Most people think that “perfume” is a word fit only for expensive glass bottles. We often forget that perfume can also be used to refer to mundane stuff that emit fragrance – dishwashing liquids, fabric conditioners, room sprays, bath stuff and toothpastes. Perfume has always been two-faced: a world that can either be luxurious or functional, or both, as we investigate further.
We already know much about luxurious perfumery, or fine perfumery, as some people from the industry call it. Functional perfumery, on the other hand, might be the lesser known of the two but is a thriving branch of perfumery for it affects more people than the usual designer perfumes. This latter branch may not be popular but it is always at the forefront of perfume creation, developing scents that eventually affect the world of finer designer perfumes. While functional perfumery may be less glamorous, it is what most people know even when they may not know what it is called and is therefore worthy to be explored.
As the two branches evolved, the line between fine and functional perfumery turned out to be pretty distinct: one was made to delight, the other to disguise. Fine perfumery’s main and sole goal will always be to delight the noses, while functional perfumery’s role will always be more complex. Of course, a functional perfume must delight as well but it has to disguise before that.
Unknown to most, there’s great skill involved in turning the harsh sulphur component in hair conditioner seem flowery or the fat in detergent base into a citrus orchard. Functional perfumers learn how to deal with product bases which not only almost always emit foul odours but also react stubbornly with the scenting components like fragrance oils.
How do they do it? In this aspect of functional perfumery, a functional perfumer would act on one of the most basic truths about perfume: it is used to cloak one with a pleasing scent, not mask unpleasant ones. We all know that the usual fine perfumes don’t function right if it is used to try to cover up bad human odours like sweat. So how does a functional perfumer, whose main goal is to produce a pleasant scent, still follow the truth of this basic rule and end up with a functional and pleasant-smelling product?
The answer: a functional perfumer infuses the harsh odours of the product base into the perfume structure, rather than try to overpower the former with other scents. The efficacy of this method can be seen in how luxury perfumes are developed. For example, Shalimar by Guerlain compliments the sour animalistic notes with hints of citrus and vanilla. In the same vein, a sour odour of the detergent’s product base may be masked by citrus oils.
While functional perfumery deserves praise on its own, fine perfumery is still oft-picked for all the glamour and luxury it offers. There is thus called the “trickle down phenomenon” where functional products would take as inspiration the luxury perfumes. This lead to car air fresheners which smelled like Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir and body products that smell like Terre d’Hermes.
On the other hand, functional perfumery has lent some of its brilliance to fine perfumery. The materials used in functional perfumes can also be found in some of the fine designer perfumes we have come to love. These materials are often used to make fine fragrances as long lasting as their functional counterparts. Estee Lauder used Galaxolide, a musk for laundry scents, in its scent White Linen. Functional perfumery also set some trends in fine perfumery like how Clairol’s Herbal Essences inspired the fruity notes in Donna Karan’s Be Delicious.
Apart from materials and trends, functional perfumery also honed some of the famed fine perfume designers ever known. Functional perfumery trained the likes of Ernest Beaux, who worked before on soaps prior to creating Chanel No. 5; Jean-Michel Duriez, who worked on Kao products before becoming the in-house nose of Jean Patou; and Sophia Grojsman, who worked before on depilatory creams prior to working on Yves Saint Laurent-Paris.
Perfumes are ever evolving in both fields of luxury and function. For luxury, it is always a challenge to keep up with the ever changing whims of its consumers. For function, intricate ingredient policies and tight budget add to these whims. In any case, luxury and functional perfumery can both learn something from the other.