The Magic Of Fragrance And Natural Perfume
Fragrance is one of the languages of Earth. To open to it is to open all the cells of our body to the unique chemistry of its language. Fragrance bypasses the intellect (even as we are aware of it), finding its way directly to our emotions, touching memories, and activating spirit. It nurtures our soul while grounding us in our Earth body. Some fragrances — the deeper, heavier, resins, spices, unguents and pastes — return us to mystery and offer hints of our ancient past and also, I sense, of what is “yet to be.”
Fragrance has long been associated with the divine, and used very consciously by priests and priestess through the ages right up the present to aid in shifting consciousness and awareness of other realms besides the material world in which we spend most of our time. Babies have a highly developed sense of smell — it is how they recognize their mothers — long before their eyes can focus on her face. In her book, Essence and Alchemy, natural perfumer Mandy Aftel writes, “Fragrance has the instantaneous and invisible power to penetrate consciousness with pure pleasure.” One whiff of a fragrance has the power to immediately transport us to a memory, a loved one, or different time and place, and the experience is so much more profound than a memory using just the mind to take us there.
Up through (and even beyond) the 17th century, perfume was intimately connected to alchemy. Aftel writes, “Perfume as we know it could not have taken shape without alchemy.” After science and reason predominated, Aftel continues, “the practical legacy of the alchemists passed to the chemists…the spiritual legacy…to the psychologists….Only the perfumers inherited both strands of the alchemical tradition.” The modern perfume business has its roots, strangely enough, in the making of perfumed gloves in France in the 1500s. The history of perfume and fragrance is fascinating; it will take you on a journey through the Orient and the spice trades, through times when fragrances combined with herbs and talismans could protect, attract and hold a lover, ensure fertility, even cause the death of an enemy, or enable far-seeing. In many ways, it still does all these things (except, I hope, cause death).
There are many ways we can bring fragrance into our lives. We can burn resins, woods, herbs, pastilles and incense wands, gently releasing their scents/healing energies into our homes; we can revel in the beauty of perfumes; call on aromatherapy to heal, soothe, awaken; we can walk in a pine forest after a rain and drown in the sweet powdery scent of new mown hay carried on the wind.
“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lives. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.” — Hellen Keller
For me, making natural perfumes started with a dream. I have always loved perfume, and gravitated to the older, classical scents — the formulas of which today vary as regulations prevent some ingredients from being used, and as aroma chemicals have taken the place of natural essences. When I started making herbal skin care products, I used essential oils for specific healing/skin-loving qualities, and also so they would smell beautiful. My collection of essential oils grew, along with my curiosity. The heavy base note fragrances that don’t find their way into skin care, captivated me: oakmoss, cedar moss, labdanum, ambers, dark, aged patchouli, beautiful sultry attars. I was not impressed by the first natural perfumes in the early 2000s. They had very little subtlety or nuance and didn’t smell like “real” perfumes at all.
Then in 2012, I had a dream that was sensuous, dark, erotic. I was in an open market (much like one I experienced in Athens) when, in the way of dreams, I found myself in a small room that called to mind a Parisian opium den. The space was close, the air slightly smoky, reddish, and dense. I could smell the odors of sex and roses and narcotic florals, and mosses and musk and woods. It was intoxicatingly beautiful and almost unbearably erotic. My whole body absorbed it, vibrated with it, and exuded it like all the others in the room with me: sweat, sex, heady perfume, smoke. I touched and was touched, dancing and loving and just feeling with every cell of my body. And when I woke up, still drunk with the experience, I knew that I had to create a perfume of that dream. It was the first perfume I made, called Dreamscape, and I still make it today.
Days later, like magic, a magician appeared (J.K. DeLapp, now an award-winning perfumer, among other things) offering a perfumery course through one of my essential oil suppliers. I was one of the first students to take it. As they say, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. JK compared perfumery to cooking with herbs, something that resonated with me, as I grow and use herbs in my products and pretty much every aspect of my life. Chemistry was not my strong subject but I trusted I had found the right teacher and dove in. I’m still happily swimming in those fragrant waters!
What Is A Natural Perfume?
Most perfumes on the market today, even the classics, are formulated using aroma chemicals created in the lab. Virtually all the fragrance in products on supermarket and drug store shelves contain these chemicals. They are so prolific in our environment that many people have developed sensitivities to them. People can also be allergic or sensitive to natural ingredients of course, but it is less likely. Many natural perfumers use natural isolates, which are chemical components isolated from the whole. I have purchased some but have never used them in a perfume. To me they are too linear; they don’t take you anywhere.
Natural perfumes shift and change depending on your body chemistry and even the weather; I like to say that your body is another ingredient in the formula. There are both oil-based and alcohol-based perfumes. Alcohol perfumes are more diffusive and they tend to last longer. Oil-based are more personal; they wear closer to the skin, almost more for you than anyone else, until you get close.
Most perfumes are made up of several accords — top/head, heart, and base notes. Accords are to perfume what spice blends are to cooking — a single ingredient made of many different components like curry powder. Accords are created separately, then aged, before being blended into the final perfume. Aging is key in perfuming, and patience is a quality that must be cultivated. Accords should age a couple of weeks minimum, but a couple of months is even better.
Top notes are light, diffusive, and come and go quickly; most citrus fall into this category. The heart of the perfume is the story, and the base adds depth and tenacity. A well-crafted perfume brings you in, seduces you, and keeps you coming back for more. Intuition, sense memory, and playfulness have key roles in blending everything to get a sense of how the different ingredients play together.
Every perfume has a story to tell. Creating a perfume is like painting a picture with scent, or sharing the beauty and spirit of a special place. Like old growth forest translated into the scent Ancient Forest; or a memory scent, like my beautiful garden in Fryeburg, ME, Memory of Bees. My dream opened a magical world up to me.
Look For Quality Ingredients
It’s important to mention that not all perfume ingredients are equal. Sustainability is a key concern, especially for the rarer woods and resins. There are still trustworthy, small-scale distillers and fair trade suppliers, who make every effort to ensure their products are pure, benefit local people (often indigenous communities), and are harvested sustainably — or not at all. Because of this, high quality, natural perfumes are not cheap. If you find some that are, beware; the ingredients are likely substandard, especially if they claim sandalwood, rose, oud, or attars, to name a few.
Aromatherapy oils are not actually perfumes; rather they’re created for a specific purpose — to relax, to empower, to support the heart during hard times, to aid sleep or stimulate dreams, and so on. They’re lighter and don’t last as long after applied, and they’re gentle and safe for most people. That said, they still smell wonderful. For many, a beautiful aromatherapy blend is the perfect perfume!
Why not take your curiosity and create something deliciously fragrant for yourself? Perhaps a unique incense using dried herbs like lavender, rosemary, and sage, or gathered twigs and tips from fragrant pine, spruce, or cedar, crushed with a bit of pine resin or frankincense, burned on charcoal or an electric incense burner, (which are wonderful and release very little smoke). There are many recipes available in books and on the Internet for homemade incense of all types, from the simplest blend to complicated, sacred blends like Kyphi.
Perhaps you will decide to start your olfactory journey using a few, pure essential oils that resonate with you, blending them together drop by drop until you love it. Or discover your personalized natural perfume scent by trying samples until you find a favorite. Keep in mind, though, that each batch of a perfume may be a bit different even using the same formula. Natural ingredients come and go, and each distillation, even of the same ingredient, will vary. If you find a perfume you love, consider purchasing a larger bottle.
The magic of fragrance is that it’s everywhere. With every breath, we breathe in the aromas of our environment. We don’t have to do anything except pay attention. The energy of a storm blowing in, the scents carried on the wind as the storm gets closer, soft, musky, powdery dust, the slight metallic tang of lightning, the scent of apple blossoms and pine, and then the rain comes and releases the earthy fragrance of petrichor as the moisture hits the dry soil. The scent of snow melt in the spring. The sweet balsam of a fir/pine/spruce forest. The pungent earthy musk of foraged fungi snapped in two under your nose. These are all gifts. Take them. Revel in them. Share them with others.
Essence & Alchemy, A Natural History of Perfume by Mandy Aftel. 2008, Gibbs Smith Publisher.
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. 1991, Vintage.
Listening to Scent by Jennifer Peace Rhind. 2014, Singing Dragon.
Susan Meeker-Lowry is an herb and fragrance lover, and owner of Gaia’s Garden Herbals, a home-based business offering mostly organic herbal skin care products, creams, salves, serums, aromatherapy blends, and natural botanical perfumes, all hand-crafted in small batches. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her products at www.etsy.com/shop/GaiasGardenHerbals.