Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Art of Scent Seduction

A fancy gold sign with cursive letters and advertisements featuring skinny, stunning models dressed in seductive clothes draw you towards Les Galeries Lafayette. You stroll into the store and immediately are greeted by the Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton haute couture. Bright lights, Gothic-style balconies and railings, ruby red velvet curtains, and a gold walls surround you. Above you is a large skylight dome covered in rich, carefully constructed stained glass designs. Excited to begin this special shopping experience, you smile and take in a breath of fresh air and smell… diesel fuel.

This event is very unlikely to take place in the famous store, and I bet it is hard to even imagine. However, this scenario makes me contemplate the fact that I take the smell of various places and things for granted, and I do not even think about the effort that goes into creating a specific smell so that I feel at ease with whatever I encounter. Many smells—whether it is smell of a specific store, a smell of a manufactured food, a smell of household chemicals, or a smell of a perfume—are carefully constructed. Going to the Musée du Parfum above the Fragonard perfume store, where Ashley and I were received a private tour about the history and process of making perfume, made me appreciate the art and beauty involved in making perfume. The smell of places like Les Galeries Lafayette, as I learned at the museum, is specific, takes a lot of effort, and consists of many layers and notes that together produce a harmonious scent.

The process of perfume making is complex. A perfumer needs to know how to obtain the substances that give off smell through synthesizing and purifying in order to get essential oils. He must dilute perfume oils with a solvent in order to be able to apply the perfume directly to the skin. The maker, thus, must understand chemistry, as made clear by the pictures in the museum of perfumers in lab coats and working with beakers and syringes. Without diluting the oils properly, allergic reactions and skin injuries are much more common. He then adds the diluted odorant to ethyl alcohol and water and lets the mixture rest for a while before bottling it. Perfumers have mastered the skill of understanding when a substance is ready to be bottled, and the amount of time for the substance to rest with the water mixture depends on the flower. One can make perfume using one of three different, very specific methods. One method involves maceration, another involves a cold maturation, and a third involves distillation. The instruments used in each method look like pieces of artwork themselves, carefully constructed by talented engineers and wood carvers.

A perfume artist has many artistic decisions to make each time he creates a scent. He must decide how concentrated he wants to make it: each de toilette is less concentrated than eau de parfum, which is less concentrated than perfume. Most importantly, he must choose his mixture of aroma solvents and essential oils. This is difficult because there are so many scent sources from which to choose: flower sources such as rose centifol, fleurs d’oranger, jasmine, minosa, violet, genet tubereue (all from very specific parts of the world), plant sources such as vetiver roots, birch, pine, coriander seeds, tomato leavaes, and animal sources such as honeycomb, seaweed, ambergris (fat made by a whale), and thousands more.

One describes the process of making perfume as though the perfumer is creating a song. There is a perfume organ, a “3-sided piece of furniture with precision, scale, and a large number of bottles used by perfumer…to create perfumes. Called an organ because perfumes are composed like music” (plaque in the museum). Each bottle, or each scent, is thus called a note, and there are over 1000 notes in some perfumers’ workshops. Various notes belong to different families—the floral, woody, oriental, or fresh family. Some of the notes are like whole notes, and others are like quarter notes, and the notes create harmonic layers. For example, one can smell the top notes, the fruity scents, immediately after application, but then the particles evaporate after 10 minutes. They are like quarter notes, and they are important for selling the perfume. Once the fruity scents go away, the middle notes, the flowery smells, which are like half notes, start to emerge. Finally, once the middle notes dissolve, the base notes, all of the other types of smells (such as the animal smells) become apparent. The base notes are like whole notes because they are more long-lasting. They do not even appear in the scent (or the harmony) until around 30 minutes after application, and they interact with the other layers of scents to create a specific musical-like score.

To make a scent, a perfume artist needs a lot of material. 3000 kilos of roses from Bulgarie makes 1 liter of perfume. This is one reason why the final scent is treated like an elegant and expensive work of art. The perfumer needs to decide how to store it, either in glass, which keeps the perfume fresh for up to three years, or in aluminum, which keeps the perfume fresh for six years because it protects it from the harmful effects of heat and light.

The perfume label is another artistic endeavor. It must seduce the consumer. In the museum, for example, we saw a French Rimmel label that was inspired by the Paris metro station and art nouveau of the early 20th century in order to attract the local population, which was amazed by the metro system at the time.

Thus, everything about perfume is carefully constructed, and a good perfumer is a master of the art of seduction. He must study for six years at a college, he must not smoke, drink alcohol or eat spicy foods, so that his nose stays sensitive to all smells, and his nose must be extraordinary and able to differentiate between thousands of smells. Because the art is so difficult to master, there are only 300 perfumers in the world! The formulas of perfumes are always secret, but even if the formulas were published, a normal person would not be able to create what perfumers create. The perfumers must be creative to decide what notes to combine to create a harmonic scent, and knowledgeable perfumers have an artistic vision that stretches beyond what is simply in the bottle. They need to consider the atmosphere of the store for which they are trying to create, the taste that one will have with a certain food smell they design, or the presentation of the bottle. Like talented artists, they have the ability to shape emotions and create memories. From now on, after this spectacular learning experience at the museum, I will always appreciate the art involved in crafting the perfumes around me.

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