The Odor of Things

Scott Sayare in Harper’s:

Like many of the great perfumers, Jean Carles was a son of Grasse, a country town in the hills north of Cannes, on the French Riviera. Grasse, once a state unto itself, sits in a natural amphitheater of south-facing limestone cliffs, at the head of a valley of meadows sloping gently to the sea. The combined effect of this geography and the dulcet Mediterranean climate is a harvest of roses, jasmine, and bitter-orange blossoms that is exceptionally fragrant, and for hundreds of years the town has been known as the capital of the perfume trade. When Carles began his training, early in the twentieth century, a priesthood of Grassois perfumers presided over the industry. These so-called nez, or noses, were regarded with an awe of the sort that attaches, perhaps especially in France, to artistic genius. They were vessels of divine talent, their creations as wondrously perfect as the flowers of Grasse.

Would-be nez were initiated through an apprenticeship of several years, during which the secrets of the perfumer’s method were carefully revealed. The language of perfume is borrowed largely from music. Perfumers are said to “compose” their fragrances, merging individual “notes” into sonorous “accords” and arranging those accords in “harmony.” As his training progressed, Carles came to realize with some dismay that, for all its pretensions to art, perfumery proceeded almost entirely by trial and error. The noses selected ingredients by little more than instinct, and dosed them nearly at random. Perfumers worked, Carles later wrote scathingly, “in haphazard fashion, in the expectation of a potential miracle.” Many of the best formulas had been discovered “almost by chance,” he reported, “to the unfeigned surprise of their authors.” He set out to systematize perfumery, to establish a comprehensive theory of fragrance creation.

Carles proposed to arrange the scent realm in an orderly grid.

More here.