The beauty of working for a fine perfumer like Penhaligon’s is that my eyes have been opened to the weird and wonderful world of fragrance creation and the amazing ingredients that are used to make perfume, many of which most people have no idea about! So, I have decided to share the origins of the five ingredients which are, in my view, the most astonishing.
When I first learnt that Aldehydes were a key ingredient in our Elisabethan Rose fragrance I assumed it was a flower – it certainly didn’t occur to me that it might be a synthetic note, produced through the refraction of oil! Although perfumers have been using Aldehydes for over a century, it wasn’t until 1921 when Ernest Beaux created the infamous Chanel No 5 that this ingredient became widely known, and it is now used extensively across the industry on account of the sparkling effect it adds to a scent.
Any mention of gold, frankincense and myrhh will probably make most of us think about wearing a tea-towel on our heads in a nativity play. At that age we probably didn’t appreciate that frankincense was worth more in its weight than gold and was the cornerstone of a major commercial empire. Inscriptions dating to 1500BC in the Deir el Bahri temple in modern day Luxor, describe how Queen Hatsheput personally ordered expeditions to find ‘sweet smelling resin and frankincense’ for the gardens outside the temple. Although frankincense is not as valuable as it once was, it has had a diverse range of uses throughout the years varying from medicine, incense, kohl and of course perfume!
Hyraceum (Africa Stone)
One of our two new Anthology Collection launches later this year (Esprit Du Roi) contains Hyraceum, also known as ‘Africa Stone.’ Hyraceum is the fossilised urine of the Cape Hyrax or Dassie – certainly not an ingredient you would expect to find in a perfume! These animals live in Southern Africa and resemble large guinea pigs! Hyraceum is harvested without disturbing the animals (simply by digging it up!) and produces a complex animalistic scent similar to a heady mix of Musk, Civet, Castoreum and Tobacco. It is a wonderful alternative to synthetic musks and we thank the Dassies for their hard work creating it!
Heliotrope is the floral gourmand note which adds to the sweetness of our Cornubia fragrance. A purple flower native to Peru, a heliotrope will turn and follow the sun during the course of the day, hence the derivation of its name from the Greek words ‘helios’ and ‘tropos,’ which mean ‘sun’ and ‘turn’ respectively . The Roman poet Ovid attributes the origins of the heliotrope to the story of the nymph Clytie, who was turned into the flower by the gods on account of her unrequited love for the sun god Helios: moved by pity for the girl as she pined fruitlessly for Helios, the gods transformed her into a ‘bloodless plant,’ destined to gaze forever at her love.
Ambergris (Grey Amber)
Ambergris is a highly prized ingredient though it is rarely used in its natural form in modern perfumery. Often mistaken for the fossilised tree resin Amber, Ambergris is formed in the intestine of the sperm whale and although it is not exactly known why this secretion occurs, it is thought to facilitate the digestion of sharp objects such as squid. The secretion can be found floating in the sea or washed up on beaches and, although it does not sound like a particularly appealing substance, once collected it is a valuable commodity. It is primarily used as a fixative in the base of fragrances but imparts a beautifully soft, earthy and slightly antiseptic scent.
So there you have it, the five most unusual ingredients I think exist within perfumery. What are your favourite ingredients and why?