Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Olfactory Chic: Aroma Molecule Necklaces from Surly-Ramics

Amy Davis Roth is the creatrix behind Surly-Ramics, a thoughtful line of aromatic jewelry inspired by science and nature. Roth's creations are living portraits of aroma that educate the eyes and nose of the beholder. A scent molecule is stamped on the necklace's partially glazed front which illustrates what can only be sensed by the nose; the aroma of an essential oil containing the molecule presented on the pendant.

Glass Petal Smoke asked Ms. Roth what inspired her to fuse science and scent in her jewelry designs. She responded with imagination, clarity and conviction:
"I am a huge advocate and fan of science.  I am constantly seeking new information to incorporate into my work and try to find ways to share what I learn, and to encourage education with my jewelry. Chemistry, specifically molecular structures, seemed like an obvious source in which to find ideas for my art projects. I often think of art as another way of investigating the natural word and if one is going to turn a critical eye upon the objects in nature one (I would assume) would want to understand how that something works down to the tiniest detail. So molecular structures were an obvious stop on my scientific exploration of the world around me. I also think that the geometric structures of molecules and chemical compounds are quite beautiful in their simplicity and are perfect for artistic applications.

The idea of adding scent was actually a simultaneous decision that happened along with making the scented jewelry. My primary goal as an artist and jewelry designer is to find ways of encouraging people to learn about science and to celebrate the scientific body of knowledge and geek culture. I knew that the ceramic material I use as my medium for making jewelry, when left unglazed, is porous and could in theory absorb a scented oil.
My next thought was how I could express the science behind the scent visually while staying away from any unproven aromatherapy claims. The aroma chemicals themselves, written out, seemed like a perfect solution. I thought it would be fantastic to actually be able to see what you smelled, and I hoped the viewer might be inspired to learn more about the chemical later, or to at least make the connection that there is more to scent than just the "smell" alone. I added drawings of flowers and the other plants as design options later, and will be adding new scents and designs in the coming months."
Surly-Ramics currently offers beta-Damascenone (found in rose), jasmone (found in jasmine), linalool (found in lavender), patchoulol (found in patchouli) and vanillin (found in vanilla). The smaller oval pendants are priced at $48.00. The larger circular pendants, which can hold more essential oil as their surface area is larger, are priced at $29.95. All of the ceramic pendants in the Surly-Ramics line are surprisingly lightweight. Each is accompanied by a bottle of essential oil which is used to infuse the pendant. Warning: the temptation to buy more than one necklace is not limited to perfumistas. 

Opening a box from Surly-Ramics is like opening a geek's dream present. The carefully packed order arrives with an instructional comic rolled like a scroll in an unstoppered test tube. A unique quote printed on a slender slip of paper can also be found inside the parcel. It looks like it came out of a giant fortune cookie, but the words are more substantive. Glass Petal Smoke received this compassionate and contemplative quote: "Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not."--Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Geosmin and Petrichor: The Perfume of the Earth

Most people know wild carrot as Queen Anne's Lace. The gnarled weedy beginnings of its flowers illustrate the plant's invasive nature, but when these flowers mature they are surprisingly beautiful. The mathematical precision of its white florets are as compelling as a computer generated fractal. The taproot of Queen Anne's Lace is fibrous, sizable and strong. Anyone who has ever pulled up these plants knows that resistance is part of the weeding game, but an interesting gift is bestowed upon the nose for the effort; the root-tinged aroma of geosmin that accompanies the smell of underripe carrots.

When exploring the story of geosmin one cannot avoid a spiritual encounter with the narrative of human terroir. According to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam we are all made from dirt and destined to return from whence we came. Whether you call it dirt, earth or soil, each are one and the same. This deceptively simple substance allows plants and livestock to flourish, which in turn provides sustenance at our tables. When we shed our mortal coil the earth welcomes our body back and transforms what remains into new life for organisms that will come to life in the future. Gardeners and farmers are particularly conscious of this fact and for them the smell of geosmin in freshly turned earth is the very essence of life.

In the lab geosmin is known by its molecular name; Dimethyl-9-decalol. Geosmin present in the spore coat of actinomyces and streptomyces soil bacteria, which is released into the air before the first rain falls on dry earth, is known as petrichor. In this scenario geosmin is atomized like a perfume and lingers as a soil-water aerosol. In the Eastern tradition of attar making there is a natural perfume inspired by petrichor. It is created by distilling sun-baked earth with sandalwood. It is called Mitti Attar and resembles the smell of the first monsoon rain on parched soil.

It is no surprise that the mystique of geosmin has given birth to several perfumes built around this enchanting molecule. The Smell of Weather Turning by Lush is a handsome interpretation of geosmin expressed in petrichor. It is a slightly chilled fantasy of petrichor where geosmin is supported by oak wood, hay, beeswax, nettle, English peppermint, mint and Roman chamomile. It is a tad woody and the understated cooling aspects make geosmin, an assertive and cloying molecule, more nose-friendly.

Demeter Dirt takes a different approach to geosmin-inspired perfumery with its simple yet hauntingly diaphanous architecture. It includes geosmin, methyl dihydrojasmonate (the floral compound known as Hedione) and transparent musk (the later supporting an uncanny effect that resembles the smell of "just washed" hair). Add a human pulse and Demeter Dirt transforms into a living entity with a subtle sillage capable of breaking your heart into a million pieces should the human censer suddenly disappear. For hardcore geosmin lovers who don't care for olfactory window dressing there's Demeter Beet Root. It smells like its name and has a sweet rouged quality that tempers geosmin with a vague hedonic quality.

If the idea of wearing a geosmin inspired fragrance doesn't resonate with your notion of haute perfumery there's good news. It's July and wild carrots are in season. Now is the perfect time to give a sturdy stalk of Queen Anne's Lace a good yank* and have yourself a sniff or two. Don't be shy. You can take a stealth sniff of the aromatic taproot when no one is looking and pretend you're a naturalist.


Composer Adam Neal Scott wrote Petrichor, an experimental ambient music composition. It can be heard in its entirety and downloaded for free online. Listen to it on your i-Pod if you decide to go wild carrot hunting and indulge in a multisensory experience of your own making. P.S. Glass Petal Smoke recommends making a donation when you download Scott's music. 

Geologists I.G. Bear and R.G. Thomas coined the term Petrichor in 1964. It can be found in their paper, "Nature of Agrillaceous Odor." 

Glass Petal Smoke highly recommends Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan. It is a scientualist's delight and will make you think before you step on the ground.

The best Mitti Attar I've ever smelled is sold by White Lotus Aromatics. It is a seasonal product so you'll need to check on its availability.

The Smell of Weather Turning can be purchased at the LUSH website. It is available in a variety of sizes and is currently available in liquid and solid form.

Demeter Fragrances are available in a variety of retail stores. You can order their fragrances directly from their website.

"Making the Case for Beets," is a must-read if you want to understand the role that geosmin plays in the flavor profile of beets. Kudos to writer Susan Russo who has some interesting things to say on Food Blogga. You can follow Susan on Twitter.

You can read about Hedione and other marvelous aroma molecules in this article from the February 2009 edition of Chemistry World

Sarah Gordon is the artist that created the painting for The Smell of Weather Turning for LUSH. 

Photo of the wild carrot taproot is from Jone's Farmer Blog.  Rights revert back to the site. 

*If you decide to pull up a wild carrot or two make sure to wash your hands afterwards as a chemical component found in its leaves reacts with sunlight (a reaction known as phytophotodermatitis). Phytophotodermatitis is also caused by the molecule bergapten which is removed from Bergamot essential oil in IFRA-compliant perfumery.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sumac: A Mediterranean Flavor Catalyst

Ground sumac is a flavor catalyst known for its acidulant qualities. It is used in Mediterranean dishes and has a subtle astringent tartness that is less assertive than pomegranate molasses or tamarind paste. Ground sumac's aromatic profile is a flavor subtext in za'atar, a spice mixture that generally includes: thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds, sumac and salt. Sumac tempers camphoraceous notes found in the assertive green herbs which comprise za'atar. It does so with naturally occurring malic acid, a molecule found in sour fruits. When you see an "E" before a number on a food ingredient list you are looking at a malic acid indicator. Malic acid is commonly found in sour candy and is what puts the "tart" in Sweet Tarts (an interesting scientific fact for budding gourmands).

Sumac's flavor profile may be sour dominant, but its fragrance tells another story. Harold McGee describes sumac as "aromatic...with pine, woody and citrus notes." Spice master Ian Hemphill elaborates on sumac's fruity qualities which he describes as "a cross between red grapes and apple, with a lingering freshness." The combination of McGee and Hemphill's descriptions complete the flavor profile for sumac and make it easier to identify whether or not ground sumac is fresh. If your nose detects the teint of rancid oil you have likely encountered old ground sumac as a bit of oil is sometimes used to keep the spice from clumping together along with salt. Fruitiness is the dominant quality you will notice when first smelling ground sumac. The depth of fruitiness will vary depending on where the sumac was harvested and the conditions under which it was processed and stored. 

The tartness of ground sumac is immediately sensed when the spice is tasted neat. Sumac's fruity and pine-like qualities are best expressed simply; on a slice of fresh tomato. The malic acid in sumac makes the mouth water and intensifies the umami quality naturally present in tomatoes. This savory backdrop allows the pine-like freshness of ground sumac to express itself more fully, trilling the fruity aspects of the spice in an experience that is best described as a "flavor boomerang."

Ground sumac is a brilliant flavor catalyst in parsley pesto. Glass Petal Smoke's Parsley Pesto with Sumac utilizes a combination of lemon zest and ground sumac to temper the assertiveness of parsley and garlic. Parmesan cheese isn't an ingredient in this recipe, but it can be added for enhanced flavor. Parsley Pesto with Sumac is divine on hot buttered bread, as an addition to sauces or soup stocks, and in fish dishes.

Parsley Pesto (with Sumac)
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd 
Yield: 1 1/4 cup

  • 1 bunch parsley (rinsed, long stems removed, chopped)
  • 1 small head of garlic (chopped)
  •  zest of one medium-sized organic lemon
  • 1/4 cup walnuts (chopped)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon ground sumac
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (fruity type is a must for this recipe)
  • Prepare ingredients for use in a food processor.
  • Create several layers of parsley, garlic, lemon, walnuts and sumac.
  • Add extra virgin olive oil once the layers are complete.
  • Use a combination of chop and pulse settings on the food processor to achieve a paste, taking care not to munge the ingredients into a purée.
  • Store in an air tight container in the refrigerator and/or freeze for future use. 

Ground Sumac is sold by several spice purveyors including Penzeys.

Malic is derived from the word malus in Latin which means apple. The aroma of malic acid in ground sumac bears a resemblance to tart apple skin. The red color of the spice reflects the presence of anthocyanins, the same flavinoid molecules found in berries. When it comes to taste anthocyanins contribute an astringent sensation and are generally flavorless. 

Photographs by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.