A heaven scent exercise in cosmetics

Valerie Hall

Most boys would turn their noses up at studying perfume. But a touring exhibition will challenge this prejudice. Valerie Hall reports.

Mention perfume as a study topic and many boys - not to mention girls - are likely to react with: "Pooh, that's sissy. We'd rather make stink bombs", or words to that effect. However, a major perfume exhibition, "Heavenly Scent", due to reach these shores in March after touring France and Japan, is set to challenge these prejudices. And it's a fairly safe bet that even if visitors do not emerge from it with an enhanced olfactory repertoire to rival the most seasoned "nose" in the business, they will certainly know their "base notes" from their "top notes" and be able to drop such names as "chypre" and "fougare" into the conversation.

According to the free teachers' notes and education packs, prepared in conjunction with the Cosmetics and Toiletry Industry Education Trust and available now, a "nose" (perfumer) "combines the intuition of an artist with the exactitude of a scientist". The skills of perfumers, who can identify over 3,000 different smells, are integral to the exhibition, which traces the development of perfume since 2,500 BC. As well as historical artefacts, it features two "Odoramas" (three-dimensional experiences of sound, images and smells); computer games to test visitors' knowledge; and video terminals about bottle manufacture, the olfactory system and the fantasies of a "nose".

Did you know the first perfumes were used to counteract the offensive smell of burning flesh in religious sacrifices and the dead were wrapped and heavily perfumed both for hygienic reasons and as a symbol of eternity? That many substances were used to fight epidemics - a skill revived today as aromatherapy - and that sandalwood has been used for over 4,000 years as a relaxant, disinfectant and for religious ceremonies? Or that Casanova drank ambergris (whale excretion) in his hot chocolate as an aphrodisiac? These are just a few of the facts to be garnered from the teachers' notes.

"Face Value", aimed at GCSE integrated science students, examines properties, production and formulation, research, safety and environmental issues within the industry. The relationship between taste and smell, "caused when some airborne substance encounters a few of the million cells that comprise our olfactory system in the depths of our nasal cavities", is explored and instructions given on how to make fragrance oils through steam distillation using plant materials and basic laboratory equipment.

Manufacturing processes are outlined such as enfleurage (the absorption of the essential oil through fat), citrussolvent extraction, and the development of synthetic substances in 1833. Known as the science of aromachemistry, the latter allowed a limitless repertoire of "notes" to be created as well as simulating existing natural fragrances.

"Face Facts", aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds, concentrates particularly on science and technology with practical exercises for testing smell, sight and touch, for which an array of equipment is needed, such as jam jars and plastic containers, that would do Blue Peter proud. Pupils can contrast natural ingredients such as citrus, wood and fruit with artificial chemical ones and study a range of topics from ancient trade routes to the cosmetics used by ancient Egyptians.

o "Heavenly Scent" is at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London W8, March 24-April 17, and then tours Glasgow, Brighton, Cardiff, Manchester and Edinburgh until April 21, 1996. Free admission. Teaching materials and further information from Parker Harris and Compoany, 30 Trigon Road, London SW8 1NH. Tel: 0171 793 0373

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