The Emperor of Scent

First I must apologize for my sudden obsession with scent. It just seems to get more interesting by day.

In my searching for a few Perfume guides in the bookstore, I came across this new book–The Emperor of Scent, A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses, by Chandler Burr. It is a biographical narration of a British Scientist Luca Turin, who recently (1995) formulated a theory on how our noses work, how we human smell. Apparently it is molecular vibration of each scent molecule that our brain recognizes.

Chemistry was my worst subject when I was in school. It frustrated me because for every nicely written theory or theorem, there are at least ten exception cases associated with it. Unlike in Physics and Math, where one only needs to understand the theory and apply them and everything will be peachy, in Chemistry, it is all about memorization of those exception cases, the ones that actually follow the so-called theories are rarities and no teacher has ever tested them in exams.

But this book’s author, Chandler Burr, made biophysics (a combination of molecular biology, Chemistry and Quantum Physics) sounds so much fun. Those crazy hateful molecules made up of single, double, or triple bound among various atoms suddenly turned into lively and funny actors, each with its own distinct personality, hurriedly went on its merry way to find a friend that they can bind with and sing their little note in the chord of a perfume.

Look at this paragraph for example, where the author was trying to explain “electron tunneling” (Don’t worry, I myself had no idea what this term meant before I read on! So read on.).

Electrons are extremely inquisitive creatures, and they want to go everywhere. So they zip along inside conductors until they come to a gap, and then they crowd the edge of this atomic cliff and impatiently try to find a way to jump across to the other side. And you can just insert a bridge into that tiny gap “a single molecule will do, just jam it in there” and the electrons will enthusiastically rush through that molecule (It’s called “tunneling” because they actually burrow through the thing like frenetic moles) and across to the other side.

See? Electrons are curious creatures and they are adventures, how marvelous! Can you imagine having a teacher like this in your high school class? I would be hooked on science, no doubt!

Luca Turin, the scientist who figured out smell, is a brilliant biologist by training, a self-taught chemist and also learned enough physics to make his theory work. He has a marvelous talent to “nail any odor descriptively in a few words.” And he remembers each smell like a concrete event, each perfume like a movie or symphony. Here are some descriptions from Turin, where he compared perfume notes and perfumes to various classical composers.

–“I’ve always thought that esters, fruity, are Mozart. The melon notes –helional, for example –strike me as the watery Debussy harmonies, the fourths. Beethoven in his angrier moments is quinolines, which you get in green peppers. Thus Bandit, a dark, angular Beethoven string quartet. There’s a lot of perfumery that smells like Philip Glass’ minimalism, a deceptive simplicity. Mitsouko I think is pure Brahms, the string sextets, extremely intricate but rather monochrome. Tommy Girl gives you Prokofiev’s First Symphony.”

I’m on page 196 out of 305. This book also did an excellent job at explaining how the perfume industry, one of the most secretive industries in today’s world, works. In addition, there are plenty academic back-stubbing going on to fulfill anyone’s curiosity. : )

I will leave you with some beautiful perfume evaluations made by Turin, who wrote a Perfume Guide for fun in 1992.

Le Feu d’Issey (Issey Miyake)

The surprise of Feu d’Issey is total: smelling it is like a frantic videoclip of objects that fly past at warp speed: fresh baguette, lime peel, clean wet linen, shower soap, hot stone, salty skin, even a fleeting touch of vitamin B pills. Whoever created this has that rarest of qualities in perfumery, a sense of humour. A reminder that perfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence.

-Luca Turin

Chanel 19 (Chanel)
Chanel’s mastery of raw materials and orchestration shines through. Starting with a tremendous leafy-peppery green as of the earthy breath of a lush jungle after a storm, the genius of 19 lies in maintaining this unripe greenness like a tense unresolved musical chord to the very end, without succumbing to sweetness. The rigor of intellectual elegance and restraint. An absolute masterpiece.

Dune (Dior)
Dune’s slow unveiling has the stately pace of classical perfumery, and culminates after an hour or so in the clangor of a strange, muffled atonal chord of vanilla/patchouli/indole, imbued with the desert-earth hues of a powder compact. Dune is more coherent and original than all the perfumes it has inspired (such as Allure) but remains curiously aloof. Distinctive without being pleasant, refined without being pretty, it radiates a rare and somewhat sullen elegance.

Tresor (Lancôme)
There is a particularly delightful stratagem in perfumery, first explored by Molinard’s Habanita, of pairing dry woody notes with a sweet, powdery core, the olfactory Arthur Miller arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe. When perfectly executed, as in Tresor, the effect is a shimmering, delectable cloud, a cross between talcum powder and caster sugar.

Amarige (Givenchy)
Built on a towering tuberose and buttressed by mighty synthetics, Amarige is an olfactory typhoon. It will put you off your food, ruin a concert, stifle a conversation, turn an elevator into a torture chamber, revive calls in Parliament for a ban on fragrances in public spaces, and disrupt radio traffic. This being said, it is unforgettable.