Olfactory Art

The history of perfumery is the history of humanity, stretching back as far as there has been a human consciousness.

The process of learning perfumery, like any creative process, follows a general trajectory — study, knowledge, imitation, experimentation, mastery.  A perfume maker must be both chemist and artist. He or she has a palette of hundreds of ingredients, and those are just the commonly used ones; there are thousands of absolutes, distillates and aromachemicals. There is also a general pyramid of construction — basenotes, midnotes, topnotes. As an oil painter might use a foundation white, a perfume maker might reach for a musk or a distillate of aromatic wood to start building a scent.

My own work as a garage perfumer has led me down all kinds of paths, to history, to development of critical olfactory ability, to the same joy in experimentation that happens when a painting is going well. Essential distillates and aroma molecules produce when combined an “accord” — very similar to a chord played on a piano — something different than the sum of the parts. Add to that the fact that such accords can differ based on the quality or country of origin of the substances used to make them. Also that they will change over time, especially when using natural ingredients — what you made in July might smell different in December.  This is caused by combination and recombination of molecules. Mastering it all takes many years of study and trial.

Olfaction is still the most mysterious sense. Dismissed during the Enlightenment as primitive and animalistic, its reputation never really recovered. There has not been nearly as much research on olfaction as on the other senses. 

That has changed in recent years. While smell receptors connect directly with the emotional regulation areas of the brain, new research has found some cortical involvement — in other words, smell is not quite as primitive as we once thought.  There is no question, though, that its power to evoke emotion, interpretation and memory is without peer.