The perfume of old books

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Now I smell like Julia Roberts! Or, wait, like Elizabeth Gilbert? Or like a book?

The New Yorker’s Book Bench (my favorite blog) encountered three scents based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” last summer sold through the “Fresh” product line (which seems like it could easily fit into Gilbert’s original title). The “Eat” perfume, apparently, smells like lemon, plum, and rose; “Pray” has notes of patchouli and juniper berry; “Love” is a mix of mango and sandalwood. The clever book-benchers contributed their own ideas about how perfumes based on classic books would smell. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Great Expectations” Splash. Romantic overtones with just a hint of “moldy old mansion.” The perfect scent to wear while not eating your wedding cake. Comes in a bottle swathed in yellowed lace.
  • Essence of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Floral, with irises and roses, and notes of madness.
  • “Grendel” Musk For the Monster in You. Apples, shocked grain, a swampy mixture of sulfurous dragon smoke, and the blood of thanes. Notes of
    existential yearning and a hint of regret.

That made me think of a few book scents of my own:

  • Solitude Body Mist

    “Madame Bovary” Eau de Toilette. An avante-garde and intoxicating perfume for elegant French women. Though shocking to men, women will find the scent quite familiar. Strong on the pheromones.

  • “One Hundred Years of Solitude” body mist. Banana base notes, hints of clay for the pica-enthusiasts, fresh laundry smells that will make you feel heavenly. A perfect alchemy for the senses. Inexplicably cold as ice. Keeps on the shelf for one hundred years unless devoured by ants first.
  • “Original Sin” by Eve. Sinuous, top-notes of apple. Not for the modest.
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And everything smelled like vanilla…

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Just two days ago I was bemoaning the downside of March melting: the smells buried under months of snow suddenly uncovered. I woke up this morning to find that Minnesota happily solved my problem by dumping several more inches of white powder to cover it all up again (this is when I remind myself that I should be careful what I wish for).

What would the world be like if everything smelled like vanilla?

Six years ago, the New Yorker featured an article about a product called Odor Screen that would have solved my problem without me needing to bring out all the snow gear I’d just so carefully packed away. Odor Screen is a drug free gel that alters one’s perception of scents. As it says on its website, Odor Screen “provides the human olfactory pathway with a source of cross-adapting odorants, thereby altering perception of the malodor.” It is specifically marketed toward military, medical and service professionals who must encounter smells on a daily basis that could induce nausea, depression, loss of appetite, etc. The American version contains vanilla, which is supposed to relieve stress and bring about a feeling of relaxation (there were plans, at least at the time of the New York article, to market the same product in Asian countries with a green tea smell so as to be culturally specific).

The man who tested out Odor Screen in the New Yorker article visited those places in New York that are particularly pungent, such as the Fulton Fish Market and underneath the Manhattan Bridge. To his delight, instead of smelling fish, garbage, and stagnant water, all he could smell was vanilla.

It’s an interesting idea that, instead of trying to make the world around you smell better, you can just alter your nose to perceive it as pleasant. Certainly our noses help us avoid danger when we smell something off, but I’m sure there will be many times this spring when I’d prefer the scent of vanilla to the sour grass. Looking outside, I wish this Minnesota white-out was a vanilla-out instead. Excuse me while I go shovel…

The museum of lost smells

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Kakofonous A. Dischord from The Phantom Tollbooth

Recently, a friend and I were talking about sounds that are quickly becoming obsolete, like the scratch of a record player or the screech of chalk across a blackboard. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard about a place that keeps such sounds digitally catalogued, a modern version of The Phantom Tollbooth‘s Kakofonous A. Dischord, Doctor of Dissonance who kept sounds in apothecary-type bottles.

It occurred to me that a similar place could exist for extinct smells, yet documenting scents is so much more difficult than recording sounds. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York will attempt to do just that this November. Chandler Burr, who wrote the profile of Jean-Claude Ellena I discussed yesterday, is curating an exhibit called “The Art of Scent: 1889-2011.” This exhibit will “trace the evolution of modern perfume, from Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky (1889), among the first to use synthetic ingredients, through midcentury classics like Edmond Roudnitska’s Diorama (1949), which Mr. Burr calls ‘one of the greatest Abstract Expressionist perfumes in the world,’ to several contemporary fragrances.”

Perfumes displayed at the Osmotheque

But Mr. Burr is not the first one to think of such a presentation of smells; The Osmotheque in Versailles, France labels itself “The International Perfume Conservatory” whose mission is to preserve the classic fragrances of the French perfume industry (apparently, the “international” aspect only comes from the tourists–non-French perfumes have no place here). The Osmotheque’s largest claim to fame of recent note was recreating Marie Antoinette’s personal perfume (they were probably more faithful to her scent than I was to Cleopatra in my own experiments).

Yet, of course, the Osmotheque and Chandler Burr’s perfume exhibit deal in synthetic scents. As far as I know, there is no shrine to the naturally beautiful, the smell of biting into a ripe plum on a sunny afternoon, the smell of pavement after an August rain, the special blend of woodsmoke and nutmeg that reminds me of Christmas. These are the kind of smells that trigger wonderful memories for me, the kind of smells I’d want to preserve.

What smells would you preserve if you could?

How to be a perfumer

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What you’ll need: a memory for thousands of scents, a good nose

Songlist: Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit

Further reading: The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr

March is an exhausting month in Minnesota; if it gives any continuing sign of winter, such as adding to snow to the ground instead of melting it away or obstinately staying below 40 degrees F (both of which it seems be doing this week) we throw up our hands in disgust. Yet when that first really warm day comes and reveals what’s been hiding under the snow for the last six months, we suffer a different kind of disgust. Thus in March I find myself longing for good smells.

I felt that way yesterday when I exited my front door and saw two pumpkins in my front yard, soggy and scummy from being left out since Halloween. To combat this distasteful image, my mind immediately went to a 2005 profile I read in the New Yorker of Jean-Claude Ellena, a professional perfumer who had just been hired as Hermes’s first in-house scent designer. In the article he is tasked to create a scent for the 2005 collection that would center around the Nile. To do so, he takes a trip along the Nile and decides that his perfume will be based on the aroma of green mango.

New Yorker articles have provided inspiration for many of my career whims, and this Ellena profile almost convinced me to change my undergraduate major. Not only does he get to take exotic trips, his main goal is to create the illusion of beautiful scents. The science behind smell is fascinating, as well. In a different New Yorker profile, this time of Michelle Hagen, flavorist for Givaudan (the largest flavor and fragrance manufacturer in the world), writer Raffi Khatchadourian describes the sense of smell thus:

Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to the “pre-semantic” part of the brain where cognition does not occur, and where emotions are processed. The bypassing of the thalamus may be one reason why smells can be so hard to describe in detail, and also why aromas stimulate such powerful feelings.”

While difficult for most of us, describing smells in detail is an essential skill for professional perfumers and flavorists. At the beginning of her apprenticeship with Givaudan, Hagen used Benjamin Moore paint chips to help her memorize the scents of approximately one thousand chemicals (“California Lilac was ethyl isovalerate; Mellow Yellow was gamma octalactone” the article tells us). Though it took him a long time to learn the science (“ten years to know, twenty years to master” he says) Ellena is now capable is identifying the country of origin of a specific floral essence as well as whether it was distilled by stainless steel, aluminum, or steel. Ellena says that his nose doesn’t smell any better than anyone else’s, he simply has better means to understand what it is that he’s smelling.

Girlfriend, you wearing "Cleopatra's Secret Perfume," too? What a coincidence!

When I was a kid, I had a perfume making kit that included five bottles of fragrances: jasmine, heliotrope, lily-of-the-valley, peppermint, and apple. One of the “experiments” was to make what the creators of the kit called Cleopatra’s Secret Perfume, which was heavy on the jasmine and included all of the other ingredients, besides peppermint. I remember feeling very grown-up, wearing a scent that was not only “secret” but also the very same one Cleopatra once donned.

Indeed, there is an element of the mysterious in the science of scent. Both Ellena and Hagen reference their jobs as creating illusions. Both of them work with chemical compounds, but both of them must make a consumer completely unaware of those compounds. “With me, one plus one equals three,” Ellena says in his profile. “When I add two things, you get much more than two things.” Perfume itself is used to create an illusion: the concept of a fragrance’s sillage refers to its ability to make people believe that a woman is still in the room once she has left. No wonder, then, that perfumers work so hard to master the art of sillage and women are so interested in wearing such perfumes.

As I look out at the flattened grass of my front yard, yellowed and damp and no doubt covering other decaying material, I wish someone could create an illusion to mask its scent. The kind of sillage, for instance, that would make a person believe spring was still in the air, and had never really left.