Perfume and the Power of Love
Monday, August 17, 2009

Smells are such a constant that we tend to miss them and underplay their importance. At least until a special one hits us, and we are suddenly overcome with an indescribable feeling that many of us might compare to romantic rapture, or even confuse with true love. Stroll around certain residential sections of Los Angeles on a summer's evening, for example, and you are likely to catch a whiff of the jasmine flower. Jasmine is a common enough scent, but smelling it on an evening breeze is one of the most intoxicating experiences we know and has been known to drive some pretty strong emotions. Indeed, it's this kind of power that drives the never-ending appeal of both retail and wholesale perfume and colognes. Sold at both the most absurd high prices imaginable or via special deals at discount stores or as closeouts, perfumes are one of the constants of the commercial world, because almost nothing is more powerful than scent.

Perfumes, colognes and essential oils of various sorts have been with us for thousands of years, certainly going back as far as biblical times. Both the Old and New Testaments contain numerous references to perfumes and scents, from the lusty refrains of "Song of Solomon" to the myrrh with which one of the three wise men gifted the infant Jesus. Incense, an early form of perfume, has been burned as part of Christian, Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist rituals for centuries.

And so it went, on into notoriously filthy medieval Europe where bathing was rare and covering-up unpleasant odors drove a big part of the trade in exotic spices and flowers. As cleanliness slowly became more common, however, it was realized that certain aromas were good not only for covering up unpleasant odors but for maximizing humans' attractiveness to each other.

Obviously, not all scents are created equal and some are more associated with attraction than others. Why is jasmine, say, sexier than the smell of your standard daisy? We don't know, but another common ingredient of perfumes and colognes are animal derived products. In his classic work of pop-anthropology, The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris noted the phenomenon of contemporary women and men using every hygienic trick at their disposal to remove all of their natural scents, for fear of smelling bad, only to then add perfumes that include similar scents derived from various mammals. Why go through all this seemingly unnecessary work? Morris stated that we humans benefit from arousal, but only within limits. Too much sexually-related olfactory stimulation would be too distracting and would threaten the social order. However, just a little bit of that scent seems to be perfect for greasing the social wheels of contemporary society, where controlled flirtation never hurt anyone.

Still, for all its power and popularity, perfumery only became truly big business at the turn of the 20th century. It was both the scent-building acumen and marketing genius of self-made millionaire Francois Coty that propelled him from complete obscurity to one of the richest and most controversial men in France. A rough analogue of America's William Randolph Hearst, his extremist political leanings eventually got him into hot water near the time of his death in 1934, but his legacy in the world of scent remains strong. Coty, Inc. is currently the world's largest perfume manufacturers with a long list of celebrity-based scents named for everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Calvin Klein.

Perfume is so much a part of modern life that it's everywhere. You can find it at beyond astronomical prices, literally thousands of dollars an ounce, or for just a dollar or two for wholesale perfume and colognes sold as inexpensive cheap closeouts. At any price, we're pretty sure that as long as people exist, so will perfume. Why? Because to have more people, we need romance, and love and our sense of smell will never be separated. It's chemistry.