One of the most common questions I was asked during the Frater Perfumes launch event was "what makes a perfume a Frater perfume?" As both creative director and perfumer of the brand I am in the fortunate position of being able to allow my personal desires to dictate the form of every scent. It is no surprise then, that there is a common thread to all of our fragrances. If I were to sum it up in one sentence it would be:
“We make classical perfumes using historic bases and overdoses of luxury essential oils — particularly sandalwood, rose and iris — in combination with the very latest molecules in perfume chemistry.”
The complete picture, however, is vastly more interesting. This article outlines the history and state of perfume and the special qualities that makes Frater a unique part in it.
The Form Of A Fragrance
The earliest perfumes were made by advanced ancient cultures for practical purposes: scenting the dead in embalming, removing malodours from homes and public buildings and for ritual offerings to pagan gods.
In the 18th century, colognes were created as mixtures of water-extracted plant matter (mostly from the citrus family with later additions from other florals such as rose, geranium and lavender) which was distilled to unlock its precious cargo of essential oils. Eventually alcohol extraction allowed for the creation of absolutes which are richer and more complex due to the additional collecting of waxes and fats from the plants. The 20th century added supercritical fluid extraction to the list of techniques.
These early-modern perfumes were composed entirely of these essential oils and absolutes. These were short formulas of mostly citrus oils with small enhancements from herbs and flowers. The famous 4711 created in 1792 by Wilhelm Muelhens is a classic example of this being composed entirely of orange, lemon and bergamot extracts with rosemary and lavender.
As absolutes were discovered, perfumes became more adventurous. Citrus still dominated but richer heart notes began appearing and animal musks and resins were added (as they had been in the ancient world) to extend the longevity of a scent. Thus was born the top note / heart note / base note trinity we still use to this day.
The next significant development began in the late 19th century when it was discovered that the waste products of the process of creating TNT smelled surprisingly like deer musk; the synthetic “nitro” musks had come into being. These were used for the first time with other newly discovered chemicals such as coumarin and vanillin in the first synthetic perfume Fougère Royale by Paul Parquet for Houbigan in 1882. The synthetics were used sparingly, just as absolutes had once been, to impart a special character to a fragrance. The golden age of perfumery had arrived.
After the 1960s the perfume world began a progressive decline as art became industry and its focus was turned to profits rather than beauty; at the same time bureaucrats began to intervene in the dubitable quest of protecting individuals' health and safety. From that time on (and somewhat ironically) chemicals began to be the main ingredient in perfumes while plant oils and absolutes (many of which were now decreed hazardous or too costly) were used to add nuance only. Where naturals were once the skeleton of a perfume and the synthetics the flesh, now the reverse was true. We had reached peak perfume.
It should, however, be noted that some true masterpices of perfume still emerged from this late 20th century wasteland. Opium by Yves Saint Laurent in 1977, Poison (1985) by Dior, and Angel by Thierry Mugler released in 1992 were but three.
The fragrances I have created for Frater Perfumes return the focus to naturally extracted materials; they exemplify a restoration (or renaissance, if you will) of perfumes that are formed with God's precious creations at their heart modified with enhancing molecules which elevate, enliven and enrich.
Exquisite Raw Materials
Just as the best chefs use only the finest ingredients, I seek the most exquisite raw materials of perfumery. To do this I evaluate the different offerings of the perfumery trade. I compare oils from one company to another, and even the oils from one region or factory to another within the same firm. For many other perfume houses today, historically revered perfume materials have been eschewed for cheaper options.
The best example of this is French rose de mai — traditionally considered the most elegant of all the roses. Coming from the Rosa × centifolia variety, rose de mai is soft and sweet. High demand from companies such as Patou and Dior which use mere traces in some of their scents has all but exhausted the supply. It is, consquently, the most expensive rose… by far.
Fortunately there are a small number of family-owned farms in Grasse that are able to supply Frater Perfumes with genuine French rose absolute. Instead of using the lower-cost Egyptian variety (or inferior rose varieties from North Africa) I am able to incorporate the very air, water and spirit of French flora into my fragrances.
Another rare and precious oil I use extensively is the “superior” extra ylang ylang from Comoros, off the coast of East Africa. This was once considered the only quality of ylang ylang worthy of appearing in fine fragrance. The original Chanel No 5 had over twelve percent of Comoran ylang ylang oil though today there is barely a trace. This quality of ylang ylang is now so expensive and precious that it is rarely found outside of artisinal brands.
Using rare oils is not always enough. Many absolutes and essential oils benefit from aging. Sandalwood, patchouli and vetiver are three in particular. Patchouli which is aged develops a sweetness impossible to find in recently distilled batches and the creamy notes of sandalwood deepen and increase the longer it rests. Uniquely, Frater fragrances are rested for up to four months to develop and mellow, and I strive to find suppliers who, in like manner, understand the importance of time in the production of their goods.
Finally, untouched by human hands until the moment of harvest, I use wild oils which give us some of the most complex and surprising scent profiles. Our Vetiver fragrance is loaded with the most intense wild orange from the Dominican republic, while the top notes of Eram sparkle with wild Persian galbanum.
In addition to these exquisite raw materials, Frater perfumes are crafted with golden age building blocks known as bases.
A perfume is made up of a mixture of essential oils and absolutes, synthetics (chemicals which are man made or extracted from a natural soure), and bases: mixtures constructed with some or all of these.
A base can be as simple as two or three materials in balance (more commonly referred to as an accord) or a very complex formula of dozens of materials — sometimes a perfume in itself. For example, one of the most famous classical bases was Muguet Des Bois, a sweet lily of the valley created by Henri Robert for François Coty and sold as a fragrance in 1941. It was later repurposed by Edmond Roudnitska who used it as the heart of the famed Diorissimo (1956) blended with other precious essential oils and synthetics.
As an aside, it is easy to confuse these perfumery bases with the often-heard term base notes, but they are very different things. Bases are the building blocks of a perfume formula, while base notes (along with top notes and heart notes) refer to parts of the perfume you can smell when wearing the scent.
While the original Chanel No 5 formula may have been comprised of more than twenty percent French Jasmine oil, modern regulations permit no more than two percent in the original concentration. For this reason most perfume companies have reformulated as the regulations change by reducing the total quantity of essential oils (water extracted) and absolutes (alcohol extracted) or the perfume's dilution.
The missing material is then replaced with either single synthetics or bases, such as the famed Wardia by perfumery giant Firmenich (formerly Chuit Naef & Cie), a French rose de mai replica, or Ambre 83, a once-popular amber base by De Laire (now Symrise).
During the golden age of perfume (the early 20th century) hundreds of bases were created and used for their astonishing beauty. Though most of these are now gone, some companies, have started to revive a number of their bases albeit heavily modified to keep costs down. However, few perfume houses are willing to rely on third party bases over which they have no control.
At Frater Perfumes I have painstakingly re-created many previously-extinct golden age bases. This has been the result of years of research including conversations with retired perfumers who have insights into the original formulas and materials; in many cases these are men who used the bases in their own masterworks. We now have an extensive library of elegant building blocks to be used in combination with our select raw materials. One use of this can be found in Eram, a green scent formed on a harmony of the classical Mousse de Saxe base with many rich essential oils and a radiant modern amber note.
Excess And Overdose
Frater perfumes are each incredibly distinct from one another. Eram is green, while Feu D'Ambre is warm and floral. Miyama is leathery while Coucou is creamy. But all of these scents have a common thread: the use of overdosed materials. First I create a wonderful balance of ingredients to make a homogenous and velvety scent, then I accentuate the key qualities through overdoses of the most elegant or interesting notes. An overdose of gardenia gives Coucou its lactonic quality while the coriaceous note of Miyama emerges from an oud base of exquisite beauty — a true jewel of our art.