Monday, September 17, 2018

Musings on the Smell of Autumn

Autumn arrives in late September, but it doesn’t take long for a kaleidoscope of brilliant yellows, robust oranges and fiery reds to adorn the October landscape. Cooler temperatures, a reduction in daylight and increased amounts of sugar in leaves trigger a variety of chemical changes involving carotenoid, flavonoid and anthocyanin compounds. Our eyes bear witness to what we see, but vision can't reveal what our nose instinctively knows—that autumn has a smell.

The presence and degradation of color-inducing chemical compounds mingle with changes in temperature. The air is crisper than it was in summer and smells are less varied and more distinct. Dry pine needles cushion footsteps on forest paths, releasing a vanillic, woody pine-like odor as twigs and sticks crackle underfoot. The aroma of wet autumn leaves pours over the senses like honeyed amber treacle. Humus, the decomposition of leaves by soil bacteria that will nurture plants in the spring, adds earthiness to the fragrant mélange.

There isn’t a word for the smell of autumn. Perhaps it’s because several aromatic shifts take place before winter arrives, each with it’s own distinct set of smells. The incense of chimney smoke redolent with shadows of tree sap and resin will soon replace these scents. Warm spices will trill our tongues and the slow evaporation of complex perfumes will ease the longing for new plant life to emerge. Many will eat the bright and brindled colors of autumn at the winter dinner table, and dream of long sunsets. It won’t be long before new smells surface in the landscape and another kind of restlessness overtakes the senses.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Adele Webster and the Mysterious Dictionary of 10,000 Smells

A 66-year-old mystery remains unsolved. It involves a twentysomething female chemist who was in charge of a dictionary of smells at a London fragrance company. Ten thousand bottled smells to be exact.

The company is unnamed. The chemist, Adele Webster, is described as slim and attractive, but we never see her face. One can easily deduce that the journalist who wrote about Ms. Webster was a man, keen on beauty with little time or inclination for exploring a woman's intellect. He writes like Detective Joe Friday of Dragnet speaks.

The article you are about to read appeared in The Argus, a newspaper of record in its time (1846-1957). Are the contents of the article true? Is the tenor of the piece an example of how female chemists were perceived at the time?

There were few female chemists in the flavor and fragrance industry before or immediately after WWII, which begs the question. Who was Adele Webster and what was the name of the British company she worked for?

Glass Petal Smoke leaves this mystery in the hands of you, dear reader, because this kind of thing keeps us up at night.

The Argus
Friday, July 25, 1952
Page Two
LOOKING after a 10,000-volume glass dictionary that can be printed is slim, attractive Adele Webster's job. 
It's a dictionary of smells.

Every volume in this London building is a bottle containing a different odor. Oils and scented crystals, powders, and pieces of root are there. 
The more precious smells, among them musk from the musk deer, civet from the civet cat and ambergris, are kept in a safe. 
Floral extracts from petals can't be risked on shelves either.
One ton of petals gives only two ounces of extract. 
In May some of Adele's bottles were on show in the British Industries Fair to help sell scents.

In her early twenties, she is a chemist in a London factory that supplies ingredients to perfumiers. 
Her nose is her fortune.

It is pretty enough, but the part you see is not her particular pride; she values most her power of smell. 
Remembering 1,000 basic odors is easy.
With one sniff she can analyse a complicated scent saying exactly what it contains. 
No odor-giving ingredient escapes her. 
Picking up a bottle of expensive perfume, blended to grace the boudoir of the wife of a millionaire. Adele will murmur "Skatole" or "Indole." "They are disgusting odors," she says, "but in minute quantities invaluable in special perfumes."
People like Adele don't insure their noses, and take no care of them. 
"We don't have to," they say.
"We rarely catch colds, and then only slight ones, probably because in smelling correctly, we keep the nasal muscles strong and so don't pick up germs." 
The chief chemist is a human bloodhound.
Though he smokes he's never deceived when an assistant who spills an expensive scent tries to baffle him by spilling cheap ones on top. 
"He's phenomenal!" his staff say. "But even he can't go on sniffing all day. "It's too exhausting and would strain the muscles." 
And the bottle-stacked shelves of Adele's "dictionary" are there to prevent strain on his memory.
The article was published in The Argus and reprinted for educational purposes. The mystery of Adele Webster and the London fragrance company she worked for requires solving. Revelations welcome. Source:

The image of a woman scientist that accompanies this is article is from the National Photo Company Collection at The Library of Congress. There are only four "women scientists" in the search results for this collection. The images were taken between 1909 and 1923. Glass Petal Smoke considered using this this image, but the whole smashing-the-patriarchy-by-standing-on-a lab-table thing would be overstating the point. In addition, such an image may not reflect Adele Webster's character as she remains a mystery.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Brian Eno, Maurice Roucel and the Perfume of Unfinished Business

Brian Eno and perfumer Maurice Roucel collaborated on a fragrance project in the late eighties that never came to fruition. Sounds like the perfume of unfinished business, but decades later, no one is talking about it. That's a shame because an existing fragrance opportunity that intersects with music and technology is right under their nose—and the fragrance industry's.

An interesting fact surfaced in the Spring 2015 edition of Noble Rot magazine. Brian Eno (musician, composer, producer and all around polymath) revealed that he collaborated with Quest perfumer Maurice Roucel on a "sex" perfume back in the day. That was just for fun.

Eno refers to Roucel as a friend, but what doesn't surface are details regarding how the two became acquainted (Roucel currently works for Symrise). Putting the pieces together makes the case for artistic collaboration in the present using technology that didn't exist when the two originally worked together—an app that incorporates music, color and fragrant inspiration.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno was immersed in learning about perfumery at Quest during Roucel's tenure there (Quest was acquired by Givaudan in 2007). The perfumer and the fragrance company aren't mentioned in Neroli's liner notes, but what took place in this time frame is.

The deduction is not squelchy. Neroli (1993) is an ambient album inspired by the essence of orange blossom and Eno's passion for collecting ingredients used in perfumery (a picture of his fragrance kit packed with vials accompanies liner notes in the 2014 reissue of the CD).

The CD liner notes contain an excerpt from a radio interview Eno did with WNYC's John Schaefer, the host of New Sounds. They reveal that Eno was working on a commercial perfume project with a large fragrance company, and that he made monthly trips to the company's office in Paris to gather experience and knowledge. The timeframe is the late eighties.

It would make sense for Eno to withhold the name of the company he was working with in a taped radio interview. The fragrance industry is notoriously secretive. A non-disclosure agreement may have been signed, but if it was have the terms of the NDA expired? Does it matter where the project picks up if Roucel is now at Symrise? Is Eno interested in revisiting something he abandoned in a new timeframe with new tools? These questions and more are worthy of consideration.

Maurice Roucel via Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Roucel was working for Quest in 1989 and though he isn't mentioned in Neroli's liner notes, his participation can be deduced if one reads “An Evening with Brian Eno” in The Complete Music Magazine (1982), “Scents and Sensibility” in Details magazine (July 1992) and “Ode to Perfume” in Noble Rot (2015).

Eno's fragrance industry references are always Quest and Roucel, but the liner notes for Neroli, which are dated September 18, 1989, require further exploration. Content from the New Sounds interview doesn't match Neroli's liner notes verbatim and a deeper "industry" reveal is in the liner notes. So why the blip?

Shadow of Neroli by Michelle Krell Kydd

Eno's interview with New Sounds was broadcast on October 18, 1989 under the title #375: Ambient Music with Brian Eno. The content of Neroli's liner notes isn't the "edited" broadcast that aired on New Sounds. It would be interesting to hear the uncut version, but the past is gone and it's 2018—time for Eno and Roucel to combine their métiers and visit uncharted territory.

The Bloom app created by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers is a natural starting point. Bloom's haptic interface plays a sound every time a finger taps the touchscreen. Each tap generates a colored sphere and corresponding sound. Successive tapping creates multiple sounds and colors that are playfully synesthetic. The background color is set by the user as a "mood". Each mood on the Bloom app is named after an ingredient used in perfumery—there are 12 of them.

Screenshot of Bloom App on an iPad

Bloom's 12 fragrant "mood" settings are: Neroli, Vetiver, Ylang, Labdanum, Bergamot, Orris, Ambrette, Benzoin, Tolu, Cedar, Civet and Skatole. There are no smells in reality or virtual reality, though one could easily hack that with a collection of diluted aroma materials from suppliers like Eden Botanicals, Enfleurage NYC, Perfumer's Apprentice and White Lotus Aromatics.

Two product lines are immediately possible. The first is a collection of finished fragrances based on Bloom's mood settings. That's 12 perfumes Maurice Roucel can make and everyone knows he brings sexy back like it never left the room.

The second opportunity is a coffret containing each of the "mood" materials in dilution. This would encourage the development of a personal lexicon for smells, and indulging in scent layering to create perfume accords on skin.

The coffret addresses Eno's observation of fragrance as an "unlangued" sense. It's an opportunity to move through subjectivity into objectivity via learning to evaluate raw materials used in perfumery. Et voila. Glass Petal Smoke has just provided a fragrance brief for Brian Eno and Maurice Roucel.

One is reminded of writer Italo Calvino's words when considering the possibility that Eno and Roucel—two highly respected artists that are well versed in distinct disciplines—will never collaborate again:
…the phials, the ampoules, the jars with their spire-like or cut glass stoppers will weave in vain from shelf to shelf their network of harmonies, assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas: our deaf nostrils will no longer catch the notes of their scale.
        —“The Name, The Nose” from Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino
Let's hope perfumer Maurice Roucel (a 2012 Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres recipient) and polymath Brian Eno pick up where they left off, and don't leave us with dead air.

Thanks to WNYC Associate Producer Caryn Havlik for assisting Glass Petal Smoke in locating #375: Ambient Music with Brian Eno on the New Sounds website when the date cited in Neroli's liner notes didn't correspond with the date of the broadcast.

The liner notes referenced in this article are from the 2014 reissue of Neroli on CD at All Saints Records. It is currently sold out.

A perfume accord is the basic character of a fragrance consisting of three or four blended notes that create a new aromatic impression. It's like using a mirepoix in cooking; the sum in flavor is different than the individual ingredients that comprise it.

A generative audio-visual installation utilizing Bloom made news last February, but smells weren't included in the communal mixed reality experience shaped by Bloom and Microsoft HoloLens.

"Brian Eno Smells" took place on February 21, 2018 at the Ann Arbor District Library, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I introduced the Bloom app at the Smell & Tell and 40 people smelled Musk Ambrette while the Bloom app operated in Ambrette mode. The purpose was to encourage personal olfactory lexicon via intersensing, a form of multisensory learning. You can read about the Smell & Tell event here. Special thanks to Christopher Porter who covered the event as a journalist and participant. Porter rocked a stylish coif a là David Bowie on the cover of Low, one of three albums in the Bowie "Berlin Trilogy" that Brian Eno worked on.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Venus Oil Perfume from Enchantments NYC is a Whispering Vixen

The Love Potion by Beatrice Offor

Venus Oil is a wearable love potion sold by Enchantments. It's a whispering vixen of a scent that's been available at New York City's oldest occult store since 1982. The fragrance is sold in simple glass bottles sans fancy packaging and photoshopped hokum. It's nothing like the olfactory pap that passes for perfume at retail counters these days.

How to Make a Love Potion by Lucia Whittaker
The description for Venus Oil on Enchantments' website reads:
A Planetary and Goddess devotional formula. Attracts love and beauty to your life. Also good for prosperity and house blessing.
Utility and simplicity infuse the description of Venus Oil, but matters of the heart are complex. The first formula for Venus Oil was created before the Internet existed. That meant reliance on mentors, aromatic grimoire, research and a little bit of magic.

The original formula for Enchantments' Venus Oil was created by Lady Rhea (Aurelia Bila) who opened Enchantments with Lady Miw (Carole Bulzone) in 1982. Lady Rhea reveals the ingredients for two versions of Venus Oil on pages 132-134 in the book The Enchanted Formulary: Blending Magickal Oils for Love, Prosperity, and Healing, which she co-wrote with Eve LeFey. Venus Oil began as a combination of Rose, Gardenia, Frangipani, Wisteria and a touch of White Diamonds perfume by Elizabeth Taylor. A second version of the oil emerged thereafter and is known as Voluptuous Venus Oil.

Ingredients in Voluptuous Venus Oil are allied with intention: Rose for love, Musk for sensuality, Orris for love, Sandalwood for compassionate love, Lilac for hypnotic seduction, Cinnamon for passion and fire, Magnolia for grace, and Hibiscus for beauty. If you are hand blending Voluptuous Venus Oil and have difficulty obtaining some of the ingredients in the formula, Lady Rhea recommends using at least four of the formula's ingredients in equal amounts (dosing follows the style of the complete formula).

The current version of Venus Oil sold at Enchantments smells like something between the formula for the original Venus Oil and Voluptuous Venus (Cinnamon and Lilac aldehydes have been detectible since I began buying Venus Oil at the store's original location). I recently purchased a one-ounce bottle of Venus Oil online and was struck by the enduring legacy of continuity in the formula—which is a lot more than you can say about the state of classic French perfumes these days.

Concentration can vary at times (by 1-3% at most) but this is a hand-blended product so that's not unusual. The transparent pink flesh color of Venus Oil is newer (it was amber hued back in the day) but it continues to unfold on skin with a soft salty sultry floralcy one would expect to find in an embodied goddess of love. Venus Oil is a whispering vixen. Blessed be.

Enchantments relies on proprietary texts for its formulas. Venus Oil is categorized as on-shelf. Others are made to order. If you purchase items online you will be taken to a secure page once you're ready to pay for the items in your cart. The cost of Venus Oil is $14 for half an ounce and $25.00 for a full ounce. The store is located in 424 East 9th Street (between First Avenue and Avenue A); 212-228-4394.

Enchantments makes a hand-blended incense version of Venus Oil that is truly divine. It burns well on incense charcoal that is not self-igniting (much healthier). Shoyeido makes a square-shaped incense charcoal that is highly recommended. It is categorized as "type B" (type A is smaller) and is available at Enfleurage NYC and

White Diamonds (1991) by Elizabeth Taylor remains a bestseller. Notes include: Neroli, Amazon Lily, Aldehydes, Egyptian Tuberose, Turkish Rose, Italian Orris, Narcissus, Jasmine, Sandalwood, Patchouli, Amber and Oakmoss.

Lady Rhea owns and operates Magickal Realms in the Bronx with her partner Lady Zoradia. The store opened in Greenwich Village in 1992 and moved to the Bronx in 1995. Magickal Realms is currently located at 72 Westchester Square; 718-892-5350.

The Enchanted Formulary: Blending Magickal Oils for Love, Prosperity, and Healing is available as an e-book. Formulas for additional elixir vitae amore can be found in the book. Used copies of the print version are priced between $38.00 and $1046.00 based on the condition of the book.