Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfumeby Mandy Aftel
An artisan perfumer reveals a lost art and its mysterious, sensual history.
For centuries, people have taken what seems to be an instinctive pleasure in rubbing scents into their skin. Perfume has helped them to pray, to heal, and to make love. And as long as there has been perfume, there have been perfumers, or rather the priests, shamans, and apothecaries
An artisan perfumer reveals a lost art and its mysterious, sensual history.
For centuries, people have taken what seems to be an instinctive pleasure in rubbing scents into their skin. Perfume has helped them to pray, to heal, and to make love. And as long as there has been perfume, there have been perfumers, or rather the priests, shamans, and apothecaries who were their predecessors. Yet, in many ways, perfumery is a lost art, its creative and sensual possibilities eclipsed by the synthetic ingredients of which contemporary perfumes are composed, which have none of the subtlety and complexity of essences derived from natural substances, nor their lush histories. Essence and Alchemy resurrects the social and metaphysical legacy that is entwined with the evolution of perfumery, from the dramas of the spice trade to the quests of the alchemists to whom today's perfumers owe a philosophical as well as a practical debt. Mandy Aftel tracks scent through the boudoir and the bath and into the sanctums of worship, offering insights on the relationship of scent to sex, solitude, and the soul. Along the way, she imparts instruction in the art of perfume compositions, complete with recipes, guiding the reader in a process of transformation of materials that continues to follow the alchemical dictum solve et coagula (dissolve and combine) and is itself aesthetically and spiritually transforming.
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Essence and Alchemy
A Natural History of Perfume
By Mandy Aftel
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2001 Mandy Aftel
All rights reserved.
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."
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."
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.
Excerpted from Essence and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel. Copyright © 2001 Mandy Aftel. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Mandy Aftel, founder of Aftelier, creates one-of-a-kind perfumes for individuals and private labels, and is also a counselor who specializes in working with artists and writers. The author of three previous books, she lives in Berkeley, California.
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I bought this book, it's the same that: Essence and Alchemy: a Natural History of Perfume, with different cover
Excellent information about how perfume is created (from basics to the final blend) as well as the history of perfume useage thru the ages. Whether you are interested in the history or in creating your own allergy free or personal scents - this is the best book I've found.
I thought this book was a little to hard to understand. I really didn't understand it at all. Oh well. You can't win all the time.