Thursday, March 1, 2012

Meaningful Scents around the World (2006) by Roman Kaiser: Perfume Book Review

Sometimes the readers have a pre-conceived notion about where a book is going—although I suppose Proustian reminiscence never involved headspace technology. 

~by guest writer AlbertCAN

I first deduced a book with a rose on the cover would stay comfortably within the confine of conventional beauty. Guess again with Roman Kaiser as I found out when first cracked open “Meaningful Scents around the World” (2006), a fragrant journey around the world to some of the exciting places the author has visited during his 30 years of olfactory research.

One of the first things Kaiser covers, defying all of my expectations, is China —2500 years ago.

How Kaiser managed to track down the orchids Confucius praised and identified Cymbidium georingii as the scholar’s favourite is still beyond me. I actually spent about three decades trying to decipher it—and no luck—but then Kaiser solved the riddle like nobody’s business the minute I opened the book, not only providing insightful details about the plants but actually describes the scents in ways even a fragrance amateur would be interested in purchasing if the headspace result could be available in bottles. (Good luck convincing fragrance account managers that fascination.) Then again, who knew the orchid scent Confucius once enjoyed resembles a very ripe lemon crossed with lily of the valley?

And then it gets more and more curious from there.

Ever wonder what makes fine wines smelling the way they are? Actually, how about a fine 1988 vintage from Château d'Yquem? Kaiser has a report on that. Now Francophiles might be slightly miffed that Kaiser did not analyze the cult 1961 Sauternes featured in a pivotal sequence of Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995), considered many as one of director Claude Sautet’s masterpieces (and one of the finest performances by French cinematic icon Emmanuelle Béart), but having a glimpse of the famous wine is good enough for a non-drinker like me.

From wine Kaiser then goes off to interesting places. Gewürztraminer actually a rosy smell due to ionones, and then from ionones he managed to examine how the modern hybrid roses benefit from the introduction of Rosa chinesis into the European rose hybridization program, using beta ionone as the indicator as he backtracks the evolution of roses.

Somewhere in between those sections Kaiser visits the famous nymphs—Egyptian blue lotus, for instance. Now the sacred blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea) is incredibly fascinating, actually a water lily yet not only having a gorgeous hyacinth-like scent (minus the earthy undertone associated with the Dutch hyacinth hybrids) but actually was also used as the ancient Egyptian party drug or a shamanistic aid. Considering the fact that the wines in various Egyptian religious ceremonies were often macerated in the sacred blue lotus first one can only imagine how far the ancient Egyptians went in order to contact the divine! Then there’s the Amazonian water lily Victoria amazonica, initially named after Queen Victoria as Victoria regia and now linked to the iconic Waterlily House at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew , England . Kaiser analyzed the Victorian marvel along with its sibling Victoria cruziana—though curiously enough the samples were taken from Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace—and concluded that two water lilies have, curiously enough, a plum-like scent in order to attract a specific species of beetles for pollination. Kaiser also notes that both species have similar scents, though amazonica is more refined than that of cruziana.

(Alas, I also secretly wished Kaiser would also explore the famous Sri Lankan lotus padparadscha, a flora so glowing that a Ceylon sapphire is named after. But then Kaiser did not make the detour!)

All in all what Kaiser really excels in this book, beyond all the aromatic magic and tour de force, is a sense of thematic coherence, never fails to communicate to the audience how the wide array of scents deserve their places in this book, which is so difficult to do considering to vast geographical, temporal, and cultural terrains he needs to whiz through in mere 304 pages. By keeping each theme to itself Kaiser surprisingly creates a focused, intimate way to maintain the excitement of each idea. This isn’t a chemistry text, more like an incredibly elevated edition of National Geography, only better.

But be warned: Kaiser did not reveal all the chemical readings, choosing to leave out, for instance, some of the more spectacular modern rose and incense findings. (Why devoting a whole chapter on agarwood when the headspace read outs are not going to be published in any shape or form in this book? And why praise the ever phenomenal “Fragrant Cloud” hybrid tea rose when the full read-out is not included? I have no idea why.) Kaiser also later transferred some material from this book for his “Scent of the Vanishing Flora” (2010)—some photographs and paragraphs are in fact near identical, although the floras are technically covered in different lights. Thus considering the hefty prices of these books, though really worth every penny given all the glossy pages and informative insights, one might be tempted to get just one of the two. (Which I chose to do eventually by purchasing “Vanishing Flora” and signing out “Meaning Scents” from my public library.) Of course, get both if you can.

Photo, from top: Book cover; Confucius’ orchid; Nelly and Mr. Arnaud from the eponymous movie; padparadscha lotus and padparadscha sapphires. All via Google.com unless specified otherwise.

R. Kaiser, Meaningful Scents around the World. Olfactory, Chemical, Biological and Cultural Considerations, Verlag Helvetica Chimica Acta, Zürich, and WILEY-VCH, Weinheim, 2006, ISBN 978-3-906390-37-6, 304 pages. 

The book is available on Amazon.


  1. Anonymous23:57

    Thank you for your (as always) wonderful article! You might hit me, but isn,t Nymphenburg a castle in Munich / Bavaria?
    Yours and keep on writing,

  2. Andrea: You're welcome. And yes, Nymphenburg Palace is in Munich, Bavaria! I actually wrote 90% of the review three times and then with that particular paragraph...well, at the last moment I winged it and inserted last minute. Ha, brilliant idea! Helg would no doubt make the correction. Thanks!


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