The Spirit of the Alchemist A Natural History of Perfume
When from a long-distant past nothing subsists after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
FRAGRANCE has the instantaneous and invisible power to penetrate consciousness with pure pleasure. Scent reaches us in ways that elude sight and sound but conjure imagination in all its sensuality, unsealing hidden worlds. A whiff of a once-familiar odor, and memories surge into consciousness on a sea of emotion, transporting us—to a first camping trip, steeped in the smell of pine and burning wood; to the steamy windows and vanilla-laced air of a winter kitchen where cookies are baking; to a classroom where a teacher opens a brand-new box of cedarwood pencils; to a college in the Midwest, evoked by the sweet smell of apple cider and rotting leaves, or by the scent of the first rain of spring, all green grass and wet earth.
The twentieth-century French philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed that scent is tantamount to the tracks that mark the passage of solid bodies through the atmosphere, and consequently redolent of memories. An odor can immediately evoke the details and mood of an old experience, as vividly as if no time at all had passed. “Odor, oftener than any other sense impression, delivers a memory to consciousness little impaired by lapse of time, stripped of irrelevancies of the moment or of the intervening years, apparently alive and all but convincing,” writes Roy Bedichek in The Sense of Smell. “Not vision, not hearing, touch, nor even taste—so nearly kin to smell—none other, only the nose calls up from the vasty deep with such verity those sham, cinematic materializations we call memories.”
That scent should have so powerful a link to recollection is not surprising. Smell is one of the first senses that awakens in a baby and guides its movements through its first days in the world. An infant can locate its mother’s milk by the use of its nose alone. Babies smile when they recognize their mother’s odor, preferring it to the smell of any other woman—which, in turn, pleases the mother. This evolving and reciprocal situation built on the sense of smell plays a key part in creating an intimate relationship between mother and child.
As potent as it can be, however, smell is the most neglected of our senses. We search for visual beauty in art and in nature, and take care to arrange our homes in a way that pleases the eye. We seek out new music and musicians to add to our CD collections; perhaps we have learned to play an instrument ourselves. We spend time and money on sampling new and exotic cuisines, even learn to cook them. We pamper our sense of touch with cashmere sweaters, silk pajamas, and crisp linen shirts—we can hardly help refining it through our constant interaction with an infinitely varied tactile world. Yet most of us take our sense of smell for granted, leaving it to its own devices in a monotonous and oversaturated olfactory environment. We never think about its cultivation or enrichment, even though some of life’s most exquisite pleasures consequently elude us. In a bouquet of mixed roses, most people can distinguish at a glance the delicacy of a tea rose from the voluptuousness of a cabbage rose, but how many could so readily differentiate between the tea rose’s scent of freshly harvested tea and the spicy, honeylike, rich floral scent of the cabbage? As cultural historian Constance Classen observes, “We are often unable to recognize even the most familiar odors when these are separated from their source. That is, we know the smell of a rose when the rose itself is there, but if only an odor of roses is present, a large percentage of people would be unable to identify it.”
Gathering roses at Grasse
It is easy for us to take our sense of smell for granted, because we exercise it involuntarily: as we breathe, we smell. A dime-size patch of olfactory membrane in each of the upper air passages of the nose contains the nerve endings that give us our sense of smell. Each of the more than 10 million olfactory nerve cells comes equipped with a half dozen to a dozen hairs, or cilia, upon the exposed end, equipped with receptors. Gaseous molecules of fragrance are carried to the receptors. When enough are stimulated, the cell fires, sending a signal to the brain.
The olfactory membrane is the only place in the human body where the central nervous system comes into direct contact with the environment. All other sensory information initially comes in through the thalamus. The sense of smell, however, is first processed in the limbic lobe, one of the oldest parts of the brain and the seat of sexual and emotional impulses. In other words, before we know we are in contact with a smell, we have already received and reacted to it.
The physiological configuration of the sense of smell is a reminder of the primacy it once had for our predecessors, who walked on all fours with their noses close to the ground—and to one another’s behinds. In this way, scientists speculate, we were able to ascertain information about gender, sexual maturity, and availability. Freud postulated that, as we began to walk upright, we lost our proximity to scent trails and to the olfactory information they provide. At the same time, our field of vision expanded, and sight began to take precedence over smell. Over time, our sense of smell lost its acuity.
This displacement of smell by sight appears to have been a necessary step in the process of human evolution, and perhaps because of that, the status of smell has declined along with its keenness. With the Enlightenment especially, the sense of smell came to be looked upon as a “lower” sense associated with animals and primitive urges, filth and disease. (It didn’t help that the stench of illness was long viewed as the cause of an ailment rather than its symptom.) Immanuel Kant pronounced smell the most unimportant of the senses and unworthy of cultivation. The marginalization of smell became one of the hallmarks of “civilized” man.
Yet, diminished as it is, the human sense of smell remains capable of extraordinary development. In more “primitive” societies, it continues to play a critical role in hunting, healing, and religious life, and consequently is a much more refined instrument, as Paolo Rovesti documents in In Search of Perfumes Lost, his study of the decline of olfactory sensibilities and the use of natural perfume materials around the world. Among the remote peoples he visited were the Orissa of India, “who lived, completely naked, in the mountains. They had never been touched by any civilization and continued to live as in the stone age.”
We were still out of sight of the crest of their plateau and separated from them by a dense jungle, when we heard a clamor of festive cries. “They have smelt us coming. They have smelt our odor,” the guide explained to us. We were still more than one hundred yards of jungle away from them. Moreover, a loud waterfall nearby would have made it impossible for them to have heard us. The realization on various occasions that these primitive people had olfactory capacities as sharp as those given to original man, as acutely sensitive as that of many animals, never ceased to amaze and surprise us.
Umeda hunters in New Guinea were reported to sleep with bundles of herbs under their pillows in order to inspire dreams of a successful hunt that they could follow, like a map, when they awoke the next day. The Berbers of Morocco were known to inhale the fragrant smoke of pennyroyal, thyme, rosemary, and laurel as a cure for headaches and fever. They believed that smelling a narcissus flower could protect them from syphilis, and that malicious spirits could be forced from the body by the scent of burning benzoin mixed with rue, and consumed in the aromatic fires.
People deprived of other senses often have an extraordinary olfactory awareness. Helen Keller, Classen notes, “could recognize an old country house by its ‘several layers of odors,’ discern the work people engaged in by the scent of their clothes, and remember a woman she’d met only once by the scent of her kiss. So important a role did smell play in her life that, when Keller lost her sense of smell and taste for a short period and was obliged … to rely wholly on her sense of touch, she felt she finally understood what it must be like for a sighted person to go blind.”
A part from allowing us to detect a gas leak or a carton of spoiled milk, however, to most of us smell is most “useful” for the immediacy with which it connects us to internal states of consciousness, emotion, and fantasy. Odor elicits strong reactions from us, unmediated by oughts and shoulds. For this reason, the sense of smell has long been celebrated in literature, from Charles Baudelaire’s scent-laced Les Fleurs du Mal to the aromatic aesthetic of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Colette defined herself as an “olfactory novelist,” a title Marcel Proust could have claimed as well. Italo Calvino’s story “The Name, the Nose” is devoted to the sense of smell, and Roald Dahl’s Switch Bitch concerns a gifted perfumer who creates a formula for a perfume that “would have the same electrifying effect upon man as the scent of a bitch in heat.” The ultimate olfactory novel is Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, wherein Grenouille, the protagonist, is endowed with a prodigious sense of smell: “He would often just stand there, leaning against the wall or crouching in a dark corner, his eyes closed, his mouth half-open and nostrils flaring wide, quiet as a feeding pike in a great, dark, slowly moving current. And when at last a puff of air would toss a delicate thread of scent his way, he would lunge at it and not let it go. Then he would smell at just this one odor, holding it tight, pulling it into himself and preserving it for all time. The odor might be an old acquaintance, or a variation on one; it would be a brand-new one as well, with hardly any similarity to anything he had ever smelled, let alone seen, till that moment: the odor of pressed silk, for example, the odor of wild-thyme tea, the odor of brocade embroidered with silver thread.”
Olfactory impressions are intermediate between the vagueness of touch or taste and the richness and variety of sight and hearing. Odors are, by nature, diffusive, their molecular mass spreading into the atmosphere so pervasively that it can be difficult to credit that odor, at all times, necessarily implies materiality. It is no accident that odors are called essences or spirits. They straddle a line between the physical and metaphysical worlds. This gives them a uniquely powerful role with respect to the psyche. As Havelock Ellis puts it:
Our olfactory experiences thus institute a more or less continuous series of by-sensations accompanying us through life, of no great practical significance, but of considerable emotional significance from their variety, their intimacy, their associational facility, their remote ancestral reverberations, through our brains … It is the existence of these characteristics—at once so vague and so specific, so useless and so intimate—which led various writers to describe the sense of smell as, above all others, the sense of imagination. No sense has so strong a power of suggestion, the power of calling up ancient memories with a wider and deeper emotional reverberation, while at the same time no sense furnishes impressions which so easily change emotional color and tone, in harmony with the recipient’s general attitude. Odors are thus specially apt both to control the emotional life and to become its slaves.
If scent is uniquely powerful, it can also be uniquely comforting, instantly erasing the passage of time. “A scent may drown years in the odor it recalls,” observes Walter Benjamin. At the same time, both the scent and the memories associated with it remain partly out of focus and out of view. “When it is said that an object occupies a large space in the soul or even that it fills it entirely, we ought to understand by this simply that its image has altered the shade of a thousand perceptions or memories, and that in this sense it pervades them, although it does not itself come into view,” notes the philosopher Henri Bergson. A remembered smell spills into consciousness baskets full of inchoate memories and the feelings entwined with them, permeating the emotional aura of the memories with a richness that is both exquisite and vague.
These memories, messengers from the unconscious, remind us of what we are dragging behind us unawares. But, even though we may have no distinct idea of it, we feel vaguely that our past remains present to us … Doubtless we think with only a small part of our past, but it is with our entire past, including the original bent of our soul, that we desire, will, and act. Our past, then, as a whole, is made manifest to us in its impulse; it is felt in the form of tendency, although a small part of it only is known in the form of idea.
Scent pervades memory but remains invisible, as if emanating from its interior, the way it seems to emanate from the interior of objects. Its nature makes it an apt metaphor for spiritual concepts, for it “can readily be understood as conveying inner truth and intrinsic worth,” observes Classen. “The common association of odor with the breath and with the life-force makes smell a source of elemental power, and therefore an appropriate symbol and medium for divine life and power. Odors can strongly attract or repel, rendering them forceful metaphors for good and evil. Odors are also ethereal, they cannot be grasped or retained; in their elusiveness they convey a sense of both the mysterious presence and the mysterious absence of God. Finally, odors are ineffable, they transcend our ability to define them through language, as religious experience is said to do.”
The Origin of Perfumes, seventeenth-century engraving
Perfume, as a kind of scent, is all of these things. It is also, paradoxically, a product that is essentially worthless, its only function to provide pleasure. In this sense, too, it straddles the line between the tangible and the intangible, the earthly and the ethereal, the real and the magical. The transcendental properties of fragrance were recognized as far back in our history as we can trace. Indeed, the earliest perfumers we know of were Egyptian priests, who blended the juices expressed from succulent flowers and plants, the pulp of fruits, spices, resins and gums from trees, meal made from oleaginous seeds, wine, honey, and oils to make incense and unguents.
When Moses returned from exile in Egypt, the Lord commanded him to compound a holy oil from olive oil and fragrant spices. The Jews brought back with them as well the Egyptian practice of applying fragrant oils and unguents to the body. In the basement of a house in Jerusalem that dates from the first century B.C., archaeologists have uncovered evidence—ovens, cooking pots, and mortars—of a perfume workshop for the nearby temple. Wall carvings and paintings from the period document the process of perfume-making in detail.
From Egyptian times, however, fragrant blends were used for bodily adornment and curative purposes as well as in religious ceremonies. “This will be the way of the king … and he will take your daughters to be perfumers,” says the Bible (I Sam. 8:11—13). The Jerusalem wall paintings reveal that the perfumers were indeed women, and that they were as likely to serve the court as the temple. Moreover, aromatic substances, being rare, precious, and easily transported by caravan, were used for barter—costus, sandalwood, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and, most especially, frankincense and myrrh. These ingredients were so important and so difficult to obtain that the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut sent a fleet of ships to Punt (Somalia) to bring back myrrh seedlings to plant in her temple.
The aesthetic use of scent reached its moment of greatest excess during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Wealthy Romans used scented doves to perfume the air at feasts, rubbed dogs and horses with unguents, brushed walls with aromatics, and sprinkled floors with flower petals. The emperor Nero is reported to have had Lake Lucina covered in rose petals when he threw a feast there, and he was said to sleep on a bed of petals. (Supposedly, he suffered insomnia if even one of them happened to be curled.)
But perfume as we know it could not have taken shape without alchemy, the ancient art that undertook to convert raw matter, through a series of transformations, into a perfect and purified form. Often referred to as the “divine” or “sacred” art, alchemy has complex and deep roots that reach back to ancient China, India, and Egypt, but it came into its own in medieval Europe and flourished well into the seventeenth century.
The ways of the alchemists were shrouded in secrecy. They tended to be solo practitioners who maintained their own laboratories and rarely took pupils or associated in societies, even secret ones. They did leave records, however, and they quote one another extensively, for the most part in evident agreement. Agreement as to what is another question. On the one hand, their work, or opus, was practical, resembling a series of chemistry experiments. And indeed the alchemists deserve credit for refining the process of distillation, which was of enormous importance to the evolution of perfumery, not to mention wine-making, chemistry, and other branches of industry and science. Yet it is difficult to discern from their writings almost anything definite about their processes. “In my opinion it is quite hopeless to try to establish any kind of order in the infinite chaos of substances,” fumed Carl Jung, who was fascinated by alchemy and wrote about it extensively. “Seldom do we get even an approximate idea of how the work was done, what materials were used, and what results were achieved. The reader usually finds himself in the most impenetrable darkness when it comes to the names of substances—they could mean almost anything.” The alchemists themselves had difficulty understanding one another’s symbols and diagrams, and sometimes they seem confounded even as to the meaning of their own.
Loading myrrh trees on a ship, after fifteenth-century B.C. relief
There was a reason for this obscurity, Jung explains:
Although the alchemist was interested in the chemical part of the work he also used it to devise a nomenclature for the psychic transformations that really fascinated him. Every original alchemist built himself, as it were, a more or less individual edifice of ideas, consisting of the dicta of the philosophers and of miscellaneous analogies to the fundamental concepts of alchemy. Generally these analogies are taken from all over the place. Treatises were even written for the purpose of supplying the artist with analogy-making material. The method of alchemy, psychologically speaking, is one of boundless amplification. The amplificatio is always appropriate when dealing with some obscure experience which is so vaguely adumbrated that it must be enlarged and expanded by being set in a psychological context in order to be understood at all.
At bottom, the alchemists believed that their work was divinely inspired and could be brought to fruition only with divine assistance. Theirs was not a “profession” in the usual sense; it was a calling. Those who were called to it would comprehend its metaphors and express them, in turn, in their own.
The philosophy of alchemy expressed the conviction that the spark of divinity—the quinta essentia—could be discovered in matter. In the words of Paracelsus, the enormously influential sixteenth-century doctor and alchemist, “The quinta essentia is that which is extracted from a substance—from all plants and from everything which has life—then freed of all impurities and perishable parts, refined into highest purity and separated from all elements … The inherency of a thing, its nature, power, virtue, and curative efficacy, without any … foreign admixture … that is the quinta essentia. It is a spirit like the life spirit, but with this difference, that the spiritus vitea, the life spirit, is imperishable … The quinta essentia being the life spirit of things, it can be extracted only from the perceptible, that is to say material, parts.” The ultimate goal was to reunite matter and spirit in a transformed state, a miraculous entity known as the Elixir of Life (sometimes called the Philosopher’s Stone). Some believed that those who imbibed it would prolong their lives to a thousand years, others that it yielded not only perpetual youth but an increase of knowledge and wisdom.
As Jung perceived, alchemical processes were “so loaded with unconscious contents that a state of participation mystique or unconscious identity” arose between the alchemist and the substances with which he worked. The analogy, if unconscious, was nevertheless pervasive. “The combination of two bodies he saw as a marriage,” F. Sherwood Taylor observes in The Alchemists. “The loss of their characteristic activity as death, the production of something new as a birth, the rising up of vapors, as a spirit leaving the corpse, the formation of a volatile solid, as the making of a spiritual body. These conceptions influenced his idea of what should occur, and he therefore decided that the final end of the substances operated on should be analogous to the final end of man—a new soul in a new, glorious body, with the qualities of clarity, subtlety and agility.”
Following the dictum solve et coagula (dissolve and combine), the alchemist worked to transform body into spirit and spirit into body; to volatilize that which is fixed, and to fix that which is volatile. But the “base material” he worked upon and the “gold” he produced may also be understood as man himself, in his quest to perfect his own nature.
A repeating axiom in the literature of alchemy is: “What is above is as that which is below, and what is below is as that which is above.” Alchemists believed in an essential unity of the cosmos; that there is a correspondence between things physical and spiritual, and that the same laws operate in both realms. “The Sages have been taught of God that this natural world is only an image and material copy of a heavenly and spiritual pattern,” wrote the seventeenth-century Moravian alchemist Michael Sendivogius; “that the real existence in this world is based upon the reality of the celestial archetype; and that God had created it in imitation of the spiritual and invisible universe.”
Alchemical work, from Michelspacher’s Cabala, Augsburg, 1616
In their preoccupations, alchemists can be said to have much in common with priests (albeit heretical ones), but it is more to the point to say that the distinctions between religion, medicine, science, art, and psychology were not nearly so absolute in their time as they are now. Nor was the boundary between matter and spirit so firm. As Titus Burckhardt observes:
For the people of earlier ages, what we today call matter was not the same as for people of today, either as regards the concept or the experience. This is not to say the so-called primitive peoples of the world only saw through a veil of “magical and compulsive imaginings” as certain ethnologists have supposed, or that their thinking was “alogical” or “pre-logical.” Stones were just as hard as today, fire was just as hot, and natural laws just as inexorable …
According to Descartes, spirit and matter are completely separate realities, which thanks to divine ordination come together only at one point: the human brain. Thus the material world, known as “matter,” is automatically deprived of any spiritual content, while the spirit, for its part, becomes the abstract counterpart of the same purely material reality, for what it is in itself, above and beyond this, remains unspecified.
As science and reason gained ground, alchemy went into eclipse (although some important scientists, most notably Isaac Newton, practiced it). The practical legacy of the alchemists passed to the chemists, who put it in service of the effort to dissect and analyze the elements of the natural world. The spiritual legacy of the alchemists can be seen as having passed to the psychologists, who strive like alchemists to reconcile dualities. “All alchemical thinking is concerned with opposites, states we know in our psychological being as mind and body, love and hate, good and evil, conscious and unconscious, spirit and matter,” writes Nathan Schwartz-Salant in The Mystery of Human Relationship.
Only the perfumers inherited both strands of the alchemical tradition. And for a long time, they retained many of the alchemists’ ways as well. Perfumery remained chiefly the domain of private solo practitioners—apothecaries, ladies who mixed their own blends at home, and other anonymous souls. It retained traces of its mystical origins in such recipes as a formula for “How to make a woman beautiful forever,” from the 1555 Les Secrets de Maistre Alexys, the earliest French perfumery book known: “Take a young raven from the nest; feed it on hard eggs for forty days, kill it, and then distill it with myrtle leaves, talc, and almond oil.”
But gradually something resembling a perfume business began to take shape. At first it was an outgrowth of the glove industry, owing to the popularity of perfumed gloves in France from the sixteenth century on. They were worn to keep the skin soft; some people even wore them to bed. Catherine de Medici’s perfumer, René, made gloves—and more. When Catherine wished to get rid of her enemies, she turned to him for sorcery, with effective results. Jeanne d’Albret, mother of Henry IV of France, was poisoned after she donned a pair of perfumed gloves presented to her by Catherine.
Queen Elizabeth’s perfumed gloves
René opened the first perfume shop in Paris, probably the first in France. Soon everyone who was anyone flocked there. On the ground floor he sold perfumes, unguents, and cosmetics to the public, but a select few were invited into the chambers above, where René kept alive the alchemical legacy of his profession.
In the shop, which was large and deep, there were two doors, each leading to a staircase. Both led to a room on the first floor, which was divided by a tapestry suspended in the centre, in the back portion of which was a door leading to a secret staircase. Another door opened to a small chamber, lighted from the roof, which contained a large stove, alembics, retorts, and crucibles; it was an alchemist’s laboratory.
In the front portion of the room on the first floor were ibises of Egypt; mummies with gilded bands; the crocodile yawning from the ceiling; death’s heads with eyeless sockets and gumless teeth, and here old musty volumes, torn and rateaten, were presented to the eye of the visitor in pell-mell confusion. Behind the curtain were phials, singularly-shaped boxes and vases of curious construction; all lighted up by two silver lamps which, supplied with perfumed oil, cast their yellow flame around the somber vault, to which each was suspended by three blackened chains.
It was said of Anne of Austria that with fair linen and perfumes one could entice her to Hades. Known for her beautiful hands, Anne was another glove fanatic. She sent to Naples for them, though she is credited with saying that the perfect glove is made of leather prepared in Spain, cut in France, and finished in England. Gloves of mouse skin were fashionable at her court as well. It was Anne’s son Louis XIV who granted a charter to the guild of gantiers-parfumeurs in 1656.
Shop of René the perfumer
In the meantime, perfumers were rapidly acquiring a varied palette of natural ingredients and the sophistication to use them imaginatively. Benzoin, cedarwood, costus root, rose, rosemary, sage, juniperwood, frankincense, and cinnamon had been in use since ancient times. Between 1500 and 1540, angelica, anise, cardamom, fennel, caraway, lovage, mace, nutmeg, celery, sandalwood, juniper berries, and black pepper were added to the aromatic repertoire of distilled oils. The years between 1540 and 1589 saw the addition of basil, melissa, thyme, citrus, coriander, dill, oregano, marjoram, galbanum, guaiacwood, chamomile, spearmint, labdanum, lavender, lemon, mint, carrot seed, feverfew, cumin, myrrh, cloves, opoponax, parsley, orange peel, iris, wormwood, and saffron. Drawing upon this burgeoning assortment, in 1725 Johann Farina of Cologne introduced his famous Eau de Cologne, which was based on a mixture of citrus and herbal odors. By 1730 peppermint, ginger, mustard, cypress, bergamot, mugwort, neroli, and bitter almond had further increased the range of possibilities for the perfumer.
Although distillation could be used on roses, the fragrances of other flowers, such as jasmine, tuberose, and orange flower, eluded that method. They were not coaxed into surrendering their scents until the nineteenth century, when the Frenchman Jacques Passy, inspired by the observation that jasmine, tuberose, and orange flower continue to produce perfume after they have been cut, developed the technique of enfleurage, in which flower petals render their fragrance into a fatty pomade, from which a powerfully scented oil can be derived. Gradually the technique was applied to other florals.
Catherine de Medici had encouraged the development of a perfume industry in France, and in her time Grasse, in southeastern France, had emerged as its center. The climate and soil of the surrounding region proved hospitable to orange trees, acacia, roses, and jasmine. Over time, distillation plants and other facilities for processing perfume materials grew up there; some of them are still operating today.
In tandem with these developments, a retail perfume business was gradually emerging in Europe’s larger cities. In early-eighteenth-century London, a Mr. Perry combined the sale of medicines with that of perfume and cosmetics, along the lines of a modern drugstore; one of the products he advertised was an oil of mustard seed that was guaranteed to cure every disease under the sun. In the 1730s, William Bayley set up a shop selling perfumes under the sign of YE OLDE CIVET CAT—a popular appellation for London perfumeries—where he was patronized by men and women of fashion. But the first true celebrity perfumer was Charles Lillie, whose shop in London’s Strand was a meeting place for the literary and the fashionable. He counted among his friends Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope. Both Addison and Steele praised him copiously in print, and Steele went so far as to suggest that he “used the force of magical powers to add value to his wares.”
Lillie was a crusader for standards in the perfume business, and in his book The British Perfumer he set out to educate the public on how to evaluate scented goods, in terms that seem oddly prescient:
As numbers of those who keep shops, and style themselves Perfumers, as well as most buyers, are entirely ignorant, the former of the nature of what they sell, and the latter of what they purchase; it may not, perhaps, be thought amiss, at some time, to make them public … Though this account of numbers of the present pretenders to the perfuming trade may seem to bear hard on them; yet, for the sake of rescuing so curious an art from entire oblivion, and from the hand of ignorance; also for the information of the public, and lastly for the sake of truth; some work of this nature is become absolutely necessary: more particularly, as, without it, the present race of pretenders may continue to sell what they please, under whatever names they please, without having the least regard (as is notoriously the case) to its being genuine, if simple; or, properly prepared, if a compound substance … Another design in the construction of this work, was to inform the real Perfumer (for the pretenders are above being taught) how, where, and at what seasons, he may purchase his several commodities; how to judge their goodness; and how to preserve them against accidents or untoward circumstances, which bring on either a partial or total dissolution, and by which the best perfumes are converted into the most nauseous and fetid odors.
Lillie’s was an early entry in what became a burgeoning genre of “how-to” perfume literature, reaching its apex in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Along with formulas for perfumes, these volumes include discourses on flower farming, ancient cultures and their rituals, recipes for hair dyes (often containing lead), remedies for ailments of man and beast (including opiates), and ruminations on society and woman’s place therein. The discourses are charming and odd, and the books are illustrated with lovely woodcuts depicting botanicals and extraction devices. But the perfume information itself is repeated almost verbatim from book to book, with only a small increment of new material, and the formulas themselves are generic; there is no sense in them of a creator’s unique signature.
The recipes these books contain fall into two categories: those for handkerchief perfumes and those for simulating the scents of certain flowers that resisted distillation, enfleurage, or any other means of rendering then available. The latter were considered the essence of how a refined woman should smell. The formulas worked on the premise of like with like, combining a few intense and similarly scented florals to arrive at a single, sweet floral note, with perhaps a bit of vanilla for additional sweetness, and sometimes a drop of civet, ambergris, or musk for staying power. The standard repertoire included lily of the valley, white lilac, magnolia, narcissus, honeysuckle, heliotrope, sweet pea, and violet. For example, the scent of lily of the valley could be approximated with a mixture of orange flower, vanilla, rose, cassie, jasmine, tuberose, and bitter almond. Eugene Rimmel hails the manufacture of such concoctions as “the truly artistic part of perfumery, for it is done by studying the resemblances and affinities, and blending the shades of scent as a painter does the colors on his palette.” But in truth they exploited none of the range of contrast and intensity offered by the essential oils then available.
Perfumer’s shop, seventeenth century
The blending of mixtures for scenting handkerchiefs was also considered a high art. Again, each of the collections repeats recipes for Alhambra Perfume, Bouquet d’Amour, Esterhazy Bouquet, Ess Bouquet, Eau de Cologne, Jockey Club, Stolen Kisses, Eau de Millefleurs, International Bouquet of All Nations, and Rondeletia. They usually sound more interesting than they smell. Like the floral imitations, most of them are heavy floral mixtures fixed with civet, musk, or ambergris. A few venture a little further afield. Esterhazy includes vetiver and sandalwood; the colognes feature citruses as well as rosemary. True to its name, International Bouquet blends rose from Turkey, jasmine from Africa, lemon from Sardinia, vanilla from South America, lavender from England, and tuberose from France. Millefleurs includes everything but the kitchen sink. Rondeletia—a mixture of lavender and cloves—was considered a daring innovation. But even these rareties were composed of materials that are essentially similar in tone and value, in keeping with the composition principles enforced by the perfume guides:
It may be useful … to warn the amateur operator against the promiscuous mingling of different scents in a single preparation, under the idea that, by bringing an increased number of agreeable perfumes together, the odor of the resulting compound will be richer. Some odors, like musical sounds, harmonize when blended, producing a compound odor combining the fragrance of each of its constituents, and fuller and richer, or more chaste and delicate, than either of them separately; whilst others appear mutually antagonistic or incompatible, and produce a contrary effect.
So while each perfume vendor peddled his own Rondeletia or Eau de Cologne from his shop or cart, they all stayed within an extremely limited range. It was like being a painter and using only a quarter of the color wheel.
The striking exception was Peau d’Espagne (Spanish skin), a highly complex and luxurious perfume originally used to scent leather in the sixteenth century. Chamois was steeped in neroli, rose, sandalwood, lavender, verbena, bergamot, cloves, and cinnamon, and subsequently smeared with civet and musk. Bits of the leather were used to perfume stationery and clothing. It was a favorite of the sensuous because of the musk and civet, and also because of the leather itself, which may have stirred ancestral memories of the sexual stimulus of skin odor. (Perhaps this explains the passions of old book collectors and shoe freaks as well as leather fetishists.)
By 1910 Peau d’Espagne was being made as a perfume, by adding vanilla, tonka, styrax, geranium, and cedarwood to the original formula used to scent leather. Peter Altenberg, one of the Vienna Coffeehouse Wits and the embodiment of the turn-of-the-century bohemian, recalls:
As a child I found in a drawer in my beloved, wonderfully beautiful mother’s writing table, which was made of mahogany and cut glass, an empty little bottle that still retained the strong fragrance of a certain perfume that was unknown to me.
I often used to sneak in and sniff it.
I associated this perfume with every love, tenderness, friendship, longing, and sadness there is.
But everything related to my mother. Later on, fate overtook us like an unexpected horde of Huns and rained heavy blows down on us.
And one day I dragged from perfumery to perfumery, hoping by means of tiny sample vials of the perfume from the writing table of my beloved deceased mother to discover its name. And at long last I did: Peau d’Espagne, Pinaud, Paris.
I then recalled the times when my mother was the only womanly being who could bring me joy and sorrow, longing and despair, but who time and again forgave me everything, and who always looked after me, and perhaps even secretly in the evening before going to bed prayed for my future happiness …
Later on, many young women on childish-sweet whims used to send me their favorite perfumes and thanked me warmly for the prescription I discovered of rubbing every perfume directly onto the naked skin of the entire body right after a bath so that it would work like a true personal skin cleansing! But all these perfumes were like the fragrances of lovely but poisonous exotic flowers. Only Essence Peau d’Espagne, Pinaud, Paris, brought me melancholic joys although my mother was no longer alive and could no longer pardon my sins!
Peau d’Espagne (sans leather) continued to be made as a perfume and lost none of its sensuous appeal over the decades, but it was an exception to a generally tame and uninspired approach to perfume. I gave up on using the formulas spelled out in the literature of the period after I turned to them in the process of designing a fragrance for a shop that had asked me to come up with something light, floral, and sweet. Each of the imitation floral blends I tried had the same problems. The overpowering odor of bitter almond made them smell cloying and dated. More important, the perfumes had no real construction; they were just a mishmash of florals that cost a fortune, with some animal scents thrown in as fixatives. They were unimaginative and clichéd and unusable.
It is not in the recipes per se that the spirit of the alchemist lived on, but in the information these old books offer on the history of perfume, their commentaries on the nature of the ingredients, and the occasional imaginative suggestion for combining them. But it was not until the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth that perfume composition began to take on the attitudes, creativity, and license of a true art form. “Modern perfume came into being in Paris between 1889 and 1921,” writes the perfume researcher and writer Stephan Jellinek. “In these thirty-two years, perfumery changed more than it had during the four thousand years before.”
Perfumers began to roam far beyond their timid beginnings in Rondeletia and Eau de Cologne to create scents that were conceived not as copies of scents found in nature but as beautiful in themselves. No longer shackled to the traditional recipes, perfumers were free to use their materials as liberally as an artist works with color, or a musician with tone. “It was, for the first time in history, an aesthetic based on contrast rather than harmony,” Jellinek writes. “Pungent herbal and dry woody notes were used alongside the soft and narcotic scents of subtropical flowers, the cool freshness of citrus fruits offset the languorous warmth of balsams and vanilla, the innocence of spring flowers was paired with the seduction of musk and civet. A sense of harmony was, of course, maintained in all this, but it was a harmony of a higher, more complex order. The sophisticated harmony of artistic creation had replaced the simple harmony of Nature.”
This period of creative ferment coincided with—and was, to a degree, spurred on by—the introduction of synthetically formulated perfume ingredients. Coumarin, which was designed to replicate the smell of freshly mowed hay, appeared around 1870. It was derived from tonka beans, but it was a quarter the price of essence of tonka itself, inexhaustible, and therefore independent of market fluctuations. Vanillin, to imitate vanilla, followed next, and had what was seen as the great virtue of colorlessness. These cheaper chemicals were offered by the same suppliers who sold natural ingredients, but they were only too happy to avail themselves of consistent quality and steady supply.
Jicky by Guerlain was the first modern perfume. Created in 1889, it was a fougère, or fern fragrance, based on coumarin. It also included linalool (naturally occurring in bois de rose) and vanillin (naturally occurring in vanilla). To this synthetic cocktail were added lemon, bergamot, lavender, mint, verbena, and sweet marjoram, plus civet as a fixative. It was a significant departure from the perfumes that preceded it: Jicky had nothing to do with replicating the smells found in nature. It was also a great success, its popularity building over the next twenty years as women became more venturesome in their perfume choices.
The perfume community was initially cautious about employing the cheap new synthetics. Perfumers were well aware of the depth and beauty of the naturals, and at first used the synthetics only to amplify or modulate them. As late as 1923, a guide cautioned, “Artificial perfumes obviously present great resources to the manufacturers of cheap extracts, but in the manufacture of fine perfumes they can only serve as adjuncts to natural perfumes, either to vary the ‘shade’ or ‘note’ of the odors, or to increase … intensity.” But by then the perfume industry, lured by the cheapness, stability, and colorlessness, had largely abandoned its reservations and embraced the synthetics wholeheartedly.
The shift can be traced in the twice yearly reports, from 1887 to 1915, of Schimmel and Co. (later renamed Fritzsche Brothers), which was one of the major suppliers of essential oils at the turn of the century. At first they chart the fluctuations in the supply of natural ingredients, as territories are colonized and recolonized, and their resources and labor exploited to provide materials of better quality at competitive prices. But gradually, more and more of the catalog pages are devoted to the wonders of synthetic ingredients, described in copy that increasingly hypes the virtues of the new. An 1895 report introduces Schimmel’s first synthetic jasmine; by 1898 the catalog notes, “The demand for this specialty has gradually increased as to induce us to extend our arrangements for its manufacture on a larger scale. At the same time we are able to offer it at a considerably reduced price, in place of the extracts made from jassamine pomatum.” Three years later, the catalog vaunts the superiority of the synthetic version: “The natural extracts from flowers excel in delicacy of aroma, the artificial products being stronger, more lasting, and cheaper.” And a year later, “The use of this perfume, which we were the first to introduce into commerce, has become more and more general. It may now already be counted among the most important auxiliaries of the perfume trade, and it has recently also been improved to such an extent, that in quality it so nearly approaches the natural product, that, in dilution, the one can scarcely be distinguished from the other.”
The same fate awaited rose, neroli, and even ylang ylang, which is that rare thing, an inexpensive floral. Artificial rose oil was touted for its ease of use; it would not become cloudy in the cold, or separate into flakes. It could be relied upon to be “always of exactly the same composition,” producing “a constantly uniform effect”—unlike the varying quality of the “Turkish oils,” which required expertise and vigilance to evaluate, “in view of the attempts incessantly made with new adulterants.” An 1898 Schimmel report unabashedly extols the use of its synthetic neroli oil “in place of the French distillate”:
Our experience, extending over several years, has fully convinced us that we can justly do so. Continuously handling and studying since the year 1895 a large number and wide scope of various articles of perfumery, in which our synthetic neroli has been used exclusively, we can report the fact that it has met in every respect the highest expectations and requirements. All these preparations invariably have retained their incomparably fine refreshing fragrance, stronger and better than those flavored with the natural oil. Experts to whom we have submitted these products for comparative estimation have, without exception, acknowledged the superiority of, and give preference to, those scented with the synthetic oil.
Of course the synthetics were not of the same quality as the natural oils. Unquestionably they were cheap; they were also colorless—in every way. They were isolated chemicals without the complexity or nuance of the naturals. They were an oxymoron, utilitarian components of a luxurious, sensual product. Having crept into the perfumer’s repertoire, however, they began to dominate it and to dictate the character of fragrance blends.
The most inspired uses of the synthetics were in scents that capitalized on their brusque and one-dimensional qualities. Chanel No. 5 is the best example of this. Created by Ernie Beaux for Coco Chanel, it was the first perfume to be built upon the scent of aldehydes. It represented a complete break with the natural model, which had been kept limpingly alive by Guerlain and Coty, with their flower-named scents. With Chanel, the connection between perfume and fashion was solidified.
The revolution in packaging techniques ushered in by François Coty completed the birth of the modern perfume age. Born Frances Spoturno on the island of Corsica in 1876, Coty moved to France at an early age. As a youth, he became friendly with a nearby apothecary who blended his own fragrances and sold them in very ordinary packaging. (At the time, perfumes were purchased in plain glass apothecary bottles, brought home, and transferred to decorative flasks.) Coty became obsessed with the idea of creating fragrances and presenting them in beautiful bottles. In his twenties, he went to Grasse, where he managed to work at the house of Chiris, one of the largest producers of floral essences at that time. When he returned to Paris, he borrowed money from his grandmother and built a perfume laboratory in his apartment. In 1904 he created his first perfume, La Rose Jacqueminot, which was an immediate success. In 1908 he opened an elegant shop on Place Vendôme, which was by chance next door to the great art-nouveau jeweler René Lalique. Coty asked Lalique to design his perfume bottles and found a way to mass-produce them with iron molds, having figured out that “a perfume should attract the eye as much as the nose.” He also had the ingenious idea of allowing customers to sample perfume before purchasing it. His testers, signs, and labels, all designed by Lalique, were exceptionally beautiful and helped to create Coty’s extraordinary success.
Perfumery was now a thoroughly modern business, albeit a colorful one that still drew its share of mavericks and bohemians, thanks to its glamorous and mysterious aura as well as the potential for self-made prosperity. Among them were a fair number of women, who could make a name for themselves in this rapidly developing field without the usual constraints that limited their participation in education and professional life. An early pioneer in this respect was Harriet Hubbard Ayers (1849—1903). Born into a socially prominent Chicago family, she married a wealthy iron dealer, Herbert Ayers, when she was sixteen. After the historic Chicago fire of 1871 took the life of one of her three children and uprooted the marriage, Ayers spent a year in Paris, recovering and soaking up culture. Then she moved to New York, determined to establish her independence, and started a business selling a beauty cream called Recamier, which she claimed to have discovered in Paris, where it had been used by all the great beauties during the time of Napoleon. Genuine or not, it was an immediate success, and Ayers soon added perfumes to her line, with names like Dear Heart, Mes Fleurs, and Golden Chance. Although her family conspired to take away the business and to commit her to a mental institution, she eventually emerged to become America’s first beauty columnist and the country’s best-paid, most popular female newspaper journalist.
Perfume vendor, era of Louis XV
Ayers’s heirs were women like Lilly Daché (1893—1990), a Parisborn milliner who arrived in New York City in 1924 with less than fifteen dollars to her name and in short order owned her own business, specializing in making fruited turbans for Carmen Miranda and one-of-a-kind hats for Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich. In an opulent green satin showroom, she sold perfumes with names like Drifting and Dashing along with the hats.
Yet another woman captured by the economic and aesthetic lure of perfume was Esmé Davis, who was born in West Virginia to a Spanish opera singer and was herself at various times a ballet dancer who toured with Pavlova and Diaghilev, a watercolorist, a musician, and a trainer of lions, elephants, and horses. Along the way, she studied perfumery in Cairo, and when Russian friends in Paris later sent her some perfume recipes from their collection of antique formula books, she launched a fragrance line in New York with scents she christened A May Morning, Indian Summer, and Green Eyes.
Paul Poiret (1879—1944) was the first couturier to create perfumes. His clientele included Sarah Bernhardt, and he employed a professional perfumer who created blends—Borgia, Alladin, Nuit de Chine—that ventured into exotic new territory, combining Oriental ingredients with intense and heady florals. At his fashion shows, Poiret dispensed perfumed fans, which he made sure would be used by keeping all the windows closed. Ahmed Soliman (1906—56), known as “Cairo’s Perfume King,” had a perfumery in Khan el Khalili Bazaar, Egypt’s center for perfume since the time of the pharaohs. Egyptian women, however, were interested only in perfume from France, so Cairo’s Perfume King made his killing off American and European tourists, to whom he marketed perfumes with appropriately exotic names: Flower of the Sahara, Omar Khayyam, Secret of the Desert, Queen of Egypt, Harem. The centerpiece of his shop was an ornate statue of the pharaoh Ramses that poured perfume from its mouth by virtue of a mechanism which had to be wound up every half hour.
Although the perfume business was booming, the direction it had taken had cut it off from its creative wellsprings. Reliance on synthetics eventually led to a shift in perfume structure and its interplay of ingredients. Most contemporary perfumes are “linear” fragrances designed to produce a strong and instantaneous effect, striking the senses all at once and quickly dissipating. They are static; they do not mix with the wearer’s body chemistry, nor do they evolve on the skin. What you smell is what you get.
The decline of natural perfumery was not only a material loss but also a spiritual one. Natural perfumes evolve on the skin, changing over time and uniquely in response to body chemistry. At the most basic level, they interact with us, making who we are—and who we are in the process of becoming—part of the story. They are about our relationship to ourselves, and only secondarily about our relationship to others. “The more we penetrate odors,” the great twentieth-century perfumer and philosopher Edmond Roudnitska observed, “the more they end up possessing us. They live within us, becoming an integral part of us, participating in a new function within us.”
Natural perfumes cannot ultimately be reduced to a formula, because the very essences of which they are composed contain traces of other elements that cannot themselves be captured by formulas. Like the rich histories of their symbolism and use, this essential mysteriousness makes them magical to work with, in the sense that Paracelsus meant when he wrote, “Magic has power to experience and fathom things which are inaccessible to human reason. For magic is a great secret wisdom, just as reason is a great public folly.”
Like alchemy, working to transform natural essences into perfume is a process that appeals to our intuition and imagination rather than to our intellect. This is not to say there is no logic to it, but it is a logic of a different order. Like other creative endeavors, it is intensely solitary. The perfumer’s atelier is the counterpart to the alchemist’s laboratory, which was itself a mirror of the hermetically sealed flask in which the transformation of matter into spirit was to take place—hermes meaning “secret” or “sealed,” and thus referring to a sacred space sealed off from outside influences.
The hermeticism of the alchemical process consists of not just the solitary nature of the work but also its interiority. That is, it can be comprehended only by being inside it, just as we can understand love only by being in love. As Henri Bergson notes, “Philosophers agree in making a deep distinction between two ways of knowing a thing. The first implies going all around it, the second entering into it. The first depends on the viewpoint chosen and the symbols employed, while the second is taken from no viewpoint and rests on no symbol. Of the first kind of knowledge we shall say that it stops at the relative; of the second that, wherever possible, it attains the absolute.”
In alchemy, attaining the absolute meant creating the Elixir, that magical potion to defeat the ravages of time. But the process depended on the marriage of elements the alchemist could not perceive. These were the “subtle bodies” that “must be beyond space and time. Every real body fills space because it consists of matter, while the subtle body is said not to consist of matter, or it is matter which is so exceedingly subtle that it cannot be perceived. So it must be a body which does not fill space, a matter which is beyond space, and therefore it would be in no time,” writes Jung, adding, “The subtle body is a transcendental concept which cannot be expressed in terms of our language or our philosophical views, because they are all inside the categories of time and space.”
In other words, the alchemical quest stands for the attempt to create something new and beautiful in the world, through a process that cannot ultimately be reduced to chemistry. The elements—or, rather, the subtle bodies in them—learn how to marry. As Gaston Bachelard remarks, “The alchemist is an educator of matter.” The experience of transformation he sets in motion in turn transforms him. As Cherry Gilchrist puts it in The Elements of Alchemy, “The alchemist is described as the artist who, through his operations, brings Nature to perfection. But the process is also like the unfolding of the Creation of the world, to which the alchemist is a witness as he watches the changes that take place within the vessel. The vessel is a universe in miniature, a crystalline sphere through which he is privileged to see the original drama of transformation.”
To the perfumer, then, the Elixir is a metaphor for the wholeness that can be experienced in working with the essences. Sensually compelling in themselves, they come trailing their dramatic histories and so transform the perfumer as she dissolves and combines them—solve et coagula—in the hope of creating something entirely new. If, as Henri Bergson says, “the object of art is to put to sleep the active or rather resistant powers of our personality, and thus bring us into a state of perfect responsiveness,” working with scent offers an unusually direct way of arriving there. It allows us to experience life afresh, sets the imagination flowing. But as with any art, we must seek it out and welcome the transformations it allows. As Paracelsus exhorts, “It is our task to seek art, for without seeking it we shall never learn the secrets of the world. Who can boast that roast squab flies into his mouth? Or that a grapevine runs after him? You must go to it yourself.”