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Coming up roses

Nicki Household sniffs her way round an interactive history of perfume.

Then were not summer's distill-ation left A liquid prisoner pent in walls ofglass, Beauty's effect with beauty werebereft, Nor it nor no remembrance what it was.But flowers distilled though they with winter meet,Lose but their show; their subst- ance still lives sweet.

Little did Shakespeare know, when he wrote his Fifth Sonnet, that "summer's distillation" would one day become a multi-million pound industry. Retail sales of women's fragrance reached Pounds 286 million in 1993 and, during the same year, no less than 20 new brands were launched. But it's perfume as a science and an art form that is celebrated in Heavenly Scent, the Comite Francais du Parfum's elaborately-staged exhibition about the manufacture, creation and use of perfume through the ages. Designed "to chronicle the history, culture and romance of perfume from 2,500 BC to the present day", the exhibition is a visual, aural and, above all, olfactory experience on a grand scale. During its year-long stay in Britain (since its creation in 1988, it has toured France and Japan) it will visit London, Glasgow, Brighton, Cardiff, Manchester and Edinburgh.

With interactive units that encourage visitors to identify smells, test their sense of smell and create their own perfumes, computer games which match perfume "families" with personality types, and video terminals illustrating everything from how the nose works to artistic influences on bottle design, there's plenty here to capture the young imagination. And, to the sponsors' credit, there's no overt advertising or brand-naming.

The four main themes of the exhibition are Raw Materials, History, the Perfumer and the Bottle. Natural essences from plants and flowers are still, surprisingly, one of the main sources of essential oils. Several working displays demonstrate how these have been extracted over the years from the slow and laborious process of enfleurage through steam distillation to modern methods of solvent extraction. Whatever the method, it still takes 50 million rose petals to produce one kilo of rose oil.

Story boards and artefacts trace perfume's history from its first use, in solid form, in ancient Egyptian temples, through its popularity in ancient Greece and Rome (the Romans were the first to replace terracotta containers with beautiful glass bottles) and on to its eventual re-acceptance in Europe after a long period of condemnation by the Christian Church.

During the 17th and 18th centuries its main use was to mask the unpleasant odours caused by inadequate personal hygiene. The late 18th century saw the birth of the first great perfume houses in Paris and Grasse, but the most revolutionary event of all was the discovery of synthetic aromas in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The perfumer is compared to a musician who creates a unique symphony from an almost infinite variety of top, middle and base notes.

Referred to in the business as a "nose", the perfumer has such a refined sense of smell that he can identify any of several thousand subtle perfume "notes" with a single sniff.

This section includes models and diagrams of the olfactory system (our 10 million smelling cells seem a lot until compared with the 220 million of an alsatian dog), plus explanations of how smells can bring back memories, influence our moods and emotions and affect our ability to taste.

As British perfumers, too, have played their part, there's a separate display of period artefacts from Floris, Yardley, Penhaligo, Dunhill and Crown Perfumery. An education pack with suggestions for activities and experiments has been produced in conjunction with CATIE (the Cosmetics and Toiletry Industry Education Trust).

Aimed at 14 to 16-year-olds, it looks at the science and technology behind everyday toiletries and cosmetics. That exorbitantly priced little bottle in the bathroom will never seem the same again. But don't take anyone who has got a cold.

TES April 14 1995 jacky chapman

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