Reference books don't age well. Unlike precious wines or baseball-cards, they improve neither in quality, nor in value. What's the use, then, of a sixty-year-old treatise on perfumery? Is it still worth reading today? To answer this question, we take a closer look at one of the most popular exemplars of its day: Edward Sagarin's The Science and Art of Perfumery, published in 1945.
Let's start with a brief overview. The first two chapters of the book cover the historical backgrounds of perfumery. Through epigrams and biblical references, Sagarin illustrates the relationship between sacred rituals and the use of fragrant oils in Ancient times. From the third chapter onwards, the focus shifts to manufacturing techniques.
Here, the author thoroughly describes five methods to obtain fragrant oils from flowers and plants: distillation, enfleurage, maceration, extraction, and expression. He notes that maceration is on its way to extinction; a small photograph shows cylindrical containers in which the process takes place. It's one of many instances in the book where the reader witnesses, as it where, the end of an era. We now know that techniques of maceration and enfleurage were indeed abandoned forever; these very pages seem to announce their sad departure.
In the chapter dedicated to animal secretions, we read about beaver trapping in Canada, and how to kill a musk deer; of course, many practices described in the book are now illegal. It's not the nicest chapter in perfume history, but an important one nevertheless.
The rise of modern perfumery plays a major role in the book. The chapter entitled “Man the Duplicator” deals with the origins of organic chemistry, and contains great anecdotes on key figures like Friedrich Wahler and William Henry Perkin. The author's praise of Perkin's synthetization of coumarin attests his sincere enthusiasm for chemistry:
Here was a synthetic, not only as fine as nature's own, but different in no respect from the natural coumarin. This was man, the duplicator, in his supreme achievement.” (p.80)
A great advocate of synthetic perfumery, Sagarin dedicates an entire chapter to “Man the Creator”, in which he stresses the importance of developing new molecules. He shows how Ferdinand Tiemann's incorrect transcription of a chemical structure lead him to create ionone (“a synthetic unknown in natural history”) and how important this discovery was to the perfumer's art. Despite the fact that some consumers continue to express their low esteem for cheap synthetics, the author passionately dismisses any and all opposing views on the subject:
[...] the finished perfume without synthetics is unthinkable, just as the finished fragrance without naturals is undesirable. [...] It is part of man's inferiority complex, or perhaps his scientific conservatism, that he cannot conceive of the product in the beaker as being as precious as the product in the flower. (p.90-91)
It's a sign of the times. The 'natural vs. synthetic' debate takes place along the line of aesthetic and economical principles. World War II has come to an end, but left deep marks in all aspects of social, cultural, and economic life. Sagarin discusses the shortage of raw materials in 1945, which indeed affected more than the perfume industry alone; he shows how their cost rose spectacularly since 1939. Reading between the lines, one sees how technological progress became of vital importance to the perfume industry, just like in any other sector. Change was, more than anything, a necessity. The implementation of new technologies, the alteration of classic formulae, they didn't always occur for the simple sake of profit or greed. From a distance, it's easy to overlook the often complex historical processes that contributed to the industry's transformation.
Few writers nowadays take the time to explore historical processes from up close, which is their own loss, as well as their readers'. The Science and Art of Perfumery was frozen in a particularly interesting moment in time, and was considered an authoritative reference for decades. It now serves as a good complementary read.
Used copies can be found through antique book dealers; I found mine, in good condition, for $20.
The Science and Art of Perfumery
New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. (1945)
Hardcover, 268 pages
Edward Sagarin (1913-1986) started his career in the perfume and cosmetics industry, but is best remembered as author of the influential book The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (1951), written under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory. You can read more background information here.