Behind the Scents: the Beauty & Power of Natural Perfume
As the director of Arogya Holistic Healing and Arogya Tea for the last 19 years, I’ve had the blessing to pursue and share my creativity with the greater Fairfield County community. One of my long time passions has been natural perfumery. This year has culminated in a reformulation of my four signature scents, as well as two new roll-on perfumes. I am proud to present these 100% natural perfumes, free of any synthetic chemicals, to the community, and to the world via our online store. Today I’d like to share a little bit about becoming a natural perfumer, and the beauty and power of natural perfumes.
Growing Up with Natural Scents
My journey of perfumery started at the beginning of my life in Shanghai, where my perfumer’s nose was born. Since birth, I was immersed in the world of herbal medicine, healing, and natural products. Part of this was because at the time, China was closed off from outside influence, and so many traditional ways of doing things were preserved. For this reason, natural products and herbal medicine were normal parts of everyday life.
Growing up, I remember tea and herbal shops on every corner of my neighborhood, with their high ceilings and dozens of tiny cabinets filled with healing and aromatic plants. In my family, even though my mother was a doctor, we rarely took pharmaceutical medicine. If someone got sick, my mom would make a stew full of medicinal herbs for everyone to eat. We used natural remedies like herbal tinctures for mosquito bites, and essential oils for heat stroke, which was more common at the time because there was no air-conditioning.
Life was simple then, and naturally eco-minded. I remember that whenever we finished an orange or tangerine, we squeezed the peel to spray the essential oil around the house as air freshener. Then we would save the citrus peels, letting them dry, until someone from the herbal pharmacies came to collect them for their medicinal formulas. I look back at this time and think, was this even real? Or a past life? It seems like a universe away from my life today in Connecticut.
Even though I grew up in a time when natural medicine was the norm, I also took special interest in the world of healing at an early age. I remember at 10 years old I bought a magazine subscription for a natural health publication. Although in China there is a strong tradition of preventative medicine and longevity through herbs, my early interest in health was a bit unusual for a child.
With the cultural isolation of China during my youth, I didn’t have access to the chemicalized products of the West, and so all of the shampoos, soaps, oils, and personal cosmetics I used were made with natural ingredients, just as they always had been. Most cosmetics then were very pure and simple, often with just a handful of ingredients. Today, it’s a very different story in China. There is really no comparison between the simple, natural lifestyle of my youth, and the industrialization of China today. Now most products are very commercial and filled with chemicals. I appreciate that the time I grew up in was based on tried and true, quality ingredients from the earth.
Synthetic Aromas & the Modern Palate
With simple, natural products and herbal medicine, as well as daily incense offerings of sandalwood, frankincense and spices, my olfactory world was attuned to the pure scents of nature. Growing up in this environment of authentic ingredients made my palate more vivid and sensitive. Over time, however, as I grew up and began traveling the world, I noticed myself developing allergies to the synthetic fragrances that have become so pervasive in our modern, sensory world. I would experience serious headaches (and still do) upon contact with these lab-produced scents. This was problematic because these synthetic fragrances penetrate almost every aspect of our lives. Unless you take special care to purchase fragrance free or essential oil based products, these toxic aromas bombard you every waking moment!
As everything from soap to trash bags has some kind of fragrance, the nose is adulterated by incessant, synthetic smells, which has an effect on the olfactory palate, as well as the hormonal system. I notice that until people shift to natural products, they can’t usually tell the difference between synthetic fragrances, and those that come directly from nature. I find this quite disturbing because smell is an essential and primal sense, that evolutionarily, is one of the most ancient senses. Loosing touch with this intuitive intelligence doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction.
People may not always have the awareness of natural vs. synthetic scents, but humans respond in a profoundly different way in the presence of natural, essential oils. This is because the scents from nature and our olfactory system have coexisted and coevolved for millions of years, so it makes sense that our minds and bodies would have a more profound emotional response to natural scents. This emotional connection to nature’s aromas is so inspiring in my perfume making process.
The Magic of Natural Perfume
What I love about natural perfume is that it gives me instant balance, and a feeling of being nurtured and inspired. In our modern lives we don’t get enough sun or time outside, and modern technology increasingly eclipses our sensory experience. We need more contact with the natural world to balance our minds and bodies. As humans, when we connect with the energy of nature, it makes us happy! And disconnection brings disharmony, disease, and unhappiness. This is where natural perfume’s strength lies, because in one breath you are transported to ancients forests, floral gardens, or desert valleys, which brings an immediate sense of balance and fresh perspective. I find this aspect of natural perfume so special and important.
When I say natural perfume, what I’m really talking about is the essence captured by the botanical extracts and essential oils used in formulation. These vital oils and extracts are the concentrated life force of plants. Artfully combined in a perfume, these gifts from nature act as magical elixirs that transform how we feel and think. The enchanting scents plants produce are a part of their very being. In trees, for example, their scent is part of their immune system. These aromatic phytochemicals are the natural wisdom of the tree to expel fungus and insects, and a way to heal themselves from injury.
When you think about how concentrated essential oils are, it’s rather mind-blowing. One drop of rose oil, for example, takes 1,000 rose petals to produce! So when you perfume yourself with these potent oils, you are connecting with the wisdom of nature contained in those countless petals. The most precious oils come from plants that produce very little oil. Think about the difference between citrus peel, which literally bursts with essential oils, and a piece of dry wood like sandalwood.
The rarity and cost of production of these precious oils is one reason most perfumers turn to synthetic fragrances. Though the uneducated nose might be fooled by these artificial scents, these false aromas lack the depth of wisdom that you can only extract from nature. There is just no way to mimic the power and intelligence of a plant’s life essence in a laboratory. Fabricated, synthetic scents are like a mirage, a play of light. It’s like the difference between seeing a picture of the woods, and being surrounded by trees, and plants, in a real forest. There’s no comparison.
Aromatherapy vs. Natural Perfume
Although my perfumes are primarily essential oil based, the difference between natural perfume and aromatherapy is that perfumery is all about the composition of notes, while aromatherapy is about medicinal value. Aromatherapy is more practical, and perfumery is more poetic. Another difference between the two is that perfumery generally uses much rarer oils. Common essential oils like eucalyptus, mint, or lavender, that are used abundantly in aromatherapy, are not generally oils of choice for perfume. This is because in perfumery we are looking for a different effect. Everyone loves and knows lavender, but in perfume we are trying to evoke something deeper and more mysterious.
Also, while aromatherapy is based exclusively on essential oils, with perfumery there is a little more flexibility in terms of ingredients. As I am passionate about tea, I have been experimenting over the years with making my own tea extracts to use in my perfumes. Not only do teas have wonderful effects on the skin, they also provides a wide variety of aroma notes. With different teas I am able to achieve smoky, tobacco, dew-like, and sweet aromas, to give body and depth to my perfumes. I love using tea extracts because I can combine my passion for tea and perfume in one.
Refining the Senses & Meditation
Although I have training in aromatherapy, and have studied theoretical perfumery extensively on my own, I am a self-taught perfumer. What it takes to be a true perfumer is not necessarily training or study, but a perfumer’s nose: an ultra sensitivity to smell, and emotional awareness to conjure poetic elixirs of scent.
While my childhood in China was the foundation for my sensitivity to smell, my perfumer’s nose has become even more refined with my meditation practice. Formulating perfume takes incredible attention to subtlety, and subtlety demands a tremendous amount of sensitivity. The busier our mind is, the less subtlety we perceive. With practice, meditation brings you to a subtle and receptive state of mind. The more you become present in the here and now, the more easily you tap into something much larger than yourself. This opens your awareness, making you more sensitive to everything, including your thoughts and feelings, color, light, and of course, smell.
Developing this sensitivity in myself has trained me differentiate the subtle nuances among a selection of essential oils of the same plant, and to understand how these oils will interact with others. For example, in my search for the finest lemon essential oil, I bought so many different samples before finding “the one,” an amazing organic essential oil from Sicily.
Natural perfumery is truly a meeting point of science and art. It takes the knowledge of chemistry, extraction, and composition, a lifetime commitment to refining the senses, and cultivating poetic sensibility. If you haven’t experienced my newly reformulated natural perfumes, I invite you to come to Arogya and see for yourself, the power and beauty of natural perfume (or try some samples available on our website).
Written by Wei Bertram
Photos by Chloe Bolton