Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Un-common scents

Under "sentences that make you go 'huh,' " read this passage from Chandler Burr's explanation (in The Perfect Scent, which I also wrote about here) of how junior perfumers learn to put molecules together to create olfactory illusions:

They learn, as Ellena knew from decades of work, how to create the illusion of the scent of freesia with two simple molecules . . . And orange blossom: linalool +methyl anthranilate, which by itself smells like blossom + aspirin. The classic Guerlain perfumes often used a resinoid material called styrex, which smells of olive oil pooled on a table in a chemical factory. Add 2-phenylethyl alcohol, one of the main molecules in rose, and you get lilac. Add the smell of corpse (indole), you get a much richer lilac.
Who knew?!

Burr takes some time to argue, convincingly to me at least, that showing the science behind the wizard's screen would enhance, rather than detract from, perfume's prestige -- he's arguing against an industry "blindly and adamantly convinced that the public will only buy perfumes it believes to be 'natural.' Here's the analogy he offers:

Creating perfume is exceedingly complicated. It is an art form that is, for example, infinitely more complex than, say, making clothing. Cutting silk crepe into a dress means a piece of silk crepe cut and stitched--expertly, we can stipulate--into the form of a dress. Add the neurosis necessary to get people to spend three thousand dollars for the thing, and you're done. Perfume, by contrast, is, fundamentally, mastering organic chemistry, and it involves cutting and sewing together pieces of the periodic table of the elements, trying to choreograph electrons that often react to each other in surprising ways, and cajoling molecules into a single mesh that has structure, durability, and stability--not to mention beauty, originality, and commercial appeal. It takes all of this to create a formula.

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