AROMA, SMELL & the DIATONIC SCALE

In the initial stages of Aromatherapy development in Europe little attention was given to perfumery as a source of facts, evidence, or inspiration. One of the key factors was the reluctance of fragrance brands and manufacturers to be associated with any form of medical claim or treatment. Aromatherapie in France was considered and officially limited as an accepted form of treatment but only administered by orthodox medically qualified doctors.

The Aromatherapy taught and practiced in the United Kingdom, initially the lead proponent of Aromatherapy had little in common with the French model. Confusion came about to some extent by the use of French names by the earliest practitioners of aromatherapy in the UK working within the beauty industry. High class London salons hosted such as Danièle Ryman or Micheline Arcier, students of Marguerite Maury. Marguerite Maury was not of course French her maiden name being of Austrian origin. Her therapeutic approach was anything but orthodox.

With a nursing background Maury, due to the influence of her husband, a homoeopathic doctor explored the principles behind homeopathy, naturopathy, osteopathy and radiesthesia. Her work became centred on the beauty of science, its symmetry and the behaviour of aromatic materials and their effect upon health. Aromatherapy developed not on the orthodox chemistry of Gatteffosse but on the principles that if we exercised, took care in diet, seeing our individual self in beauty, our energies and beliefs, all would sustain us through many of life’s problems.  Her technique developed a massage programme which has become the hall mark of modern aromatherapy especially as practised in the UK and Japan.

The perfume industry exists as a place of emotional response. Perfume is described by poetry and as no vocabulary exists in single words to describe the effect that our sense of smell may have poetry has to be employed. I am perhaps famous for teaching that any fragrance or scent has only two responses for humans, it will evoke or provoke. Either way an effect is produced, and our thoughts motivate us into more complex emotional patterns of appreciation or rejection.

Perfume has an overriding legal responsibility for safety which has become its main concern. The scents used today are far beyond essential oils, absolutes, and common natural substances. The petrochemical industry has been a major source of new synthesised volatile aromatic material. Today the demand for natural perfumes has led the industry into a host of chemical copycats of single molecules, then as chemically identical, said to be natural. Now the new world of fermentation process techniques provide sand construct mells unknown unknown to man or nature.

So the paradox of separation remains between perfume and aromatherapy. Both admit to emotional motivation. One concerns itself with healing the other the avoidance of medical connotation.

The one place they seem to have agreed about  is with description. When I first acquired a copy of The Art of Perfumery (and Method of Obtaining the Odor of Plants) by Septimus Piesse I had not realised he was the originator of the scale of musical notes attached to odours of all types. It seems natural to describe smells as musical notes linking, just like synaesthesia, one sense to another.  Maury later appreciated this by a clear understanding and implication the French word sentir translated both and either as feel or to touch, alongside its other meaning smell, hence the introduction of massage or the healing touch of aromatherapy.

Fragrance descriptions are based on this musical scale. The perfumer builds a pyramid of notes. top notes or head notes, middle notes or heart notes and low notes or base, or even bass, notes. As the composer, the perfumer will have to use all the notes to create a balanced fragrance. The three “notes” of the perfume make up the olfactory pyramid that is a visualization of their degree of volatility. This so resembles the herbcraft of the past whereby one herb specific to the condition was supported by two other relevant herbs.

Perhaps aromatherapy and its inability, due to regulation, to interact with perfumery as a whole has begun tom lose the art of Maury to chemistry alone. The first book I read on aromatherapy was by Robert Tisserand called the Art of Aromatherapy. Tisserand put his finger squarely upon the dichotomy between orthodoxy and alternative views of healing and medicine.

Creating an aroma of harmony should lie at the heart of the traditional approach. Perhaps book learning has led some to think purely of the safety and supposed efficacy of a blend. After all tea tree or niaouli are good enough medicinal smells and already meet the expectation of the client, likewise who can deny the beauty of neroli or ylang ylang.

All these have different characteristics and volatility and can be built into something for mind and body rather than single actions. This was the content espoused by Maury and her students, a creation of sensism and like a visual experience, beauty is in the eye of the beholder so smell is a personal taste. For me it is the farmyard that evokes peace but hardly acceptable as a fragrance.

Context and perspective is always required for example children react to bad tasting, smelling medicine so aromatics can change that rather than just adding sugar. End of life experience can be softened by aroma as we know. One experience that I encountered was with a South African lung cancer patient. He wanted the smell of Oranges. The relatives obtained some Jaffa oranges, but the patient was disappointed, but please note was not aware of the country of origin. Some South African oranges were purchased which immediately had the desired emotional response. Somewhere a nuance of aroma, which would have been minute in analytical terms had significant impact.

Piesse and his partner Lubin eventually created the odaphone an attempt to create a perfume to correlate to the musical notes on the diatonic scale. His idea was that you could create something from smells just like choosing notes from a piano using volatility like a scale. If you search Google you will invariably be inundated for ads and links to Vodaphone which shows how pathetic and commercial the net has become!

 Essential oils analysis is a complex procedure. At one end of the complexity scale, a smell or odour can consist of a very simple elemental chemical such as; tellurium which smells like the most pungent garlic.  On the other end of the scale a cooking smell, say of French fine cuisine, can actually consist of hundreds of different chemicals, which combined give a particular smell sensation for the gastronome..

Unfortunately for chemistry buffs similarly shaped molecules can have quite different odours, and molecules that look nothing alike in a linear representation can smell almost the same. The smaller the molecule the more intense the smell. Some chemicals are incredibly odorous e.g. Trimethylamine can be smelled at concentrations as low as 0.00021 parts per million or 0.0005 mg/m3. Some other known smelly chemicals have very high odour thresholds e.g. Ammonia 46.8 parts per million or 33 mg/m3. In Europe, dynamic olfactometry, as described by the European standard EN 13725, has become the preferred method for evaluating odour, now a long way from the more romantic methods of Piesse.

A very pleasing term use by Piesse is the word accord. It is certainly one I use in practice. The volatility scale by Piesse or other can still be used as a starting point. Remember an accord represents two elements that combine to make a third; in one case, it’s a musical composition, and in the other, a unique blended fragrance. The nose should smell a whole note not a set of easily differentiated smells. When elements are compounded, as they are in an accord, even with GLC techniques it becomes very difficult to ascertain the true analysis for replication because the foundations of the fragrance lies in minute traces of the components that comprise an accord with a certain scent.

This raises the much vexed question of quality and authenticity. Physical standards for essential oils have long been specified by the Association Française de Normalisation (AFNOR) as well as by ISO. Official opinions and guidelines, such as those from the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), and the Scientific Committee on Consumer’s Safety (SCCS) regulate maximum quantities and uses of certain oils as well as single compounds therein.

The problems independent perfumers face using natural materials are the same as any aromatherapist. Standardised materials are not always what one wants. As mentioned above there are specific nuances that give different smells or results. There are only roughly 1 trillion scents that the human nose and brain can distinguish from each other, according to a new study at Rockefeller University in New York. Researchers in the 1920’s had previously estimated that humans could sense only about 10,000 odours but the number had never been explicitly tested before. So forget the wolf, we are not so limited as we thought.

The study highlights a growing interest in how combinations of odours—rather than single odour molecules at a time—are sensed and processed. If then a combination of odours an accord is indistinguishable by smell yet being very different at a molecular level then we have to review the idea of innate and learned responses based upon the stereochemistry of the individual molecule.

This is highlighted by the perfumers pyramid whereby consumers mistake the notes given for actual inclusions. So, an accord smells like bluebell but it does not have any, this is common for rose accords. No rose is present just a skilful combination. Various attempts have been made to tabulate essential oils and their odour since Piesse. William (Walter) Poucher who worked for Yardley, wrote a textbook published in 1923 which is still very much in use. He listed in order of volatility materials a grouped under respective evaporation coefficients (perfume notes) that ranging from 1 to 100. Today with the advent of the GLC which depends upon the volatility or weight of the molecule we have more accurate information.

 However, odours for essential oils have another method of classification. Probably Aristotle stared this off and it took a further 2000 years for Linnaeus to come up with another classification of odours.  Piesse a hundred years later chose his different route of notes. Due to our cognitive interpretation of an odour all present and previous systems are subjective, opinions and judgements. Nevertheless, passing through the hands of such fragrant luminaries as Rimmel, Poucher, Arctander and Parry a general consensus emerged but no industry standard. The paradigms of nature have been used to group smells and are as much applied to essential oils as perfumes.

The majority of ‘smells’ are then described as much an artistic exercise as anything. Regardless of odour description maps or fragrance wheels or major manufacturers such as IFF own set of tables, most of us are familiar with and understanding of terms such as floral, Woody, Animalic, Balsamic etc. These are associated into families so allowing for subcategories and accords could then become like children.

It behoves all holistic practitioners to review the traditional approach of blending for synergy which is a perhaps a more modern word than accord.  The opposite of this approach is the magic bullet of symptomatic treatment based upon usually a single element. Barbara Griggs used this phrase in her book The Green Pharmacy. The phrase can be used as much in ‘green’ context as mainline orthodoxy. There is a place in medicine for both but healing has a bias toward the holistic approach.

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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