Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Smell of Fear

Fear is cold, metallic and salty. It’s the sound of stilted exhalations, the irrational shuffle of shoes moving this way and that, the mental retracing of every detail that has added up to a single moment that can’t be wished away or avoided. Fear is a collision with everything that negates life. According to researchers at SUNY Stonybrook, fear has a smell that comes from specific human pheromones. I may not be a scientist, but I’ve always subscribed to the notion that basic emotions emanate specific aromas. The frequency with which people “sense” things in other people is a good example of this. Though we are social creatures by nature our survival streak is fierce; we read everyone and everything in our environment so we can position ourselves for safety and pleasure, and have been doing so since our species began.

I knew the smell of fear at the age of eight. I had a teacher that gave religious instruction who was also a Holocaust survivor. He was a sweet and gentle man, but extremely nervous. A number was tattooed on his forearm that matched the color of veins that showed through the weathered skin of his hands. The teacher was giving a lesson on the many names of G-d in the Old Testament and wanted to share one of these names with the class. He held his chalk to the blackboard and struggled with writing out the holy name because it is forbidden to spell or utter this name unless it is said in prayer. For two minutes he would touch the stick of chalk to the blackboard and then retract it. He muttered to himself and there were beads of sweat on his forehead. I felt sorry for him, but I was eight years old and his behavior was scaring me. I could smell a peculiar odor that came from his sweat, something that was always faintly present due to his nervous disposition. To my nose, this particular smell was a mixture of the sharp note in earwax and dirty sweat. It mingled with the scent of the simple wool jackets he always wore and defined him in memory.

The next time I smelled that same odor was under different circumstances. A close friend had become addicted to heroin. She hit bottom and took the first step every recovering addict takes; she admitted she had a problem she could not control. She was extremely irritable and unbeknownst to me, had spent a week alone in her apartment going cold turkey. The detoxifying process marked her with a faint odor that I immediately recognized as fear; the same smell of fear I identified in my third grade teacher. There was a survival connection between these two olfactive experiences. My friend was literally fighting for her life, where my teacher was fighting for his existence as a pious man. The comparison of these two instances provided me with a different perspective regarding the smell of fear, and made me wonder what had become of my poor teacher. If he’s passed on, I hope he has found a good measure of peace and forgiveness as he was extremely hard on himself.

For the past eight years Americans have lived in a culture of fear. Much of this has been foisted upon the world as a result of different societies and belief systems mingling and colliding. This raises all sorts of issues with regard to identity and truth, matters that reconcile slowly and in ways that aren't always predictable. Despite the challenges we face, each of us has an opportunity to transform the current climate of fear into one that embraces love and understanding. It requires that we retract our pointing fingers away from politicians and scapegoats, and start thinking about an antidote. Times are tough. If you know someone who is suffering because of the downturn in the economy, reach out. If you are struggling with something of a personal nature, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Things can change for the better and it helps to know that others experience the same things that you do. The perfume of compassion always rises above the smell of fear because its essence is pure and liberating. It is a free gift you can give to everyone, including yourself, this holiday season.


Over the years scent artist Sissel Tolaas has worked with synthesized human sweat pheromones in her own explorations of the scent of fear. Her work has been featured at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, MA, and The Grand Arts in Kansas City, MO, among others.

The drawing of hands featured in this post comes from the book Shefa Tal, by Shabbetai Sheftel Horowitz. The author, who lived from 1561-1691, was a renowned physician from Prague. The illustration of hands is filled with Kabalistic symbols. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “These hands are divided into twenty-eight sections, each containing a Hebrew letter. Twenty-eight, in Hebrew numbers, spells the word Koach = strength. At the bottom of the hand, the two letters on each hand combine to form YHWH [יהוה], the name of God." The book was published in 1612.

Painting of "White Bird" by Krista Lynn Brown on Devaluna.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Comfort on Call by Clinique: A Perfumista's Dream Cream

You have to hand it to Clinique. Not only does the brand make terrific products, they seem to have a knack for evoking all of the right emotions when it comes to a simple name. Comfort on Call conjures up images of physicians in white coats and cure-alls that are available any time, day or night (a close second to Philosophy’s Hope in a Jar when it comes to "ethos capture" in a product name). So what’s in this name? Comfort on Call is a moisturizing cream that is designed to treat skin that’s on the reactive side. For some this is a constant condition, but for others it is a niggling annoyance that comes on as soon as winter begins. You know the feeling; dry here, oily there, dry patches out of nowhere that seem to be magnified after you've applied foundation.

The texture of Comfort on Call is thick yet smooth. It isn't laden with impenetrable moisturizers that closely resemble spackling paste or diaper rash cream, (my biggest issue with Crème de la Mer as I only like the “Crème” when it is applied over The Concentrate, which supports its application by emulsifying the product and boosting its effects, an extra $350 on top of the $130 for the “Crème”). Comfort on Call feels like cross between a cream and a balm on the fingertips and is nearly impossible to over-dispense. In addition it is unscented, which makes it appealing to men as well as women. In my household it’s become a “his and her” beauty cream. My husband uses it overnight and claims it not only smoothes skin, it also makes shaving in the morning a little more pleasant. I share Comfort on Call because it is the least I can do for a man that never says no when I hold a perfume blotter under his nose (the perils of being married to a flavor and fragrance writer).

Every beauty cream touts a unique combination of key ingredients and Comfort on Call is no different. Enviro-Soothe™ Complex contains a trio of anti-irritants that includes; Mangosteen, Glycyrrhetinic Acid, and the mother of all newcomers to the beauty scene—Jabara fruit extract. If you try and google information on Jabara fruit there is little to be found, unless you count the product reviews that quote the Clinique press release verbatim. This makes me a little suspicious of a fruit that resembles Yuzu, only grows in Kitayama Japan, is nicknamed “the magic fruit”, and is purported to alleviate hay fever symptoms. As a perfumista there is a part of me that can’t help thinking, “If I can’t smell it, how do I know it's working?” Well, I got over it. Comfort on Call moisturizes skin, is great alone or under makeup and doesn’t go to war with my perfume, which is a great thing.


Comfort on Call retails for $37.50 for a 1.7 oz./ 50 ml jar and is available in department stores and online from

Jabara fruit is touted on this small Japanese site. There is no Wiki for the fruit—yet.

There is a great book called Hope in a Jar by Kathy Peiss. It was published in 1999 and is a worthwhile read if you are curious about the business of beauty.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christophe Laudamiel Leaves IFF

Christophe Laudamiel has quietly left IFF to work for a fragrance media company called Aeosphere. His official title is co-CEO and Senior Perfumer. Anyone familiar with his olfactive work and independent forays knows that he has been marked by the fates for quite some time. Visionaire 47 Taste, lecturing to architects at Harvard, scenting rooms at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos; the list goes on and on. Laudamiel possesses an energy that resembles the ethereal medium he works with and like a bottle of fine perfume, his essence cannot be contained. MIND08

There seems to be an earthquake in the fragrance world with aftershocks that will be reverberating for quite some time. On December 11th Cosmetic News reported that perfumer Francis Kurkdjian would be opening his own fragrance house while maintaining ties with Takasago, his current employer. In October, Symrise perfumer Mark Buxton, another stellar creative, launched his own line of perfumes. The buzz among industry insiders centers on the question of whether or not these moves will become more common. Could perfumers be striking out on their own in a quest to break out of the culture of mediocrity that currently haunts the industry? With all of the channels of distribution that are currently available today and the rise in demand for authentic artisan fragrances, it is a question many talented perfumers may be asking themselves.

Holiday Note

Heston Blumenthal, renown chef at The Fat Duck, created a remarkable sensory Christmas dinner replete with "...edible Christmas tree baubles filled with smoked salmon mousse, a dish inspired by gold, frankincense and myrrh, mulled wine that is both hot and cold in the same glass and goose fed on a mixture of ingredients - including apples and grain ..." The dinner was featured as part of the chef's In Search of Perfection television series, which is no longer in production. I experienced some of the flavor and scent effects from the dinner at the 2008 International Chefs Congress in September and they were nothing short of magical. "Perfect Christmas", will be rebroadcast in the UK on Dec 19th at 8pm, on the BBC.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Scoop on Miss Dior's Current Formulation

In March of this year some very intelligent fragrance lovers were wondering whether or not oakmoss had been removed from the composition of Miss Dior as the raw material was no longer listed on the packaging. Oakmoss is a defining ingredient in perfumery's chypre category and is on IFRA's list of ingredients that may cause skin irritation. IFRA's position on oakmoss is clearly stated in the sentence that introduces their assessment regarding safe levels of use, "Oak moss extracts (e.g. absolute, resinoid, concrete, etc.) obtained from Evernia prunastri should not be used such that the level in consumer products exceeds 0.1%."

When Dior's Paris office provided an ambiguous answer to Glass Petal Smoke's initial inquiry regarding the current formulation of Miss Dior, Diane Vavra (Vice-President of Public Relations at Dior Beauty) made sure that a clear answer was provided. The official response from Dior, which took three weeks to arrive, is as follows:

Oakmoss is well included in the formula of Miss Dior but does not appear on the full labeling because its concentration in the product is less than 10 ppm (the IFRA rule is that ingredients that could generate allergies must appear on the list of ingredients only if their concentration [in] the product (leave-on products) is more than 10 ppm).

Dior's original response inferred that the absence of oakmoss on fragrance packaging indicated its presence:

[There has been] no reformulation of Miss Dior but there has been a change in April 2007 in the listing, following some new information given by the supplier of a specific raw material, and also internal data on the concentrate. So, the formula is the same but the full labeling has indeed slightly changed.

Kudos to Ms. Vavra, who despite the implications of the question, valued a clear answer. Things do get lost in translation between France and the U.S.

An industry insider for a multi-million dollar beauty company that manufactures some of the world's finest fragrances made the following comment about reformulations and oakmoss, on the condition that they would not be identified; "Many companies chose to comply with IFRA rather than retaining their [original] formulas. Adding a sensitizing warning on the packaging, which is required for amounts of oakmoss over 10 parts per million, can potentially scare away the consumer."

I know many fragrance connoisseurs who would be happy to have a traditional dilution of oakmoss at hand that could be layered with chypre fragrances that have been reformulated to the point of amnesia. There is nothing like the scent of oakmoss, which author Steffan Arctander beautifully describes as "reminiscent of seashore, forest, bark, wood and tannery." If there is a company daring enough to create a single-note oakmoss fragrance, they could call it Eau de Lazarus and promote its resurrecting powers. The "self-governing body" of IFRA would prefer to call it Poison, but then, as Dior knows, the name Poison is already taken.


I write copy professionally by trade. At one non-Dior assignment I worked with a decision maker in fragrance marketing. I smelled a mod that would be released abroad and went into a tailspin; I smelled elements from the old Miss Dior (Miss Dior was reformulated by Edmond Roudnitska in 1992). I shared my enthusiasm with this person and their response was, "I couldn't stand the old formula. As a matter of fact I was consulting at Dior and worked on the reformulation. We took out that dirty, "old lady" smell."

From that moment on, as much as I loved working with this person, my opinion of them had taken a 180-degree turn. The irony grew as the essential oil house that made the mod I had smelled was the same essential oil house that worked on the original Miss Dior formula. Interesting indeed.