Monday, May 11, 2015

An Artist in a Laboratory

Sagarin, Edward, The Science and Art of Perfumery, New York, NY: Greenberg, 1955. 

The post title is the chapter title from The Science and Art of Perfumery, a book that captures how I feel about fragrance. The book was rebound into a blue, dull cover, and when I picked it up from the library, I didn't expect much from it. But it is one of my favorite overviews on the subject, covering a wide array of topics in a short and enjoyable read. I really liked Sagarin's writing style, often beautiful but never flowery, and filled with quote from poetry and prose.

The book starts with the history of fragrance, followed by a few chapters on the materials. When Sagarin discusses musk, it is sounds so tragic. The hunters lure the musk deer out by playing on flutes, leading these poor creatures to their deaths. I don't know if that's how it really worked, but it creates such a sad image to me.

From the natural materials Sagarin moves on to the creation of the early synthetics, first their attempts to duplicate, and then their attempts to create brand new aromachemicals. "An Artist in a Laboratory" is the first chapter on fragrance creation, and that, along with a chapter on flavors, tries to capture the odd nature of this work. On the one hand you're surrounded by the tools of a chemist, but on the other you're exploring the delicate nuances of a scent.

Sagarin breaks down the elements of a sample formula, covering the essential oils and molecules used. There are also chapters on odor description, marketing, business, and medicine. Despite the numerous topics, everything ties together nicely, with the rich history of perfume holding it all together. Even at the end of the book, instead of a bibliography, there is a historical overview of perfumery literature.

On the surface perfumery may seem simple, but a single fragrance can involve millions of considerations. Do you use this jasmine or that one? Even if they're pretty close, at a molecular level, they might have differences that can change the feeling of a scent. Should you use materials from endangered species? For me, it's easy to say I want to avoid the animal ingredients, but what about rosewood and sandalwood? Is it better to use synthetic materials instead with the hope of limiting environmental destruction? You need to consider the toxicity and allergenicity of the materials used, regardless of how they're derived. You need to make sure it smell good in the final product- fragrances used for laundry detergents have different considerations than personal fragrances. 

And then there's what you want to say with the fragrance you're creating. Even with all the science that goes into it, in the end you want a piece of art that speaks not only to you, but hopefully to someone else as well.

Rose Science- The scent and color of rose varies widely depending on the exact species and the type of extraction.

"And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

-T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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