A couple years ago I met a woman who worked in the fragrance industry two or three decades ago. She told me that the essential oil content is now much lower (she was speaking in general terms of course), and that the formulations are much cheaper. I asked her if she would agree to an interview for my blog, and while she initially agreed, after I sent her a list of questions I never heard back from her (I tried contacting her a couple more times, but never got any responses). “Fast forward” to about a week ago, when I acquired some “Aktuell” Cologne by Johann Maria Farina, which looks like it’s from the 1970s. I did some research but “came up empty,” though I did find this very interesting interview with this man (or one of his descendents, presumably):
In that interview, a Basenotes.net member, Tom Clark, asked him questions that I think is worth exploring. The first is:
TC: How has buying essential oils changed through the years?
JMF: It used to be much more difficult. That’s why we can sell our cologne at a much lower price than in the past. Oils are much cheaper now, due to effective transportation and enhanced production and processing techniques. We have better information systems. I know what harvests will be like well in advance for bergamot or jasmine. Acreage has increased, too, though it is stagnant now or slightly shrinking, because big players like P&G or L’Oréal hesitate to use naturals in most cases. If they mass-produced a luxury product with, say, real bergamot oil, they would have to corner the market and prices would skyrocket – there will probably be 120 tons of bergamot oil this year. So they have had to switch to synthetics. Opium is a typical example – very high essential oil content at the outset, but as it became more and more successful, they had to increasingly replace the naturals with synthetics.
The second question concerned the use of “genunie Mysore sandalwood,” to which the response was
…We do not need much of it, of course. In terms of quantity, we primarily need citrus, some jasmine… but sandalwood is no problem, if you require, say five or ten kilograms. If you needed one, two hundred kilos, you’d be in trouble, you would overstrain the market. Same with jasmine, which costs between eight and 15,000 Euros a kilo. Even if you had the money, you could not buy 500 kilograms. In a way the market for essential oils has remained what it always was and should be – very exclusive, not suitable for mass products, and that’s what I like about it. Purchasing has become more direct – producers provide samples from the current harvests and I test which provenances and quantities of bergamot I will need to recreate our fragrance. It’s like with champagne – your Veuve Clicquot is supposed to taste the same from year to year, so we have to blend oils from different regions. This is why the formula as such wouldn’t enable you to recreate the perfume. You need to know which provenances to blend and the know-how of doing so. Like with coffee, tea,…
The most obvious conclusion one can draw from this, assuming it’s accurate (and I haven’t been provided with any reason to think otherwise), is that the vintage designer scents are not going to be replicated any time soon. Even if you found an independent perfumer and paid him or her a whole lot of money, you might not be satisfied with the attempt at replication. As perfumer Chris Bartlett has pointed out:
The bottom line though is that reformulating something is like trying to imitate a fragrance for which the formula is unknown – ten times harder than making one from scratch – no wonder many fragrances are just discontinued instead. Something I frequently have to explain to potential customers who imagine I’m going to be able to make them a version of Shalimar at a fraction of the price…
Instead, there is every reason for major fragrance companies to simply use as many synthetics as possible, generally-speaking, though I wonder if and how their sales people are taught to explain the differences between their niche-like line (for those that have marketed one, of course) and their more common and less expensive offerings. To be sure, there have been some new molecules developed in recent years that are quite pleasant, but it seems that these molecules are often used in excessive amounts or that even at low levels they begin to irritate within an hour or so. Perhaps this is less of an issue for those who have little or no experience with vintage, but I’m certainly not going to spend over $50 for a scent that becomes irritating within an hour or two – this is “dollar store” territory, IMO. And from of all places, there is this statement about Andy Tauer from the FromPyrgos blog:
Andy spent the better part of three years gathering the quality materials that make this fragrance so captivating, and he reissued it in March to critical acclaim. The density of its spices, the headiness of its floral notes, and the smoothness of its ambery base all reveal the unhurried commitment he has to the finished product, and I’m grateful that he has given the world another chance to enjoy this scent. When you work for yourself and create perfumes to fit exotic dreams and ideals and not a brand image, you have the power and freedom to create and sustain amazing things, and that is manifestly the case with L’eau d’épices.
In my experience, the use of synthetics today seems far more extensive than say thirty years ago, and even can be felt at what one might call the “true niche” level. Perhaps the biggest “problem” with designer level scents today is that too many share quite a bit in common with more “utilitarian” products, such as deodorant sticks. The old idea that you were spending more on a designer scent in order to experience a kind of olfactory elegance seems long gone, and that may be the harshest criticism one can level at “the industry.” Moreover, while only a small percentage of the population may know about niche, there is very little that I’d consider “elegant” among those kinds of offerings. However, my opinion at this point, consistent with my “near-sighted perfumer” notion, is that it’s not so much about synthetics ruining the vintage designer scents but rather the compositions. As Johann Maria Farina also said in the interview mentioned above:
When I’m not wearing our own, Eau Sauvage is number one – the most accomplished refinement of Eau de Cologne. And it’s only by virtue of that one iso jasmonate. Phenomenal. It’s powerful stuff. If you added it to our Eau de Cologne, you would get Eau Sauvage. Truly phenomenal.
I would add that the “next step” beyond Eau Sauvage is vintage Uomo? Moschino. Whether it is a step too far for you is of course your decision, but I’ve found that if I’m in the mood it too is “truly phenomenal,” and after doing some layering “experiments,” I’ve found that it layers well with Roadster by Cartier. So, if it starts to irritate me, I spray some Roadster above where I sprayed the Uomo? Moschino and that cuts down on the sharpness. So, while I am generally very disappointed in recent designer offerings, I do think one should keep one’s eyes open for such “hidden gems” (and try to get the first formulation!). And if you already have some scents that are good for layering, such as those that quickly dry down to a simple, natural-smelling amber, you might want to basically do what the best designer scents do, which is to combine synthetics and naturals that are complex, dynamic, rich, and deep.
UPDATE: There is a thread at Basenotes.net that those interested in this subject may want to read. My opinion, after reading this thread, is that all “oud scents” are likely dominated by synthetic oud “constructions” rather than actual oud. While the company may have used a tiny amount so that they can claim there is real oud in the concoction, it is not of olfactory significance. Moreover, if you want “real oud,” then you should buy oud, not an “oud scent.” One BN member claimed that vintage M7 did a good job of representing what a real oud might smell like, at least for a while (and it was also pointed out that oud varies greatly, so quality control would be a proverbial nightmare for any such product that is marketed to the public). And it was also claimed that using a reasonable amount of real oud to a scent with some other notes wouldn’t make any sense, because it is already “complete,” in a sense, and one would detract from the natural oud odor rather than enhance it in any positive way. Here is the link to that thread: