Perfumes for men and women are a luxury; a hot shower with deodorant soap should be enough to make us feel good and smell presentable. Beverly Plummer pokes fun at humans in her book, ''Fragrances - How to Make Natural Soap, Scents and Sundries'' when she writes, ''To our sweet smelling Earth - May it survive the foolishness of man.'' Still millions of people, maybe billions, indulge this foolishness by purchasing and using perfumes.
Perhaps you question why a man is exploring perfumes. Well, I do love to smell my wife's various perfumes when I kiss her goodbye in the morning so at least this makes me understand the allure of perfume. Preparation for this article took me to three department stores smelling 26 commercial fragrances over two days, purchasing one for me and reviewing library books regarding the topic of perfumes.
Smell is the least understood of all our senses. While we may identify specific floral or spice smells in a perfume, we find it difficult to describe how it affects us. Smell does liberate sensory memories from our past, a parent, a former partner, a childhood home or a favorite food.
Commercial fragrances for men and women come in pretty bottles.
Photo by Robert Ungerer
Fragrances were used in ancient Egypt. Ancient Romans burned incense thinking the rising smoke expressed gratitude to the deities and served as a request for blessing in the time of trouble. The word ''perfume'' originated from the Latin words ''per fume,'' meaning ''through smoke.''
European royalty used fragrances due to their ambivalence for bathing. Real perfume creation started in the mid-1800s when scientists discovered how to extract fragrances from botanicals such as flowers, citrus peels, spices and tree resins. Floral fragrances such as jasmine, rose and lavender were preserved by chemically extracting essential oils. Resins were extracted by distillation from trees such as sandalwood, cedar and birch. Animal oils such as civet from civet cat glands, musk from the musk deer and ambergris from the sperm whale, all now made synthetically, serve as fixatives which slow the evaporation of perfume allowing it to last all day.
The person who creates a perfume is called a perfumer. This person may sit in front of a console with multiple shelves holding hundreds of vials of essential oils, resins, fixatives and different alcohol concentrations. The skillful perfumer mixes scents produced by science to create an art work, a beautiful perfume, hopefully popular for the ages just as the musical composer mixes notes to create a masterpiece symphony. Several hundred ingredients may be mixed to produce a desired effect. A perfume is constructed in three layers of smells. The first, called the top note, is made of extracts that evaporate first and impart the initial impression one notices on the skin. These extracts could be jasmine, bergamot, lemon and rose. The second note or heart presents 10 minutes after application on the skin and may last for hours. These extracts could be iris, carnation and cinnamon. The third or base note, a fixative, slows the evaporation so the fragrance is released all day, even until the next day. Fixatives could be musk, civet, sandalwood and vanilla.
Perfumes are diluted in alcohol. Pure perfume, called parfum, is a 20-30 percent concentration of extracts; eau de parfum is 10-20 percent; eau de toilette is 8-10 percent; eau de cologne is 3-5 percent; and eau de fraiche is 3 percent. The more concentrated the perfume, the longer it releases fragrance, but it becomes more costly.
Perfumes are applied where arteries are close to the skin, called pulse points, because warmth helps disperse the fragrance. Usual sites include the wrist, behind the ears, behind the knees, between the breasts and, why not, a man's chest. Why behind the knees? Fragrances rise up so during the day the smell will reach one's nose. Perfume on the head wafts up and out of sight or in this case, out of the range of smell. Connoisseurs of perfume think fragrances should be worn because the wearer enjoys the smell; it makes them feel happy, secure and relaxed. Consumers may search for an aphrodisiac, but fragrances may only set the mood for other senses to produce desire.