An Interview with Hermitage Oils: Animal Products in Modern Perfumery
A few weeks ago I started writing an article on perfume ingredients, mainly about animal products and plants which are becoming extinct but are highly valued in modern perfumery in spite of many environmental and ethical complications. I was lucky to interview one of the owners of Hermitage Oils, Eleonora Scalseggi, a well-known supplier of natural materials which has been operating for many years.
Here is the full interview, some excerpts can be found in the original article in Earth Island Journal.
Although as a perfumer I am aware of the issues related to the use of animal products in perfumes these days I wanted to get first hand information from an expert in that matter.
- Ambergris* is considered a cruelty free ingredient in perfumery but there are still cases of sperm whale poaching. And although both perfumers and suppliers know that ambergris needs aging in natural conditions, are there still cases when you encounter cases of illegal ambergris offers on the market?
- In the ambergris world, secrecy seems to be everything, even more than within perfumery. For example, protecting the name of the source, the beachcomber, is very crucial, and the beachcomber will never reveal the exact beach where he or she collects the most of it nor any of the tricks of the job. If a beachcomber is serious and has a solid reputation in my experience he/she will never have to put the ambergris “on offer” in the market, as in starting to approach people asking if anybody wants some. Instead he/she will have a queue of customers asking what there is available at the moment. Curiously enough, on the very rare occasions when we have been approached by unknown sources trying to sell us their ambergris it was for very large amounts and very low grades (black). Now in my opinion these are clear signs of ambergris coming from poaching. Floating ambergris gets found stranded in relatively small amounts. It is rare that large pieces are found and even in that case it’s never many kilos. To me having many kilos of fresh (black) ambergris in a single piece on hand means that a whale has been recently killed. It can of course come from a dead beach stranded whale too, but the suspicion is too high, and besides that ambergris won’t be a good quality material. So to answer the question, to my knowledge it is fairly rare that somebody tries to sell dubious ambergris on the market, yet it happens. For those who like us prefer to steer clear from that kind of business my advice would be to find a reputable source and stick with it.
- From your experience, what have been the tendencies of animal products use in modern perfumes? Because of a stronger position of animal rights movements these days, do you think the demand for animal products is declining?
No, animal products demand is not declining at all. There is, and understandably so, an increasing demand for a more ethical approach to producing animal-derived materials, favouring cruelty free everywhere possible, and we as suppliers try to follow the same approach. There are of course also synthetic and non-animal derived materials, for which funnily enough demand is also increasing. The thing is these are and remain reconstructions and are not the real thing, do not have the same emotional impact. We humans belong to the animal kingdom too after all and it is completely natural that we get so attracted and stimulated by other animals’ odours. Also, whilst of course every person has his or her sensibility so no one-fits-all approach can be taken, switching to all non-animal derived products hasn’t necessarily done animals much good either. Take civet, for example. Civet as you might be already aware is produced without necessarily harming or killing the animal, yet traditionally civets are kept in very small cages in horrible conditions and are really ill-treated. For decades perfumes containing civet have been boycotted.. The outcome? Apparently civet is still being produced with the same methods. Demand has not decreased and the big corporations are apparently using offshore accounts to make their purchases to avoid exposure. This new scenario has caused the revenue for the farmers producing civet paste to significantly decrease, taking a significant chunk of their income away, so more poverty for their families which of course also resulted in civets being raised in even more dreadful conditions. So yes I don’t think that forgetting about animal derived materials tout court is a sensible approach no more than irresponsibly over exploiting everything.
From your experience, where are animal products used more these days: in small artisan brand fragrances or bigger well-known perfumes?
I would say that overall small artisans and indie perfumers are freer to use animal derived materials if they wish. Big corporations do buy these materials too, but often more for reference than for using them in the actual perfume juice, unless in extremely diluted amounts. Controversy over the use of animal derived products is not really the main issue there, budget is. Synthetics cost tens of multiple times less. It is no mystery that in mainstream perfumery the average cost of perfume “juice” per bottle is around a couple of euros. The rest is alcohol, bottle, product advertisement and profit. So if a perfumer hired by a big corporation started making perfumes using the real stuff the juice would be too expensive and the perfumer.. probably long fired!
Notes from Adam, Hermitage Oils:
Should you wish to read further on ambergris by the way I would recommend “Floating Gold: a Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris” by Christopher Kemp if you haven’t already read it. The author developed a pretty big obsession for ambergris and the book makes a very interesting read if you like the subject.
I would like to thank Eleonora and Adam from Hermitage Oils for taking the time to provide this content.
Hermitage Oils was founded in 1979 and was one of the very first mail-order businesses to offer essential oils in the UK. In 2017, Hermitage Oils relocated to Tuscany, Italy, in order to take the first steps into producing aromatic materials.
*Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. It is used as a fixative in some synthetic and natural perfumes to make perfumes last longer on skin.