 2008). In an age where high-resolution screens are everywhere, we are mesmerized by visuals (sight), frequently walking around with headphones on (hearing), always needing to try the next best dish at ‘restaurant week’ (taste) and
often coveting the softest cashmere introduced at our favorite boutique (touch). The average westerner takes our sense of smell — the most primitive, and I would argue, perhaps the most emotional of the senses — for granted.
The Origins of Perfumery
Aromatic alchemy can be traced down to ancient civilizations. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans alike recognized the spiritual facets of scent and used rare and precious aromatic materials to anoint, honor and treat.
Egyptian priests are the earliest perfumers we know of to date. They used resins, spices, floral aromatics, wine and honey to make incense and unguents (Aftel, 2008). Beyond religious ceremonies and spiritual practices, aromatics were also used by the Egyptians for medicinal processes and for bodily adornment.
Egyptian Kyphi Aromatic Ingredients:
- Base – Honey or Wine
- Gum Resin – Frankincense or Myrrh
- Herb – Cypress Grass
- Spice – Cinnamon
Kyphi, an incense (and sometimes referred to a solid perfume), was traditionally used for its therapeutic properties of inducing sleep and relieving anxiety, and was considered to be a highly spiritual mixture. Though there exist some variations across Kyphi formulations, Dr. Nadim A. Shaath outlines Kyphi’s four main ingredients in his book, Healing Civilizations: The Search for Therapeutic Essential Oils & Nutrients.
Aromatics were also widely used in Greece, where Hippocrates recommended remedies created from sage and cumin administered in the form of smoke, massage and baths (Cinquieme Sens). Yet it was the Romans who named the aromatic practice per fumum, meaning “through smoke.”
If there is one imperative finding to be observed in the analysis of perfumery’s origin, it refers to the fact that aesthetic properties of scent were never isolated. Rather, aromatic concoctions were developed with a therapeutic and/or spiritual intent in mind. In Essence & Alchemy, Mandy Aftel further articulates this in contrast to today’s fragmented disciplines:
“In their preoccupations, alchemists can be said to have much in common with priests (albeit heretical ones), but it is more to the point to say that the distinctions between religion, medicine science, art and psychology were not nearly so absolute in their time as they are now. Nor the boundary between matter and spirit so firm. (Aftel, 2008)”
Alchemists approached their creations holistically, with therapeutic properties in mind, and with intent first and foremost.
Over the years, the alchemist repertoire continued to expand, unceasingly amplifying its depths to include a range of seeds, herbs, spices, resins, florals and fruits.
In the 1500s, Grasse, France — once known for its prolific leather and tannery industry — emerged as the new perfume hub with a growing demand for scented gloves (Cinquieme Sens). This new development was initiated when a Grasse tanner presented a pair of scented leather gloves to Queen Catherine de Medici. Shortly thereafter, scented gloves became the newest high-end trend.
The Commoditization of Perfumes and Deviation from Naturals
With the technological advances brought forth after the Industrial Revolution, perfumery shifted from an artisanal practice to a business highly focused on chemistry and synthetics (Cinquieme Sens). In 1905, (legend has it) that Francois Coty dropped a bottle of his perfume on the floor of an exclusive department store that had just declined to carry it; customers followed and purchased his supply (Aftel, 2008). The integration of synthetics into the perfumer’s palette allowed for cost reduction, and therefore mass production of perfumes — resulting in the commoditization of a once exclusive craft. However, with this change came a deviation from aromatic alchemy; unfortunately, high quality botanicals were often traded for their less complex, mass-produced synthetic counterparts, which could ultimately never provide the therapeutic benefits that nature had to offer.
Recent Shifts: Back to Nature
Over a century later, with increased consumer awareness on ingredient safety and toxicity, perceptions of synthetic, mass-produced fragrance are shifting.
Grandview Research’s online publication observes:
“Consumers across the globe have become increasingly aware about the harmful effects of the synthetic products. Hence, a considerable shift in consumer preference has been observed from synthetic to organic personal care products. There has been a growing concern for healthy living and a greener environment. Thus, the growing demand for natural and organic personal care products has fueled its growth in the market. (Grandview Research, 2017)”
Recently, a spotlight on essential oils has further drawn attention to the magnitude of aromatic medicine, its therapeutic properties, and its ability to boost overall wellness.
Today, we are witnessing increased availability of topically applied aromatic treatments and artisanal botanical perfumes (e.g., French Girl Organics’ parfums botanique, Tata Harper’s rollerball treatments). Though conventional perfumers who promote the use of synthetics often challenge the botanical perfumery movement, preservers of natural and artisanal perfumery, such as Mandy Aftel, Marina Barcenilla, Charna Ethier of Providence Perfume Company, and Alexandra Balahoutis of Strange Invisible Perfumes, have received many accolades and widespread industry recognition.
Deep Dive Into Botanical Perfumery
The botanical perfumer uses frameworks to classify aromatic materials:
- Fragrance families (e.g. floral, citrus, spicy, green, herbal, woody, earthy, balsamic)
- Top, middle or base note categorization—which has everything to do with the aromatic material’s volatility, or evaporation rate.
Many different versions of the perfume wheel exist; however, Aftel’s version is recognized within the botanical perfumery realm. The purpose of this framework is to crystallize the relationships among olfactory groups and fragrance families, based upon similarities and differences in their scent profile.
Additionally, the aromatic components of a perfume are often categorized into top, middle and base notes. Many botanical perfumers create “from the bottom up” – starting with the base notes as the foundation of the perfume. Base notes are the anchor of the finished perfume, the fixatives and the most long-lasting aromatics within a formula. The middle notes comprise “the heart” of a fragrance and typically include florals, seeds and spices. The top notes are the most volatile; their function is often to bring radiance into a perfume, however, they are the first to evaporate. Citruses, such as bergamot (Citrus bergamia) are remarkable top notes.
Within the botanical perfumery space, it is fundamental to acknowledge that the intricate nuance, which exists among aromatic materials of the same botanical classification, leads to some subjectivity, and renders a spectrum-like top, middle or base note categorization. For example, Juniper berry (Juniperus communis), can be a top or middle note, and may vary by supplier, by region, and at times, even by batch.
Leveraging Aromatherapy Principles for Enhanced Olfactory Creations
Though the evolution of perfumery has led us to a fragmented industry with differing opinions, there are those pioneering the mission to revive the nature- embracing, artisan approach to aromatic alchemy. Blending with a focus on therapeutic benefits will be key for creating scent that can span beyond aesthetics.
There are several essential oil blending approaches that can be applied within botanical alchemy to support an enhanced olfactory experience, including blending by botanical families, affinities, chemistry and/or morphology.
Of all the approaches, morphology is one framework that provides a quite compatible application to botanical, aromatic alchemy. Similar to Doctrine of Signatures, morphology is the art of knowing from the outer appearance of a plant (or its environment) what its medicinal properties are (Shutes). Because morphology promotes the usage of various parts of the plant, it brings intent and intuitive blending to render a well-balanced olfactory creation.
|Part Of Plant||Therapeutic Purpose|
|Resins||Healing Wounds, Protecting From Negativity|
|Leaves/Needles||Transformation, Immune Support System|
To illustrate the application of morphology for enhancement of aromatic alchemy, we will assess a case in which client Z is combating issues with confidence and self-image. Client Z is maintains a typically busy schedule, and does not regularly practice diffusing or massage; a rollerball aromatic application is the selected method of application.
The recommended blend using a morphology approach includes a fruit (Citrus paradisi), flowers (Jasmine grandiflorum and Helichrysum italicum), a wood (Santalum album) and a root (Vetiveria zizanoides). When evaluating these components through the lens of the perfume pyramid framework (top, middle and base notes), a realization transpires: using different parts of the plant may encourage a well-balanced olfactory blend containing a range of top, middle and base notes.
The above is one example of leveraging aromatherapy principles for emotional blending, however, the larger concept for consideration is the intent behind aromatic blending — selecting and alchemizing intuitively, and considering the therapeutic properties of aromatics, like the Egyptians once did.
The Future of Botanical Perfumery
Grandview Research projects that the global natural and organic personal care market will continue to witness significant growth over the next seven years.
Similarly, the Sense of Smell Institute predicts that scent (aromas) will soon span beyond its conventional aesthetic definition, and will routinely be used for therapeutic purposes, including: relaxation and stress reduction, improvement of work performance, elevation of mood, modification of sleep and dreams, enhancement of self-image, retrieval of memories, enhancement sexuality and improvement of social relationships.
This shift to a more holistic understanding of olfaction has produced a clear opportunity for the expansion of botanical perfumery via incorporation of aromatherapeutic, intuitive blending.
Shaath, Nadim A. Healing Civilizations: the Search for Therapeutic Essential Oils & Nutrients. Cameron Company, 2017.
Aftel, Mandy. Essence and Alchemy: a Natural History of Perfume. Gibbs Smith, 2008.
Jade Shutes. “Aromas and the Mind.” (course textbook)
Cinquieme Sense. “Introduction to Perfumery Technique & The Language of Scent.” (course textbook)
“The Romans: When Fountains Flowed with Rosewater.” The Perfume Society, perfumesociety.org/discover-perfume/an-introduction/history/the-romans-when-rosewater-flowed-through-fountains/.
“Enhanced Consumer Awareness towards Harmful Effects of Synthetic Products Will Propel Natural & Organic Personal Care Market Globally.” Market Research Reports & Consulting, 14 Feb. 2017, www.grandviewresearch.com/blog/organic-personal-care-industry.
Bushdid, C., et al. “Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 21 Mar. 2014, science.sciencemag.org/content/343/6177/1370.