When you look back over the history of perfume making there are only a few ingredients which can be said to be that which launched an entire genre. When it comes to the aquatic class of fragrance there is one chemical which is responsible for this, Calone.
Calone has the trivial name of Watermelon Ketone and for once the name is actually chemically correct as Calone (see above) is a cyclic ketone. It was discovered in 1951 by chemists working at Pfizer. It was being designed as a food flavoring agent to “give a watermelon taste and odor to foods.” according to the 1970 US Patent.
Calone by itself does not have any of the pleasant smell you associate with it in fragrance. At full concentration, in its white crystalline form, it has a nose–searing acrid smell. It takes significant dilution before the more palatable aspects become apparent. Because of the kind of molecule Calone is it also has a ferocious tenacity to it. Another reason there was so much interest in using it; especially for the crowd which equates longevity with quality. Mix Calone and one of the synthetic musks and you have a perfume which will literally last for days.
It would make its perfume debut in 1988 when perfumer Yves Tanguy would use it in Aramis New West. In that perfume you got the hint of what it would become known for as it provided this fresh sea-breeze quality. It also adds in the watermelon part too. For all that the Pfizer chemists wanted to use it as a flavor and the trivial name makes it seem like this should be a fruity note; it really isn’t. The watermelon part is not the rich pulp of the fruit but more the watery rind with subtle fruity facets. In New West that watery fruity quality is very much on display especially in the heart when the marine breeze has died down a bit.
It would take two more years before it was the centerpiece of the aquatic perfume which launched a genre, Davidoff Cool Water. Perfumer Pierre Bourdon would take Calone out and let it become the crashing surf as wave after wave of aquatic sea breeze washes over you. In Cool Water the melon quality is really overwhelmed by the marine character.
Calone has become one of the most common ingredients in fragrance. If it says “sea breeze” on it; it is very likely there is Calone in it. That kind of ubiquitous presence has taken Calone from groundbreaking to cliché over the last twenty-five years. The overwhelming tidal wave of aquatics featuring it continues to this day. It has become almost a note which perfumers shy away from because it has become so overused.
Chemists at Firmenich have been working on making a better version of Calone and just at the beginning of this year published a paper on that work. Next month’s Olfactory Chemistry will take you into how changing the structure of Calone leads to some interesting new smells.