As you might know, your first impression doesn’t always tell the whole story. What you smell is not always indicative of the full scope of the fragrance, as fragrances are nuanced compositions of many ingredients.
A scent can change with how and when the scent is experienced as well, and the scent itself is subjective – a person who naturally is shaped by their experiences and feelings may interpret a scent differently than someone with a different set of experiences and emotions. A scent can take you on a trip, transport you, make you feel, stir perceptions of reality…
That being said, we can still break it down to scent being an actual thing, meaning a set of materials. Fragrances are composed of a combination or selection of natural plant materials and essences, man-made molecules, aldehydes, and solvents like vegetable oil or alcohol. Oftentimes unless you are well versed in the scent industry, a molecular component won’t really speak to the experience of a scent in the way that a fragrance family, note, or theme would, such as petrichor, or wet pavement accord, or ozonic; aka the smell after a rainstorm. Before modern perfumery advanced with man-made materials gaining popularity in the early 19th century, fragrances were derived from a single natural source, like a plant or flower. Today, fragrances are composed of a wide variety of both natural and synthetic ingredients, allowing for more exploration, innovation, and creation.
Natural scent components include essential oils and plant essences that are distilled or pressed directly from a natural source, such as flowers, seeds, grasses, roots, resins, spices, and fruits. Though, not every plant source produces a usable scent component – there’s only about 200+ natural ingredient materials. One example is lily of the valley, which does not produce an essential oil, so the smell is created in a lab to replicate the scent found in nature (it is also called muguet). Synthetic fragrances are also used to create new ingredients as well, which expands the creative potential of smell. In today’s fragrances, many variations include aspects of synthetic notes, which allow for more stability, consistency, and freedom without risk of harming nature. It is important to note that in the fragrance industry, synthetic does not equivocate to harmful or toxic, and natural does not equivocate to good or safe. Synthetic simply refers to the creation of a molecule, either nature inspired or novel, in a lab. Since the late 1800s, chemists have become increasingly adept at producing synthetic variations on natural compounds, a process that has changed the industry entirely and facilitated in the more widespread manufacturing of fragrance.
Modern perfumery allows us to create a linear scent, more fined tuned and nuanced for the user experience. Dynamic in their composition, as well as varying based on the subject and environment, fragrances can smell unique to different individuals at different times. It is simply all in their DNA.