Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
One of the ironies of fragrance is that organic compounds used by plants as natural pesticides and toxins (to repel predatory insects and herbivores) are some of the key ingredients in perfumes … which are used by human beings to attract, not repel, other human beings (in theory, anyway). 1
These organic compounds (known as secondary metabolites) are present in many of the essential oils used in perfumes, but their key components weren’t manufactured synthetically until the late 19th century. Along with synthetic molecules created in the lab, advances in chemistry at this time meant that traditional extraction processes could be standardized and mass-produced, resulting in a high quality (and quantity) of essential oils and natural isolates. Oils extracted by traditional small-scale methods varied greatly in quality, and could be sludgy and burnt-smelling due to high contaminant levels.
The availability of synthetic compounds and the use of standardized production techniques meant that perfumers could choose from a much larger selection of raw materials, at a much higher quality and lower cost, than ever before.
Coumarin was one of the first aromachemical superstars. Paul Parquet, perfumer for the French house Houbigant, used it to create the fragrance Fougère Royale (Royal Fern) in 1882. Coumarin is present in Tonka beans (Dipteryx odorata), which have a fresh, grassy scent with notes of hay, almond, and vanilla. The synthetic form of coumarin was isolated from coal tar in 1868 by English chemist William Henry Perkin, and was used in the 1880s and 1890s for perfumes and for flavoring cigarette tobacco. 2
The anticoagulant drug warfarin (trade name Coumadin) is synthesized from dicoumarol, which is formed in nature when sweet clover hay goes moldy in a wet environment and the coumarin in the clover interacts with certain species of fungi. A series of wet summers in the US and Canada during the 1920s, and the resulting moldy clover hay, led to an epidemic of cattle and sheep bleeding to death. After the compounds responsible for the hemorrhaging were isolated, warfarin was patented as a rat poison … and as a blood thinner in humans.
In humans, dermal use of synthetic coumarin (as in perfumes and cosmetics) is safe. And essential oils containing natural coumarin have never caused any adverse reactions when used on the skin. 3 So no need to panic when you see coumarin or Tonka listed as a perfume ingredient!
Houbigant’s Fougère Royale was a ground-breaking scent that became wildly popular. It created the fougère family of masculine fragrances, which is still going strong today. 4 Traditional fougères contain notes of citrus, lavender, coumarin, geranium, and oakmoss. They’re fresh and bracing when first applied, and then become richer and deeper with mossy-earthy facets from the oakmoss and hay-almond notes from the coumarin.
Sharp, spicy aromatic fougères were very popular for men in the 1970s and 1980s – think Fabergé Brut, Azzarro pour Homme, Yves Saint Laurent Kouros, and Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir. Davidoff Cool Water added aquatic and ozone notes to the classic fougère formula. There are scads of Cool Water knock-offs; any men’s fragrance that’s colored blue and has “Sport” in the name is almost certainly a Cool Water wanna-be (my advice is to avoid these like the plague).
I was fortunate enough to run across a bottle of Houbigant Fougère Royale eau de cologne that dates back to the 1950s. It was still sealed when I bought it, though about three-fourths of the fragrance had evaporated. The citrus notes had disappeared almost entirely (citrus oils are very volatile and don’t last long), but the lavender was still cool and minty, and the coumarin-oakmoss base was deep and complex with hay, vanilla, toasted almond, and tobacco facets. The overall effect is rich but never sweet or cloying. It’s a lovely masculine scent, very classic and poised. Unfortunately the modern version of Fougère Royale lacks the deep, rich base notes of the vintage formulation, due to recent limitations on the use of oakmoss in fragrances.
Other aromachemicals that took the perfume world by storm at the turn of the 20th century include vanillin (synthetic vanilla; Guerlain Jicky), eugenol (spicy clove-carnation; Roger & Gallet Blue Carnation), and C-14/gamma undecalactone (ripe peaches; Guerlain Mitsouko).
The most famous perfume of all, Chanel No. 5, gets its shimmering, glittering texture from three aliphatic (fatty) aldehydes – C-10/decanal (waxy orange rind), C-11/undecanal (clean and “perfumey”), and C-12/lauric aldehyde (clean waxy floral). These aldehydes were used at very high levels by Ernest Beaux, who composed No. 5, as a way to lighten and enhance the gorgeous rose-jasmine accord at the heart of this perfume.
Vintage Chanel No. 5 also contains nitromusks – which are byproducts of TNT (trinitrotoluene, the explosive) that were discovered by German chemist Albert Bauer in 1888. These musks have a rich, intense, animalic smell that’s characteristic of many mid-20th-century perfumes. When some nitromusks were found to be phototoxic (causing allergic reactions on skin when exposed to sunlight), their use was discontinued. 5 Modern Chanel No. 5 is nitromusk-free, and doesn’t have the rich animalic base notes of the vintage formula … so if you have a bottle of old-school No. 5 that belonged to your mother or grandmother, treasure it!
What vintage perfumes have you worn, or do you remember your parents or grandparents wearing?
1 There are always exceptions … it could be argued that Axe is in fact a type of scent-based pesticide designed to repel anyone with a functioning olfactory nerve.
2 Simon Garfield, Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World (2000), 173.
3 Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young, Essential Oil Safety, 2nd ed. (2014), 544.
4 Derek B. Lowe, The Chemistry Book: From Gunpowder to Graphene, 250 Milestones in the History of Chemistry (2016), 176-7.
5 Charles S. Sell, ed., The Chemistry of Fragrances, 2nd ed. (2006), 96-8.
N.B.: Both images were found on Wikimedia Commons, and both are in the public domain. The Fougère Royale image is courtesy of the Osmotheque.