Perfume Insights from Raw Materials

Sometimes smelling a raw material feels like discovering a Rosetta Stone—it unlocks a perfume that until then I couldn’t quite decipher.

flouve1Recently I had this flash of recognition with flouve absolute (see description below), which was entirely new to me, but upon smelling it I suddenly understood what’s going on in Oriza L. Legrand’s Chypre Mousse. Similarly, when I smelled a gorgeous fir absolute, it felt like I could more deeply understand Slumberhouse’s Norne and its dense, sweet, “jammy” forest character. I don’t know if this material is in the perfume, but when I smelled hydrocarboresine (made from the gummy resin of labdanum) my mind instantly went to Bruno Fazzolari’s Ummagumma, and the chewy quality of its smoky leather made more sense, like I could see the through-line from incense to chocolate.

Have you had this experience with any raw materials and perfumes?

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From Steffen Arctander’s Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. 

Scent as a Medium: Bright Black Candle

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Using scent as their medium, Bright Black Candle is doing amazing things. Their Diaspora collection first of all smells wonderful, and also uses those wonderful smells to accomplish a larger vision.

Captivated, I contacted them to learn more about their thought process behind this project. Tiffany graciously shared some of her inspiration and vision with me, so I’m going to draw upon her words here. On a fundamental level, Bright Black Candle creates “an explicit sensory experience that connects positivity and Blackness. And we wanted to use scent because it is such a powerful form of sensation that we thought we could really share stories and memories and aspirations through this medium.” They’re using scent to “foster connection through community dialogue. We want to create safe spaces for people to honestly and humbly and confidently discuss the pain and hope and joy and challenges with race in general, and in particular, with Blackness.” Scent has this power to invoke history, connect us with present realities and inspire change for the future, to foster conversation—all in such an intimate and experiential way.

Keep Tiffany and Dariel on your radar: in 2020, they’ll be rolling out blog content with more about the history and narrative that each city in the Diaspora collection holds, and they have more candle collections in the works!

Perfume: Nuit de Bakelite

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Alluring, unsettling, assertive galbanum leather. The nose (perfumer) behind it, Isabelle Doyen, calls this scent an “insomniac tuberose… a sleepless flower stripped of its solar finery. I had this image of a flayed, wounded tuberose in my mind, seeping its perfume like sap.” The idea of insomnia is a perfect fit. Nuit de Bakélite has the wakefulness of a green perfume but none of its well-rested freshness. This is also, it turns out, a tuberose, which I find difficult to reconcile. Nez magazine reviewed the perfume in issue 4: “A rooty galbanum with intonations of pea, carrot and green pepper spits out a scent of crisp, aqueous, almost poisonous sap like that exhaled in exotic hothouses. [Doyen] colours this with a buttery iris and verdant violet, tracing the broad but defined contours of a vintage green chypre. The tuberose’s spices are then layered over a smoky tobacco, submerged in hot resins, distressed leather and milky musks. Secreted behind its eccentric opening are the perfectly executed seams of Nuit de Bakélite. Like a brazen dancer dressed in a loud green veil, twirling like the visionary Loie Fuller. After a slow striptease, she reveals her houndstooth suit; fitted jacket and pencil skirt, classic and well-tailored. Suddenly chastened, she blows clouds of smoke in your face, drawn from her cigarette holder… made of bakelite, of course.”

Interactive Scent Gallery

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I recently had the incredible opportunity to host an interactive scent gallery for a group of multi-disciplinary artists and creative individuals at The Annex here in Seattle. My goal was first and foremost to facilitate an engaging experience that would get these artists thinking about the possibilities that open up when we use our noses. I wanted them to mindfully experience what Luca Turin calls the enduring strangeness of raw sensation. Hopefully, this experience might even get them thinking about scent in their own creative practice. But I also had some questions of my own that I wanted their help in answering.

Scent in art has the potential to create uniquely embodied, intimate, and ephemeral experiences. Scent resists description, documentation, and preservation. This is part of what makes scent so compelling, but it also presents significant challenges.

Scent is generally a passive, ambient experience—we don’t often think actively about what we’re smelling. And when we do, we usually have some kind of reference from our other senses. For example, we smell something unpleasant, so we identify the cause: we look around and realize we’re standing near a dumpster. We savor the smell of a peach while we hold it up to our nose. But without contextual information from our surroundings, how much are we able to make sense of smells? Scent is notoriously subjective, since we all have different associations and memories linked to scents. How much does this affect how an artist uses scent? We have so little verbal language for scent—but can scent itself serve as a common language that an artist can draw upon to communicate nonverbally? Or is it a kind of Tower of Babel, all of us together yet unable to speak the same language?

These questions have been on my mind lately as I’ve been researching scent in art. By and large, “olfactory artworks” often rely upon audio-visual or narrative cues to frame our encounter with the scent, priming us to experience or interpret the scent in a certain way. Scent’s role can certainly be more than just an atmospheric enhancer. Scent can supplement our experience; it can subvert and play with our expectations. But this means that while a work’s concept may rely upon scent, a scent cannot fully communicate the concept on its own. So I can’t help but wonder: can artists not trust their viewers’ noses? Are we incapable, or merely unaccustomed to encountering scent on its own terms? 

In other words: If our noses are given the chance, can we encounter and engage with a smell as we would encounter and engage with any other work of art? 

After introducing these thoughts, I led the group in a silent smelling of four anonymous scents, with prompts along the way to guide them. Each participant received a blank notebook and a pen to record their internal experience and responses to each prompt.

 

After the exercise, we came together to share our reactions and discuss our experiences. Participants were simultaneously energized by the smelling exercise and fascinated by the unexpected ways that they felt stymied by it. 

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At the end of the evening, participants went home with vials of each of the four scents and a sealed envelope containing The Reveal, allowing them to decide for themselves whether and when to read the names and descriptions of the scents they’d spent so much time observing.

 

I want to thank all the participants who came out to Capitol Hill to experience this with me. I was inspired by all of your responses and thoughts. I’m already planning my next interactive scent event!

Thank you to The Annex for having me, especially to Tae for being such a wonderful curator. Thank you to Kendra Dalley for the videos.

Gourmand Perfumes for Fall

 

Or du Sérail by Naomi Goodsir smells like sexy Thanksgiving—a cornucopia of fruits dripping with honey, soaked in rum, edged with tobacco. It’s the smell of the color gold. Warm, voluptuous, its texture balances somewhere between velvet and silk. A delicious and seductive scent for autumn.

Salt Caramel by Shay & Blue is a lighthearted gourmand: salty, creamy, caramel popcorn that is simply delectable. In my mind I was “saving this one for fall” while in reality I wore it throughout the summer too. Summons Halloween treats or a seaside carnival, whichever you’re in the mood for.

Jeux de Peau by Serge Lutens smells like comfort: warm milk, freshly baked baguettes, crusty and toasted on the outside with soft, warm, pillowy centers. Licorice notes are nestled underneath, complicating things. This is a gourmand perfume, but not in the usual sweet way. In fact, someone recently suggested to me that milk is an animalic note, and I think Jeux de Peau may be a point in their favor. Milk notes in perfumery (lactones) live on a continuum with apricots, coconut, and even osmanthus, and hints of those notes live in Jeux de Peau, softening the milk and blending its edges into the buttery woods. This is the scent of the idea of a hearth: warm, a blanket wrapped around you while homemade bread bakes in the kitchen the next room over. A cat dozes in your lap, purring.

Art and Scent: “American Golden Boy”

“American Golden Boy I, II, and III” are 3 watercolor paintings by Daniel Barkley. The first one has lived in my home for a few years now, and I think about it often in juxtaposition to whatever is on my mind lately—not as a medium for anything conclusive or even clearly articulated, but just as a provocation to generate thought, however nebulous.

Of course, what’s been on my mind lately is fragrance. Something beautiful we wear on our skin, which arguably takes our shape or shapes the space we occupy. A substance crafted to create illusions.

I’m thinking of these paintings again in juxtaposition to a couple of thought-provoking things I encountered recently: first, Chris Rusak’s Studio Series #8, which arrived in my mailbox and included an excellent zine with @odedeparfum’s essay “(Trans)Gendering Fragrance: Seeing It, Having It, and Having Fun with It” and a sample of Chris’ new perfume Beast Mode, and secondly, @charcoot‘s call-outs on the #fragbro toxic masculinity that is specific to perfume culture. (You should check out all of these things; order Chris Rusak’s Studio Series sets on chrisrusak.com, and read “The Bro Rant” on @charcoot’s highlights.)

If you pair these paintings with thoughts of scent and perfume, what new thoughts come up for you?

Mushroom Smells

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Ever since I ate that matsutake mushroom dish a few weeks ago, I’ve been curious about the smells of different types of mushrooms. So last weekend I went to the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s Annual Wild Mushroom Show and got to see, smell, touch, and taste a lot of mushrooms! My new favorite aromatic mushroom is the candy cap, which smells like maple syrup with hints of curry when dried. It’s used in all kinds of sweet desserts. I was talking to @wurstillustrations and she mentioned that as she’s become more experienced identifying mushrooms, she relies on smell more than sight.

After the show, of course I rummaged through my library (**hoarder’s stockpile) of perfumes to find some mushroomy scents. 🍄

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Chypre Mousse by Oriza L. Legrand is so weird and I love it. Frothy, mossy, loamy, with an odd green and aromatic sourness, no hard edges whatsoever, and a whisper of mint.

After the Flood by Apoteker Tepe also has a fresh, “forest floor after the rain” mood to it, but it focuses more on aquatic notes. This one has edges and contrast—like seeing the light and shadows of sunlight filtering through pine trees.

Cepes and Tuberose by Aftelier Perfumes departs from the “fresh” forest floor theme and goes full-on dirty sexy floral. It’s rich, earthy, and sweet with bitter orange and a hint of spice. Gorgeous.