Friday, June 27, 2008

Perfume Memories: Seeing with Scent

First steps, first kiss, first love—memory is especially fond of embracing events that shape fundamental life experience. I’ve often marveled at the life of Louis Braille, who accidentally blinded himself while playing with one of his father’s awls at the age of three. The memory of his childhood accident could have easily remained a haunting vignette, to be played over and over again whenever he became frustrated at his inability to see. Fortunately for Braille, his love of literature was stronger than the obstacles of blindness and self pity, and in 1842 he invented the raised dot alphabet that allows the blind to read by touch. One of the tools he used to create the braille alphabet was a stylus; a blunt awl related to the same tool that caused him to lose his sight. Today, a person can run their fingers across an elevator’s button panel and experience the transformation of tragedy into a beautiful gift.

I was eight-years-old when I first read Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind by Margaret Davidson. The original imprint included Braille’s raised dot alphabet on the back cover. I can still recall the tactile sensation of the dots beneath my fingertips, the way they asserted themselves in a ticklish sort of way. I also remember how I began sobbing when I read about Braille's accident. Children relate to stories in literal ways as they learn to reconcile the suspension of reality with the truth of the world around them. I was prescribed glasses that year and the idea that a person could lose their vision was frightening and made me feel immensely sorry for Louis. In addition, the leather awl responsible for Louis Braille’s accident was the same tool I played with in my father’s garment shop when I was making collages out of leather scraps. Both of our fathers told us not to play with tools that could potentially harm us. I was lucky. Braille was not.

Two years later, my fifth grade class visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Of all the sights and scents that we encountered there, there was one particular area that affected me profoundly. It was a small, circular garden designed for the sight impaired. Brass plaques identified patches where fragrant plants grew, each marker revealing the genus and species of flora that grew near it. The plaques were inscribed in English and braille. I remember running my fingers across the sun-warmed metal plates, experiencing the functional sensation of braille text as opposed to the embossed alphabet that appeared on the back of Margaret Davidson’s book. I can still see the trail of my ten-year-old fingers glossing over the patinated glyphs.

The Fragrance Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was designed by landscape architect Alice Recknagel Ireys in 1955 and was the first public garden in the United States designed for the sight-impaired. What continues to make this garden so endearing is the fact that visitors are permitted to touch the plants so they can smell the aromas on their hands. I touched many plants on my first visit to The Fragrance Garden, but the plant that fascinated me most was an herb called Lemon Balm. Until that encounter, my notion of lemon was round, yellow and bursting with juice. Within seconds of discovering Lemon Balm new concepts were added to my impression of lemon, including soft, green and leafy qualities. In that moment something dormant in my soul began to emerge that was familiar and primal. As a result, I became anchored in the notion that that the sense of smell was special and though I did not have the vocabulary at the time, I remember feeling a sense of something worshipful and eternal. Because of this childhood learning experience Lemon Balm continues to be a favorite herb that is catalogued in my memory like a primary color. To forget Lemon Balm would be like forgetting the sun.

It is easy for the sighted to have empathy for the visually impaired as our culture is first and foremost a visual culture. For the sighted, to imagine existence without vision is quite distressing. Those with vision can sometimes forget the extent to which human beings are resilient. It is not uncommon to find increased acuity in taste, touch, smell and hearing in people who have visual limitations. Olivier Baussan, founder of the French cosmetics and fragrance company L’Occitane, learned this lesson when he encountered a blind woman identifying perfumes by smell as she had no other way to determine the difference from one product to the next. Baussan was fascinated and deeply moved. In 1997 braille was added to all L’Occitane packaging, followed by the creation of perfumery classes for visually impaired children and adolescents (one of several charitable programs run by Fondation L’Occitane). Students focus on using the skills they have versus the ones they lack; a compassionate and appropriate approach to teaching.

In the United States the sense of smell is not a sense that is commonly explored in grade school, let alone high school or college. Sharon Longert was my fifth grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx and her decision to take our class to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden changed my life. I googled her and found out that she is still involved in education and now focuses on helping high school students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. I hope there are many other “Mrs. Longerts” in the world, educating students on the wonders of the sense of smell. Their role is crucial to inspiring professional pursuits in the fields of flavor and fragrance. Teachers have a profound influence on students. The effects of educator Annie Sullivan Macy’s lessons were not lost on Helen Keller, who navigated in a world without the benefit of sight or hearing. Helen Keller understood the power of scent and described it best, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Where will your scent memories take you?

Gaël Peltier is an independent, blind perfumer who conducts perfumery classes for the blind on behalf of L’Occitane. Fondation L’Occitane is currently helping him acquire a talking scale that will help him take precise measurements. Mr. Peltier’s picture is at the top of this post and is from the Fondation L'Occitane website. A photo of students from last year's L'Occitane class was provided by the company. It appears in the second to last paragraph and can be viewed in true size if you click on it.

The American Foundation for the Blind helps connect prospective students with Fondation L'Occitane's perfumery classes for the visually impaired.  If you know a blind child from the U.S. (age 14-16) who would like to participate in the program, check the website for 2009 applications. Accommodations for the child and a chaperone are covered by Fondation L'Occitane.

Photos of The Brooklyn Botanic Garden are from their website.

On April 24, 2009, this story received a FiFi Award Nomination from the Fragrance Foundation and took second place in the "Editorial Excellence in Fragrance Coverage" category. The award is historical as 2009 was the first year that blogs were included in the "Editorial Excellence"category.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rhodia: A Pencil for the Senses

People fall in love for all kinds of reasons, but when the object of affection is a pencil, you have a little bit of explaining to do. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking relationship avoidance, fetishes or totems. I’m talking about worshipful admiration and praise that is akin to a foot stompin’ gospel revival. I’m not talking about any pencil. I’m talking about a Rhodia; a pencil for the senses.

As a professional writer, the last thing I want to do is meld my inner life with what I do for a living. By day I am engaged in marketing and communications assignments that revolve around the business of brands. Pens are the office norm. On nights and weekends I let my freak flag fly and the pencil becomes my savior. Pleasure is as much a factor in the choice of a writing instrument as performance. That’s where the Rhodia comes in.

What’s so special about a Rhodia? Let’s look at it from an architectural point of view and begin with function. After crayons, most of us learned how to write with a pencil because everything written in pencil can be erased. Using an eraser is not as effortless as hitting the backspace key on a computer; which is nice, neat and leaves no trace of eraser lint. Still, there is no denying the comfort of knowing you can eliminate a mistake with a tangible tool. Imagine if you could erase all of the bad relationships you ever had, the error of your ways, despots, the ravages of time, etcetera. (On a side note, I suffer from the belief that deleted words and phrases from my computer documents are sent to a hidden folder and rearranged to tell a tale I will be held accountable for in the future. This, of course, is fodder for another post.)

The life of a pencil is clear from the beginning. After seven inches all that is left is a disposable relic. A pencil doesn’t tell you it will love you forever. Its ability to commit is obvious from the moment you place it in a sharpener. This brings me to another point. Crappy pencil sharpeners are responsible for turning more people off pencils than memories of nagging teachers in grammar school. Electric sharpeners are overzealous and create points that snap and break easily. Manual sharpeners with poor blades and barrels eat through pencils like a ravenous squirrel with bad teeth. If you are going to write in pencil, buy a Dux brand sharpener. It is so precise that you will get a continuous pencil shaving each time you use it with a high quality pencil (a characteristic that will not go unnoticed by those who include lip and eye pencils in their beauty repertoire).

The form factor of a Rhodia is what makes it so easy to fall in love with. The pencil is bright orange and capped with a black eraser that is wrapped in color-coordinated black metal. The body of the pencil is made of incense cedar wood that has been dyed black, giving the shiny graphite tip a liquid-like appearance. Another cool attribute of the Rhodia is the way it is cut. It is what is known as a “tri-pencil”, in contrast to the traditional hexagonal design used for this writing instrument. Three distinctly planed sides create an incredibly comfortable fit between the fingers, giving the appearance of a triangle when viewed from the graphite end.

Pencil point getting dull? Rotate the pencil one turn between your fingers and see your lines grow sharper. When you have to resort to using the Dux sharpener, take a look at the shavings that have collected inside the compartment and witness another creative twist. The underside of the orange pencil wrapping is white, which is evident when you observe the edges on each side of the pencil shaving. The continuous coiled shaving, typical of a Dux, resembles a budding flower. Who wouldn’t fall in love with that?

There is nothing like a pencil; the way it feels in your hand, the sound it makes on paper, the ease with which it glides on the page. Simply put, a Rhodia makes it easier to get in touch with your muse. According to an article by Andrew P. Kersey that appeared in the May 28th edition of The Chicago Tribune, the U.S. is the single largest market for wood-encased pencils. With so few things that are certain in life, it is comforting to know that the humble pencil is here to stay.


Rhodia is a French brand owned by Clairefontaine, which is located in the Vosges region of France. The company was established in 1863, on the site of a 16th century paper mill. Rhodia products (which include well-known paper products) are distributed by Exaclair in the United States. Rhodia products and Dux pencil sharpeners are sold on Pencil Things.

Pencil blogs exist. Pencil Revolution, Pencil Talk and Timberlines are fun and informative.

We live in a smell world and pencils are no exception. Smencils are scented #2 pencils manufactured by the Smencil Company. Their scent lasts up to two years. Fragrances include; Bubble Gum, Cinnamon, Tropical Blast, Grape, Cotton Candy, Very Berry, Chocolate, Orange, Watermelon and Rootbeer. If they only made pencils with scents that were identical to perfume classics; now that would be something to talk about.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jams: Capturing Taste and Time

Jam offers an intense and complex taste experience that rivals the flavor of Jelly. Jellies contain less fruit than jams (also known as preserves) and are simply anemic in comparison. Well-made jams resemble fragrance absolutes in that they contain the concentrated essence of the fruit. Fruit is picked in season and slowly cooked in pots that fill the kitchen with rich and fragrant aromas. Canning (the final step in making jam) captures time in glass jars, their shapes varying from the functional to the ornate—just like perfume. From the hue of the fruit to the feel of the jar in-hand, jams invite the sense of sight and touch as a prelude to taste.

Oròfrutta Fig Jam
Oròfrutta Fig Jam perfectly melds the duality of flavor and texture present in green figs. The creamy quality present in the wall of the fruit holds up to the sweetness of the delicately seeded flesh. This thick Italian jam, which contains 50% fruit, is best appreciated on toast or mixed with plain yogurt. Oròfrutta Fig Jam is available in-store at the Amish Market in New York City, which has one of the best selections of international preserves in town. It can also be purchased online at Guerras Deli & Meats and is priced at $4.99.

Bittersweet Herb Farm Strawberry Sambuca Jam
Bittersweet Herb Farm Strawberry Sambuca Jam pairs the refreshing taste of aniseed liquor with the lush flavor of strawberry—a fruit synonymous with jam as its brief life once picked makes it ideal for preserving. Those not fond of Sambuca can take heart; the assertion of aniseed’s licorice-like quality is noticeably absent. Rather than emphasizing contrasts, Sambuca contributes a refreshing oak note which accentuates the taste of the strawberries with a subtle vanillic woodiness. The jam is available online from Bittersweet Herb Farm and sells for $8.00 a jar.

Chantaine Strawberry Jam
Chantaine Strawberry Jam is a strawberry jam lover’s Holy Grail. Chantaine is owned by St. Dalfour, French producers of all-fruit jams found in health food stores and supermarkets (their Royal Fig Preserve is second best to Oròfrutta’s Fig Jam). The intensity of this strawberry jam’s flavor is akin to great pâté de fruit, sans the granular sugar. There is a piece of fruit in nearly every spoonful, which is a far cry from high fructose corn syrup laden offerings of competitors. Don’t be fooled by Tiptree’s Little Scarlet Strawberry Conserves. At $12.99 there is no trace of the intense notes typical of smaller Fragraria virginiana strawberries used to make their English jam and the sugar overkill destroys any potential of pleasure. At $3.95 a jar, Chatelaine Strawberry Jam is easy on the pocketbook and a welcome revelation.

Red Jacket Orchards Apricot Jam (Seasonal)
Red Jacket Orchards Apricot Jam is a fruity floral surprise. Notes of citrus, freesia and musk accompany the taste of apricot and the resulting experience is transcendent. No surprise here as the Red Jacket Apricot is sought after by pastry chefs when it's in season. Named for the red blush that appears on its skin, the Red Jacket Apricot is rich, sweet and brimming with flavor; a sharp contrast when compared to the mealy, tasteless variety of apricots found at east coast supermarkets. Red Jacket Orchards sells fruits and preserves at select farmer’s markets in New York City and surrounding areas.

Bonne Maman Poires aux Eclats de Cacao (Pear and Chocolate Nibs)
Bonne Maman’s Creations Gourmand line is rarely seen stateside. The jams are packaged in milk-colored jars with signature gingham lids (green versus red for this line), each one begging to be collected. You are probably wondering, “Pear and chocolate in a jam?” Many varieties of dark chocolate have a fruity quality in the finish, so the combination of fresh pear and softened cocoa nibs works beautifully. For now, you’ll have to go to France to purchase the jam or have a friend bring some back for you. If you’re lucky, one or two flavors in the line will show up at your local supermarket at Christmas (“Fig and Cinnamon” appeared at east coast A&P markets last year). Other flavors include Strawberry, Pineapple Coconut, Morello (Cherry) with Kirsch and Lemon Ginger. When available locally, the item is priced at $6.50.


Photo of jam with flowers from Just Hungry.

On April 2, 2008 the FDA declared that high fructose corn syrup cannot be declared natural. This is a huge victory for jam connoisseurs who have had to endure the dilution of flavor in their favorite brands. It seems that the same arguments that are affecting the fragrance industry are even more prevalent in the food business. Nutraingredients published an interesting article on the new ruling. One wonders if the issue of nature-identical molecules will enter the fray. Nature identical molecules are man-made molecules that are present in food and recreated by scientists (vanillin, which is a dominant molecule in vanilla, is an example of this). Though they are identical to molecules found in nature, nature identical molecules are often sourced from unappetizing organic sources (in the case of vanillin, the sources are petrochemicals and wood pulp).

Monday, June 2, 2008

I Smell Therefore I Blog

Today, seven panel members at the American Society of Perfumers 54th Annual Symposium were presented with a series of questions related to the future of fine fragrance. The questions and responses made one thing very clear; bloggers and Internet culture continue to perplex the fragrance industry. So does digital marketing that focuses on product experience and establishing customer relationships in the Web 2.0 world. The following editorial is inspired by what transpired at the event.

“I think therefore I am.” Hmm. René Descartes, you will have to forgive me, but times have changed. We mere humans, thinking entities that we are, can presently take our inner dialogue public in ways that illuminators and calligraphers of your day could not imagine. We are more expansive than ever, a force to be reckoned with in matters of thought, opinion and commerce. What we create is fuel for the chaos that steers the life of the senses, a collective unconscious of inspired minds that lives in digital eternity. Marketers who cling to analog life beware; knowing how to use Microsoft Office and a Blackberry doesn’t give you a digital badge of olfactive cool (and neither does your i-Pod).

We daydream in scents; those that have passed, those still with us and those that are yet to be. We know when you tinker with fragrances we remember from childhood long before many in your own organization know themselves—because we are the ones who smell it first. We know that celebrities are in the perfume business to make money and that packaging and juices are predetermined. We know the names of perfumers who make the scents we love because fragrance is an art form. And because we don’t want to see the art of perfumery destroyed, we are the ones who question ingredient safety studies as essential oil houses quiver over regulation and political correctness. Think you’ll see an in-depth investigation of RIFM in The New York Times? Think again.

You ply us with hundreds of fragrance launches, but the fantasies you offer are as predictable as a game of Three-card Monte. We know when we are being conned and all of the free product in the world will not change this. So when you ask us what we think about your fragrance or the industry, don’t expect a pat on the back unless it is well deserved. The future of fine fragrance depends on a willingness to take risks and embrace the consumer directly. The Internet has changed the game. Are you ready to play?

Video of The Machine is Us/ing Us, by Dr.Michael Wesch


The panel at today’s event included: Marian Bendeth, Chandler Burr, David Frederick (CIO, Alive Idea Media Group), Ann Gottlieb, Marlen Harrison, Michelle Krell Kydd and Jan Moran.

Dr. Michael Wesch teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. His video shows what Web 2.0 is. It is remarkably insightful and works on a feeling level--just like fragrance.

The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) generates, evaluates and distributes scientific data on the safety assessment of fragrance raw materials found in perfumes, cosmetics, shampoos, creams, detergents, air fresheners, candles and other personal and household products.

The artwork which accompanies this post is from Mira calligraphiæ monumenta: A Sixteenth-Century Calligraphic Manuscript inscribed by Georg Bocskay and illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel.