Book Reviews
Book 29

Edward Sagarin The Science and Art of Perfumery

McGraw-Hill Book Co. Inc. 1945
Copyright Tony Burfield July 2004

Sagarin wrote this influential book in 1945, covering all aspects of the perfumery art – the perspective from 6 decades previous is quite fascinating. Seventeen chapters in the book cover the history of perfumery, technical processes like enfleurage and distillation, and perfumery materials and their synthesis, and much more. Chapters on animalics and “tree exudates” are followed by descriptions about creation and formulation - overall one gets the feeling that the book is a careful piece of work, peer-checked before publication. Nevertheless the book is very readable, and not over-technical in its presentation.

Dipping into the book at random, it amused me that Sagarin wrote (p52) that the adulteration of volatile oils is called “sophistication” – a nonsensical term still in use almost 60 years later! He remarks “competition with adulterers was difficult because the perpetuators of fraud could set low and attractive prices”. How little the world has changed! What has changed maybe, are costs and applications. Enfleurage was still used in 1945 to prepare jasmin and tuberose qualities (p45) although maceration had already become extinct as a process. Sagarin elsewhere describes the use of musk tonquin in maple flavour and castoreum in raspeberry, rum and claret wine, which might seem improbable if not unethical nowadays. A fairly detailed description of the musky odour of the muskrat and the muskrat product Musc Zibata is given. We are told that from muskrats trapped on the US marshes, 1000 glands give 10 ounces of fatty material, giving one ounce of Musc Zibata, owing its character to cyclopentadecanone and cycloheptadecanone. We are also informed that in the 17th Century, apparently well before the days of political correctness, Father Lejeune said of the musk odour “the French are very fond of this odour, the Savages dislike it as if it were a stench”. 

Thew subject of the classification of odours suggests some intriguing views. Bergamot, orange, lemon, petitgrain and neroli are described as a citrus category (p32), which in a broad sense they are, although petitgrain and neroli might conceivably be put into a separate orange blossom category, together with other materials. The idea that “peppermint, spearmint, wintergreen and camphor form a single group” might show how subjective odours are to different people.  ‘Further out’ than this in a chapter entitled “A Science in search of a Language”, is a concept of numerical evaluation of an odour substance (p144) to which the author gives partial support. This scheme was dreamed up by Crocker & Henderson, based on scoring of individual odours on four categories: fragrant or sweet; acid or sour; burnt or empyreumatic and caprylic, hircine, oenanthic or goaty. This is followed by a description of Piesse’s odophone – where odours are like sounds, and each individual odour material corresponds to a note in an ascending scale, and where heavy notes (patchouli, vanilla) are at the bottom end of the scale and light notes (civet, verbena) are at the top. Zwaardemaker’s fairly credible work on odour intensity is also described, but before this we were treated to Elseberg’s theories on the sense of smell, where he attempted to add verify that one molecule of odourous substance in every 100 molecules of a volatile non-odourous substance will raise the boiling-point of the mixture by a nearly constant fraction of its value – approximately 0.0105.

Moving swiftly on (!), the rise of synthetics is described in detail. The price rises of natural raw materials (flower oils, oleoresins etc.) during the Second World War were not echoed by rises in the price synthetic aromatic materials (from coal-tar etc), and presumably didn’t help the cause of unrestricted raw material use! Chemical routes are also described – the prospect of the transformation of benzene to nitrobenzene and thence to eugenol vanillin might gives us the toxicological shivers today. Vitamin A synthesis had not been cracked at this time and ionone synthesis was not then a by-product of this industry. Routes from the starting material toluene also figure heavily through benzyl chloride, thence to benzyl esters but more importantly to benzaldehyde, itself a starter material for cinnamic aldehyde and phenylacetaldehyde. It’s amazing how the mention of many of these materials to the modern perfumer nowadays conjures up not necessarily visions of usefulness in formulae - but of concentration restrictions in product, toxicology and labelling requirements! Yes the world has changed!

The book is illustrated with a series of charming black and white photographs which of course, look very period – for example a picture of capped workers variously in waistcoats & braces mechanically expressing Italian citrus oils, and another of a lady removing jasmine flowers from the corps in the enfleurage process. A photo of a flavour technician inadvisably mouth pipetting candy flavour, and another of an unprotected worker bodily bending into a power-driven centrifuge for the separation of crystals is perhaps a reminder of how far Health and Safety practices have moved forward! The obligatory picture of a perfumer with a smelling strip takes a different twist as the caption tells us he smells from the perfume blotter first through one nostril, then the other, then both together. So perhaps recent discoveries that odour judgements differ according to which nostril is employed, have merely been re-inventing the wheel! Further photos of Hyacinth flowers for extraction in a Grassoise house, and muskrat glands on a glass plate are a reminder of materials from a by-gone age.

Appendix A stretches the best part of fifty pages of the book and comprises a bibliography for the references in the text, but it is in effect a valuable & detailed review of perfumery literature to 1945 – not only covering reference books for the perfumer, including formularies and historical literature, but also horticultural, psychology, perfumery applications and even magazine articles on perfumery.   

In conclusion it’s important for people such as myself to thumb pages of books like this from time to time. It reminds me of the roots of perfumery, vanished raw materials, unrestricted use of aromatic items, and generally how things used to be before bureaucrats and Health and Safety requirements ruined the art of perfumery for ever.