When German perfumer Geza Schön first showed a sample of his Molecule 01 fragrance to Daniela Rinaldi, then Harvey Nichols head beauty buyer, she remarked that she couldn’t smell anything. That was already after Schön had pitched the concept of a single-note perfume to Diesel, only for it to be rejected. He then launched it under his own brand, Escentric Molecules.
“It was really not the ideal meeting when you want to sell a product to someone,” Schön says from his Berlin home with a laugh. But as he tells it, when Rinaldi left the meeting, her cab driver remarked, “Oh darling, you smell nice. What is that?” Then a florist said the same thing, and even a third person on the street. “She then the next day placed the biggest order she had ever placed for a fragrance,” Schön recalls.
Traditional perfumes are composed of top notes, heart notes, and base notes, with each composition containing perhaps hundreds of molecules to create its unique smell, which evolves over time as top notes dissipate to let the heart and base notes come through — a process commonly referred to as the dry down. Molecule 01 has no dry down, no complex evolutions of notes. It is a single note perfume suspended in alcohol — Iso E Super, a woody, cozy aroma chemical created in a lab in the 1970s.
Such a concept was a novelty in 2006 when Schön first launched Molecule 01. Fifteen years later, it’s practically a mainstay in niche perfumery: Juliette Has a Gun’s Not a Perfume (composed solely of Cetalox, a synthetic ambergris-like scent) has become one of the brand’s flagship creations since its release in 2010, inspiring a superdose version, candles, hand lotion, and more. Argentine brand Fueguia created Muskara Phero J in 2016 to celebrate the single note of musk, which has since spawned a whole line of Muskara creations in which minimal musk acts as a backdrop to jasmine, vetiver, and more. Ellis Brooklyn meanwhile uses a cousin of Iso E Super for its Iso Gamma Super perfume, launched in 2020. And Schön, for his part, has expanded his line to five single-note creations; the latest, Molecule 05, arrived in 2020 and features the woody, resinous Cashmeran.
But for all the creations on the market, there are few that can touch the elusive allure of Iso E Super. According to the niche perfume retailer Luckyscent, Molecule 01 has remained its top seller for 12 years running, number one both online and at its New York and West Hollywood stores, translating into thousands of bottles sold per year. Which is surprising, given there are many who, like Rinaldi, spray the bottle to find nothing at all.
“It's almost like an intellectual approach, where you must understand what this is to actually appreciate its effect,” Schön says. But a brand can’t just plop any single molecule in a bottle and sell it as a wearable fragrance. “Most ingredients actually need the help of other chemicals, and more than anything other naturals, around them. Because most chemicals are very linear, and very singular, and they actually do fulfill a certain role in a fragrance. But they don't have the complexity like those molecules we've launched.”
But while certain aroma chemicals like Iso E Super, Ambrox, or Cetalox have an undeniable allure, there are relatively few molecules that can work solo. Which begs the question: how far can a style of perfume that began as an intellectual exercise really go?
“A single-note fragrance may be very linear, it may not change over time. But when you really dive into smelling single molecules, some of them are very simple, but some of them are incredibly complex. Complex in a way that you wouldn't imagine it could just be a single molecule,” says Ashley Eden Kessler, director of education at Los Angeles’ Institute for Art and Olfaction and founder of Studio Sentir, a private fragrance label.
Those who study perfumery materials have a particular appreciation for such molecules, she notes. But they can be almost imperceptible to the wearer — some report they cannot smell certain minimal scents at all — even while they are alluring to others. For those who claim not to smell a certain musk or Iso E Super, she suggests conducting a triangle test: spray one paper strip with the scent, leave the other two blank, and try smelling again.
“I have never had somebody not be able to pick out the one that had the scent versus the one that had no scent,” Kessler says. True anosmia to a certain molecule can happen, but is quite rare, she adds. “More accurate is, people have a hard time describing it. Because that relationship between odor and language is so tenuous until you spend a lot of time immersing yourself with the fragrance and exercising the brain's plasticity, in order to make connections between the part of the brain that perceives and deals with scent and the part of the brain that deals with language.”
There is a reason why some can struggle to smell a molecule isolated on its own, like Iso E Super, or Cetalox, or Javanol, the synthetic sandalwood-esque aroma behind Molecule 04. These minimal perfumes feature base notes, the long-lasting aroma chemicals that give a perfume its staying power; the larger the molecule, the greater its staying power, but the more difficult it is for the nose to perceive it. By contrast, top notes like citrus are smaller, more volatile, and hence dissipate more quickly, but are instantly identifiable on the nose as lemon, lime, grapefruit, or bergamot.
But there remains a certain mystique to those long-lasting but elusive notes. For Nobi Shioya, founder of brands A Lab on Fire and What We Do is Secret, the inspiration for his Monoscent line comes from such a molecule, reminiscent of his youth: Galaxolide, a synthetic musk aroma created in 1957 and commonly used in laundry detergents. The smell imbued the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood when he was growing up, he says, but remains in the air in a more subliminal way.
“Sometimes it just smells to me like a very faint smell. And I almost can’t smell anything,” he says of Galaxolide. “It's like a ghost. When you put a spritz on the jacket or something and you wear it from time to time; a few months later, you are smelling it all over the room or house and thinking, ‘Where is it coming from?’”
Shioya used the aroma chemical to create his Monoscent G, released originally in 2016 and relaunched in 2020 with new packaging, but the idea itself dates back to 2005 he says, when he was running a perfume blog. He sat on the idea after seeing the popularity of Molecule 01, but with the launch of other minimal scents like Juliette Has a Gun’s Not a Perfume, he decided to execute his initial idea. Along with Monoscent G, Shioya also released Monoscent E, which uses another familiar aroma: Timbersilk, an aroma chemical created by International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) that is woody, cozy — similar to, you guessed it, Iso E Super.
The public's interest in minimal scents doesn't seem to be slowing down, and Kessler predicts that this is just the begining of the one-note perfume boom. “There are new molecules being produced all the time,” she says. “I think that is pretty limitless, and the more people have exposure to single molecules, the more they will be able to appreciate and perceive them.”
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