Making Scents

An afternoon with Mandy Aftel and the ineffable magic of natural perfume

It is said that a human being can recognize 10,000 separate smells, one-tenth of what we are offered, and yet there are few words to capture and quantify fragrance. We have color wheels and musical scales, but there is no such chart for scent; we are left with vague similes -- it smelled like smoke, ammonia, peaches, mildew, grapefruit, hot concrete -- that only hint at the real experience. Deciphering and illuminating scent becomes even more difficult within the deodorized, and re-odorized, homogeny of modern climes. In my mind, the smell of freshly cut lemon has become inextricably associated with the notion of Pledge furniture polish. I say "notion" because the "lemon-fresh" scent of Pledge immediately conjures memories of my grandmother's furniture -- unapproachable antiques that were never used but were religiously polished; every time I squeeze lemon into a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea, some small part of my brain returns to that strange, cold house in Michigan and to all the emotions it entails. And that is part of the unknowable nature of smell. Of all the senses, smell is the most primordial, the most intimate, and the most emotionally evocative. Smell is the first thing a baby recognizes and the last thing a lover forgets. Unlike sounds and images, smells are fired directly into the hypothalamus -- the ancient, almond-size portion of the brain that houses pleasure, pain, sex, and sleep. Fragrance completely forgoes the brain's more analytical routing stations, so it's little wonder that the elusive, intangible quality of scent has prompted poetry, passion, and elaborate religious rites.

"The world," writes Mandy Aftelin her superb volume Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume, "was discovered in perfume's wake."

Truly, as early as 4000 B.C., precise combinations of fragrant herbs were being burned by holy men in China, Arabia, and Egypt to carry messages to the gods. Egyptian murals in Queen Hatshepsut's temple depict lengthy journeys in search of mystical myrrh. The somewhat homely Cleopatra was considered a great sorceress of scent, a skill of which certain Roman officials were highly appreciative. The Roman Empire indulged in essences as no other civilization before: Romans slathered their hair and clothes in scented oils; they bathed in exotic bouquets gathered from the farthest reaches of their empire; they rubbed their horses with perfume. Not to be outdone, the Arabs later turned entire cities into rose gardens and mixed musk into the very mortar with which they built their palaces and mosques. Nutmeg nuts were exchanged as currency in the ancient world, not because of their flavor but for their aroma.

After the fall of Rome, the use of personal scent diminished in Europe (though it remained an integral part of religious services) until the Renaissance, when the perfumed gloves of Catherine de' Medici captured the imagination of the Continent. For centuries, perfumers, like alchemists, had clung to the shadows of their darkened ateliers, coaxing forth the essence of natural materials and guarding the secret contents of their apothecaries; it was widely rumored and accepted that de' Medici's perfumer offered sorcery as much as sensory delight by making use of esoteric formulas to curry favor and repel enemies. It seemed to work. By the reign of de' Medici's son, Henry III, the use of perfume and other beauty products had become an obsession bordering on madness. The obsession has yet to ebb.

Today, international perfume manufacturers spend fortunes on scent hunters, trained "noses" who troll the world for the next big smell; when one is discovered, say, in a smoke shop in Katmandu, scientists take samples of the air, and then attempt to chemically re-create the odor, note for note. Rather than draw fragrance from a dying flower or leaf, scientists use a process known as dynamic head space chronochromatography to chart the actual molecules that make up the living scent, and then replicate it. Mood-connection researchers then use magnetic resonance imaging to chart the brain's reactions to each scent; psychological profiles are worked up to explain, in detail, how different types of consumers respond to different scents; all the resulting data is then given to a perfumer, who begins mixing smells until a new scent is born.

But this is not the type of perfuming that seduced Mandy Aftel and led her away from her full-time psychotherapy practice in Berkeley.

Aftel reminds us in her book that Carl Jung believed psychotherapy was heir to alchemy's spiritual quest (just as chemistry was heir to its science). Aftel believes natural perfumers are heir to both of alchemy's aims, but she doesn't believe in the secrecy that always accompanied the dark art of the attempted transformation of ordinary materials into gold. Her book offers step-by-step guides to understanding the tonality and composition of natural perfumes, as well as numerous formulas and a current list of suppliers for everything from natural essences to antique perfume bottles. She exposes the great mysteries of perfumery -- among them, ambergris, the mythic amberlike substance that floats on particular oceans after being expunged from the belly of sperm whales, and indole, the magical odiferous ingredient in some flowers that is also found in human feces -- and the nature of primary ingredients.

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