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The Scent of Opulence

Posted on August 10, 2022 0

The Scent of Opulence

By E. Joy Bowles, PhD, BSc Hons

What is it about luxury perfumes that links them with wealth, prestige, royalty, celebrity, or power? Are there certain aromas that are recognised as signifiers of these states? There was a perfume called “Opulence” put out by Marks & Spencer described as an “Amber Spicy fragrance for women. Top notes are Orange and Ginger; middle notes are Orchid and Pepper; base notes are Vanilla and Vetiver”1 but Marks & Spencer products are not usually considered luxury products.

The most luxurious and expensive perfumes in modern Western history have been based on the rich floral oils; for example, Chanel No.5, Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, and Joyby Jean Patou, with jasmine (Jasminum spp.), rose (Rosa spp.)and other floral absolutes at their heart. A quick internet search for perfumes worn by women celebrities showed a more recent preference for gardenia (Gardenia spp.) too. But is it just the high price of these rich floral oils and extracts that causes them to be esteemed as aromas of opulence, or is there something more to the aroma than the luxury brand and the price tag? 

In this article, we’ll look at rose (Rosa spp.), jasmine(Jasminum spp.) and gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) and assess if there is research on any of their constituents that gives us a clue to whether there is a neurobiological reason behind their use in the “perfumes of power.”

Rose Constituents

Rosa × damascena is used in Persian traditional medicine, asan essential oil, floral water, and as ground petals. A few recent systematic reviews show that rose (Rosa × damascena)has a reputation as a cure-all, and the reviewed studies looked at menstrual pain, anxiety, depression, acute pain severity and perceived stress.2-4 Unfortunately, the studies were not considered to be of high enough quality to make robust claims as to the use of inhaled rose (Rosa × damascena) essential oil for these conditions but the number of studies indicates its culturally accepted use as a panacea, particularly for conditions affecting women. 

What is it about the rose (Rosa × damascena) aroma that makes it so special? Can it be the common monoterpenols, geraniol and citronellol, which have mild anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, and which also dominate the aroma? Would a perfume made with geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil be perceived as opulent as one made with rose (Rosa × damascena), given that both share similar main constituents and have similar aromas?

Is it 2-phenyl ethyl alcohol (the sweet-smelling rose (Rosa ×damascena) chemical used in Turkish Delight candy), or damascenone, one of the minor constituents of rose (Rosa ×damascena) essential oil that has a rich, earthy, rose scent? 

According to PubChem, 2-phenyl ethyl alcohol (2-PEA) has anti-bacterial and preservative properties when used in cosmetics.5 I have only found one pre-clinical study using 2-PEA to reverse brain changes in mice exposed to chronic stress,6 which may have implications for humans with stress-related disorders, but as always, caution should be taken in presuming an effect in mice translates directly to humans. It is also likely that 2-PEA’s pleasant aroma contributes to rose (Rosa × damascena) essential oil’s perceived value. 2-PEA was ranked fifth in pleasantness (after vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), ethyl butyrate, linalool, and eugenol) out of tenaromas in a study that investigated the extent to which tensingle chemical odours were perceived as universally pleasant.7 Damascenone was shown to have in vitro anti-inflammatory properties against a wide range of proinflammatory cytokines at an IC50 of 25.8 uM.8 However, the percentage of beta-damascenone contained in rose (Rosa× damascena) essential oil is so small, it is highly unlikely that sufficient quantities would reach any cells to achieve this anti-inflammatory effect, unless the pure component was applied undiluted to the skin.

So, at this stage, it doesn’t seem as though there is any neurological or biological evidence for why rose (Rosa ×damascena) essential oil or its constituents are perceived as luxurious or add to sex-appeal or personal charisma.

Jasmine Constituents

Jasmine absolute is extracted from either Jasminum grandiflorum or Jasminum sambac. The two extracts have different percentages of the same constituents, but the key ones which carry the aroma of jasmine are the jasmones(minor components), linalool, and benzyl acetate.9Traditionally used in wedding ceremonies and religious devotions in parts of India, the aroma of jasmine (Jasminumspp.) essential oil has been associated with sensuality in Western perfumery.

However, from a chemical point of view, there are not enough studies to show why it should be associated with sensuality, apart from the linalool content that has some evidence of being relaxing and sedative.10 Cis-jasmone on the other hand is a well-known semiochemical (messaging chemical) used by plants to signal messages about aphid attack, and other damage. In mice, inhaled cis-jasmone and methyl jasmonateappeared to lengthen sleeping time induced by pentobarbital,11implying some involvement of a central nervous system mechanism mediated by Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (GABA)receptors. Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain from the research report what dosage was applied, although the mice were exposed to the chemicals for thirty minutes prior to the pentobarbital injection. A couple of clinical studies report the anxiety-soothing effects of inhaling jasmine (Jasminum spp.) essential oil,12,13 but the number of participants was small, and the essential oil constituents were not reported.

It seems possible that jasmine (Jasminum spp.) essential oil’saroma may reduce anxiety and stress, but it seems unlikely that this would be sufficient reason for its inclusion in luxury perfumes – more likely it would be the cultural perception of jasmine (Jasminum spp.) essential oil as exotic, rare and pricey.

Gardenia Constituents

Traditionally, extracts from the fruit and leaves of Gardenia jasminoides have been used therapeutically in China as likely anti-inflammatory agents, but not the extracts from the flowers.14 The essential oil’s main components are farnesene, Z-3-hexenyl tiglate, Z-3-hexenyl benzoate and linalool,15 with styrallyl acetate and cis-jasmone providing the characteristic gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) notes.16 It is interesting to see linalool and cis-jasmone appearing in gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), as well as in jasmine (Jasminum spp.), so maybe this combination can influence relaxation levels. 

Apart from the likely sedative and relaxing properties of linalool, the farnesene and the Z-3-hexenyl esters don’t appear to have any clinical evaluations as yet. 

The structure of styrallyl acetate (aka 1-phenyl ethyl acetate or gardenol) is closely related to phenyl ethyl alcohol found in rose (Rosa × damascena) essential oil, but there is no similarity between the aromas, with styrallyl acetate being a green aroma and strongly reminiscent of gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides). I could not find any clinical studies on styrallylacetate, only a caution that it is a potential skin irritant.

So, can we say there is a biological basis for the choice of rich floral essences as components of opulent fragrances? In a recent web-browsing session I found Kim Kardashian’s new line of fragrance is based on gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides).Maybe gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) is the new “opulent floral,” not because of its inherent effects, but rather because it has been chosen by a wealthy social influencer. 

Based on this very brief review of three of the most expensive floral extracts, it is probably best to say that there is nothing inherent in the biochemical effects of these extracts that influences their inclusion in luxury perfumes. Or at least nothing that has been discovered so far.

I’m happy to be disagreed with – please find me on Facebook @DrEJoyB if you would like to start a discussion about this article.


1. Fragrantica. Opulence Marks & Spencer for women San Diego. CA USA: Fragrantica; 2022 [12 May 2022]. Available from: https://www.fragrantica.com/perfume/Marks-and-Spencer/Opulence-15619.html

2. Rasooli T, Nasiri M, Kargarzadeh Aliabadi Z, Rajabi MR, Feizi S, Torkaman M, et al. Rosa Damascena mill for treating adults' anxiety, depression, and stress: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Phytotherapy research : PTR. 2021;35(12):6585-606.

3. Nasiri M, Torkaman M, Feizi S, Bigdeli Shamloo MB. Effect of aromatherapy with Damask rose on alleviating adults' acute pain severity: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complement Ther Med. 2021;56:102596.

4. Koohpayeh SA, Hosseini M, Nasiri M, Rezaei M. Effects of Rosa damascena (Damask rose) on menstruation-related pain, headache, fatigue, anxiety, and bloating: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Educ Health Promot. 2021;10:272.

5. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 6054, 2-Phenylethanol [Internet]. National Library of Medicine (US), National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2004- [cited May 12, 2022]. Available from: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/2-Phenylethanol

6. Ramadan B, Cabeza L, Cramoisy S, Houdayer C, Andrieu P, Millot J-L, et al. Beneficial effects of prolonged 2-phenylethyl alcohol inhalation on chronic distress-induced anxio-depressive-like phenotype in female mice. bioRxiv. 2022:2022.03.17.484716.

7. Arshamian A, Gerkin RC, Kruspe N, Wnuk E, Floyd S, O’Meara C, et al. The perception of odor pleasantness is shared across cultures. Current Biology.

8. Pan SP, Pirker T, Kunert O, Kretschmer N, Hummelbrunner S, Latkolik SL, et al. C13 Megastigmane Derivatives From Epipremnum pinnatum: β-Damascenone Inhibits the Expression of Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines and Leukocyte Adhesion Molecules as Well as NF-κB Signaling. Front Pharmacol. 2019;10:1351.

9. Jirovetz L, Buchbauer G, Schweiger T, Denkova Z, Slavchev A, Stoyanova A, et al. Chemical composition, olfactory evaluation and antimicrobial activities of Jasminum grandiflorum L. absolute from India. Natural product communications. 2007;2(4):1934578X0700200411.

10. Aprotosoaie AC, Hăncianu M, Costache II, Miron A. Linalool: a review on a key odorant molecule with valuable biological properties. Flavour and Fragrance Journal. 2014;29(4):193-219.

11. HOSSAIN SJ, AOSHIMA H, KODA H, KISO Y. Fragrances in Oolong Tea That Enhance the Response of GABAA Receptors. Bioscience, biotechnology, and biochemistry. 2004;68(9):1842-8.

12. Yadegari M, Mahmoodi-Shan G, Kamkar M, Vakili M. Effects of inhaling jasmine essential oil on anxiety and blood cortisol levels in candidates for laparotomy: A randomized clinical trial2021 April 1, 2021. 128-33 p.

13. Sayowan W, Siripornpanich V, Hongratanaworakit T, Kotchabhakdi N, Ruangrungsi N. The Effects of Jasmine Oil Inhalation on Brain Wave Activies and Emotions. Journal of Health Research. 2013;27:73-7.

14. Chen L, Li M, Yang Z, Tao W, Wang P, Tian X, et al. Gardenia jasminoides Ellis: Ethnopharmacology, phytochemistry, and pharmacological and industrial applications of an important traditional Chinese medicine. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 2020;257:112829.

15. Kanlayavattanakul M, Lourith N. Volatile profile and sensory property of Gardenia jasminoides aroma extracts. Journal of cosmetic science. 2015;66(6):371-7.

16. Anonis DP. Gardenia in Perfumery. Perfumer & Flavorist. 1983;8(Oct-Nov):31-7.

About the Author

E. Joy Bowles (PhD, BSc Hons) is the author of the much-loved textbook “The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils” (2003) and is a well-known speaker and teacher on the scientific aspects of aromatherapy. Her Aromatherapy Journal Club provides a platform for her to present research on various topics in aromatherapy, and inspires a lively monthly discussion forum, ideal for aromatherapy “nerds.” Visit Dr Joy’s website at: https://eo-education.teachable.com or pick up her books at: https://ejoybowles.com/books and on the NAHA Bookstore. 


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