The Nature of Naturals

We use ingredients that are created by plants.

The best chef in the world cannot make a ripe, juicy strawberry. The best sculptor cannot produce an oak tree.The best chemist cannot recreate the scent of a jasmine flower. Despite the utter failure of human endeavor to synthesize the universal treasures of fruit, trees, and the scent of flowers, these bounties are available to us. Although chefs, sculptors, and chemists can create amazing things, the philosophy of Sfumato fundamentally differs from these pursuits.  Rather than imposing human consciousness onto inert matter, we are putting nature on a pedestal, seeking timeless harmonies and resonances, and creating scents that showcase the distilled essence of the natural world.

In our practice of natural perfumery, Sfumato fragrances include only ingredients extracted from natural sources like trees or flowers. As these plants grow, they take in sunlight, water, and nutrients from the air and soil. Being endowed with a given set of catalysts and enzymes, these flora have pathways to create unique atomic combinations, some of which smell divinely. After a plant ushers a fragrant molecule into existence, the scent awaits its destiny, held in the bonds of cellular walls, waiting to fly free. The scent is coaxed from the plant with fire and water, shedding the dross, transcending physical structure, and remaining only as an essence, the purest form of a plant.

Each essence bears the character of the plants from which it came. The memories and imprints of growth and harvest are an intrinsic part of the scent.  It is the essence of a place and time, perhaps approximated but never replicated, giving each note it’s own accent. Sfumato fragrances are the both sum and more than the sum of the individual characters of each note’s story.

Because we are using only natural ingredients, sfumato fragrances are ephemeral, stay close to your body, and evolve noticeably when worn.

Multiple components

The depth of a natural note’s aromatic character is in large part due to the chemical make-up of the fragrance notes. Many department store fragrances are largely synthetic, where a synthetic fragrance note is a single chemical component with a specific chemical structure. Conversely, one natural essential oil can contain many chemical constituents, possibly hundreds or even thousands, many in only tiny fractions. It is these small additions that give natural perfumes their subtlety and complexity, and are very difficult to replicate synthetically. Natural notes are typically not overwhelmingly intense or persistent in the way synthetic notes can be, creating a fragrance experience that speaks softly, rather than screaming.

If fragrances were a ray of light, natural ingredients would be the sun as it breaks through the clouds, or the gentle glow of a candle.  Synthetic fragrances would be the pure, focused beam of a laser. As the laser light is highly concentrated at a single wavelength, similarly synthetic fragrance notes center on a single, high intensity chemical component, narrowly targeting a small set of scent receptors. Lasers are a wondrous invention, but during a romantic dinner the soft flicker of a candle is vastly more alluring. Less intensity spread more widely is the optical analog to the spectrum of scent constituents in a natural essential oil.

There is another analogy that is common in perfumery, and that is comparing perfume creation to music. I’ve already referred to fragrance notes, and complimentary or contrasting notes can be combined to make a chord.  Chords then join to make a perfume, top, middle, and base. The top chord evaporates most quickly, and it is what is smelled first, upon application of the perfume. The middle and base chords evaporate more slowly, as shown in the graph below. As in music, the art is in combining notes, and subsequently chords, that either complement or contrast nicely, and the overall effect of the composition.

And it is only through the full combination of components that the scent of a plant is truly represented. The whole, as decided by nature’s unseen hand, cannot be recreated by adding the components together.

Sniffing these components one-by-one we can isolate single abstract aspects of the scent of rose, but even putting them all together does not necessarily recreate the whole. Similar to the way that playing notes in temporal isolation does not give the same impression as a G7 chord. Rather, the notes must be appreciated in relation to each other.

 Memory, biology

Natural fragrance notes have timbre that a synthesized scents or sounds lack. This is due to a neural effect called supra-additivity, and is fundamentally related to the way we perceive scent.  Various individual scent components excite different receptors in our brain, but as these signals are encoded, combinations of molecules excite certain patterns in a way that single scent molecules cannot, meaning that certain patterns of excitation are inaccessible except through these combinations. So rather than drawing the picture pixel by pixel, it is perceived as a single gestalt. Rather smelling individual components of a scent, we perceive a scent in its totality as a single stimulus.

Upon entering our minds, most of our sensory information passes to parts of the brain involved with consciousness. However, scent takes the old path.  It travels to the areas associated with memory and emotion, stirring us at a visceral level, before perhaps crossing the threshold into awareness and making itself known. Our preference for natural materials is mostly philosophical: because many of our natural ingredients have been in use for millennia (e.g. frankincense, jasmine), and because olfaction is tied to memory in many strange ways, breathing in nature’s scents is like a time bomb from pre-history, wafted and whiffed for untold generations, with a shock wave resonating across ten thousand years and a terminal node in your nostrils.

There is an incredible amount of information contained in a scent, to the extent mechanical measurement of a smell is only possible to a very limited degree, and digitization or communication of the scent has yet to be achieved in any meaningful way.  Thus the only method to appreciate scent is to go analog, breathe deeply, and fully immerse yourself in the reality that directly surrounds you.    

Subtlety, depth, complexity

And so it is from the natural notes and the character and complexity they embody that Sfumato fragrances are born. Their paths from plant to bottle to skin to mind are chosen for the composition they will create and the imprint they will leave. Through time past, into awareness, and ahead to inspiration, a fragrance should stimulate at all octaves.

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