National Geographic : 1951 Apr
Perfume, the Business of Illusion BY LONNELLE AIKMAN OUT of the sky over Syracuse dropped a perfume-laden helicopter-witha large Easter rabbit at the controls. In New York City a man stepped out of a store, carrying jars of scented bath salts. He sprinkled the crystals on the icy pavement and then went back inside, as passers-by sniffed in surprise at the fragrant, frosty air. In Washington, D. C., a crowd of curious shoppers gathered about the display window of a leading department store. They were watching a pretty girl in evening dress, who was apparently imprisoned inside a huge per fume vial, as a miniature ship is caught within a glass bottle. Such antics are not figments of an Alice in-Wonderland fantasy. They are real inci dents in the day's work of a world-wide indus try that in the United States alone has an annual "take" of more than one hundred mil lion dollars. The rabbit in the helicopter was actually a hard-working pilot dressed in masquerade for a stunt assignment to fly in an Easter shipment of a new perfume. Sprinkling the bath salts was the idea of a cosmetics manufacturer, who thus disposed of some sample goods, protected pedestrians from slippery streets, and called attention to his products. The girl in the bottle was, of course, an eye-catching advertisement, a flesh-and-blood demonstration of party-going perfume. All this is part of the fabulous business of making and selling scent. For perfume is not a commodity that nourishes, clothes, or shelters. It is the essence of hope for the first prom, and the time-honored stand-by for that last-minute anniversary present. It is the breath of romance-at 50 cents to $100 an ounce! Behind the Scented Curtain Those in the trade speak of the power of association, of the "tweak to the nose of memory" by the fragrance that recalls some long-ago apple-blossom time, or the aroma of spice in a sunny, old-fashioned kitchen. They cite the psychologist's belief that smell is man's most primitive sense. As for "matching your personality with your perfume," it is all a matter of physiology. The chemicals in the individual skin, say the doctors of scent, must harmonize with the perfume used. Otherwise, a fragrance changes or fades away. That's perfume and its public. Exploring behind the scented curtain, I found a prac tical industry that is stranger than Alice's dream. It is a world of scientific formulas and closely guarded secrets; of globe-girdling transport, customs regulations-and Ethio pian tribesmen who hunt wild civet cats for a malodorous essence of perfumery. For not the least of the anomalies in this business is the fact that its most delectable and expen sive fragrances may contain tiny amounts of some of the worst smells known in Nature. There is hardly a country which does not supply at least one of perfumery's numerous and exotic raw materials. Its aromatic oils and essences follow you from the cradle to the grave, from babyhood's delicate powders to the strong substances of the mortuary. Even if you never touch perfume, you use it in scented soaps and creams; and in cook ing turn to its flavors and spices. Tasting, as anybody who has ever had a head cold knows, is largely smell.* Aromatics Linked with Medicine Many of perfume's aromatics have a medi cal history, linked with the arts of beauty, that reaches back beyond Hippocrates to the healing practices of ancient Egypt. Some of its germicidal and antiseptic ingredients are still found in your doctor's prescription. Barber and beauty shops are safer, perfume chemists told me, because of these aromatic materials. Kissing would be more dangerous without them. Modern perfume making itself has given birth to a new and allied activity that has grown to rival the parent industry. It sup plies manufacturers of a wide range of articles, from rubber toys to house paint, with appro priate and customer-luring scents. But perfumery is the only major field in which the nose is the final arbiter. In fact, the maestros of the profession-the men who dream up the formulas for fine perfumes are known as "Noses." A Nose is not necessarily an expert botanist and chemist, although often he is both. He must, however, have the sensitivity of a pro fessional teataster or winetaster, to be able to recognize and handle thousands of different odors and to blend his creations with that touch of universal magic called glamour. The first conscious use of scent may have come about when some experimental Eve, * See "Spices, the Essence of Geography," by Stuart E. Jones, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1949.