Perfumes are big business. Each year, an estimated $27.5 billion is spent globally. Behind this huge industry is a wealth of science, and psychology to make sure the perfumes smell good, and keep attracting consumers.
About 2000 new brands or variations of brands come on the market each year, and behind each one of these new scents is a huge amount of industry, and science. According to an American market research company, the NPD group, last year perfume accounted for a whopping 27.5 billion dollars in global sales. Many of these sales are made up during the holiday season, when during every visit to a big store, you are assaulted by assistants spritzing thousands of scents, tempting you to buy. Such a lucrative and powerful industry is not just propped up by the art of combining delicate flowers, but by a whole body of science which makes sure that it can please as many new consumers as possible.
The remembrance of things past…
Professor Thomas Hummel is an olfactory expert at the University clinic in Dresden. He says that the molecules which activate our olfactory system arrive via the nose, and the back of the mouth. The olfactory cortex in the brain, is packed right up against the part of the brain which stimulates memory, which is perhaps why scent is so good at stimulating lost memories, just like in the French novelist Marcel Proust’s famous text, “The remembrance of things past” where the taste and scent of a madeleine sets him off on a journey down memory lane.
The scent of illness
Wherever and however it catches you, scent plays a huge role in our lives. So big, says Hummel, that it’s not just responsible for memory and psychology but also illness too, both causing, and signalling it.
“There is a close connection between the olfactory system and depression. People who are depressed have a decreased olfactory function. So they do not smell as precisely as people who are not depressed. It also works the other way around too, if you lose your sense of smell then you can become a little bit depressed.”
Illness, bacteria, viruses and cancers have their own smell too, adds Hummel:
“Infections have certain odors to them. We can even differentiate between the various types of bacteria that produce the different smells. If you have a good technician, these technicians can easily recognise the infection by the smell of it. Certain diseases produce certain odors and the question is how we can use that, or how this can be used in a larger context, for instance electronic noses which would sniff out certain diseases [like cancers].”
Accurate electronic noses might be some way off, but noses in the perfume industry, those magicians of creation, have always been highly prized, particularly in a time, back in the 18th century when bad odors were a way of life for everyone, as the guide in the museum at JM Farina’s, the oldest eau de Cologne in the world, in the city of the same name, explained.
“In 1709 in Cologne, rubbish and the content of toilets were just thrown out of windows and obviously no canalisation existed and this made for an absolutely horrendous smell. Added to that, the smell of the people themselves, because there were no deep drinking wells and the drinking water was considered infectious, so out of fear of getting infected, people didn’t wash, and this not only accounted for the lower classes but also the upper classes as well.”
Into this world of awful smells and heavy perfumes tripped J M Farina’s signature scent, which he called Eau De Cologne, after his adopted city. The scent, he wrote, reminded him of his childhood in Italy. Light citrussey bergamot, and fresh grassy mountains proved to be so popular compared to the heavy musks and rose of the time, that people were prepared to pay a high price, and some, like Napoleon or certain Kings used a bottle or more a day, which cost a lot, explained the guide.
“In today’s terms, considering what people paid in those days, it would have cost 2000 euros a bottle, so some people were spending about 80,000 euros a month on perfume.”
‘Scent lends political stability’
But it was worth it, because scent apparently leant political stability too, JM Farina’s guide told DW,
“There was nothing better than for an emperor to always smell the same, because if an emperor always smelt the same, the subjects would assume that this kind of person never changes, so the whole political system couldn’t change because the person was never changing.”
Which is perhaps why JM Farina works so hard to maintain the continuity of their Eau De Cologne, as Johann Maria Farina the 8th explained.
“The most important thing is that your production is always running, so everybody who is producing it, knows how it smells, and you’re also able to compensate different harvests and different origins of the different oils, and therefore via blending, get the same smell.”
Natural versus synthetics
Perfumes are still described in terms of the smells of flowers, plants, or wood that they contain, but today, many of those heady flowers you smell could be made from synthetics. This is partly due to rules and regulations, partly due to endangered and protected species like Ambergris from sperm whales, or sandalwood. Some ingredients like oak moss for instance, or even rose oils have been listed as allergens and replaced in some cases with synthetics, which keeps the perfume industry on its toes as it tries to evolve new ways of creating the fragances we know and love. At Farina, they try and use as many natural ingredients still as possible, but say that much of what is on the market now, might be described as including Jasmine or Lavender, but it’s often a synthetic version of the same.
“Bergamot oil alone contains 350 different chemical substances,” says Farina, “so it’s a perfume itself. If you were to create a totally synthetic perfume, you would have to add 350 different substances.”
A future without synthetics is impossible to imagine
Reina Maruyama, a Japanese freelance fragrance designer, says though, that without synthetics, we wouldn’t have many of the famous perfumes we know and love today, including Chanel No 5.
“Synthetic is a single ingredient, a single molecule, so it can play a very sharp, or a very transparent role, it’s actually very important in fragrances. There’s a lot of beautiful perfumes because of synthetic ingredients, that the natural ingredients cannot use. Like the orientals, you cannot make any gourmand or fruity fragrances without synthetics.”
Think the sharp sweet tang of cassis, the moreish smell of caramel or chocolate, these kinds of synthetic smells are used in lots of modern perfumes. One revolutionary use of these kinds of gourmand flavors, says Maruyama, was Angel by Thierry Mugler which burst onto the market with a fragrance using these synthetic orientals which reminded him of his childhood; nearly 20 years on it’s still one of the best selling and most recognisable brands.
Flights of fancy
For Reina, scent allows her to travel, even when she’s still sitting at her desk.
“I grew up travelling a lot, because my father used to work in the airline industry, and when you travel, there is a particular smell in that country or place and you go back home, and you forget about it, but several years later, when you encounter something, you suddenly remember all the memories just by smelling it, I still feel that I’m travelling all the time when I smell fragrances, because you imagine so many different things, so even if you’re in the office, you’re travelling all over, which is what I think is so romantic about fragrances.”
‘Scent makes us social’
But it’s not just flights of fancy; scent is also important for socialising us. According to Dr Hummel, this is perhaps why scent still plays a key role in our society today, even when standards of hygiene have moved on immeasurably since the early 18th century.
“Dinosaurs developed a larger olfactory system, and so they became more social, so the olfactory system is much to do with our social abilities, so if we wouldn’t have a sense of smell, we wouldn’t be as social as we are.”