For most of my adult life, I’ve been fragrance-free. That’s not because I don’t like scents, perfumes, eaux de cologne, and the like. I do. But I outgrew the scents I used as a teenager–Eau Sauvage and, yes, Canoe. I stopped dousing myself. Or perhaps I moved my powers of appreciation to my palate. I’m a food writer, and I try to identify and remember everything I eat.
Because I’m a food writer, I know how much industrial food depends on odorants, as molecules created for fragrance or flavors are called. And I’m interested in how the new “hypercuisine” or “molecular gastronomy” draws upon the technologies of industrial food to create new flavors: see the profile I wrote of Grant Achatz, the chef at Alinea in Chicago (“The Alchemist,” January/February 2007). But the food and fragrance industries use odorants in very different ways.
Food manufacturers buy odorants that mimic real flavors, although they goose them until they are almost unrecognizable–take truffle oil, which tastes nothing like truffles. But fragrance manufacturers mostly don’t bother to imitate nature. Perfumes are a mixture of natural essences, which are expensive because they require so many flowers, herbs, or spices (the extraction rate of flowers in an essential oil is at best 1 percent, and often closer to 0.1 percent), and synthetic odorants. The synthetics include “effect aroma chemicals” with little smell of their own, which extend and enhance other molecules, and “character impact chemicals,” which either cheaply mimic natural ingredients or do something that hypercuisine chefs envy: smell like nothing in nature. Blended, these ingredients can make a perfume modern, fresh, sexy, and fascinating. Or blaringly, nauseatingly domineering.
I like new things. I was curious whether a new perfume, particularly one made with novel scents, could appeal to me.
Finding your own fragrance can be as difficult and complicated as finding the right partner in life, and a lot harder than deciding what to eat. It’s sexual in its overtones, which helps explain why $38 billion worth of perfume is sold every year. Cruising the first floor of Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston is like cruising a certain kind of bar: you get to test anything that appeals, brutally snub whatever bores or repels you, and take home whatever you find really attractive.
In perfume aisles Luca Turin is an homme aux femmes, ready to be ravished. Turin is a biophysicist, currently at MIT, who has a celebrated, notorious passion for perfume. He didn’t invent the discipline of perfume criticism, but he redefined it, opening up a new branch of aesthetic evaluation with a dazzling field of reference and punchy pungency. The English magazine Prospect called his 2008 book Perfumes: The Guide, which he wrote with Tania Sanchez, “bigoted, snarling, monomaniacal, subjective, triumphalist, and quite magnificent.” He and Sanchez are Pauline Kaels of the fragrance world, revered and reviled.
The two (who are married) are sensual in their reviews. Turin, who met me at Saks, told me that the 1971 Chanel No. 19 was a “bitch perfume, like green sharkskin pumps.” He writes of a perfume by Le Labo that after three minutes, “Oud 27 becomes properly pornographic: a wet-hair note and a couple of macrocyclic musks of the kind found near the rear end of deer take over … . Great fun, brilliant perfumery, and, for once, really raunchy.”
Any lesson in the art and history of perfumery starts at the Chanel counter, to which Turin kept returning during our pinballing tour. That’s because Chanel No. 5 is the definitively modern, composed perfume–a pretty, very sweet floral made with jasmine and rose, which are always expensive, and a surprising amount of violet, which is to the fragrance industry what vanilla is to food: the first successfully synthesized floral. But Chanel No. 5 also has a significant proportion of novel chemicals: a blend of aliphatic aldehydes that both buffer the sweetness and enhance it, giving the perfume an artificial scent. They also give it structure. The Belgian perfumer René Laruelle calls synthetics the bones of fragrance, naturals the flesh.