Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Harmony of Scents

Now that I’ve spent almost three weeks in Paris, I have gotten used to the smell of the smoke that lingers in the air when I walk along the streets or into my apartment. So when Ali and I stepped into the Fragonard Perfume Museum last week, the aromatic mixture of scents that filled the room could not have been more appreciated. The first floor of the museum was the store of the perfume company, which was lined with brilliant shiny gold bottles and elegantly decorated perfume boxes. The dozens of open bottles for sampling allowed the fragrances to disperse throughout the store. At the foot of the stairs that led up to the museum, there was a picture of several enormous copper vats and thousands of delicate bright pink petals covering the floor. There was another picture of the Fragonard Factory in Grasse, France, resembling a yellow house surrounded by blossoming trees and lush plants.

            Upon walking up the staircase, we were quickly offered a tour of the Fragonard Museum. There was a huge picture that was composed of different images showing the perfume making process, including clear beakers containing chemicals and the hands of a chemist gently adding chemicals using an eye dropper. We quickly learned that perfume making is an immensely difficult profession that is practiced by only 300 people in the world. It takes six years of training in order to gain a strong background in chemistry. They are not allowed to smoke, drink alcohol, or consume spicy foods so that their olfactory senses will be as clear as possible. They must develop an acute enough sense of smell to distinguish between over a thousand different substances, including different types of flowers within the same species. Beyond the objective requirements, the imagination that is involved in creating the fragrances is what truly makes perfume an art. Perfumers need the ability to think of new combinations of ingredients that will produce a pleasant odor when they react with each other. Each perfume that is accepted into the industry is composed with a harmonious mixture of notes and scales that has just the right concentration. Thus, perfume making is often compared to the composition of music. This analogy was demonstrated by a piece of furniture resembling a three-sided stadium that had rows of oils in bottles on each step. This instrument is actually known as an organ, the rows are called scales, and the oils themselves are the notes. The notes contain various flowers, fruit, spices, and animal products. The fragrances are formed in layers to create a progression of effects. The flower scents rest on the top layer and have a relatively short lasting effect, like musical quarter notes. The heart layer in the middle is comprised of the fruit and spices. These scents do not disperse until 10 minutes after the perfume is applied and last longer than the top layers, similar to half notes. The base layers of animal oils, or whole notes, accompany the other notes to complete the measures of the compositions.

We learned that there are three methods for extracting the scents to create the oils: extraction, distillation, and maceration. The most common method is distillation, which involves boiling the substances in water and capturing the oils that evaporate along with the steam. They are then condensed back into liquids. The tour guide showed us a copper vat with tubes for transporting the oils that lead to a bucket where the condensation occurs.

The next room of the museum contained displays of bottles from around the world that date back to the origin of perfume. I soon realized that perfume has always been a part of our culture, playing many different roles in society over time. Ancient Greek perfumes were kept in ceramic vases with painted designs. The Roman perfumes were stored in glass bottles and thin tubes. These civilizations used perfume to purify themselves and communicate with the gods. In Egypt, certain fragrances were saved for rituals, and others were used for seduction or healing purposes. Perfume was a type of medicine in Greece as well, and it was used for hygiene. In England, there were specific beauty spots where the perfume was placed to communicate various messages, such as whether you were single or in a relationship. Some of the English perfume bottles from the 18th century were shaped like figurines of people. Pomanders, transparent spheres reminiscent of snow globes, emitted scents to soothe headaches and protect their owners from infection. They could be worn around the neck on chains; therefore, they were effective in demonstrating wealth. During the Romantic period in France, people chose scents to obtain their own personalized fragrances. My favorite French perfume on display was in the shape of a dark red ring and had baby blue stones arranged in a circle on the top, where the perfume bottle was opened.

The industry of perfume was born in France in the 19th century, illustrated by elaborate new labels displayed on the walls of the museum. Many of them were decorated with flowers and curving vines to evoke the femininity and sensuality that is associated with the fragrances. The style of art was a reflection of the modern art movement, or L’Art Nouveau. The industry is centered in Paris and is home to some of the most skilled perfumers in the world.

            After the tour, we got to sample many different Fragonard perfumes. The company has exotic flowers and fruits from many countries: mandarine, pomplemousse, amber, coriander, jasmine, vanilla, and many others. I especially liked Belle de Nuit, strategically named Beauty of the Night, which contained mandarine and had a soft, sweet scent. Now that I have learned about the history of perfume and the process of perfume making, I have a much greater appreciation for my five or six colorful perfume bottles lined up on my dresser.


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