Are you expecting David Beckham’s Instinct in your stocking next month, or would you prefer to have Britney Spears’ Fantasy? How about Maitresse from Agent Provocateur, Estée Lauder’s Amber Nude or Givenchy’s Ange ou Demon? These are just a few of the dozens of new, suggestively branded fragrances bombarding department stores, boutiques and glossy magazines as they jostle for attention in the run-up to Christmas. For perfume has become a massive global industry. In the UK alone, over £800 million is spent annually on it, with as many as ten new brands appearing each week.

We fork out a fortune for the name, the designer label, the celebrity endorser, the shape of the bottle just as much as for the scent. But most of us have little idea what on earth we’re really buying. The quality, the components and the true cost remain as shrouded in mystery today as when the mediaeval perfumers practised their secret arts. Now, just as then, consumers are in collusion with manufacturers in the purchase of a dream.

This compact of ignorance is something that the perfume scientist Luca Turin is determined to splinter. In his account of his work, The Secret of Scent, Turin explains that his aim is to determine what are the properties of scent molecules which allow our noses to read and receive them. He embarks on a joyous tour through the magic of smells and their combinations, paying generous tribute to the true craftsmen who have developed and refined the art of perfumery.

There’s Ernest Beaux, for example, who lighted upon the formula for Chanel No 5 by mixing an unprecedented number of synthetics into a rose-jasmine floral. Legend has it that this was a mistake by his lab assistant which Coco just happened to prefer. The composer of the iconic Diorissimo managed to imitate the smell of lily of the valley, whose oil is impossible to extract, by growing the flower in his garden in order to recreate it.

Turin’s own work represents a breakthrough in the development of perfume. He follows in the tradition of generations of scientists who worked on the theory that the different shapes of molecules would determine their smell. But Turin concentrated instead on the behaviour of the atoms within a molecule and this has allowed him to decipher how odour is written into its structure. He claims his discovery has enabled him to design different consistencies of smell more accurately, pretty much eliminating the element of chance which has always plagued a craft yearning to become a science. Turin is in the business of explaining what for centuries been revered as inexplicable.

And because his inquiries are an attempt to explicate a process traditionally associated with magic and superstition, he has often been hailed as a latter-day Grenouille, the grotesque hero of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, played in the forthcoming film by a far from grotesque Ben Whishaw. Born into the stench and chaos of the Paris slums in the mid-18th century, Grenouille has the olfactory equivalent of perfect pitch. His ambition, to create a scent so powerful and irresistible that all will bow before him, leads to a murderous rampage and eventual destruction: a foretelling of the worst excesses of the coming revolution and its most insidious aftermath.

Grenouille’s unique gift works as a potent symbol of a society hovering between belief and science, the old order and the coming upheavals. Perfume is an exemplar of all of the debates, conflicts, mores and desires of the European lust for reason.

For a start, it has deep associations with superstition and religion. The Egyptians would offer sweet-smelling sacrifices to the gods to appease them. Mummies would be embalmed with perfumes and buried with sweet smells to ease their passage to heaven. When Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened there was still a trace of the strongly smelling oils that had surrounded him 3,300 years before.

Jewish ceremonies ritually use a concoction of spices and oils whose formula was dictated by God to Moses after the return from exile in Egypt. The baby Jesus was anointed with those famous gifts of the Magi: frankincense, a symbol of divine life, and myrrh, signifying bitter death. Christ’s body was buried in spices to give the aroma of immortality.

Indeed, early Christianity is suffused with scent, as it was believed that sweet smells were a symptom of holiness. Pestilence and stench were signs of the devil while beautiful bouquets belonged to the angels.

In her essay ‘Sacred Histories of Scent’, in the newly published collection The Smell Culture Reader, Constance Classen enumerates a bizarre catalogue of aromatic saintliness. During her last illness, Teresa of Avila was said to have emitted a fragrance so powerful that it pervaded everything she touched. After her death, her sweet-smelling corpse was believed to be able to perform wonders. The 17th century Dutch nun Mary Margaret of the Angels prayed that after her death her body might light the convent chapel. And her wish came true, as her corpse gave off such a sweet smell that she became a kind of scented altar candle.

The odour of sanctity derives from the notion of the divine scent of the Holy Spirit – the breath of God. Some early commentators interpreted this idea somewhat literally. The author of a sixth-century manuscript, the Transitus Mariae, even suggested that Jesus was conceived through smell, with the Holy Spirit entering Mary as a sweet odour.

Islam also associates vaporous fragrance with godliness. Avicenna, the 11th century alchemist and physician credited with discovering the process of distillation of the essence of plants, claimed that he came across it while trying “to isolate for Islam the soul of its holy rose.”

And it was the extraction of essence from matter, the soul from the body, the spiritual from the physical, that was the quest of the mediaeval alchemists. They believed that the spark of divinity – the quinta essentia – could be discovered in matter. While an important part of their work was to distil the spirit out of the physical being, the ultimate goal was to reunite matter and spirit in a transformed state, the Elixir of Life. And their methods and beliefs were often indistinguishable from those of the perfumers.

Meanwhile, perfume was also believed to have medicinal properties. While ancient physicians had rightly identified smell as a symptom of disease, a belief gradually took hold that the smells themselves were the disease. So people would aim to protect themselves from plague and typhus by carrying scented pouches and torches. By the 17th century perfumes were being widely used as remedies for a multitude of physical and mental disorders: hysteria, melancholia, hypochondria and headaches.

But with the Enlightenment came a growing scepticism among scientists about such unproved remedies. The influence of “aromaphobic” scientists, philosophers and moralists was widespread. And these scientists were also gradually beginning to advocate the benefits of washing, as advances in medical knowledge were leading to a growing recognition of the connection between disease and filth.

Until the 18th century perfumes had been used to disguise bodily odours, since washing had been regarded as both inconvenient and dangerous. It was believed that rash use of water might lead to indolence, a loss of vitality and, even more dangerously, to sensual arousal and temptation. It was a view reinforced by the Church, no doubt in revulsion against the licentious habits of the Romans with their communal bathing and indulgent use of perfumed body oils.

So the radical hygienists who recognised the importance of cleanliness proceeded somewhat cautiously. Scientists like Ernst Platner and Jacquin listed the hazards of dirt and stressed the beneficial use of soap, recommending that faces, hands and feet be washed often, “and even the whole body from time to time.”

As washing and personal hygiene became more acceptable, perfume became more suspect. Cleanliness denoted a new delicacy, a conquest of base animal functions and odours. In his celebrated study of smell in 18th-century Paris, The Foul and the Fragrant, the historian Alan Corbin describes a deliberate downgrading of heavy scents, which had long been used by women as an aphrodisiac, enhancing and emphasising rather than hiding their bodily excretions.

“Strong odour, now old-fashioned, became the prerogative of aged coquettes and peasants,” writes Corbin, noting how Casanova nearly fainted at the musk smell of an old nymphomaniac duchess. Josephine continued to adore the smell of musk, drenching her boudoir with it ,much to the consternation of Napoleon, who, in keeping with the times, regarded it as vulgarly offensive.

Replacing the challenging odours derived from the abdominal glands of the musk deer and the hind quarters of the civet cat were a plethora of new flowery fragrances rich with the properties of air and freedom. Nature was extolled, but it was the nature of botany rather than of animal. Rousseau’s recipe for happiness was based on a balance of pleasurable sensations rather than an influx of warring stimuli.

The delicate scent of flowers evoked the spirit rising above the body, just as nature floated above the crowded cluster of the city. This was when the custom of leaving town for the gentler atmosphere of the countryside took hold, and at the same time it was thought that the higher you went the purer the air.   

This theory is bitingly satirised by Süskind in Perfume, in the character of the eccentric marquis de La Tallade-Espinasse. He subscribes maniacally to the conviction that the earth contaminates living organisms and that exposure to great heights can effect divine transformation. This episode in Perfume owes much to that great 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, who in Gulliver’s Travels sends up the absurdities of Royal Society experimentation with his Grand Academy of Lagado.

The difference, though, is that while Swift was mocking the more ridiculous extremes of rationalist inquiry, Süskind is intent on discrediting the whole project. In his essay ‘The Dialectic of ‘Enscentment’’, included in The Smell Culture Reader, Richard T Gray argues that the novel is a systematic attack on the Enlightenment, strongly influenced by the work of the Frankfurt philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer, who argued that over-reliance on rationalism led to the Holocaust.

Süskind uses the symbol of perfume to enact a cautionary tale. A culture of reason will lead to alienation, inhumanity and slaughter. This is a view most explicitly expressed by the perfumer Baldini, played in the film by Dustin Hoffman. Baldini is an old-fashioned craftsman threatened by the commercial onslaught of his astute rival Pelissier, who employs new-fangled techniques of productivity and marketing to fantastic profit. At the same time, Baldini is bewildered by the new mood of questioning from “scribblers” like Diderot, d’Alembert, Voltaire and Rousseau, which, he predicts, will “all come to a bad end.”

Like everyone in Perfume, Baldini is a device rather than a character. Grenouille himself is an emblem of the key Enlightenment values of discovery, classification, understanding and control. Without any feelings, appetites or empathy, he is presented as the logical extreme of pure rationalism: amoral and murderous.

And that is the failure of both the book and the critique. Brilliant, inventive and original though it is, Perfume is ultimately a nihilistic dystopia rather than a novel, deliberately obsfuscating the Enlightenment’s humanist legacy.

By denying Grenouille any true character, Süskind presents rationalism as a denial of the spiritual, using perfume to depict its brutal excesses. But it could just as accurately be held up as a warning against the dangers of unreason. The proliferation of what Lewis Wolpert has termed “religion-lite” – new wave cults, semi-spiritual movements and vaguely mystical beliefs – has given rise to a whole industry based on the magical properties of perfume. Aromatherapists will designate certain smells as soothing or uplifting, medicinally healing or sexually inductive. Scented candles and joss sticks, aromatic oils and remedies, all cluster round the ancient claims of the earliest chemical charlatans.

Like so much of alternative health, aromatherapy is characterised by its lack of submission to scientific testing. As the smell psychologist Rachel S Herz insists: “Research reports on studies of the effects of odours on moods clearly point to the principle that odours people like induce a pleasant mood; odours they do not like induce an unpleasant mood. . . The joys of aromatherapy are in the mind of the smeller, produced not by direct action of the odour but rather by associations the individual has learned to connect with the odour.”

Or, as Luca Turin sees it, those who believe that aromas can alter mood are victims of “the usual confusion between hardware and software”, hardware being the gene-based machine of the body and the software “what’s on the hard disk with your name on it.”

Equally determined to negotiate between the vague claims of new age smell therapies and the real properties of scent is Chandler Burr, recently appointed as the first ever perfume critic of the New York Times. Burr has declared that his mission is to demystify what he regards as a secret, hype-driven industry. He plans to give information about the chemical make-up of perfumes and to assess their smells so that his column, Scent Strip, will become “the reference point for perfume around the world.”

He’s not averse to reviewing scented candles on occasion, alongside designer fragrances. But he is adamantly committed to a realistic assessment of their claims. And there is no reason why evidence-based science should be incompatible with emotional response, as long as the difference between them is understood. Perfume may not have the properties to alter physical make-up, but that is not to deny the transcendental power of its associations and memories, evoked so magnificently by Marcel Proust: “In my humdrum life I was exalted one day by perfumes exhaled by a world that had been so bland. They were the troubling heralds of love. Suddenly love itself had come, with its roses and its flutes, sculpting, papering, closing, perfuming everything around it. Love had blended with the most immense breath of the thoughts themselves, the respiration that, without weakening love, had made it infinite.”

Now, scientific advances in the creation of fragrance formulae have made it possible to recreate not just the remembrance of things past but new and future meanings. It’s even possible to concoct the ideal perfume for humanism.

I’d suggest metallic head notes to convey the clashing of the machine age with the doleful cry of Coltrane; a heart note of pepper to induce a sniff of scepticism; three parts Gauloises to evoke existential discourse in steamy Left Bank cafés; a whiff of incense to ward off believers; antiseptic for duty and denial; and a hint of spice.

It’s called Voltaire. Dab it if you dare. ■

The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin is published by Faber and Faber. The Smell Culture Reader, edited by Jim Drobnick is published by Berg.