Chemistry 101: Gamma-Undecalactone / Persicol


Gamma-undecalactone, Periscol, Peach Aldehyde, C14

“Jacques Guerlain built Mitsouko by breaking the power of the oak moss with a natural jasmine and, more significantly, a new synthetic molecule that had recently appeared. Jukov and Schestakow might have patented aldehyde C-14 (actually not an aldehyde but a lactone; it’s real name is gamma-undecalactone) in 1908, but Michael Edwards reports that it had been available from other suppliers, and it was probably Firmenich that introduced Jacques Guerlain to the molecule in the form of a base it called Persicol, which it had put on the market in 1908. C-14 was a marvel, a fruity, aromatic, delicious scent that gave ripe peach skin. Guerlain plugged C-14 into the equation perfectly (the rumor is, actually, similar to Chanel 5, that he in fact accidentally overdosed the stuff; who knows), and Mitsouko became a thing of subtle opulence, strength and balance and silken twilight.”  Chandler Burr

When I was researching my piece on the perfumes of Jacques Fath, I came across Persicol, which was used in Fath’s famous Iris Gris. Intrigued, I did a bit more investigating and found that this is the same ingredient that can be found in both Mitsouko and Diorella.  Arguably three of the 20th century’s most important fragrances all tied together by this common thread.

I had to smell it, and luckily one of my very generous perfume fairy-godmothers bestowed upon me a small vial.

It initially gives me the impression of succulent, juicy peaches, which is accompanied by a fleshy quality as the scent dries down. Mouth-watering and marvelous!

From Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent…

“The confusingly named delta-undecalactone, made by adding a six-carbon side chain at ten o’clock to the lactone has a fuzzy peach odour. Discovered in 1908 by Russian chemists Zhukov and Shestakov, it was sold under the name Persicol and is directly responsible for two of the greatest fragrances in perfume history. The first is Mitsouko, the masterpiece Jacques Guerlain created in 1919 during his arms race with Francois Coty. Two years earlier, Coty had come up with the splendidly abstract but austerely angular Chypre. Guerlain was apparently bowled over by Chypre, and tried to go one better. Typically his idea was to add a bit of comfortable plush to Coty’s austere chic, and he hit upon Persicol. To say that Persicol made Mitsouko is a bit like saying Carrara marble made Bernini’s Daphne. It took all of Jacques Guerlain’s genius to make it work. Fortunately, though Chypre is long gone, Mitsouko is still with us and Guerlain’s new owners LVMH have so far treated it with respect. The second, perhaps even more astonishing, fragrance is Jacques Fath’s Iris Gris of 1947. Composed by Vincent Roubert, it is to date perhaps the only completely successful iris. Most iris are ideal fragrances for a funeral. Faced with this chronic melancholia, Roubert hit on the brilliant idea of livening it up with the equally powdery but vastly more sanguine peach of Persicol. The result went seamlessly from grey to pink like the feathers on a pigeon’s throat.”

(I do have to agree that the multiple names is super confusing. A bit like some London streets…)

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