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THE 5TH's Synesthesia and “Safe-Synthetic”-Driven Approach to Perfumery

Published December 1, 2021
Published December 1, 2021

Scent is more than smell. Ask the founders of THE 5TH, a synesthesia-molded fragrance line. Created by sibling duo George and Hannah Lawrence, whose backgrounds are in advertising and finance respectively, the brand emphasizes a new experience of fragrance through the use of “safe synthetics.”

The number 5 is omnipresent in their lives: from lucky numbers to former apartment addresses, the number of siblings in their family, even the company’s trademark registration publication date. George Lawrence has grapheme color synesthesia, which is defined by seeing letters, numbers, and words as colors. One morning in 2019 on the London Underground, he caught a whiff of a stranger’s perfume and was transported back to the memory of sitting in a Brooklyn hotel with his sister. This moment, paired with his lifelong synesthesia, inspired him to leave behind his job at a London advertising agency in order to found the fragrance brand.

He envisioned the original spelling of the brand name, THE FIFTH, as a brown color, so the duo decided on THE 5TH as the final name, perceived by him as a more desirable green-blue shade. An outsider perspective permeates THE 5TH, whether it is using synesthesia to craft fragrances, or the fact that both siblings experienced NYC as expats. “The weird, the wonderful and the wacky, sometimes that makes a great scent. With the outsider perspective, we are drawing on things that I think naturally that insider brain has been trained not to go on,” Hannah Lawrence tells BeautyMatter.

The debut fragrance, DŪMBO, has top notes of cardamom and tea, heart notes of driftwood, rose, and frankincense, and base notes of sandalwood, tonka, and vetiver. Upon first sniff, it is a smooth, multilayered creation which eludes gender, a warm, slightly spicy, yet skin-like fragrance. It’s comforting yet sophisticated, modern yet approachable. The formula is free of parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, as well as vegan and cruelty free.

The at-times conflicting views on parabens and phthalates have been a key discussion point in the industry, polarizing the camps of consumers and chemists, but THE 5TH’s founders saw a discerning eye on ingredients as a non-negotiable. “Of course initially you are thinking, I don’t want the shelf life to be short or the fragrance to not last on the skin. We have gone on the advice of perfumers and our own research. There’s so much discussion about their potential harm, if we can make fragrance without them, we would rather err on the side of caution. That was the tipping point for us,” she explains.

To compensate for the lack of fixative properties in these ingredients, they used longer-lasting notes such as frankincense or sandalwood. “I would rather apply my fragrance a couple of times more than worry about what I'm putting on my skin,” she comments. One could argue that the consumer fixation on beastly sillage and days of wear-time was driven by prestige pricing in fragrance, the desire to get the most bang for your high-end buck. But she sees a more natural approach which may require reapplication as an opportunity to indulge in the pleasures of perfume application, rather than a product handicap. “We’ve been led to believe that if a fragrance doesn’t last long, then it must not be very good, when actually it could be using the most incredible and high-quality perfumery. You don’t need things to last these unnatural amounts of time. There’s a magic in reapplying your fragrance, you get to relive the whole thing all over again,” she adds.

Another concept in need of recasting in her eyes is the demonization of synthetics. “People just mistakenly and unknowingly stigmatize synthetics. Synthetics often can be cleaner, but people run with the romanticism of naturals, which makes them more desirable, which marketers then jump on the back of,” she states. This perpetuation of naturals as cleaner, while great for product marketing, means that a lot of consumers and industry members are misinformed about the very materials they are experiencing.

Their creation mantra is a mix of naturals and safe synthetics. “One of our main reasons for using synthetics is to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. A lot of people say that, marketing-wise, to build a successful brand now you want to kind of hit these trends of clean and sustainable, and those trends don't go together,” she continues. Indeed, the environmental costs of extracting natural raw materials versus lab-made materials are drastically different. However, when it comes to fragrance creation, a majority of perfumers will echo the sentiment that you need a mix of both formats for a multidimensional product that captures the best of both worlds.

The fragrance was created together with Galimard and their in-house perfumer, Caroline de Boutiny. But Lawrence is quick to admit that they didn’t originally set out to work with such a heritage fragrance manufacturer, which has been around since 1747. Nonetheless, despite Galimard’s perfumery pedigree and history, the duo found a forward-thinking and multidisciplinary partner in de Boutiny. “She had a really modern, contemporary vision of what perfumery is. Working with a younger perfumer in an old house, who has more challenging views on what perfumery can be, that pair made the perfect combination for who we wanted to work with,” she explains.

Another way THE 5TH is hoping to question perfumery is with its gender-free rather than unisex approach. While adopting terms that are not as widespread as their predecessors may make algorithm success more difficult, it is a concept that they stand firmly behind. “Unisex would make you assume that there's only two genders. We want to remove ourselves from those traditions of marketing techniques for clean beauty and gendered perfume completely,” she states.

Currently a purely DTC brand, they have no physical retailers at this point in time due to the often olfactory overload it brings. Instead, full-size bottles are sent with free samples so customers can try the fragrance before committing. “We genuinely think you will experience the scent better if you are experiencing it at home and in your own time rather than going into a store. However, we don't want to make ourselves unavailable to people who still enjoy that traditional experience. We will probably limit ourselves to stores that are a little less cluttered,” she states.

As for the brand’s future, the duo isn’t interested in doing another New York-themed fragrance in order to avoid boxing themselves into one particular theme. “The inspiration and reference points behind our next scent are pretty unusual. There’s no specific location tied to it. Anything is a possibility, there’s nothing that is off-limits to us,” she says. “We feel that with fragrance, with e-commerce, with synthetics, all of those traditional perceptions of the way you should experience a fragrance and the fragrance world can be shifted.”


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