Saturday, December 3, 2011

Eau Pear Tingle: A Perfume Inspired by Anosmia

Why would someone who can’t smell want to experience fragrance? In the digital galaxy known as the worldwide web, one voice came through. It was louder than the voices of Whoville, but just as singular in a world that takes the sense of smell for granted. Jennifer Boyer was born without a sense of smell, but it didn't stop her from making a case for fragrance in the lives of anosmics:
"...Aromatherapy products exist because specific scents help you relax, perk up, concentrate, banish mild pain and nausea, etc. It is believed that certain scents can help qualm anxiety and sadness. It’s not fair that an anosmic misses out on the healing properties and mood stabilizers that scents can bring."--The Simian Line: Anosmia

Ms. Boyer’s words are haunting for anyone who appreciates their sense of smell. I found myself growing restless every time I thought about her desire to experience the effects of pleasant aromas in spite of her olfactory impediment. Jennifer Boyer was born without a sense of smell, a type of sensory disorder that is known as congenital anosmia. Despite never smelling a thing in her life Ms. Boyer craved the feelings that are ignited by scent. Would her words evaporate into the digital ether or could a perfume be created that would allow her and other anosmics to experience the emotion of scent, or at least come close?

After beginning a campaign on anosmia awareness sparked by my friend Kathleen Cochran's Parkinson's condition I carefully analyzed the role that trigeminal nerve (v) plays in smell and taste. The trigeminal nerve allows one to feel sensations of texture, temperature and spiciness in the mouth. The same nerve makes a person wince at the odor of ammonia, bleach and other olfactory irritants because the trigeminal nerve has a protective function in humans as well as a pleasurable one. Anosmics can’t detect flavor because aromatic molecules don’t have a chance to mingle with taste receptors for sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami on the tongue, a process known as retronasal olfaction. When smell is absent so is flavor, but taste and trigeminal sensations remain, (the later is a saving grace when it comes to an enjoying food when you have anosmia). This fact is mysterious to most of the population; whether they can smell or not.

The ability to detect the coolness of mint, the heat of cayenne, and the tingling of carbonation is due to impulses carried by the trigeminal nerve. These sensations are capable of inspiring emotion and memory with the same intensity that the sense of smell provides. It’s why supermarket aisles are filled with more flavors of toothpaste, chewing gum and hot sauce than a person could consume in one lifetime. Trigeminal stimulants work through the nose to create similar sensations that are experienced via the mouth. (This is what happens when you use a mentholated chest rub to relieve congestion and inhale the cooling aromatic vapors for relief.) The challenge in creating a perfume that triggers a trigeminal sensation is both chemical and aesthetic. The end result cannot smell medicinal or create too much of a sensation. It has to register emotionally as “perfume” to those who can smell and as a pleasurable “sensation” to anosmics.

In order to be a catalyst for something that has never been done before one must take risks. Social media allows one to tap into groups with similar interests and because conversation occurs in real time, this form of communicating with olfactory enthusiasts is ideal for product ideation. I laid a breadcrumb trail on Twitter, sharing what I learned about trigeminal nerve (v) with Glass Petal Smoke followers. When the level of engagement was at its peak I presented a fragrance brief targeting independent perfumers who follow Glass Petal Smoke on Twitter. Intuition and fearlessness are critical components of creativity; so is luck. Twitter offers the right dose of serendipity to tap into these qualities and that is critical to something as counter-intuitive as a "trigeminal eau".

The fragrance brief was an olfactory conundrum for many as knowledge of the trigeminal link between taste and smell requires a deeper understanding of the science of smell. Kedra Hart of Opus Oils responded immediately; her mother acquired anosmia after hitting her head in an ice skating accident when Kedra was a teenager. Ms. Hart had already been tinkering with peppermint as a trigeminal stimulant when she created “Cool Mist”, a peppermint-based fragrance designed with two functions in mind; to alleviate the symptoms of hot flashes and as a "post-workout" refresher. The fragrance was created for her mother, who could sense the peppermint, so the idea of making a "true perfume" for her mother was compelling. Ms. Hart set out to create a “trigeminal eau” immediately. Her creative process was infused with love, something poetically reflected in her last name.

Eau Pear Tingle took two months to complete. Various iterations were shared with Ms. Hart's anosmic mother until the desired effect was achieved. The final modification arrived at my doorstep on August 30th. Ms. Hart included other fragrances she formulated for her Hollywood boutique and I chose to smell them first in order to get a sense of her style and manage my expectations for the decanting of Eau Pear Tingle. The fragrance inspired a palpable sensation that was well-balanced, sophisticated and highly wearable. It's hard to express in words what it feels like when someone has translated a fragrance brief into a finished product that exceeds expectations, especially when the result is connected to a loving relationship between a mother and a daughter.

Eau Pear Tingle is as much about "sensation" as it is about the unique ability that perfume has to express periods of time. The fragrance starts out with a modern mouthwatering juicy twist that is redolent of green pear, pineapple and a hint of coconut. This is followed by the trigeminal effect of camphor, mint and black pepper that has a delightful side effect; it steadies the breath with a mild cooling sensation complemented by the essence of fir and wood shavings. The perfume dries down to an addictive classic base that is rich in sandalwood and musk. When you wear Eau Pear Tingle you journey from the present into the future and repose in the past. The fact that someone who has anosmia is able to sense this fragrance is truly an innovation in the art of perfumery. It is also cause for the industry to consider anosmia as a source of inspiration for scent creation targeting connoisseurs as well as the 65+ demographic that is regularly snubbed by the industry; whether they have age related smell loss or not.

Dr. Leslie Vosshall of The Rockefeller University is a neurogenetics researcher who specializes in olfactory studies at The Vosshall Lab. With Ms. Hart's permission I shared Eau Pear Tingle with her as an aesthetic evaluation from a scientist would indicate if the formula was on track. Dr. Vosshall is fond of fine fragrance and has a marvelous sense of smell. This is what she had to say about Eau Pear Tingle, “…[It] is a heady mix of a gazillion things—pear/pineapple/coconut predominate at the start. On the waning side it starts to really smell elegant in a way that I am unable to articulate. I wish I could experience it from the point of view of an anosmic to see how they feel about it. Fascinating.”

After reading Dr. Vosshall’s response my mind returned to Jennifer Boyer’s wish. I began communicating with Ms. Boyer on Facebook and asked her if she would like to be introduced her to Opus Oil's Kedra Hart, who was happy to provide her with samples of Eau Pear Tingle. If Ms. Boyer's aromatic wish came true that would bring the creation of Eau Pear Tingle full circle. Jennifer's response and the reference she made to a stimulating raw material was more than coincidental; it reflected the role that destiny plays when serendipity is engaged by forces greater than ourselves. This is what she had to say,  “I would love [to try] that perfume! I thought about wearing peppermint essential oil as a kind of makeshift perfume, just because the trigeminal stimulation is so delightful, but I wasn't sure if it would end up as a perfume disaster! (I thought it might not mix well with my body chemistry, or would make me smell too much like candy.)" 

Opus Oils' Eau Pear Tingle and Cool Mist fragrances were sent to Ms. Boyer immediately. Glass Petal Smoke is happy to report that she is able to sense the trigeminal effect in both fragrances and had this to say about Eau Pear Tingle, "I can feel it in my nose and it feels the same way mint does when I breathe it in." Other anosmics have expressed interest in Eau Pear Tingle and will be sampling the scent to see how it affects their unique sensory makeup. The fragrance is a wonderful tool for bridging the gap between those who can smell and those who can't, encouraging meaningful conversation and putting a face on a sensory disorder that deserves more attention than it gets. Rumor has it that Ms. Hart is already working on a masculine version of the scent, inspired by woods. Talk about putting the "cool" in fine fragrance...

It is not uncommon for people who have anosmia, acquired or congenital, to wear perfume. An interesting query from an acquired anosmic appeared in The Daily Mail this month. The response of the beauty editors included a statement about anosmia at the article's end that is misleading. Not all acquired anosmics regain their sense of smell. That doesn't diminish an anosmic's desire to wear an attractive scent, but it does require that the anosmic experience positive feelings from others who smell their perfume. The anosmic must rely on friends and family members for an honest evaluation of the perfumes they choose to wear.

The statistics on those affected by anosmia (2-3% at last count) do not reflect today's population, especially the baby boomer segment and those with degenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. A social movement has begun on Facebook that marks February 23, 2012 as National Anosmia Awareness Day. It is a day to remember the value of your sense of smell and those who do not share that sensory capacity. You can participate in this event by logging into Facebook and clicking here.

Photos of Eau Pear Tingle, Kedra Hart and Jennifer Boyer were provided by both women. Rights revert back to the owners.

Photo of Dr. Leslie Vosshall from The Rockefeller University website. Rights revert back to the owner.

Glass Petal Smoke does not have a commercial interest in Opus Oils "Eau Pear Tingle".