A perfume is a combination of fragrances, such as essential oils or aroma compounds dissolved in a solvent and then sprayed on the skin to give off a pleasant scent. It is used to enhance the wearer’s sense of smell, and may also be ingested as a food flavoring or applied to clothing to emit an attractive aroma. Perfumes are typically classified into five groups loosely based on their concentration of aromatic compounds. The highest concentration is called parfum, or extrait, and contains a very high amount of the compound. Perfumes have also been developed to achieve specific physiological and psychological effects, such as boosting positive mood or lowering heart rate.
The story of perfume begins with the discovery of the chemical components of fragrant oils and the development of distillation techniques that make it feasible to extract a single ingredient from large quantities of raw materials. It was during the seventeenth century that perfume became popular in Europe. It was especially prevalent in France, where hygiene practices were fairly primitive at the time and odors could be a major issue. Perfume was often used to mask unpleasant body odor and to amplify the scent of a person’s clothes.
Perfume is a very complex mixture, and it can contain tens to hundreds of ingredients. Generally, the compounds are a blend of natural or synthetic oils or aromas and fixatives that are diluted in a solvent to make them more pleasant to the sense of smell.
Natural scents can vary greatly depending on the time of year and the locale in which they are grown or harvested, as well as the method of extraction. Because of this, a perfumer will have a favorite or preferred supplier for particular flowers (Indian jasmine vs. Grasse jasmine) and may alter a perfume’s composition by adding different amounts of one scent or another to maximize profit margins. The same is true of many other raw materials and ingredients, and unscrupulous suppliers will even adulterate the scent by substituting the actual material (adding Indian jasmine to Grasse rosewood, for example) to increase their profits.
The main point of Suskind’s story is that, as with a musical composition, when a person applies a perfume the top notes open with a crescendo of aroma and then mellow out into the middle note. After the middle note, the base note comes into play and is blended into the individual’s unique skin chemistry, giving off a harmonious overall impression. A perfume’s harmony is what makes it memorable, and it is the reason why some scents are recognizable even after a short period of time. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a fascinating exploration of the magical power of perfume and how it can affect our behavior and emotions. I highly recommend it.