Monday, October 4, 2010

Natural Isolates chapter one

"Playing with the Dark Side"

Well, I finally got hold of a collection of natural isolates to play with...
(For those of you not in the "know" , natural isolates are the current buzz word amongst botanical /natural perfumes. They are chemicals that have been "isolated" from natural sources, usually useing fractional distilation. Because of their natural origins, these fragrance chemicals are being added to the pallette of many natural perfumes, but some feel that since they are actually isolated chemicals, rather than complex scented simple extractions such as essential oils and tinctures made directly from the plants, that they are no longer "natural" as such. For me they fall into a grey area that I haven't made up my mind about yet, hence my following musings.)
For days, I circled around them, unscrewing the lids and sniffing them suspiciously...
They make me nervous...
Essential oils I understand deeply. I know the herbs and the fruits they come from, their effect on the human body, how much I can use safely, what they do...they are my freinds and my playmates, beloved for so many years that they have become as familiar to me as the food I eat.
But these babies in their sterile little bottles, with strange chemical names i forget as soon as I have read them, are completely unknown. Wierd strangers in my happy friendly workshop full of dried herbs and tree resins.
How do I use them? What will they do to me if I spill them all over the workbench and the workshop fills with their fumes?
I go searching on the Internet, and all I can find is guidelines for the safe dilution percentages in an actual skin contact blend. Nothing more. And it reminds why I've shied away from artificial perfume ingredients for so many years...(beyond my disdain and repulsion by the actual smell of so many of them of course).

This little group of isolates form a pallette of singular scents.
Nothing as unpleasant as some of the artificial blends I have encountered, but they are very different to the essential oils and absolutes I am used to. they seem almost one dimensional, and totally missing the complexity of my usual ingredients.
Some of them are very familiar....the lollies of my childhood were obviously flavoured by "citral" and "ethyl decadionate"...and the bright purple grape flavoured bubble gum we used to beg off American Gi's from the army base next to our school was obviously given it's flourescant ultra grape flavour with the help of "methyl anthranilate".
Others are completely alien and slightly repulsive to my nose, such as "phenyl ethyl alcohol" which to me just smells like plastic, and "bucco leaf" which isn't a leaf, and is one of the notes I have smelt in many noxious plants that to me just sends warning bells of "don't touch!" and "hazardous for consumption" all over the place....

Some again are obvious in their origin. "Eugenol" is the baby cousin of All spice and Cloves and probably an unobtrusive replacemnt for them if you want a weaker, less obvious spice note...and "methyl cinnamate" is actually a weak cinnamon smelling thing.
But I still don't see the reason not to use the real spices in the first place.
If I want to create a perfume that calls up the poison rings of the Italian Gibraldi family, I might find a use for the bitter almond touch of "benzaldehyde".But so far, only 3 of these new toys really tempt me to any kind of olfactory experimentation:
And of course, they are fruit notes. The only family of accords I have found missing in my extensive natural pallette have been fruity notes. I crave juicey strawberries, succulent grapes and sexy figs so much....
and here I see possibilities!
"Raspberry ketone" offers the warm deep note in the base of a fresh lacks the freshness and the juicy citrus aspect of the real fruit, but it is a warm fruity note that you can't find amongst the freely available citruses which form the only freely available fruit essential oils you can get.
"Butyl butyrate"smells of over ripe bananas to me, which gives me all kind of wild ideas of wierd and wonderful blends I may be able to create...
But so far, my cherished favourite amongst the bunch is "Strawberry fuarnone".
This baby to me speaks of caramelized strawberries.You know, the sticky stuff you end up with when you cook strawberry jam on the stove too long and the sugar caramelizes and the whole thing ends up as a rock hard lump at the bottom of the pan, enticing you to chew on it with it's sweet warm toffee smell.....
OK, so there's none of the depth and layers here that you get with strawberry jam of course, but there's enough of the warm caramel edge with a touch of fruitiness to tempt me....
So following my noses inspiriation, i set out to create jam notes, sweet, sugary and deep....
I sloshed around with some flowers and cirtus touches, and lo and behold, a very respectable apricot/peach jam accord appeared in a little bottle of sherry coloured liquid!

What made me uneasy working with it though, was that I had to literally dilute the fuck out of it to get it to a point where it didn't dominate the scent completely. And it's tenacity on the skin was a bit daunting too.
I can see why this is a good thing for conventional perfumers, but for me, it's very indestructability and intensity make me wary of it's actual biological effect on the body, both for those wearing perfumes and for the perfumer working with them.

After a few weeks playing with these things, I feel....well, a bit dirty.
And it feels heady, as if I had been dabbling in forbidden fruits, drinking strong liqour laced with a coctail of heroin and speed instead of my usual organic wine, or even an honest scotch whiskey!

My workshop smells of strange, intense things, no longer just my known and trusted friends, but wierdly intense and fluorescant things.
Will I use them in my perfumes? I don't know.....
I'm tempted for sure.....but will my soul ever be the same?
Will I lose myself down the road of so many perfumers, seeking the cheap thrill of new and intense olfactory effects and end up drowning in the cheap, the artifical world of conventional perfume chemistry...
Or will I find a way to dabble just occasionaly...and give in to the drugged visions of an Ultraviolet Cheshire Cat perfume, a Grape flavoured Grin hovering over a shimmering transparent body?

I'll keep you all posted.......


  1. Great insight into this topic...I guess these are what "natural" houses such as L'occitane use to create their scents that seem to me to be very different to the all-natural perfumes I've tried (and made myself). I too felt quite uncomfortable with the vibe I picked up on. By the way, the F-Bomb you threw into your report surprised and amused me somewhat...ha ha

  2. Excellent! I've had these same feelings and thoughts since dabbling in the "dark side" of natural isolates myself. Though it is such fun, isn't it? I think the more you work with them, using them sparingly, of course, the more comfortable you will become. You may also choose to split your products into "all natural" and "mixed media" camps for clarity, so it doesn't feel so much like cheating . . . what a can of worms, eh?

  3. It's like stumbling upon a party you know you shouldn't be at...doing things you know are illegal...wearing that outfit to the bar that you KNOW will get you all sorts of unwanted attention yet you do it anyhow.

  4. This was informative, fun and helpful. Thank you.

  5. Kay, here in Oz people use the f word and "bloody" and "bugger" in almost every sentence, so I tend to forget the impact it can have on non Australians reading them...I'll have to remember to double check my posts for this, as well as my usual spelling mistakes, grin!

  6. Absinthe Dragonfly, I really like that comparison! (And now I'm going to have to go out and buy one of those outfits!)

  7. I am an Aussie, that's why I thought it was so funny - imagining what others might think! ha ha

  8. As I am just beginning my journey into Perfumery, this insight into your experiences with these materials is very educational for me. Thank you for sharing <3

    Also found that "f" bomb very amusing :)

  9. It's not unusual for anyone really interested in perfumery to expand and progress to the next level. Its a big step for a 'Natural Perfumer', but you have made it, although it may be a Pandora's Box, so to speak, from here on end. Thanks for your honest thoughts on this transition!

  10. Anonymous, I'm not sure it's really about "progessing to the next level".
    I've been a perfumer for 20 years odd now...and my progression has been in getting to know and understand the beautiful naturals used in traditional perfumery...adding new ingredients isnt always a "progession". I think acomplishment comes in form of knowing how to use your chosen ingredients in the most skillful manner possible.
    You can paint an amazing picture with just a few colours....and if you can't paint, it doesn't matter how many colours you have to choose from.
    For me this is more a matter of "Do I want to add fleuro colours and gold sparkle to my paintings and venture into Pop Art?". It's a stylistic choice rather than a progession if that makes any sense.....Anyway, more in the next chapter....

  11. "here in Oz people use the f word and "bloody" and "bugger" in almost every sentence"

    Bloody oath! ;)

    To Americans, "bloody" isn't really swearing, and "bugger" is... well, let's just say that it's not all that commonly understood as to what it actually means.

    That said, I got a set of natural isolates the other day. I have had a quick smell but have, like you, been circling them somewhat warily. I'm not as experienced a perfumer as you, certainly, but like you I sense a kind of uneasiness with these substances. I can't even entirely explain WHY...

    It's almost like dabbling with some drug that you think is probably safe and harmless but which you sense could lead you to places you don't want to go, but you're there before you've even realised it. (Sorry for the very dramatic metaphor, but it's the only one I can think of.)

    I will keep playing with these things, because, oh, well, I have them now, so I may as well, and I do enjoy the fruitier ones, certainly, but.. yeah... Strange vibe. ;)

    Your comments about the grape gum brought back memories! I'm originally American - Aussie now - and while I never liked that fake grape flavour, I do remember it well, and it's ubiquitous in American lollies and gums and so on. Haven't smelled it in years now (been living in Oz for quite some time!), and I can't say I miss it, but your mention of it just brought the olfactory memories flooding back. What a strange memory. :)

  12. I liked the f bomb! I tend to swear like a sailor, so it doesn't bother me. I've also been partial to Bloody Hell as well.

    Ambrosia, I think you OUGHT to have one of those outfits...just for fun ;-)

    I'm still looking askance at them a bit. They purr in my direction, and whisper to me. "Come on, just play with us. You know you wanna..." I do, I'm just not quite off the fence. I don't know if I will use them regularly in things for sale, or as you said, Once in a while throw out a Neon Green Scent...for variety.

    Thanks for the re-read.

    Amanda aka AbsintheDragonfly

  13. This was an interesting post as I have just ordered the Kit and am looking forward to having a sniff. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Ambrosia. Did you take the course, as well? If so, did it help you to understand how to use these components?
    Hey, there's nothing like a good f-bomb when it is appropriate to the situation. Most Canadians would know what bugger means as we've been buggered by our government for years... just taking it up the whazoo! : ,) lol
    I look forward to reading Chapter Two. Please let me know when it comes out.
    Love Lyn

  14. Interesting thoughts on natural isolates, thank you for your thoughts on this.

    I came across this today in a book I recently obtained.
    Perfumery, Practice and Principles, Calkin and Jellinek

    A quote on this subject from the book:
    Gray Area Between Naturals and Synthetics

    "Geraniol, a substance of defined chemical structure, may be extracted from a natural source such as palmarosa oil or produced synthetically from pinene. Rigorous purification of geraniol from either source will produce the chemically pure substance. Depending upon its origin, this should then be designated as either natural (from palmarosa) or synthetic (from pinene), although the two grades can be distinguished only by very sophisticated analysis.
    The “perfumery grade” qualities of geraniol from the two sources actually have considerable differences in odor value because neither
    is chemically pure. Geraniol from a natural source contains small amounts of many other materials carried over from the source material.
    Synthetically produced geraniol is a reaction mixture, frequently containing a large proportion of nerol and other substances not found in the natural product."

  15. Julian's post is thought-provoking. I am considering natural isolates but can't predict the outcome until I actually get some and use them. The above comments however, give me some hope along my alchemical journey.

  16. Dear Ambrosia
    Are you sure they are natural?
    Benzaldehide for instance is either fully chemical or from bio technologies or from prunus seeds. The prunus is 3 times more expensive but the smell and tenacity is exactly the same as the other two, being just a single molecule.
    I have smelled from a major French supplier a coconut molecule that is ecocert. It is made from bio technologies (bacterias) it has a tenacity that only the chemical have. It is sold as natural by the industry, but the raw material of origin is a patent secret. Is it natural?
    For me I do not consider this essence so, they can certify what they wish, my nose, like yours is telling us differently from what they certify.
    Can that strawbery thing that we smell in none of our essences be natural?
    You are tempted and you feel guilty because your nose knows. try to use these natural isolates in aromatherapy...
    The question I have about these products, again, is the first one we should ask and answer. Are they really natural (by nature) or natural only by law?

  17. AbdesSalaam,you summed it up beautifully
    "Natural by Nature, or Natural by Law?"
    There is so much nonsense written out there, in both legislation and also in perfumery textbooks and other places and at the end of the day, all we can do is attempt to educate ourselves and follow our own conciounces.
    The biggest difficulty is finding a way to communicate this to our clients and buyers in a way that isn't completely negative....

  18. Are you sure that's an actual isolate? It looks more like an aroma chemical to me. AFAIK isolates are obtain by fractured distillation, no idea how they could distill strawberries to obtain such an isolate...

  19. I find it interesting that you describe phenyl ethyl alcohol as 'alien' or 'plastic'. I am frequently bombarded with this note while riding my bike by gardens! If anything I'd call it hyper-natural.

  20. Thanks for the post,
    Maybe I missed you mention it in your post...but I noticed a commenter say she purchased a "kit"? Where did you purchase these from?
    I've been having a really hard time finding a source online that is legitimate.

    Hope to hear a reply in this comment section. Thanks so much :)

  21. I completely get your reluctance to dive in with these isolates. I'm having trouble with some 'natural' oils of Mulberry that I received from a small time producer, who made a point of telling me she distilled it like an E O. We wrote to each other about her process, but I'm mystified by the product I was sent. Its SO lolly like...makin' me nervous about using it in any of my it sits, in the box, on my shelf,...and I take it out now and again to go 'ooooh and ahhhh' and then I wipe my nose and reach for the coffee beans ;} Then I go back to my little friends...the resins the real E O's I know and love and I blend away with much more ease. Yes, I'll keep an eye on the unfolding information river on Isolates and keep on reading.
    Thanks for your insights :)