Friday, May 2, 2008

Perfumed Thoughts : Natural Perfumery

Today I want to touch on a subject that is slightly difficult for me to broach, not only because of its slightly controversial nature, but also because, admittedly, I am not as well informed as I would like to be. Still, it is something that has been on my mind for over a week now and I would rather take the chance to share my thoughts with you while they are fresh, rather than wait. Today’s little piece is not a mandate, but indeed just my own personal thoughts on the matter, hoping to raise consciousness, provoke thought, consideration and hopefully discussion.

I was recently reading an article titled “The Scent of the Nile”, originally published in the New Yorker by Chandler Burr. The following excerpt (referring to Jean-Claude Ellena) quotes part of that article:

“(...)Even though Ellena’s perfumes often evoke the smells of nature, he believes that scents containing only natural materials are not, fundamentally, perfumes. The art of perfumery, Ellena believes, is the art of gracefully combining different chemicals, some natural, some synthetic. The first perfume synthetics were created in the nineteenth century.(...).”

I couldn’t help but find myself having an immediately negative reaction to this statement. Surely this can’t be right? What are the implications of this statement? That natural perfumery is not perfumery at all? That someone who composes all natural scents is not actually a perfumer? That whether creative expression can or cannot be considered as art depends on the medium used? I just couldn’t accept this... I just couldn’t validate this statement. Burr mentions that the first perfume synthetics were created in the nineteenth century; I would like to draw a parallel to express my feelings about this issue. Before the 15th century, painters worked mostly with egg paints, otherwise known as tempera. However, in the 15th century there was a revolution: European painters suddenly started using oil paints, popularizing the medium and changing the face of art as we know it. Suddenly hues that were never seen on a painting before materialized. Textures became so realistic you could immediately tell whether you were looking at velvet or silk. Candlelight reflected differently on silver than it did on crystal. Pearls shone softly. The eye saw in the painting, what it saw in real life. A whole new world was opened up for painters worldwide. You see, egg paints pose numerous limitations: it is hard, or nigh impossible to play with the elements of darkness and light when painting with tempera. There is no way to render light of different intensities. Painting different hues takes not only incredible skill, but these almost never appear realistic. Same with water – there is no way to paint water that appears natural with egg, and it is incredibly difficult to show objects submerged under water or behind a gossamer veil, because egg does not lend itself to see-through expression. Still, despite these limitations, wonderful works of art were created with just egg paints: simply being confronted with the skill of master visual hagiographers who managed to paint the legs of John the Baptist submerged in the river despite the aforementioned difficulties, is enough to bring tears of awe to one’s eyes. And despite the fact that painters can indeed do so many more different things with oil, egg painting is not a lost art. Just like natural perfumery, it is a craft that is not as conspicuous as oil painting, however, it is still very much alive. It takes many painstaking years of studious, extremely disciplined apprenticeship to become a master visual hagiographer today. Even though these artists are limited not only by their medium of choice, but also by the techniques that identify this art form, they still manage to tell their own story, express their own creativity and impregnate each individual piece with their signature. It is a mysterious form of art: the more you know about it, the more you can appreciate it.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: You cannot judge art by the medium used: Whether the medium is marble, steel, or scrapheap salvage, the result is still art, and the creator a sculptor.



PinstripedZebra said...

Insightfull and a great parallel you draw between artists in different fields!

Personally I ofcourse would go for art created from scrapheap salvage, interesting and good for the enviroment:)


Anonymous said...

Dear Divina:

Your analogy to the evolution of paint media is the first I have seen in relation to natural perfumery v. synth perfumery, and it is very interesting. There are definite aesthetic differences between our forms of perfumery and the reference to sheerness and transparency is often cited.

However, as natural perfumers become more adept at manipulating natural aromatics I am finding more of the descriptives such as those being used. We will, however, never match synth perfumes in volume or persistence, but that is fine, it is not something we aim for.

Divina said...

Z, your comment made me laugh because it is indeed, SO you! Sculpture is special to me because even though I've appreciated and was interested in art since a very young age, I didn't manage to appreciate sculpture until about the age of 14. (I guess I wasn't exposed to enough good pieces before that) Then a revelation: a trip to Athens where I suddenly came across the most marvelous expression of movement, done in plexiglass. "The Runner"
I think I've shown it to you before, but here's a link anyway:

It is by Greek sculptor Costas Varotsos. It remains my favorite sculpture. I fear the picture doesn't do it justice. It is huge and utterly imposing in real life.


Divina said...

Dearest Anya, I was really hoping you were going to comment! I do want to make clear though that I never meant that natural perfumes are not light or sheer. My point was that the palette is more limited, since there are many scents that cannot be captured naturally and have to be synthesized. And the most important point I wanted to make (one that I hope is not lost due to the parallel I drew, although perhaps I should have been more succinct since I consider it so important) is that both are art forms. Just because the media used are different, this fact does not change. It was this part of Burr's article that I found most unsettling... Ellena's notion that perfumery as an art form HAS to be perfumery that uses synthetics. I cannot agree with this... For all the reasons stated in today's post.

Kisses to you dear Anya,


Unknown said...

Great argument Divina! I admit I don't really partake in natural perfumes (although I just won a packet of 3 samples by Ayala) because they are hard to find and test, but such grand monolithic statements that natural perfumes will never be perfumes because of their natural ingredients just seem ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Hi Divina,
My father used to say things that frustrated me about food, for example "a meal without potatoes is not a meal at all" when my mother cooked she would have to serve him potatoes with his curries and his pasta and his taccos. I used to think he was being totally ridiculous. He also refused to call a meal a meal if it was without meat. I know several people who say the same as that. It's more than a matter of taste, is about conditioning, expectation and culture. If a person expects a perfume to last for hours and hours then to them it's not really perfume if it only lasts an hour. If I expect meat, potatoes and two veg at my main meal then it's not a main meal unless those things are present and accounted for on my plate. The thing is that perfume does to the nose what food does to the palate. Some people are not fussy, some people are strictly vegan and some people are the potatoes, meat and two veg types. People will be people and perfume will be perfume no matter what anybody says.

Anonymous said...

The article seems to be an excerpt from the book , The Perfect Scent , or a paraphrase , whatever . When I read Monsieur Ellena's statement I too was very taken aback...I appreciate the art and chemistry of blending single chemical notes to re-create a scent from nature, but to say those three notes can replicate the 200 or so nuances nature provides...well I prefer nature's complexity...but I wear scent for how it smells to just so happens most fragrances smell flat , metallic and chemical soup. Mr. Ellena is talented , a genious even , but many of his creations smell this nose is usually not "fooled" for long if I wear them consistently...
It is my nose , not their technique that makes the decision to purchase.
Thank you for bringing the subject to our attention...
Will genetically modified plants lose their fragrance complexities ?

ForTheLoveOfPerfume said...

Amen Divina!! After discovering Ajne perfumes this week, made from natural materials, you will never find me saying perfume must include some synthetic ingredients to be perfume!

Divina said...

Hi dearest Jen! I have not tested as many natural perfumes as I'd have liked either, and I am actually very curious about the work of some. They are indeed hard to find and test, and most forbiddingly for me, they are quite expensive. One of my favorite perfumed discoveries of the year is an all natural though, so it is not like it wasn't worth its money!

Divina said...

Zita, I agree! Thank you for the well thought-out comment. Reading your comment it made me think...what really makes me angry about this kind of attitude is that the people holding this type of views are seemingly unable to look a little further than their own nose. It's not like a good argument could change their mind.. No. Most of the time they are completely set in their ways.

Divina said...

"It is my nose , not their technique that makes the decision to purchase."

Carol, exactly! And that says it all! As for genetically modified plants.. Hmm, that's a good question, and I have absolutely no idea. I guess it would depend on what the plants were being 'bred for'. Hardiness? Or scent?