Our noses may be no great shakes compared to, say, that of the average poodle, but scent is still a powerful means of non-verbal communication for humans, even if we don’t rub our noses against everyone we meet, like our canine friends.

The use of scents to make ourselves smell better goes back to ancient times, when sweet smells were thought to be pleasing to the gods. The very word “perfume” comes from the Latin “per fumum,” which means “through smoke,” a reference to the use of incense in worship.

The first modern perfume, scented oils blended with an alcohol solution, was created in 1370 at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary. Over the next few centuries perfumes proliferated, coming on strong in Renaissance Italy (partly due to the need to cover up bad smells in that age of limited bathing), and then making their way to France, which became the world center of perfumery.

The people who create perfumes are called “noses.” A nose must be able, not only to smell well, but to remember more than 2,000 different scents, from which he or she draws the elements to create a new perfume to match the “brief,” or specifications, of a client. (Which can be difficult: one brief called for a perfume that “should smell like the inside of my Grandmother’s closet,” while another demanded the “metallic, leathery smell of a couple who had made love in a Ferrari car.”)

The scents used in perfumes come from a huge number of sources–and with around 50 new perfumes being launched every year, the search for new sources of scents has taken on epic proportions: employees of perfumeries scour the globe for new smells, usually from plants, although just about anything is fair game. If the plant can’t be harvested, the scent can still be captured using a technology called “headspace,” a machine that sucks up the scent through a funnel, then breaks the smell down on a molecular level and stores it in the computer for later synthesis.

The basic natural ingredients of perfumes are essential oils, resinoids (gums or resins purified with a solvent) and absolutes (viscous liquids, also extracted with the help of a solvent), formed within the cells of plant tissues–but not all plant tissues. In fact, only about 2,000 of the 250,000 known species of flowering plants contain these aromatic oils. And the aromas of those that do vary from region to region and even from plant to plant, so that the finest scents are often found in a very small geographical region–such as the Valley of the Roses in Bulgaria, which has provided almost all of the world’s rose oil for two centuries.

Extracting an absolute isn’t easy. For example, it takes 45 minutes to pick 5,000 jasmine flowers, which weigh about a pound: it takes 800 pounds of such flowers to provide only one pound of jasmine absolute. This is one reason synthetic scents are increasingly being used.

One area of perfuming where synthetics have almost entirely triumphed is in the selection of “fixatives,” which bind the various “fragrances” (the plant-based scents) together and equalize their rate of evaporation. For centuries, the most important fixatives were civet, from the scent glands of the civet cat; musk, from the male musk deer; castor, from beavers, and ambergris, from the intestines of sperm whales. Animal welfare concerns have pretty well eliminated the use of these substances. (Much to the relief of perfume-wearers everywhere, one would think. Yuck!)

To create a perfume, a nose usually sits down at a U-shaped desk surrounded by racks of little vials of ingredients, known as “le jus”–“the juice”. Drawing on careful tests, copious notes, years of experience–and, these days, computer databases–the nose mixes, blends and re-blends until a new perfume is born.

This set up–the U-shaped desk, the little vials–is known as the “organ,” which may be why the composition of a perfume is described in terms of notes. Each essential oil and each completed perfume has three notes. “Notes de tepte,” “top notes,” are volatile aromas like lemon or orange, that give the perfume its initial tang but vanish swiftly. “Notes de couer,” “heart notes,” such as rose, jasmine or iris, provide richness and body. Finally, “notes de fond,” “base notes,” such as sandalwood or cedar, provide a long-lasting bouquet. The perfumer may also add “spicy notes,” “woody notes,” “Oriental notes,” “green notes” or “fruity notes.”

The completed concentrated blend is not what is sold in the store. Scents are sold as perfume (15 to 30 percent concentrate in a solution of alcohol and water), eau de parfum (10 to 15 percent), eau de cologne (five to eight percent) and eau de toilette (two to four percent). Cologne and eau de toilette come in larger bottles and are much cheaper. (By the way, most of the cost of a, say, $150-an-ounce bottle of perfume is the cost of development and marketing: the ingredients of the perfume itself, no matter how exotic, probably account for only about a tenth of the cost.)

Which brings us to the hazardous occupation of attempting to buy a scent for a loved one. Just because something costs $150 an ounce doesn’t mean the loved one in question will like it. And you can’t even test it by dabbing a little on your own wrist and taking a sniff: the chemicals in the perfume react with the chemicals in the wearer’s skin, so that the actual scent is a little bit different on everybody. While researching this, for instance, I discovered that Chanel No. 5 just isn’t my scent. Laura Ashley, though, is a different matter. (Don’t ask.)

The best bet? Buy your loved one something he/she’s already wearing, or something very similar to it. Otherwise you’ll end up giving a gift like the bottle of cologne I received from someone in Grade 12. Nineteen years later, it’s still in my dresser drawer.

I’m afraid to open it.

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