As a kid I spent many hours watching my father restoring old saxophones. He'd disassemble them at our dinner table, work on the mechanical parts, replace the pads under the keys, and put all the tiny bits and screws back in place. His work always paid off, giving us both a great feeling of satisfaction and pride. I've loved beautiful instruments and machines for as long as I can remember, and have always looked up to people with technical skills. Browsing through the second edition of The Chemistry of Fragrances painfully reminded me that I have no such skills myself. It made me realize that I've been wearing fragrances for over a decade, and that I was only vaguely aware of how perfumes are actually created and developed. This book, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, deals with all the essential steps in the industrial-creative process, from handling perfume ingredients to toxicological testing and the outlining of a fragrance brief.
Rather than a do-it-yourself guide for budding perfumers, this is a comprehensive reference book with lots of in-depth insights into technical issues. Like Sagarin's The Science and Art of Perfumery (1945), Theimer'sFragrance Chemistry (1982), and Muller & Lamparski's Perfumes: Art, Science and Technology (1991), it's more likely to be found on the shelves of fragrance manufacturers than in a perfumista's collection. But if you know your way around in chemistry, you might find this an incredibly rewarding read.
The first twenty pages are easily accessible to anyone. David Pybus (the man behind Scents of Time) writes about the history of perfumery and aromachemistry through what he calls the "seven ages of Chivalry, Alchemy, Discovery, Revolution, Empire, Fashion" and "the New Millennium" (p. 4). Despite this awkward historical division it's great fun to read, and a nice preface to the rest of the book. Pybus highlights the impact of social revolutions in North America and France on the perfume trade, and quotes an often cited British sumptuary law from 1770 to illustrate past social restrictions on perfumes:
All women whether of rank or professional degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall from after this Act impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of his majesty's subjects by the use of scents, potions, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heels, shoes* or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours, and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall be null and void. (p. 16).
Obviously, cultural history plays only a minor part in The Chemistry of Fragrances. Ten industry specialists focus on issues like biosynthesis (how animals and plants produce fragrant materials) and various methods of extraction, and give lengthy descriptions of terpenoids, musks, and ingredients derived from benzene, toluene, phenol, naphtalene, aliphatic materials, cyclopentanone, and dicyclopentadiene. I list these names on purpose, to give you an idea of the kind of terms that frequently recur in this book.
The chapters are written by different authors, and vary in length and difficulty. Some parts are quite accessible: in Chapter 6, for example, you can read how a fragrance brief is created; similarly, Chapter 8 discusses marketing, sensory analysis, and the psychology of perfume. The great thing is that all authors try to combine theoretical knowledge with practical experience: they give us a peek into their lab, showing us how they conduct their experiments, what methods they use, and the problems they encounter. Given the recent debate on safety regulations in perfumery, Chapter 10 is a particularly enlightening read on safety and toxicology issues. It gives an excellent overview on the origins of the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), and explains how they create and develop their standards.
It takes more than an average knowledge of chemistry to fully appreciate this book from cover to cover. But if you lack this background, you can skip the technical chapters, and discover many things that you would rarely read about in magazines, online forums, and blogs. An eight-page long index allows you to look for specific keywords, and the very extensive bibliography is sorted thematically, separating technical books on perfumery from titles on natural materials, synthetics, olfaction, and other related subjects. It even features a scratch-and-sniff photograph of a lavender field hidden somewhere in the middle of the book. The price is a little steep (I paid around 45 USD for my copy), but it's still a relative bargain compared to other technical books on perfumery.
* in an alternate version it says "high-heeled shoes".
The Chemistry of Fragrances is edited by Charles Sell, and published by the Royal Society of Chemistry with the support of Quest International (now Givaudan). It was first published in 1999, but for this review I used the updated, second edition (2006). Other great sounding titles from the RSC are The Chemistry of Explosives and The Science of Ice Cream.
Charles Sell, ed.
The Chemistry of Fragrances. From Perfumer to Consumer (2nd edition)
Cambridge, UK: RSC Publishing (2006)
hardcover, 329 pages