Sense-stimulating books that are not to be sniffed at

The secret of scent: adventures in perfume and the science of smell 

Luca Turin 

London, UK: Faber & Faber | 2006 | 207pp | ?12.99 (HB) | ISBN 0571215378 

Reviewed by Don Wallis

This is a real Jekyll and Hyde book. On the one hand, we have exciting accounts of the development of new perfumes and the scientific study of the mechanism of olfaction from a man obsessed with sniffing. On the other hand we have poorly edited and badly arranged, sometimes incomprehensible, chemistry. 

The secret of scent  follows on from the 2003 biography of Luca Turin, The emperor of scent: a story of perfume, obsession and the last mystery of the senses, by Chandler Burr. It recounts the author’s life-long research into smell and reads like a detective story, as he shows how the old lock-and-key theory for olfaction based on the shape of molecules should be replaced by a theory of molecular vibration. Turin has successfully used his theories to create new perfume molecules for the ever-expanding and glamorous cosmetics industry. 

The author is at his best describing enthusiastically the breakdown of familiar perfumes into their constituents and he left me wondering how he could manage to detect various ’drydown notes’ when I don’t seem to notice when my wife puts on a new and expensive perfume. 

Most readers of Chemistry World  will not, however, be so enthusiastic about the portrayal of chemistry. For a book purporting to be for a general readership it is strange how many chemical formulae are drawn in the text (some incorrectly) and it is annoying that none of them is captioned, so that it is difficult to track down on any page just how the formulae given relate to the text. Also, for some incomprehensible reason, the author finds the need to introduce his readers to Smiles notation for chemicals. What is Smiles notation, you may well ask. Well it is one of several linear notations for chemicals (handy for computer handling) and stands for Simplified molecular input line entry specification. It is an alternative to the Iupac InChI system mentioned previously in Chemistry World  (June 2005, p7). But how many readers of Chemistry World  know that O=C1OC2=CC=CC=C2C=C1 represents coumarin, let alone the general public?  

These chemical annoyances meant that, instead of stimulating my sense of smell, this otherwise readable book got right up my nose!

Meaningful scents around the world: olfactory, chemical, biological and cultural considerations 

Roman Kaiser 

Weinheim, Germany: Wiley-VCH | 2006 | 304pp | ?70 (HB) | ISBN 3906390373 

Reviewed by Graham Bamford

Roman Kaiser, an eminent fragrance chemist who developed the headspace analysis technique, gives the reader an insight into his 30 years of olfactory research with fragrance and flavour company Givaudan. 

The scents with which women (and men) smother themselves today result from detailed chemical analysis of natural products from all corners of the globe, often followed by reconstitution of the natural scents or their analogues by chemical synthesis.  

Kaiser illustrates his painstaking research on the flora of the world, often in difficult rainforest environments by revisiting such places as Lower Amazonia, Papua New Guinea, Equatorial West Africa and India. Orchids and roses are among the fragrant plants described in detail. 

Despite its beautiful illustrations and excellent presentation, Meaningful scents around the world  is not a book for a general readership because it has too much detailed chemistry. It will be greatly enjoyed by all natural product chemists, especially those in the fragrance business. It is well-researched and well-referenced for anyone wishing to explore the subject further, and ends with the detailed analytical composition of the natural scents discussed earlier in the book, as a reference tool for professionals. 

I found the book full of interesting information, and I wished that some of the pages had scratch ’n’ sniff facilities to enable me to appreciate the perfumes so beautifully described.

The chemistry of fragrances. From perfumer to consumer  

Charles Sell (ed) 

Cambridge, UK; Royal Society of Chemistry | 2006 | 336pp | ?29.95 (HB) | ISBN 0854048243 

Reviewed by David Chamberlin

This book is unashamedly chemical, written by and for chemists. It is multi-authored, but all the contributors are currently or were previously employed by the same company, Quest International, giving a cohesive approach to the content. The editor, Charles Sell, welds the various chapters together to give a good insight into the perfume industry. 

After an introduction on the history of perfumes and fragrances and on perfumery materials from natural plant sources, the longest chapter of the book covers the chemical synthesis of perfume ingredients, especially terpenoid ones.The industrial syntheses developed by the various companies in the fragrance business are well described in chemical and economic terms and accompanied by reaction sequences. 

The rest of the book shows how these basic ingredients produced by the chemist are used to develop fragrance products through formulation, and outlines all the other issues that the industry has to consider such as fragrance perception, fragrance performance, stability testing, biodegradability, safety and toxicology. 

A final section deals with the future search for new fragrance ingredients which the authors claim will involve chemists using their synthetic skills, inspired by nature, and aided by computers. 

A sniff page is included, the scent of which lasts long enough for the reader to finish the book in a cloud of lavender.