A behind-the-scenes look at perfume research and development; a demanding course in the chemistry of fragrance; and the story behind the development of a scientific theory about how humans detect odors.
Biophysicist Turin, dubbed The Emperor of Scent in Chandler Burr’s 2003 biography, now serves as chief scientist of a company that creates fragrance molecules to order. He derived his still-controversial theory that a substance’s odor is based on the frequencies of its molecules’ vibrations from a 1977 article by R.H. Wright, who in turn derived it from Malcolm Dyson’s papers of the 1920s and ’30s. The author gives full credit to both men, whose work was not recognized in their lifetimes, and makes clear that he too still struggles to have his vibration theory accepted by those who believe that molecules’ shape gives them their odor. Although illustrated with diagrams and drawings, the chemistry sections may still daunt some general readers. Turin’s metaphors help, however. What distinguishes this account, besides the author’s wit and his enthusiasm for fragrance, is his florid writing about scents. Turin has a remarkable ability to detect and describe their complexity: For him, they are not simply odors; they speak and have personality and colors. “The voice of Nombre Noir was that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated and faintly capricious,” he rhapsodizes. “There was a knowing naivety about it which made me think of Colette’s writing in her Claudine books. It brought to mind a purple ink to write love letters with.” Along with lily of the valley, sandalwood and musk, however, the author provides a heavy load of aldehydes, acetophenone and protein semiconductors.
Occasionally impenetrable, but overall a fascinating tour of the world of fragrance, provided by a knowledgeable and passionate expert.