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Phenyl ethyl alcohol by any other name would smell more sweet

ellena bookI don’t love this quite as much as I do Ellena’s The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur, which is in many ways a more subjective, personal and philosophical book, incorporating, as diaries do, what the person is doing and the reflections which arise.

This is more of an information giving book – and is as Jean-Claude-Ellenadeliciously absorbing, but because it deals more in the laying out of objective facts (as well as subjective experience and interpretation) I was aware, reading from my particular perspective of a few likely errors, and places where I wanted greater precision, explanation and information.

So, for example, in the interesting chapter on extractions of material from plants, he describes in good detail GC (Gas Chromatography), but casually throws in that MS (Mass Spectrometry) is also used, and completely neglects to describe what this is.

In detailing the volume of plant material needed to produce a kilogram of essential oil or aromatic extract, there is surely an error by a factor of 10 between the amount of plant material needed to produce a kg of lavender in the absolute extraction – he states 100 kg – previously stating 20kg to produce a kg of essential oil. What does he mean, which figure is the right one?

veraAnd, to someone interested in the plants themselves I’m afraid I had an annoying botanist’s hat on when he was describing the bottles in his lab – `Oui! Oui! Monsieur Ellena is this Citrus aurantium var amara flos, fol or fruct – you have merely detailed Bitter Orange. And, more seriously WHICH lavender’. And so it goes on.Lavandula_stoechas_stoechas0

There are a few annoying, careless editorial errors, for example, to illustrate a point he is making, Ellena references the text `Below is an odor map’ which either never appears, or is another unexplained table which occurred 2 pages earlier

However Ellena is an engaging writer and raconteur – what I really wanted was to be having conversations with him, to say `explain further, s’il vous plait’.

I was most intrigued by his insistence that his objective as a perfumer is not to create an identical synthetic representation of a real odour – say, the essence of damp fig leaves which inspired his Mediterranean garden perfume, – but, like an abstract or impressionist artist, to suggest a flavour, a composition with layered notes that might imaginatively give some sort of `gesture of Mediterranean garden’ perhaps with odours that suggest the quality of light, the formal arrangement of the plants in the garden. It’s the difference between representation and symbolism, verismo and the abstract which contains the reality but also suggests more than the thing itself

Chemistry mols

However, one reservation which troubles me, and is not a problem with Ellena’s book, rather something untoward in modern perfumery – and that is the cavalier invention of new odour molecules, synthetic chemistry which has never existed before. As Ellena points out, the olfactory cells and their receptors are part of the brain, and odour molecules have powerful effects. Natural chemistry in plants, like the natural chemistry in food, is something which has evolved over millennia, and other species have likewise evolved over millennia to utilise, neutralise, and react with this chemistry. Novel chemistry which never existed outside a lab is different.

Many people have adverse reactions to strong perfume – headaches, allergic rhinitis, and the like. It is, I believe, not the `strength’ of the perfume, it is the cocktail of chemistry which is marginally, and in isolation, tested. Paradoxically I have found many such people who have come to use fragrance products and perfumes which are made only from essential oils and absolutes – natural, whole chemistry rather than synthesised odour molecules, whether of chemistry which occurs naturally or `novel’ molecules – and who do not experience those allergic reactions with the natural products.


IFRA, the regulatory body of the fragrance industry sets maximum levels for safe amounts of various odour molecules. Curiously, there are various compounds occurring in essential oils which have been used for centuries safely and effectively – and yet the synthesised isolates are being identified as potential sensitisers and irritants. Somehow, it does not seem to strike home that, for example, synthetic linalool in isolation may be very different from linalool in synergy with other naturally occurring chemistry with a linalool rich essential oil. It all seems to have certain parallels with the changing of a vegetable oil, unsaturated, into a fat solid at room temperature (margarine) and the problems which occur because it is not the chemistry of the molecule, but its shape, which gives rise to problems (trans fats)

Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent Amazon UK.
Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent Amazon USA