I just finished reading The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr, and if you’re someone that’s into perfumes, then this is absolutely required reading.
The book is about the scientist Luca Turin who is a biologist, and really into perfumes. He discovers a new way of how we smell (that is, how the mechanics that send smell to our brain work) and what he has to go against to have his theory believed by other scientists.
I’m not a biologist, but Burr makes the science really easy to understand so the novel really moves along and doesn’t get boring.
Although this book is about science, I found it really interesting because Turin talks about some of the greatest perfumes of all time (most of which I have not smelled) and really tells you what’s in them and why they smell the way that they do. He also talks about what makes a really great perfume, and it seems that it’s not as easy as it should be.
There is, of course, the question of ingredients that also comes up in the book. Perfumers would love to use whatever they can get their hands on, but modern science has shown us that some ingredients are carcinogens, while others are not good for the environment. While perfume companies are coming up with new ingredients all the time, the challenge is to make them smell good, to have the smell last, for them to be able to bind to other scents, for them to be uncarcinogenic, and for them not to cause great damage to the environment. It is a lengthy process, and Turin’s theory could make it so that new scent molecules are much easier to find.
You would think that the scent companies would jump on the theory and look into collaborating with Turin.
It turns out that they try – and they decide, no thanks.
The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of chemists that work for different perfumers, and the jobs of many people rely on doing things the old-fashioned way, even if that way didn’t work that well. So they do things the way that they want, and that’s that.
The book is about science, perfume, and economics, and it’s fascinating to see what goes into the production of something that I spritz on daily. Further to that, almost every product I use is perfumed, and it turns out that there’s a lot riding on that too.
Like I said – those interested in perfume must read this book.