Indole. It’s one of the most confusing and misunderstood words in the perfume world. Few people know what it means, but a lot use it incorrectly. As a synonym for fecal or animalic. If a perfume stinks, indole is blamed. And yet, it is innocent.
Although it doesn’t smell like fecal matter, indole doesn’t have the best smell in the world. Indole, which is found in a lot of flowers, such as gardenia, jasmine, honeysuckle, lilac, and tuberose, and indeed feces too, smells like moth balls. Heavy, pungent, musky, and slightly sweet, it conjures images of decay, something that has been long forgotten and has gone bad.
If you sniff it on its own, you’ll want to run a mile away from it, and as fast as possible too. But when diluted, it helps to recreate the smell of the flowers mentioned above (and a few more), giving them that mysterious narcotic quality a lot of us love. Because of this, indole is often used in rich oriental scents. But it can also be used to evoke the radiant and lush aroma of flowers, in which case it is employed in lighter floral concoctions.
Why don’t they use real flowers? It’d be too expensive. In order to extract the scented oil, tons of flowers must be used. This makes the price skyrocket. A kilo of jasmine essence, for instance, can cost $10.000! When you use indole, the cost plummets to $10 per kilo. That’s why floral notes used in perfumes are almost always synthetic. The real thing is still used sometimes, but only in tiny amounts in pricier extraits de parfums.
But I still haven’t explained why so many people think indole smells like poop or animals’ sweat. Flowers (and perfumes) are made up of several compounds, and some of these can have a fecal and animalic odour. In the case of jasmine, what gives it that strong animalic smell is paracresol, a substance whose aroma is reminiscent of horses.
If you don’t like it, no worries. Not all jasmine scents contain indolic or animalic notes. Synthetic compounds get a bad rep, but there are so many of them, it is easy to find one that only evoke some facets of this or that flowers. Estee Lauder Jasmine White Moss, for example, smells very clean and light.
But if you do like indolic scents, you must check out Serge Lutens A La Nuit. The indolic facets of jasmine here bloom in all their splendour. If you like indole in small doses instead, give L’Artisan Parfumeur La Chasse Aux Papillons a try.
Do you like indolic perfumes?