Saturday, March 21, 2009

what it takes to make a perfume

I recently interviewed Johann Maria Farina, the managing director of the world's oldest fragrance house, Farina Gegenüber [I shall be mentioning this frequently :-) ]. The original Johann Maria (1685-1766) was the inventor of Eau de Cologne. His descendant pointed out to me that an essential precondition for Farina to be able to create his citrus-based fragrance was the cultivation of bergamot, which had begun only about twenty years earlier. This story prefigures what happened about 160 years later, when the advances made in organic chemistry had the side effect of initiating modern perfumery which required the newly available semi- or full synthetics to build complex, lasting, innovative and affordable fragrances. That, of course, is just one of several technical aspects (among others was the necessity to advance distillation to a point where 70% and higher alcohols could be created to serve as a solution for herb or essential oils). These are necessary but not sufficient preconditions to explain the rise of Eau de Cologne or modern perfumery. We know that the ancient Greeks had the theoretical and practical know-how to launch an industrial revolution - physics, hydraulics, steam power etc. But there are numerous socio-cultural and economic reasons it did not happen - e.g. the availability of slave labor and the low regard in which manual labor, including applied sciences, was held. Eau de Cologne became a success because it corresponded to Enlightenment concepts of hygiene, health, civility and deportment - heavy musks were associated with artifice, depravity, and addiction, while the light citrus floral represented naturalness, vitality and hygiene. Likewise, industrial perfumery required a new white collar middle class as the backbone of a consumer society which would redefine bodies, female in particular, as spaces of commodified representation through dieting, fashion, and, of course, perfume.
Perfume, thus, is one little node within the vast and unfathomable network of causes and effects that is human history and agency and which binds us all together in ways we can rarely truly explain, much less anticipate. Next time you spritz your favorite, take a deep sniff of history and feel your connection with the cosmos.

1 comment:

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