It is not simple compartmentalising perfumery into either pure sciences or arts. In the beginning of the “era of fragrances”, with the creation of what most perfumists and scent enthusiasts considered the start of modern-day perfumery – No.5 by Chanel, a brain child of Ernest Beaux in 1921 – No.5 was already created through synthetic molecules made by the organic chemists of the time.
The main idea behind the No.5 was to tell a story by creating an abstract scent, something that cannot be fully described or put in a box by nature alone, aided by adding synthetic aldehydes. So, even in the Gatsby year of 1920s, the scientific and artistic parts of perfumery were impossible to separate.
When it comes to perfumery or candle fragrance manufacturers, there is a range of analogies that can be drawn to visual art and music productions. Is it safe to say that good music is a mixture of different sound frequencies that sound pleasant to the ears? Can we say museum art is just an amalgamation of pigments and brushstrokes that reflect colour in our eyes? I hope you answered “no” to these questions because each art composition represents a different tune, a story, without which the intrinsic value of these creations would diminish.
The olfactory region of our brain is where smells are processed. It is closely connected to other brain regions that are involved in emotion (amygdala), memories (hippocampus) and the orbitofrontal cortex also known as the multisensory regions. Through the intricate connections, the olfactory system forms a bridge to our emotions and memories. The odour messages are then interpreted through the different parts of the brain to evoke emotions in the form of actions, thoughts and feelings.
Scientists are now well aware of the ways human senses can be saddled to manage their own well-being. Modern-day fragrances are, thus, designed to create the best mental picture of an emotional experience; the perfect scent to induce calm for a good night’s rest or a warm musky soother for that soak in the bath after a long day.
I doubt any of us that have delved deep into the process of perfume making, branding and marketing or just consuming it as a casual wearer or blogger, would not think of some parts of the journey from test phials to seeing the product on the aisles as not having an element of artifice attached with it.
Since perfumes are mainly used as a fashion accessory, it is a way towards self expression and personality. It can either make you calculative on the many weird chemicals used for its creation or find solace in the artistic impression. I think that what lies within the debate of whether or not perfumery is an artform or purely scientific is the matter of where, to which part of the course, does either term apply. Do we think that a candle fragrance manufacturer is crafty or simply a wielder of chemicals, natural or synthetic to make a product? It all depends on our perception of it.
The science of fragrance notes
Perfumery is known as the act of formulating perfumes. The basic ingredients included in different scents are fragrant chemicals like essential oils and solvents. The former are volatile with low molecular weight which means that they easily evaporate from liquid to gaseous state – the main form for olfactory perception. On the other hand, alcohol is used to dilute and mix these essential oils together.
In the process of perfume making, the aim is to combine the essential oils for the ideal scent and divide them into three main notes: top, middle and base – all depending on their ability to evaporate from liquid to gas.
The top or “head” notes are the first ones to evaporate. They are smelled during the 15 minutes of initial exposure with a citrusy, floral and fresh odour. A class of compounds called monoterpenes fall under the top notes since they have low molecular weight. Some examples of monoterpene compounds are geraniol in geranium and citronellol in citronella.
Also known as the “heart” notes, middle notes are the main characters of any scent. Being volatile compounds with a higher boiling point compared to the top note, middle notes are more fixative and last longer with either a woody or musky scent, up to 4th hour of application. Some candle fragrance manufacturers get their sources from either natural compounds like eugenol from basil and anisyl alcohol from aniseed or heavier terpenes like diterpenes and sesquiterpenes.
Lastly, we have the base notes; the slowest to evaporate. Similar to the top and heart notes, they are also highly volatile, but with a higher boiling point, they take time to vaporize. A base odour is released at the 5th or 8th hour of application which makes them the most fixative amongst the top and middle. The base notes are responsible for bringing depth to the perfume scent that could be woody, floral or a mixture of both. Some examples are vanillin of vanilla and diterpenes from cypress.
The scientific art-form
If a perfumer is responsible for making the ideal scent from the fragrances available, it is the chemist’s job to expand the note palette for usage. In this respect, both the organic analysis and synthesis – the structural illustration of natural odour compounds – are of immense importance. Total synthesis provides easy access to materials for candle fragrance manufacturers which otherwise will be prohibitively expensive and unsustainable to expend.
It is all about mixing the correct formula while picking the correct ingredients for a fragrance. Rose oxide, for instance, has a dry green top note and having easy access to the synthetics, a skilled perfumer can alter the compounds present in each and create a unique interpretation of the “rosy” odour. Just like that, a new impression of rose scent results from the chemist’s “eye” for artistic expression.
Perfumery: To each their own
Today, science has provided perfumers and candle fragrance manufacturers with the golden rule to fill an ideal scent with 25% of top notes, 30-40% of middle notes and 45-55% of base notes. The former is a tool that helps artists and chemists achieve what they want to achieve, but in the end the mutual goal is to “create,” making something out of pure imagination with the tools at your disposal.
If you have no clue what the tool box contains, you can still do many things, but with a wild imagination and an open mind towards innovation, you will create the fragrance of your dreams. Philip, a fragrance molecule designer at the Givaudan’s Perfumery School, says that they design molecules scientifically but apply them with an artistic form. The tools remain the same but the results are different every time, and that is the space where you find art.
No doubt, understanding fragrance manufacturing through science can give a better idea on how perfumes are formulated and then converted to consumer impression. Both longevity and scent can be bettered by learning about the chemical properties of each ingredient. The trial and error is still performed, however, as the grit for the scent still depends on personal preferences. That is the art behind perfumery that scientists cannot attach a formula to. One can safely conclude with this that perfumery is both an art and a science.
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