dimanche 4 juillet 2010

A Few Considerations on Natural Perfumery and Web 2.0



When Anya McCoy and Elena Vosnaki reached out to me to be part of the joint-blogging celebration of the 4th anniversary of the Natural Perfumers Guild founded by Anya, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to explore the world of natural perfumery. For a blog called Grain de Musc, it seemed, well… only natural to delve into “The Mystery of Musk”. After all, in my very first blog post, I mused on musk as the phantom of perfumery: the missing material – whether in its natural or now-banned synthetic form, nitro-musk – that haunted perfumers by its absence from the palette, after centuries of musk-mad humanity… So it was a fascinating perspective to see whether natural perfumers could come up with compositions that recaptured the suave-dirty charms of the elusive ingredient.


But after dipping my blotters in the ten vials that made it to me (Strange Invisible Perfumes and Alfredo Dupetit are still AWOL) and batting away my blissed-out cat, my first reaction was: now I know why perfumers were so happy when synthetics were invented. I mean no disrespect to natural perfumers. It is devilishly difficult to give structure and volume to scents without resorting to synthetics or isolated molecules. The problem is that my olfactory culture is strictly confined to compositions written by perfumers trained in the French tradition. The language of natural perfumery, largely devised by perfumers either self-taught, or taught by Mandy Aftel and Anya McCoy outside the “official” circuits, is essentially opaque to me. I am familiar enough with natural raw materials to “get” them: but it is their very rawness that strikes me first, rather than the artistic process that went into making the scents.

Perhaps it’s a cultural thing. I am not French but I’ve spent half my life in Paris, and have acquired all the cultural reflexes of a Parisian. The French culture is intensely institutional and indie perfumery is barely developed here. In fact, the whole indie culture that’s been thriving mainly because of the internet remains under the radar in Paris. Which brings me to the following digression.


Last week’s “Enchanted, disenchanted” post seems to have created a bit of a stir: some of the people who commented here or on other blogs were annoyed or distressed by what they perceived as a put-down of the “newer”, “smaller” blogs. I truly, sincerely apologize for that: it wasn’t my intention. On reflection, my reaction probably springs from my professional background and generation: when I started out as a journalist (with a typewriter, remember those?), writing was something that reached the public because a person other than the author, an editor or a publisher, decided that it was worthwhile investing money in. The pieces were fiercely discussed and edited: praise runs scarce here in Paris. I suppose I’ve carried over some of the reflexes of the Gutenberg era into Web 2.0…


I know the blog is a publishing medium, not a genre, and can host as many voices as there are authors, each with their own way of, and reasons for writing, each generating their own language and readership: we all love perfume, we are all seeking to delve further into its beauties by reflecting on it, and the cause of good perfumery can only be forwarded by the greatest possible number of voices claiming there is life beyond the latest celebrity juice or fruity-floral soup.

One thing’s for sure, though: as far as the online perfume community is concerned, we’ve definitely reached the point where it is starting to break down into several different communities, whose members each have their own itineraries (who they visit, where they comment). The general conversation is over. There is just physically no time to follow it all. That’s what I wanted to express in the original post: nostalgia, not for the time where there were just a happy few, but for the time where I could embrace the whole scene in my weekly browsing. Guess I’ll have to live with the idea that I’m missing out on some parties…


Which brings me back to natural perfumery, a party I’ve missed out of altogether. At some level, it seems to me it has developed much in the way that the Web 2.0 culture has, and is spreading thanks to that culture. The very nature of the activity – independent, small-scaled, self-edited – has released it from the criteria applied to “classic” perfumery, much in the way that online writing has been cut loose from the “classic” process of commissioning pieces, editing and publishing them. Each of the perfumers who submitted a composition for the Mystery of Musk operation has his/her own language, untrammeled by the demands and rules of more commercial perfumery, whether mainstream or niche. The sheer number of those voices and their very idiosyncracy make them very difficult to read for someone like me, whose training, such as it is (and God knows the more I learn, the more I realize I know next to nothing), is purely “classic”. But just as I’m moved, perhaps mistakenly, to apply some Gutenberg-era criteria to Web 2.0, I feel it would be dismissive not to apply the criteria used to judge more “classically” composed fragrances to natural perfumery. I mean, we’re not talking aromatherapy here: natural perfumers are engaged in an aesthetic process just like their “classic” counterparts. Some of them may explore pre-modern recipes, but their creative approach is contemporary. I know this discussion is old hat: it goes back to the kerfuffle that went down at the time when Luca had a blog, and where he promised he’d eat his fedora if he found a natural perfume as beautiful as Mitsouko. Anya McCoy published a thoughtful summary of the whole affair on Basenotes. I’m not quite sure the issue has cleared up though. In fact, I’m not quite sure of anything, except that I have great doubts about my competence to write anything enlightening about the fragrances I was so kindly invited to discover.

Guess I’ll have to live with that too. I'll do my best.


51 commentaires:

  1. I would suggest your experience on both the sniffing and the writing side of things allows a unique perspective. A perspective that, I think, Anya was delighted to have. I don’t know if this translates outside of the US so well but we have a phrase here when we are in grade school called “The difficult grader”. It meant that teacher who would not compromise their grading style no matter how good or bad the students did. There was never going to be a normalization of grades in this teacher’s class. I expect in The Mystery Of Musk project you are “the difficult grader” because you are expected to apply a classically focused eye on these fragrances. I also further suspect that it is your approval that most of the perfumers want most of all because of your stature compared to the rest of us. This is similar to how all the singers on Pop/American Idol all want Simon Cowell’s approval over all of the other judges. This is a good thing. It is why, I think, Anya had a spread of blogs so there would be a spread of viewpoints. My reviews are probably the Randy Jackson of The Mystery Of Musk panel. Because fragrance is such a personal experience it can be difficult to apply our own personal aesthetic to someone’s more personal form of artistry as you find in indie perfumes. It is much easier to be dismissive when it is one of the big Houses and we don’t like something. I can only speak for myself but I look forward to hearing what your thoughts are on these fragrances. I’m guessing others share that anticipation as well. At least we know Jicky is GaGa over Dionysus.

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  2. Denyse, I understand your experience, and I totally agree that natural perfumers are not for everyone.

    One thing did strike me: you say you dipped in scent strips and made your decision based on that.

    If there is one thing we emphasize in natural perfumery, it is that they must be test on skin. They are so intimate, and evolve so differently from perfumes that include synthetics, that there is no comparison. Synth-containing perfumes have a different diffusivity, evolution and can exist entirely off-skin, to coin a term.

    If you are so disenchanted, I would not urge you to experiment with the naturals on your skin, but if you wish to see what I am talking about - even if your opinion remains the same - that is fine.re

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  3. Thank you Denyse, for your candid explanation of your approach as "judge". I for one, can very much appreciate your classical bias and training as well as your, shall I say, strict? attitude as a reviewer. And while this may put some folks off, knowing that you may not be perfectly favorable, it will be an honest critique which is invaluable. And lets face it, as artists we all want to grow and this can not happen with out praise for the imagination / innovation / mastery we show as well 'constructive feedback' as to our shortcomings. I, too, come from a classical background and would vert much like to hear your thoughts from this standpoint. I am grateful to you for being willing to stretch yourself and experience this work as well as to be a new voice on the topic (as Natural Perfumery IS it's own thing, with some of it's own criteria and it's own kind of beauty).

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  4. As someone whose exposure to natural perfumery has been limited, I appreciated the frank uncertainty you expressed in your post about this project.

    I always enjoy your contributions on Basenotes and my advice, such as it is, is that you approach the critical process with these fragrances with two simple considerations in mind:

    1) Try to discern what the perfumer was attempting to accomplish with the scent and the extent to which that brief was fulfilled.

    2) Decide whether or not you like the composition and try to express why.

    I believe all art criticism should proceed on this basis, i.e. "Is it good?" and "Do I like it?".

    Evaluating the technical merits will be much more difficult for you than usual, I expect, but I am with Miami Mark; Anya knew what she was doing when she asked you to opine on these fragrances. If natural perfumery is to be taken seriously, it will do so on its own olfactory merits, and you are keen a judge of that basic requirement as any.

    I, too, eagerly await your "party" recap. Best wishes.

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  5. I came to learn about perfumery because I'd been using aromatherapy/botanical medicine with patients for several years. Studying classic and natural perfumery has helped a great deal, in other words, I discovered that, at least sometimes, a medically effective potion can have an aesthetic appeal as well. Of course, the herbal after-sports bath I make, though analgesic and very refreshing, is never going to smell anything but, um...bracing! Your cultural comments are intriguing as well. Americans (can I include Canadians as well as their southern cousins?) are very prone to "going indie"- it's our history, after all, and it's ground into our protoplasm. Sometimes "indie" can become anarchy, it's a fine line.... I'm going to enjoy your reviews, I'm sure!
    -Marla

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  6. Thank you for this fascinating post.

    I realise part of the whole point you were making is that you don't feel sufficiently equipped to pass judgement on these particular natural scents, so it would be churlish of me to try to persuade you otherwise, but for what it's worth, I'd like to state that I'd be genuinely interested to learn your 'classical' take on them.

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  7. Mark, I don't know about my "stature", but I think you put the finger on something, in that because these perfumes spring from a more personal approach, it is more difficult, from an emotional standpoint, to consider them as I would something coming to us courtesy of L'Oréal, for instance.
    I think part of the natural perfumery approach springs from asking "questions" which are not exactly the same as the "classic" perfumes, so the grading, as it were, may bear on other criteria...

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  8. Anya, that was just my first reaction, not my final judgment! I always do an initial evaluation on blotters, before moving on to skin patches, then a full day's solo wearing (at least). Because of the number of submissions I don't know how I'm going to handle the process! Especially since I resolved that from now on, I'd spend at least two or three days a week wearing my favorites rather than testing!
    But of course, I fully realize these perfumes must be tested on skin.

    Another thing is I'm not used at all to the type of alcohol and it's really interfering with my perceptions.

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  9. Dawn, as you write, there are some criteria that differ, but my lack of experience in the field means I must play catch-up and figure out what they are in a hurry!
    As I said above to Mark, my attitude, from an emotional/human standpoint, is also different when I approach a piece of work that's been individually authored rather than produced by a team, if only because I do have a lot of contact with artists, not only in perfumery... So I know how it is, and I care about people.

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  10. Emlynevermore: that's always how I approach reviews! Though truth be told, there are things that don't mesh with my personal tastes and that I consider good nevertheless, so I try to that take into account as well. For instance, I can't stand fougères, but that doesn't mean a good fougère isn't good.

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  11. Persolaise, I'll do my best, but I feel a little like a classical music critic asked to evaluate, I don't know, free jazz (the simile is poor, but you get the point).

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  12. Your last answer finally made sense to me, when you compared music to perfumery....(I was about to request you let your cat review mine instead!)
    My father was a classical music lover, and could never understand my interest in any other genre...I was never sure whether it was the clarity and order within classical music which appealed to him so deeply ...or simply because this was what he had listened to all his life that made so many other genres unfathomable for him.
    Personally, I enjoy a wide variety of music, and what appeals to me tends to be beautiful harmonies, which you can find in all genres....
    And for me it is the same in perfumery. I obviously vastly prefer naturals to artifical perfumes, but I can still appreciate beautiful accords and well combined layers in artificial perfumes. So if I review these, I try to describe exactly what I am smelling, and which parts of a given perfume appeal to me why....
    Like any form of art, at the end of the day it is mainly a matter of taste.
    And a huge amount of the science in my opinion, is based on biology and psychology.
    People react very instinctively to scents, and the perfumers art is in managing to connect to these instinctual olfactory reactions.
    And that is where Natural perfumery is sooooo interesting...
    Aromatherapy IS actually a form of perfumery! And natural perfumery is taking the basics of Aromatherapy (as in useing ingredients our bodies are biologically geared to react to) to a whole other level.
    So when you are evaluating natural perfumes, you need to look at how they make you FEEL!
    I'll shut up now and get off my high horse before I end up putting my foot in my mouth.
    As Miami Mark said, it will certainly be interesting to hear the impressions of someone whos experience has been entirely focused on conventional perfumes.

    (Do give my love to Jicky though, grin!)

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  13. Ambrosia, obviously one of the oldest functions of perfume was as a remedy, and the two only officially became separated in the early 19th century in the West.

    When I mentioned aromatherapy it was to establish that there is an aesthetic process presiding to those compositions -- but each perfumer may have a different approach to the therapeutic dimension, depending on their practice and their training. For some it will be a moot point, for others an important aspect of their art.

    Much of my work, in learning to analyze perfumes, has been to set aside the gut reaction because that's not expressible in other words than "love", "hate", "like", "meh", and thus, is more relevant to someone choosing a perfume to wear than to someone who writes about them. It is the first thing I tell my students: perfumers set aside their judgement about whether they like a smell or not, whether it seems pleasant to them or not, when they study it. Otherwise you're shuttering yourself within your own tastes, which come from your personal history, and cannot expand your range.

    Which brings me back to the music analogy: I do have a wide range of tastes, both in music and perfumes. It is the way of treating the materials in natural perfumery which is a very unfamiliar language to me; also, perhaps, the materials themselves. I don't know the provenance, but I'm used to naturals produced, say, by Robertet, so they're very different for artisanally extracted ones. And, as I said above, the types of alcohol used for the solutions have quite strong smells to my nose and interfere with my perceptions.

    Unfortunately, Jicky is a little reserved about starting to write (I suspect she knows how) because she's afraid I'll put her to work, and you know how lazy cats are... ;-)

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  14. I am very curious to hear your impressions.
    I am not familiar with natural perfumery, and I might not master the nuances between natural and bio fragrances.
    All natural fragrances I've tried suffered from similar flaws: lack of chiaroscuro, flatness, a certain linearity in the development.
    But there might be hidden gems I don't know about.

    Personally, I think aromatherapy and fine perfumery are two very different things.

    Some classic perfumes make me "feel" and "think" (and "swoon" and "learn" and "travel"), at the same time. Aromatherapy accounts just for the "feel" part.
    I fear that is not ebough for me.

    If I wanted to let my Italian good-humour run freely, I might laugh out loud at some comments above. But I wouldn't dare to be impolite on your blog, especially in a foreign language, which is quite risky. Almost as risky as wearing bergamot or fig natural extracts ;)

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  15. Aromatherapy and perfumery are completely different things, at least in the modern world (long ago, their purposes often combined, as in Ancient Egypt). Today, the materials used overlap somewhat, but that's about it. Some folk who do aromatherapy become enchanted with the materials and move over to perfumery from time to time, or at least learn about it, but they're very separate endeavors with completely different goals and methods. Hope that helps!
    -Marla

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  16. To add a specific example- a blend of real lavender and frankincense will certainly calm someone and help them sleep, and it smells good. But it is not a perfume! Encens et Lavande by Serge Lutens is based on those two ingredients, smells fantastic, but it is a perfume, and I wouldn't use it for aromatherapy.
    -Marla

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  17. I agree with Anya about the scent strips. I've put them away for the duration of my own M o M participation. These scents are completely different on skin. I mean completely! I haven't experienced anything like this skin/paper dichotomy until now.

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  18. Miami Mark expressed my feelings much better than I could have(having never commented on your blog before, I felt a bit shy last night to say something first). I've thoroughly enjoyed reading all the reviews, with their range of poetic, artful and quirky - Redneck Perfumisto on Basenotes is enormously inventive - but your opinion is one I especially want to hear.

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  19. Zazie, someone may chime in to correct me if I'm wrong, but of course, there is a difference first between natural and organic in the way essences are extracted: an absolute is natural, but the solvent that is used to extract it means it can not be qualified as organic.
    I get the impression (but again I may be wrong) that "natural" or "botanical" means you use "whole" essences, not molecules. Organic perfumes can use isolated molecules as long as they are extracted with methods that can get the Ecocert certificate.

    As for the rest... Forse rideremo insieme, ma zitta!

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  20. Marla, Vero Kern is a good case in point: she started out as an aromatherapist then veered off into fine fragrance, though not natural perfumery.

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  21. Marla, the example is well chosen. Though of course Encens et lavande can very soothing...

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  22. Olfacta, I do test on skin, of course, but then I do that for everything. The blotters were just for the preliminary assessment. And, yes, I do notice a difference.

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  23. Dionne, I found the Basenotes reviews brilliant! And welcome GdM.

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  24. I am waiting with baited breath for your comments as I am sure others are. When Luca Turin reviewed my eau de toilettes years ago I took notice. That is when I decided to make all of my 100%botanical fragrances eau de parfum or parfum strength.

    We can learn from other people's opinions. We may not like what we hear but we can evolve.

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  25. JoAnne, that's quite a responsibility on my shoulders... I'll do my best! ;-)

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  31. From what I've read from interviews of people involved in the French perfume industry, its a fairly small and close-knit circle compared to other fields, and strongly associated with that country. I tend to believe any academic process which teaches artists also influences their style, so I do not see why this would be any different in perfumers.

    A good contrast is what has happened in classical music over the past one hundred years or so. Prior to WW1, there was a large diversity of regional styles in playing, singing, and composing music. The bright, reedy, vocal quality cultivated in French orchestras gave a very different sound from the dark, powerful, heavy timbres cultivated by the Germans, and English and Russian orchestras likewise had their own style. With the increasingly international standardization in instrument manufacture and playing technique, orchestras have increasingly become homogeneous with each decade, to the point where one would be hard-pressed to identify which nation they're based in from sound alone.

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  32. Comparing the highly internationalized field of classical music with the strongly nationalized tradition of French perfumery, it makes quite a lot of sense that overseas the idea of how a perfume should be composed will begin to diverge in absence of a standardized influence. If you want to become educated as a perfumer, there are no universities offering studies comparable with what is taught in France, and many simply are not willing or able to relocate. This leaves limited options, and is part of the reason I believe we are witnessing the enormous growth in natural perfumery: natural perfumers have extended themselves as tutors to the general public to a far greater extent than those among the mainstream industry.

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  33. I believe the enormous expansion of natural perfumery is exciting, in the sense that we are witnessing the birth of a new tradition, largely growing in isolation from professional perfumery as it is practiced in France, and developing a different aesthetic. Natural perfumers have often had to start from scratch, especially some of the first ones, and had to figure out what goes best with what according to their noses rather than what they've been taught.

    I often have problems with natural fragrances, and some lines and fragrances I find prone to weakness, muddiness, or crudity. But, I see an increased sophistication with each year, and a fascinating addition mainstream perfumery could benefit from in the form of exploring unique and unusual natural essences in the quest to add diversity to a comparatively limited palette.

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  35. I'm just wondering if when you review these scents and it may happen that for whatever reason you don't like them, does that mean that they're not good? And will comparing them to the normal criteria you apply for synthetics be unfair and an unjust comparison?

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  37. RM, first of all, the scents I usually review are not "synthetics". They're compositions that use both natural and synthetic raw materials, and most scents I write about do in fact contain an above-average quantity of natural materials.

    As for applying "unfair" criteria... I'm not sure exactly what you mean by that. That it would be unfair to judge indie perfumers by the same standards as more commercial, formally-trained ones? Or that the set of standards used to evaluate natural perfumes should be different? It seems to me that's the questions I was asking myself in this post: I don't pretend to have the answer.
    Or are you saying that it's unfair to those perfumes to have them reviewed by someone who self-avowedly hasn't explored natural perfumery? Anya invited me. She knows what I write, and what I write about. I accepted, taking the risk of venturing outside my own comfort zone.

    I will be taking into account my lack of familiarity with the genre, and with the work of the individual perfumers. So rest assured that I won't be flaming these fragrances, any more than I do more commercial ones in general -- if you read me, you must know that I'm not particularly snarky or dismissive.

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  38. Sugandaraja, thank you for this long and thoughtful comment.

    I've been thinking along the lines of the crafts movement as it developed in the anglo-saxon world, but I'll need to go back to the book I've been reading before expressing more about that.

    One of the difficulties of starting from scratch is spending years re-inventing what's taught in perfumery schools in a couple of years. This approach can yield an original and compelling understanding of materials and accords in the best of cases, a tentative and muddied approach in the worst.

    Of course, as the movement grows and natural perfumers perfect their craft, we can look forward, as you say, to new and exciting approaches.

    There would also be, as in all the crafts movements, a difference between people who work in total isolation from commercial perfumery (don't study the scents, don't seek them out) and those who have developed a wide-ranging culture of perfumery. This is also what has happened within the crafts movements.

    As for exploring unique essences, this is not the exclusive purview of natural perfumers, though of course, if those essences are produced in tiny quantities, they can only be used by small outfits. Perfumers who care about their art constantly explore and re-explore materials and accords, whatever their training. It's not a matter of separating the explorers (indie, self-taught, adventurous) from the establishment... There's a whole gradient of approaches here.

    (for some reason, my comment keeps disappearing. If anyone sees it posted three times, please tell me!)

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  39. I see your comment three times.

    Thankfully Iam not seeing dead people. (A very little "Sixth Sense humor there)

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  40. Mark, now they're all showing up! Weird... Thanks, I'll be suppressing now...

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  41. If anyone is wondering why there are so many suppressed comments, it's just that mine and Sugandaraja's kept disappearing, and we kept re-posting them, and then they all popped up together. Such are the mysteries of Blogspot...

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  42. Thank you for your in-depth response!

    You are right, it is quite unfair of me not to have included the perfumers working within the more mainstream industry who've explored unique and unusual essences ( some niche lines in particular come to mind, for example karo karounde in L'Artisan's Timbuktu ).

    In light of that it's also worth noting that not all natural perfumery is along indie, small-scale lines. Aveda is a hugely successful international line whose fragrances are all natural, and isn't part of the self-taught "craft" tradition I described in my earlier response. However, I must say I find Aveda's creations rather crude and simplistic, well below the average quality level found in artisanal natural perfumery and in mainstream perfumery utilizing synthetics, bearing a stronger kinship with the simple aromatherapy blends one can find at most health food stores.

    Conversely, there are also a number of perfumers working within this self-taught, artisanal movement who do use synthetics in their palette. Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio comes to mind.

    Your point about working both inside and outside the broader culture of perfumery is an interesting one, as I can think of examples of both within natural perfumery. Dominique Dubrana of Profumo.it, for example, deliberately eschews perfumery utilizing synthetics altogether, and by extension, the bulk of modern western perfumery; Ayala Sender of Ayala Moriel, despite being self-taught and only using naturals, both enjoys and references western perfumery in her work. For example, her Ayalitta is an all-natural that strongly evokes a classical chypre in the vein of Coty's original, though it's certainly a unique scent of its own ( whether it would force Luca to start eating hats is unknown, but I for one enjoy its verdant chypre accord more than the modern formulation of Mitsouko ).

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  45. Sugandaraja, I could add to the list of indies working with both natural and synthetics Andy Tauer and Vero Kern (though Vero is not self-taught since she attended 5ème sens).
    I was thinking of Ayala Moriel as a perfect example of an indie, self-taught natural perfumer who understands, and is inspired by, classic as well as contemporary perfumery. I met her in Paris some time ago, she offered me a few samples of her work, I was impressed and then... pressed by other emergencies, I failed to review them. I am remiss. It was excellent stuff.

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  46. My apologies, by 'synthetics' I merely meant not naturals. I'm well aware that most fragrances contain a combination of naturals and synthetic materials but thank-you anyway for the clarification.
    I look forward with interest to your reviews.

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  47. Did anyone mention Liz Zorn and DSH as other perfumers who have all natural perfumes as well as ones with synthetics?

    I'm so glad Sugandaraja brought up Ayala Moriel as a natural perfumer who approaches many of her perfumes in a classical framework. Her Palas Atena and Espionage come to mind.

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  48. RM, I supposed you did, and it's hard to categorize the bulk of perfumery using synthetics when you're distinguishing it from natural/botanical perfumes. I've struggled to find a term myself. "Classic" doesn't quite cover it.

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  49. Trish, I don't believe anyone did, thanks for the add. This is a whole world I haven't really explored yet. Perfumista dirge: "So many perfumes, so little skin! And only one nose!"

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