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What is Perfume?

By: Stephen Dowthwaite
Posted: November 3, 2010, from the November 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

Abridged from an article originally published in the July 2010 issue of Perfumer & Flavorist magazine.

“What is perfume?” is usually the very first question I like to pose to students on day one of a perfumery class. I encourage each one of them to answer the question, and the answers typically include one of these: Nice smell, mixture of odoriferous materials, mixture of natural and synthetic materials, a smell to invoke a feeling, a mixture of art and science, essential oils, fashion statement, something added to a product to give a nice smell, smell worn to attract a partner, the smell of a flower.

I cannot dismiss any of these answers as wrong; however, I suggest the Latin origins of the English word perfume, “per fumum,” which literally means “through smoke” and hints toward a more empowering meaning. “Through smoke” indicates perfume’s early use in offerings made to God or gods during religious ceremonies, offered up to the skies as in prayer or song.

So I propose this answer to the question: Perfume is communication: the exchange of thoughts, messages or information.

The modern understanding of perfume, especially in the context of a manufacturing industry is merely part of a commercial product. Take pause, and think about this for a moment. Why is perfume added to shampoos, cleaners or powders? A breakdown of the manufacturing cost of a product usually indicates perfume as the most expensive component. Likewise, shampoo and toiletries may only contain 0.5–1% perfume compound by weight of a product, yet perfume typically accounts for 10% of the raw material manufacturing cost of the product. So, despite these considerations, if perfume is added in a product, it should be there for good reason.