On scents, smells, and fragrances

On scents, smells, and fragrances

Prof. Dr. Dr. Dr. habil. Hanns Hatt und Prof. Dr. Roman Kaiser mit Gattin

The exhibition “Himmlische Düfte und Höllengestank” at the Botanical Garden of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (May 6-October 31, 2011; Scientific advisor: Prof. Dr. Dr. Dr. habil. Hanns Hatt) presents an interactive journey through the world of scents and smells. It provides a lot of information for the public that is interested in perfumes, plants/flowers, and herbs. Several ingredients are presented but also perfumes and fragrance families are introduced. The presentation is rich in appealing pictures, detailed facts, and informative data. [slideshow]

In addition, a number of presentations from significant authorities in the discipline parallel the exhibition: for instance, the Swiss fragrance chemist Prof. Dr. Roman Kaiser gave an enlightening presentation of his journeys around the world to capture new smells and make them available in the fragrance industry. Being at Givaudan at the time of these journeys, Kaiser introduced to his travel that intended to find (and, thereafter, re-constitute) smells in nature. This “hunt” co-determined the development of a multitude of perfumes such as Black Orchid (Tom Ford) and Marc Jacobs Men (Marc Jacobs). Thus, the geography of scents, smells, and molecules is far from being mapped.

In my opinion, Kaiser’s presentation also hints towards three aspects:

1)    It is otiose to apply an ex ante-qualification in terms of ingredients that are natural, nature-identical and chemical (in the sense of “natural is better” – or “worse”).

2)    Beyond the significant financial investment in the development of so-called captives, “nature” provides un-recognized opportunities and new olfactive worlds. Similarly, nature is only mildly intruded (as the example of the headspace-technology shows).  However, the moral rights and politics of this practice are yet to be discussed.

3)    The determination whether smells are “good” or “bad” is – in line with thoughts of several cultural anthropologists – based on social practices and not pre-given.

In my dissertation (“Geographies of Knowledge in the International Fragrance Industry”, University of Oklahoma, 2009) , the aspect of finding new molecules in nature that can be applied by the industry is also discussed (pages 90/91):

“However, “nature continues to be a great resource [for creativity]” because “nature provides new combinations of individual ingredients” (Rouhi, 2003: 55). Givaudan’s search for molecules in nature has focused on the biodiverse rain forests – i.e. the “storehouses of plant life” – in French Guiana, Indonesia, Gabon, and Madagascar, for instance (S&C, 2002). The search was achieved through the firm’s ScentTrek technology. This technology focuses on capturing scents from all parts of a plant such as fruits, leaves, stems, and roots through mobile machines (Gaug, 2005; Jeffries, 2005). The so-called “headspace technology” allows the capture of an entire sensory experience: by ‘vacuuming’ molecules of the scent and running them through an instrument known as a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, a chemical blueprint can be made. This blueprint allows the chemist to reassemble the scent in a laboratory (Newman, 1998: 90). Other companies apply comparable portable, non-destructive technologies/extraction processes such as Mane’s Jungle Essence Technology (Jeffries, 2005). The method of extraction is non-destructive and a subsequent analysis is based on gas chromatography (GC) and mass spectrometry (MS; Rouhi, 2003). Through these techniques, scent molecules become available for the synthesis of essential oils that are based on the product from nature. This makes the creation of new fragrances possible. In Madagascar, for instance, a total of 50 scents from flowers, fruits, woods, leaves, and resins were investigated, analyzed, categorized, and – where possible – synthetically reconstituted (S&C, 2002). The two examples of molecular innovation in the laboratory [i.e. R&D focusing on captives] and synthetic reconstruction based on the extraction of scents out of nature document who is enabled to perform innovation in terms of raw materials: only the large suppliers are active in this capital-intensive business.


Gaug, D. R. (2005): Evolution of flavors and scents. In: Annual Review of Plant Biology, Vol. 56: 301-325.

Jeffries, N. (2005): Sustaining scent and sensations. In: Global Cosmetic Industry, Vol. 173, No. 6: 48-51.

Newman, C. (1998): Perfume. The art and science of scent. Washington: National Geographic Society.

Rouhi, A. M. (2003): Indulging the chemical senses. Broadening, enhancing sensory experiences drive R&D in the flavor and fragrance industry. In: Chemical and Engineering News, Vol. 81, No. 28: 53-60.

S&C (2002): Givaudan’s ScentTrek to Madagascar. In: Soap and Cosmetics, June 2002: 10.

SP&C (2005): Scenting a challenge. In: Soap, Perfumery and Cosmetics, October 2005: 35-38.

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