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July 1, 2006

"The Belle Epoque" By Luca Turin

"The Belle Epoque" By Luca Turin

While smelling some leather perfumes recently, I looked up quinoline, the molecule that gives them their bitter, distinctive smell: it was discovered by Zdenko von Skraup in 1880. Small wonder they call it the Belle Epoque! The last fifty years of the long nineteenth century (1789-1914) gave us half of physics and mathematics, and a huge slice of chemistry, the latter mostly from Germany and Austria. The perfumery timeline is amazing: between 1868 (coumarin, the smell of fougères) and 1908 (undecalactone, the peach in Mitsouko) chemists discovered all the bones of modern perfumery, about fifty synthetics that defined the Golden Age. Very few of these chemicals were found by fragrance specialists, and almost all by accident. Chemists were just busy making things, and some of them smelled good and made their creators (or their employers) very rich.

In those days, there were no regulatory costs, no safety tests. If you put the thing in a fragrance and nobody dropped dead (no one ever did), you had a product. How things have changed. Today the cost of worldwide certification of a new product, before you find out whether anyone even likes it, is upwards of € 1M. Unless it is a blockbuster, you’ll get your money back fairly slowly. Few completely new molecules are being released. Maybe the industry has entered an age of diminishing returns. The perfumer’s palette is supposedly too large already, at somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 materials, and all the big composition firms are removing the seldom used items from their inventories. Everyone is running for cover; your best-selling product could give six rats a rash and end up on Europe’s least-wanted list next time the suits meet in Brussels.

I should know: I’ve just spent the last four years devising replacements for some of the most popular molecules in fragrance history, now classed as allergens. My job has been great fun, interesting science, clever chemistry and good business, but it’s essentially conservation, not construction. Just when you might think there are no new smells left to be discovered, a perfumer friend points out the existence of a new musk called Musk KS, made by Grau Aromatics in (of course) Germany. I ordered a sample, and it is stunning: hugely powerful, earthy, unlike any other. Then I saw the chemical structure. Never was a more optimistic molecule made: it contains two bromine atoms and a nitro group. These are things that give armchair safety experts night sweats. But Grau KG, god bless them, made it, made sure it was safe, and now sells it. Maybe another Belle Epoque is coming.

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