Perfume in a fast-changing world

Brian Eno

23 Jun 2017

Perhaps, in a fast-changing world, it is natural to look for little oases of permanence, where traditional practices still reign. Perfumery is often presented this way: jasmine petals collected on dewy mornings in Provence; inspired ‘noses’ blending rare essences in darkened rooms. But the truth is that perfumery has for some time been undergoing a revolution of which few people outside the industry are aware. Much as electronics opened up the world of music to new sounds and new ways of composing, so synthetics – lab-created aromatic molecules – have opened up the world of perfume. In both cases there’s been scepticism, as though synthetics must automatically be inferior. Promotional descriptions of perfumes often omit any mention of their non-organic ingredients, even when those are in the majority. So your perfume will claim to be made of ylang-ylang, orris, and oakmoss, but they don’t mention the hexyl Cinnamaldehyde or the Gamma Octalactone or the Ambroxan. Similarly, when music critics write about recordings they hardly ever mention the technology of recording and the banks of highly specialised electronic tools like adaptive limiters and a-to-d convertors and granular synthesizers. All that stuff – made in labs and workshops – is as mysterious and unmentioned as, say, cis-3-Hexen- 1-ol (fresh cut grass) or Skatole (faeces, or in dilution, white flowers).

Brian Eno in Killian Wells' Dark Ride installation in the exhibition

I wonder why we’re so coy about these realities? Is it because we just don’t understand how modern culture is made? Perfumery, like many other contemporary creative arts, is increasingly a pursuit involving the accumulated talents of large numbers of people. This doesn’t mean that the expertise of traditional perfumery has disappeared, just as electronics hasn’t driven out the skills of great musicians. Of course the nose – the person who puts together the final blend – is crucial. But behind the nose stands the whole history of perfumery – and that increasingly includes people in laboratories manipulating molecules. The rate of introduction of new molecules is increasing and with it the rate of innovation in combining them. There’s a lot of brand new material to deal with, material which nobody has encountered before, and this means there are openings for new people with new ideas. That has happened in music too. New materials make new arts which require new artists. Smell is said to be the oldest sense. In evolutionary terms, the most basic organisms could smell hundreds of millions of years before sight and hearing developed. In the last century we’ve been able to make smells that never existed before. That seems to me a great story, some of which will be in Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.

Perfume: A sensory journey through contemporary scent

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