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Synthetic Raw Materials – Part 1: Pre-World War I

Synthetic raw materials played a vital role in the birth of modern perfumery. Before their introduction, fragrances were simple and straightforward, exemplified by the eau de cologne or soliflores centered around roses, violets, and other flowers. Many aromatic compounds could only be obtained through enfleurage, which has low yields and is prohibitively expensive. Oils from some delicate flowers couldn’t be extracted at all. This article explores the first wave of synthetics that shaped modern perfumery and contributed to the establishment of leading perfume houses such as Houbigant, Coty, Guerlain, and Caron, alongside iconic fragrances that are still in the market.

 

See also: Synthetic Raw Materials – Part 2: Post-World War II

 

Due to the high cost of essential oil extraction, perfumes were a luxury reserved for the bourgeoisie and nobility. Synthetic molecules changed this landscape by enabling more affordable fragrances and the creation of abstract scents that did not exist in nature, leading to more intricate and multifaceted compositions. Beyond increasing cost-efficiency and offering new creative possibilities, chemically-produced ingredients also provided more consistency, predictability, and safety.

Naturally occurring molecules like Benzaldehyde (from bitter almonds), Vanillin (from vanilla pods), and Eugenol (from clove buds) were already isolated in the early 1800s – products of fractional distillation, without undergoing chemical transformation. However, molecules fully synthetized appeared mostly around the Belle Époque (1871-1914), a period of prosperity, through partnerships between European flavors and fragrance companies and university laboratories and research centers.

 

Coumarin

COUMARIN (1868)

 

Coumarin, with its almondy, vanilla-like scent and hints of fresh-cut hay and tobacco, was first isolated from tonka beans in 1820 by German chemist August Vogel. It was synthetically produced in 1868 by English chemist William Henry Perkin, marking a significant milestone in the realm of perfumery. Coumarin’s introduction revolutionized fragrance creation, becoming a cornerstone of the fougère family. Notably featured alongside lavender, geranium, and oakmoss, it was pivotal in Houbigant’s groundbreaking Fougère Royale (1882), the first perfume to incorporate a synthetic material. On a side note, “fougère” means “fern” in French, drawing inspiration for the house’s perfumer Paul Parquet.

 

Heliotropin

HELIOTROPIN (1869)

 

Heliotropin, also known as piperonal, has a sweet, floral odor reminiscent of a combination of almond, cherry, violet, and vanilla, mimicking the scent of heliotrope. It was first synthesized in 1869 by German chemists Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig and Wilhelm Heinrich Mielck. This ingredient is significant in perfumery for its ability to impart a creamy, powdery quality to compositions. It was prominently featured in the iconic Après L’Ondée (1906) and L’Heure Bleue (1912), both created by Guerlain. Heliotropin remains popular in contemporary fragrances, especially in the fruity floral and gourmand genres.

 

Vanillin

VANILLIN (1874) & ETHYLVANILLIN (1894)

 

Vanillin was first isolated from vanilla pods in 1858 by French chemist Nicolas-Theodore Gobley. It was later synthesized by German chemists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann in 1874, transforming the fragrance and flavor industries by offering an economical alternative to natural vanilla. Ethylvanillin, not ocurring in nature, was synthesized two decades after by German chemist Ernst Schering, providing a sweeter, richer, and more refined vanilla scent with hints of caramel. A combination of both Vanillin and Ethylvanillin, along with natural vanilla extract, was famously used in Guerlain’s Jicky (1889), often regarded as the first modern and abstract perfume. This combination was later prominently featured in Coty’s Émeraude (1921) and Guerlain’s Shalimar (1925), pioneering what was previously known as the oriental fragrance family. Vanillin and Ethylvanillin remain crucial in perfumery, especially in creating cost-effective amber accords.

 

Ibq

ISOBUTYL QUINOLINE (1880)

 

Isobutyl Quinoline, known for its deep, intense, smoky, and leathery scent, was first synthesized in 1880 by Czech chemist Zdenko Hans Skraup. It quickly became pivotal in creating leather accords, often blended with birch tar and castoreum oil to enhance its realism. This ingredient is notably featured in iconic fragrances, such as Caron’s Tabac Blond (1919), Chanel’s Cuir de Russie (1924), and Robert Piguet’s Bandit (1944), where it enriches the sophisticated aspects of their compositions.

 

Musks

NITRO MUSKS (1888)

 

Discovered by German chemist Albert Baur in 1888, Nitro Musks were not only the first synthetic musks but the first entirely man-made ingredients used in perfumery. It offered a drastically less expensive substitute for natural musk. Variants like Musk Xylene and Musk Ketone appeared a few years after. Despite their widespread use in fragrances for imparting a powdery scent, Nitro Musks were eventually banned due to environmental persistence and potential toxicity concerns. Nowadays, their aroma is often perceived as dated, with a vintage feel. Musk Ketone, discovered in 1893, was a notable component in the original formula of Chanel’s N°5 (1921), enhancing diffusion, longevity, stability, and overall rounding.

More about natural and synthetic musks in the article Musk: From Stink to Sweet Cleanliness.

 

Ionones

IONONES & METHYL IONONES (1893)

 

Ionones, first synthesized by German chemists Ferdinand Tiemann and Paul Krüger, are famous for their violet-like scent, contributing with powdery, floral, and subtly fruity and woody facets. They provided perfumers with a synthetic alternative to rare and expensive natural violet extracts. Alpha-Ionone introduces a delicate berry-like aspect, while Beta-Ionone leans towards a woodier profile, and Gamma-Ionone offers a more pronounced violet note. Methyl Ionones enhance these scents with intensified fruity and woody characteristics. Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue (1912) is among the early classics that prominently feature a high concentration of ionones, complemented by heliotropin and vanillin.

 

Aldehydes

ALDEHYDES C-10, C-11 & C-12 (1903)

 

German chemist Baron von Liebig was the first to discover aldehydes in 1835. However, it was only in 1903 that Russian chemist Auguste Darzens invented a process to stabilize aliphatic aldehydes used in perfume creation. Typically metallic, waxy, and slightly citrusy, with high diffusion, aldehydes C-10, C-11, and C-12 are valued for their ability to add a clean (soapy), fresh, and sparkling aura to floral bouquets, making them key ingredients in numerous iconic fragrances, including Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs (1912) and Chanel’s N°5 (1921). Today, aldehydic floral scents are considered old-fashioned by many.

 

Hydroxy

HYDROXYCITRONELLAL (1905)

 

In 1905, German chemist Herman Knoll synthetized Hydroxycitronellal, known for its fresh, floral, and sweet scent reminiscent of lily of the valley. It is prized for its ability to enhance the green, airy, and floral aspects of fragrances, especially those with a fresh and delicate character. Since 2013, Hydroxycitronellal has been highly restricted due to skin irritations, prompting the reformulation of numerous compositions, notably the iconic Diorissimo (1956), which prominently features lily of the valley and remains a benchmark for this theme.

 

C14

GAMMA DECALACTONE (1908)

 

First synthesized in 1908 by German chemist Richard Willstätter, Gamma Decalactone has a creamy, fruity scent reminiscent of peaches, adding warmth and sweetness to compositions. It gained prominence when Jacques Guerlain incorporated it into the structure of Coty’s Chypre (1917) to create Mitsouko (1919), enhancing the richness and sensuality of the genre. At the time of its discovery, Gamma Decalactone was mistakenly named Aldehyde C-14 due to its “fatty” odor profile and the less understood nature of compounds at the time.

 

See also: Synthetic Raw Materials – Part 2: Post-World War II

 

(text by Daniel Barros)

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DANIEL BARROS

DANIEL BARROS

Editor-in-Chief

DANIEL BARROS is Brazilian, based in São Paulo, and the author of  ‘1001 Perfumes: The Guide’. He has been collaborating with ScentXplore since 2021, contributing to content production and management, as well as organizing the annual ScentXplore People’s Choice Niche Fragrance Awards. In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Daniel is actively involved in mentoring niche brands and fragrance enthusiasts all over the world. Click here to send him a private message or report an error. Follow Daniel on Instagram @danielbarros_1001perfumes.

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