Get one whiff of oakmoss extract and you never forget it: a deep, raspy, dark smell that conjures up a primeval forest. For more than a century, this thick greenish-brown liquid — named for the bushy lichen it derives from, Evernia prunastri, which grows on oak trees — has served as a key ingredient in some of the world’s most popular and profitable fragrances. But two years ago, industry regulators began radically restricting the use of oakmoss, leaving perfume makers scrambling to replace this idiosyncratic aroma.
Some chemists have risen to the challenge by brewing up what are, in effect, oakmoss knockoffs. One of the best substitutes is made by Mane, a flavor and fragrance manufacturer in the south of France. The man who developed it, Cyrill Rolland, used his lengthy experience working with natural raw materials to imitate the way the scent of oakmoss seems to evolve as you sniff, first evoking wet timber with a slightly bitter undertone of seaweed and then changing to a dry, woody aroma. Rolland has even captured the garden-mulch color of the genuine article. To an untutored nose, Mane’s fake oakmoss smells like the real thing. But the company must convince a more discerning audience: other perfumers, who are the real customers for this product.
Why go to such lengths to replace this cornerstone of perfumery, a natural substance that is plentiful in the wild and available for just pennies an ounce? To answer that question is to plunge into a controversy that has split the fragrance industry and its often fanatical customers into warring camps. Starting in 2003, the main industry trade group, the International Fragrance Association, began to aggressively ban or restrict ingredients — now 174 in total — for health or environmental reasons. Some of the restrictions affect natural substances that have been used for centuries by millions of satisfied customers: rose oil, jasmine absolute, spice extracts, and bergamot and other citrus oils. In the case of oakmoss, testing has shown it to cause occasional cases of contact dermatitis, the sort of rash one gets from poison ivy and other chemical irritants. A few of the proscribed ingredients are important synthetics, such as lyral, a molecule widely used in perfumes to create a lilylike floral note. IFRA sees these moves as protective: Wary of bad PR and hoping to forestall action by governments (particularly the European Union, which has taken a hard-nosed approach to chemical regulation), the group feels that the industry is better off regulating itself. Because IFRA’s members produce more than 90 percent of the world’s fragrances, its rules effectively function as law for all but the most obscure niche manufacturers.
Not surprisingly, old-fashioned perfumers and critics are aghast that so many crucial, long-used ingredients could be jettisoned because of a rare and mild rash. Contemplating the most recent round of restrictions, one prominent perfume writer, Luca Turin, has gone so far as to pronounce the entire art of fragrance “officially dead.”
The loss of oakmoss has been especially painful, because the extract traditionally anchored two entire classes of perfume. The first, the top-selling family of men’s fragrances called fougére, began in the late 19th century and includes such famous scents as Brut and Drakkar Noir. The second, a family of both men’s and women’s fragrances called chypre, stretches from Guerlain’s legendary Mitsouko, first released in 1919 and considered by some critics today to be the finest fragrance ever produced, all the way up to Chanel’s Cristalle and beyond. For a $2 billion industry based on olfactory precision, in which a microliter substitution of one ingredient for another can constitute the entire difference between a dud and a megaseller, it is no exaggeration to say that Evernia prunastri has given off a valuable odor indeed.
“Some ingredients are there just to wrap things up,” says perfumer Clement Gavarry of International Flavors & Fragrances. “They might add performance or make a fragrance last longer. But ingredients like oakmoss are there to provide character or give a crucial twist to the fragrance.” Oakmoss has not been banned outright, but under the terms of its IFRA restriction, it can comprise no more than 0.1 percent of any perfume that contacts the skin directly — rendering the traditional formulas of chypre and fougére fragrances unusable.
Of course, even before this regulatory push, the technology of perfume-making had advanced far beyond the days when fragrances like Mitsouko were created by hand, using natural plant extracts adorned with just a few synthetic molecules. But traditional ingredients like oakmoss still tied perfumery to its ancient past. Now that this link is being severed, the challenge for the industry is to use technology to replace what’s been lost — by developing new ingredients, both natural and synthetic, and using precise software-controlled machines to find new combinations that capture old essences. But with more ingredients getting restricted every year, the hunt for replacements has grown more complex, and perfumery is in danger of losing the scent.