Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Avant Eau: Scratch, Sniff & Read

Perfume lovers rejoice. You now have a good reason to keep your nose buried inside a book. If There Ever Was: a book of extinct and impossible smells, is a collection of olfactive curiosities based on people, places and things that no longer exist. The book and related exhibition is the brainchild of Robert Blackson, curator of the Reg Vardy Gallery in Sunderland, UK. Sound impossible? Think again. Eleven perfumers, the ultimate provocateurs of recollection, designed the scents.

“Modern perfumers’ artistic appetite for the abstract and unexplainable separates their interests from flavourists and binds the world of contemporary fragrances to contemporary art.” says Blackson. Enlisting the help of astronomers, botanists, historians and scientists, Blackson researched over 30 topics for olfactive interpretation and presented perfumers with the resulting tract of their choice. (A perfumer asked to choose their own fragrance brief? Mon Dieu!) For the reader, the connection between text and materia odorata is transcendent; the sense of smell moves beyond limits of space and time, permitting tangible encounters with resurrected pasts. Blackson sums up the power of aroma perfectly in the book’s introduction, “Scent is the essence of physical presence and lends proof to our surroundings.”

If There Ever Was contains 14 scratch and sniff stories to experience. They are as follows:

· Instinct Flowers (Bertrand Duchaufour)—a scent based on four extinct flowering plants; Syzygium gambleanum, Hopea shingkeng, Ilex gardneriana, and Santalum fernandezianum.
· The Sun (Geza Schön)—a scent inspired by the elements that comprise earth’s closest star.
· Hiroshima (Christophe Laudamiel)—a scent which recollects the atomic blast at Hiroshima.
· Surrender (Patricia Millns with Kóan Jeff Baysa)—a scent based on the ritual use of incense to indicate surrender in wartime.
· Susanne Böden (Maki Ueda)—a scent inspired by a woman arrested by East German police for handing out pamphlets on freedom of speech.
· Cleopatra (Steven Pearce)—a scent based on kyphi, the queen’s favorite perfume.
· Le Secrets de Maistre Alexys (Christoph Hornetz)—a scent based on an alchemical recipe for eternal beauty.
· Night Star (Scents of Time)—a scent based on one of the 65 vials of perfume belonging to Adolphe Saalfeld, who perished on the Titanic. The vials were discovered 90 years after the sinking of the ship.
· Mir (Steven Pearce)—a rogue scent that plagued Mir cosmonauts.
· Peruvian Meteorite (Mark Buxton)—a scent inspired by a mysterious meteorite in Peru.
· Plague Shield (Christophe Laudamiel)—a scent based on raw materials used to deflect the Black Plague.
· Jesse Tafero (Steven Pearce)—a scent inspired by the last meal of a death row prisoner.
· Communism (Sissel Tolaas)—the smell of imposed uniformity in communist Germany.
· Scratch and Sniff (Dr. Gayle Matson, 3M)—the scent of the first application of scratch and sniff technology.

These descriptions just scratch the surface with regard to details provided in accompanying texts. The exhibit is scheduled to arrive stateside in the fall of 2009. If There Ever Was: a book of extinct and impossible smells will be available for purchase.


A complete list of scents from the book/exhibition is available for download here.

For a list of perfumers and their body of work, visit the Perfumers Page at Now Smell This.

For insights into the sense of smell, visit the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website.

David Pybus worked with perfumers from Givaudan (formerly Quest) and CPL Aromas to recreate Night Star.

The Esther M. Klein Gallery, in association with the Monell Institute, is hosting Odor Limits thru June 28th. The exhibition explores the potential of smell in aesthetic experience.

Photo of I'm a Little Teapot by Nat Olly on Flickr.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Perfume 101: Stealing Mojo

There are some people who veer on the side of gender categorization when it comes to fine fragrance; I’m not one of them. I’ve never felt confounded by cross-spritzing and neither has anyone in the vicinity of my sillage. There was one exception, but it was not through any gender-bending effort on my part. I would categorize the effect as a form of olfactive ventriloquism. Instead of throwing my voice, I threw my fragrance. As a result I stole a man’s mojo.

It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the time when urges for chocolate and caffeine overpower all rational thinking in an office. The thought of opening up a bar of Pierre Marcolini’s Fleur de Cacao (85%) was exceedingly tempting. I refrained from Belgian chocolate, defied aromatic memories of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and reached into my purse for a bottle of fragrance. After two sprays my senses were revived and I was ready to get back to work at the beauty company where I was consulting. A few minutes later, a gaggle of women began to fuss over a creative department hottie. Tall, thin and mischievously sexy, the gentleman in question looked like The Clash’s Joe Strummer couturized by Hedi Slimane. Three women surrounded him, each offering a single question. “What’s that smell?” “Are you wearing cologne?” “Mmm, what is that? They began sniffing him and I mean really sniffing him.

The women smelled the top of his head, his neck and his wrist, but couldn’t find the source of the scent they found so compelling. He playfully offered the sleeve of his sweater as possible evidence, suggesting it was the Armani Acqua di Gio he had applied in the morning. No “ah-ha” moment ensued. Each woman smelled the sleeve of his sweater and shook her head in disappointment. “Maybe it’s my deodorant,” he razzed. The women agreed that that the source of the intriguing scent had most likely walked passed the art department and left a trail in his wake. As they tried to recall all of the men that had passed through the immediate vicinity I found myself feeling a bizarre mixture of guilt, omniscience and pleasure. I began to wonder if there was a diagnosis code for a “scent voyeur”.

I raised my hand and cleared my throat, “Mea culpa. I think it might be what I just put on.” One of the women, a blonde with a velvety German accent, walked up to my desk where I offered a petite bottle as evidence. She removed the cap and smelled the atomizer. The culprit was Commes de Garçons 2. As she and I began talking about designer Rei Kawakubo’s fashions my unwitting male target bellowed, “So? What is it?!” I couldn’t tell if he was irritated by our Commes de Garçons girl chat or amused by the whole affair. I know one thing for sure; inadvertently orchestrating a lovefest for another person via scent is a strange and powerful experience. As a result, the phrase “olfactive ventriloquism” is now a part of my perfumista vocabulary.

Mark Buxton of Symrise created Commes de Garçons 2 in 1999. It is a fresh woody floral composed of, violet leaf, orange, angelica root and cardamom in the top; cinnamon, jasmine, magnolia, bay leaf, rose and Sumi ink accord in the heart; and leather, patchouli, vetiver, musk, wet stone accord and Chinese cedarwood in the base. The floral aspect can be compared to the subtle smell of flowers in the rain, devoid of any indolic qualities that typically characterize heady white flowers.

There is an addictive quality in Commes de Garçons 2 that induces prolonged, trance-like inhalations at first sniff. The exquisitely pitched freshness lingers in the drydown and is most evident in the body cream formulation of the fragrance (especially on clothing worn on parts of the body where the cream is applied). Freshness is achieved without the addition of copious amounts of citrus or Calone (the ubiquitous molecule used in men’s fragrance that has an ozone/marine-like quality). The olfactive architecture of Commes de Garçons 2 owes much to the Sumi ink accord and perfumer Mark Buxton’s interpretation of magnolia. Each of these harmonious constructions bucks tradition, gender and stereotyping in fragrance—much like the designs of Rei Kawakubo herself.

In order to create the ink accord, Buxton had to explore numerous perfume bases in a fragrance brief that called for an interpretation of “black ink” used in Sumi-e, a form of Japanese brush painting. Buxton explains “We wanted to create a dark mineral fragrance without evident floral notes. Ink smells animalic, of blood, horse sweat, and has a mineral side to it…it [the fragrance] had to be mystical and edgy. The wet stone accord I created fits perfectly with the ink smell as they have some elements in common. The magnolia is a composition of mine. There is 10% in the formula and it gives off a cold floral rhubarb effect in the heart.” Though the eau de parfum smells divine (and a bit vanillic), the best execution of Commes de Garçons 2 is in the body cream, where the fragrance is dosed at perfume extract levels.

For the curious, the unwitting victim of Commes de Garçons 2 in this story is a graphic artist by day and a rock ‘n roll drummer by night. It would be cruel to out him online, though I will gladly tell Puig, the company that makes Commes de Garçons 2, where they can send him a goody bag. Since I am no longer consulting at the office where he works, he can officially have his mojo back.

Video of Muddy Waters singing "Got My Mojo Working".

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Alkermes: The Scarlet Elixir

Elixirs pander to the belief that vexations of body and mind can be cured with a restorative potion that prolongs life. Like perfume, the more complex and exotic the formula, the richer the folklore and purported power associated with it. Alkermes is a scarlet elixir of Arabic origin that was popularized by the monks of Santa Maria Novella in 17th century Italy. The carefully guarded recipe was created in 1743 by Dominican friar Cosimo Bucceli for the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It is likely that the Medici family, who allowed the monks to open their pharmacy to the public, passed the Persian formula onto Bucceli as the tonic was nicknamed “The Elixir of Medici”.

Yūhannā Ibn Māsawaih, a Persian physician to the caliph of Bagdad, is credited with inventing the original, non-alcoholic version of Alkermes in the 9th century. In its heyday Alkermes was a luxurious medicinal drink used as a restorative by royalty and the elite. The ingredients used in Māsawaih’s recipe read like a formula for an exotic perfume; aloes, apple juice, ambergris, cinnamon, gold leaf, honey, kermes, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, and rosewater.* Imagine rare ingredients suspended in a scarlet drink so richly colored you can feel your pupils dilate the moment you look at it. Who would not think of Alkermes as a revivifying elixir? Notions of its rare and expensive materials are enough to send the senses spinning.

Qirmez means scarlet in Arabic, hence the name of the elixir. The original “kermes” was derived from Kermes vermilio a parasitic insect found on Mediterranean oak trees that was used to create crimson dyes. Cochineal replaced the exotic kermes in Bucceli’s recipe as it was regarded as a superior red colorant with medicinal properties in 17th century Europe. Cochineal is a crushed powder derived from parasitic insects found on prickly pear cactus plants and like kermes, was originally used to dye fabric. The Arabic formula for Alkermes underwent additional changes in Florence. Clove, nutmeg and orange blossom replaced semi-precious stones, musk and gold leaf in the original formula, adding flavor and health benefits to an elixir that aided those experiencing melancholy, fainting spells and heart palpitations. One wonders if the presence of flavinoids is responsible for the alleged health benefits associated with cochineal and kermes as each possesses an intense red colorant that resembles antioxidant anthocyanins in berries.

Alkermes reveals notes of cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon and coriander seed at first sip. Middle notes of clove, orange and star anise glide along the palate with provocative spicy hints that quietly fade. A shadow of rose appears in the finish, enhancing the visual relationship one has with the scarlet color of this sweet and aromatic drink. Alkermes is not only drunk neat; it is used to soak the layer of sponge cake in zuppa inglese, the Tuscan version of English trifle. Because the liquor’s flavor blends well with cream and milk, it has found its way into the flavor repertoire of gelato. Alkermes from Santa Maria Novella is available for purchase at stores in New York and Los Angeles. Neither of the retail stores has the authority to ship liquor at this time, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting on a plane or safely making your own. Food grade Alkermes extract may be purchased from Fante’s Kitchenware Shop (1-800-44-FANTE). A simple recipe for making the liquor is available on their website and is worth the time and effort.


Beware of online recipes for homemade Alkermes that advocate use of cochineal dye as unpasteurized insects contain salmonella, an infectious bacteria known to cause severe gastrointestinal illness. Food grade cochineal is derived from carminic acid, the pigment producing material in cochineal. Carminic acid is chemically isolated, pasteurized and used as a coloring agent in cosmetics and food.

A record of ingredients used in Italian Alkermes can be found in Arnold James Cooley’s A Cyclopaedia of Six Thousand Practical Receipts and Collateral (D. Appelton & Company, 1850), 48.

Monks have had an historical hand in the creation of medicinal elixirs that have evolved into modern apéritifs. Friar Cosimo Bucceli followed in the footsteps of Venetian monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli; the monk who created Benedictine in 1510 at the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy. (The recipe for Benedictine is based on an esoteric 16th century manuscript that included an elixir formula). In 1737 Frère Jerome Maubec, a Carthusian apothecary, deciphered a complex recipe for “an elixir for long life” that was obtained from an ancient manuscript donated to his order in 1607. The resulting creation was dubbed Chartreuse, a medicinal liquor which contains over 130 herbs and flowers. The exact recipe is a trade secret known by two monks at the abbey who prepare the ingredients for maceration and aging.

Photo of Alkermes by Coctailian on Flickr.


*Green, Amy Butler, “Alkermes: A Liqueur of Prodigious Strength,” Gastronomica (Winter 2007): no. 7.1, 25-30.