Abstract: Fashion fades, only Chanel No. 5 remains the same: A Chemical History of Style & Technology
Perfume is more than mere personal adornment. It is a chemical record of style and technology. Underlying the story of modern perfumery is a history of chemical discoveries. While perfumery might be one of the two oldest professions in the world, it owns its modern character as a semi-scientific art to the discovery and development of synthetic materials. With the rise of synthetic chemistry at the end of the 19th century, perfumes turned into an object of reproduction. A new era of industrial perfumery was about to start once the “smelling principle” of one of the most fundamental scented materials was discovered: the synthesis of vanillin from coniferyl alcohol by Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann in 1874. Since then perfumery has turned into one of the largest parts of our modern socio-economic landscape. To date, in the US alone 25 billion dollars are made annually with the production of fragrant molecules for products such as detergents, shampoos, perfumes, or soaps. Key to modern perfumery is the design of new synthetic odorants (odorous molecules) as well as an understanding of the perceptual and social dimensions of fragrance preferences.
The focus of my paper is to track the history of late 19th and 20th century perfumery as a history of chemical discoveries and a trajectory of benchmark scents. For this I am looking at the fragrant timeline from 1884’s Fougere Royale, using the newly synthesized coumarin, to the more recent classic of 1988’s Fahrenheit, incorporating methyl heptyne carboxylate. Blurring the boundary between what counts as natural and artificial in both a material and a perceptual sense, perfumery presents us with a domain that embodies several disciplinary identities: from being a guarded art and craft to turning partly into a techno-science. By using the invention of new chemicals as a historiographical tool, I analyze the generation of a chemical repertoire and the idea of benchmark scents in an increasingly techno-scientific context as constitutive of the special disciplinary identity of perfumery: a semi-science. I want to understand what characterizes semi-scientific practices that may further offer us a renewed perspective on the nature of science and its progression.