Suzy Le Helley - Symrise

Madagascar, a unique testing ground for natural ingredients – Suzy Le Helley (Symrise)

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Natural ingredients often represent a crucial challenge for composition houses. They can also be a source of inspiration for ambitious initiatives driven by the desire for olfactory innovation and the goal of establishing and promoting transparent and lasting supply chains. In Madagascar, a unique location in terms of the number of perfume plants that grow there, vanilla among them, the Symrise teams work hard to develop unusual ingredients. Perfumer Suzy Le Helley tells us the story of this close-knit collaboration with the island’s small-scale producers and the issues involved.

Where did the idea of making Madagascar pivotal to Symrise’s natural ingredients come from?

Vanilla was initially the reason for our presence on the island. Originally from Mexico, it’s been grown on the island since the beginning of the 20th century, and Madagascar is now the world’s number one producer.

Our flavour division set up there in 2003, and in 2014 we opened our own extraction and distillation factory. At the same time, perfumers were visiting the island to meet some of the 7,000 smallholder partners we work with and to find out how we could diversify our activities in this unique land, home to a host of other perfume plants, spices, and trees. It’s important to keep in mind that for local people, vanilla is a source of income that suffers from major price fluctuations and seasonal variations: from January to July, once the flowers are pollinated, all you can do is wait. But you can also grow and harvest lots of other things during that period! We have built bonds of trust with a network of farmers and we are committed to helping them make the most of their time and their soil.

How has this commitment translated into concrete actions?

When we arrived on the island, plants were already widely used for their healing properties, especially as essential oils. This meant that lots of local distilleries operated bush stills. We carried out our first distillation tests locally, then worked on improving practices so that essences reached the olfactory standard required for fine perfumery. We wanted to determine what soil type is best suited to what plant, how long it takes to dry it, how to crush and extract it, and so on. We invested in land and farms where we perform various trials that have a direct influence on our product development. This technical learning process has been run in close collaboration with local people for the last five years, guided by our perfumers. And we’ve developed a whole collection of raw materials as a result.

Other than vanilla, what else can be found on the island?

Ginger, cinnamon, ylang-ylang, vetiver, and patchouli, as well as more unusual ingredients like the leaves of pink peppercorn, which wasn’t used in perfumery until now, red lemongrass, and Bay Saint Thomas [also called West Indian bay tree]. And then there’s the pepper that gets distilled on site, when it’s fresh, to obtain an essence with a green, pea-like aroma. We also have a mandarin that’s unique on the market, obtained by manual expression, which is a good example of the originality we can bring to an ordinary material.

What do you feel is the significance of these initiatives?

Traditionally, Symrise tends to be associated with chemistry and technology rather than with naturals. Madagascar is one of the pillars of our development in this  eld, a strategy we have been putting a good deal of effort into over recent years. The challenge is to extend, improve, and enrich our palette of ingredients, but also to give a lasting future to supply chains that can be fragile, thus ensuring stable quality. It also means we can offer our clients real transparency and full product traceability.

After a long period which saw the naturals market dominated by traders, people again want to know where ingredients come from, how they’re grown, and who grows them. Madagascar helps us lift the curtain on what happens behind the scenes in the world of our natural materials.

This interview is from : The Big Book of Perfume, Collective, Nez éditions, 2020, 40€/$45

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