Olfactory Art: “Es liegt was in der Luft” by Patrick Palcic

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After I posted the “floral clock” from The Book of Perfumes (1868), I learned about Patrick Palcic’s beautiful olfactory clock, “Es liegt was in der Luft” (2016), or “There is something in the Air.” Every hour, the clock rotates until a scent trickles down the heated clock face, releasing a unique smell at every hour.

The idea of a clock is especially resonant for me right now—or rather, it’s especially dissonant. Time feels structureless as one day becomes another. A weekday working from home has no demarcation from evenings and weekends. Outside it’s spring, but this season feels like a big question mark and none of us know how this strange moment will ripple forward into the unknown future.

Creative interpretations of clocks can play with our ideas about the structure of time—I remember, for example, meeting someone who wore a watch with a single hand that moved around the clock face once every 24 hours. An olfactory clock, however, speaks uniquely to our *experience* of time. The idea of “9:00 pm” or “Monday” may feel irrelevant, but through our senses we can still experience the passage and structure of time.


Pictures courtesy of Patrick Palcic, patrickpalcic.com

Perfume Material: Clary Sage

clary sageClary sage in perfumery is ever-present yet often sidelined, playing a supporting role in fougères, chypres, lavender, forest, and floral scents. I recently got my hands on a clary sage absolute, which is rich like mulched hay, as opposed to the brighter, herbaceous essential oil.

It got me thinking that I wasn’t sure I could identify any perfumes that put clary sage recognizably front and center. Of course, when I asked Tracy at Fumerie Parfumerie in Portland, she had two excellent examples on hand: Musc Encensé by Aedes de Venustas Masque Milano’s Terralba by Delphine Thierry. Terralba is a fortifying blend of clary sage with aromatic herbs, wood, and a saline breeze, like you’re standing cliffside at the ocean, breathing deeply and feeling a sense of clarity.

We Cannot Utter Their Names

“It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”

—Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

I think about this a lot, and I wonder what your thoughts are. Do we want a more robust language for scent? If we, as a culture, paid more attention to everyday smells and regularly sought out scents to experience—would it lose some of its magic?

Perfume Material: Vetiver

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Vetiver is a scent I had never heard of before I got into perfume, though it’s extremely common. I remember the first time I recognized it in Dasein‘s Spring—somewhere between woody and grassy, vetiver is both soothing and perpetually buzzing with kinetic energy. The essential oil is distilled from the roots of the tall vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) with backnotes ranging from smoke to peanuts and potatoes to mint or grapefruit. It’s complex enough to stand as a perfume on its own, but it’s also widely used as a supporting note in all kinds of perfumes, lending earthiness and structure, sometimes detectable, sometimes not.

vetiver perfumes

If you’re looking for a no-fuss, pitch-perfect vetiver perfume, you want 33 by Chris Rusak. HEELEY Vetiver Veritas is another solinote vetiver, and it leans hard into the grassy, grapefruit-mint side of the material. Masque Milano Hemingway is a standout vetiver-forward scent composed by Fanny Bal, with cedar, ginger, and patchouli accents.

Hermes Terre d’Hermes by Jean-Claude Ellena is a classic vetiver scent, impeccably balanced with mineral, cedar, and citrus notes.

Nasomatto does wonderful things with vetiver in Absinth, a complex, sweet green fragrance with loamy earth and wormwood. J. Hannah Co. Skive is an exceptional leather scent woven with unmistakable vetiver and frankincense. Jovoy Incident Diplomatique is a captivating duo of vetiver and patchouli, velvety yet dry with a touch of nutmeg and juicy citrus.

Etat Libre d’Orange bridges vetiver and vanilla in the delightful, creamy-salty-grassy-resinous Fat ElectricianSerge Lutens does something similar yet more restrained with the elegant, ambered Vetiver Oriental.

Other vetiver-forward perfumes include Comme Des Garcons Clash: Radish x Vetiver (aquatic/mineral scent meets subtle dirt and grass), Essential Parfums Mon Vetiver (gin & tonic and light cotton with a touch of smooth green), HEELEY Espirit du Tigre (camphorous, herbal, energetic), Oriza L. Legrand Vetiver Royal Bourbon (spicy cardamom barbershop with an herby, grassy, leather texture), Olfactive Studio Ombre Indigo, and Escentric Molecules Escentric 03. Escentric Molecules Molecule 03 can be a helpful point of reference with its single note of synthetic vetiver—or you can just buy vetiveryl acetate from any materials supplier for a few bucks.

Perfume Note: Lychee

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After I raided my sample collection for tea scents, I found myself returning to Nishane‘s Wūlóng Chá and its delicious lychee oolong.

Then I started noticing more scents and flavors described as “lychee”—a wine with lychee notes, a lychee and coconut scented shampoo. I no longer felt sure I knew what lychee smelled like. In fact, Nishane doesn’t actually list lychee as a note in Wūlóng Chá. So I got my hands on some actual lychee, along with a lychee-flavored “pudding” (more of a jelly, which works, because lychee flesh is a little bit jelly-like). The scent strikes a balance between sweet, tart, and bitter, with a milky-watery character that could be at home alongside rosewater or fresh coconut.

In terms of aroma molecules, the scent can be loosely reconstructed with raspberry ketone, geraniol, and cassis materials (berryflor and/or labienoxime, which is also used for fig notes). Now that I’m truly acquainted with lychee, I can tell you for certain: Wūlóng Chá is a damn good lychee tea perfume.

Smells of Ancient Egypt

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I’ve been having fun exploring Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith’s Ancient Egyptian Smell Kit.

ancientegyptsmellkit_5941Goldsmith reconstructs the smells that ancient sources describe—including the smell of mummification (made up of the many fragrant substances the ancient Egyptians used to mummify their dead, the wood coffins, and the floral garlands placed upon the mummy before the coffin was closed). Two of the scents, Kyphi and Mendesian, were perfumes produced in ancient Egypt. The kit also includes scent reconstructions of ancient Egyptian gardens, festivals, and floral-lined ponds where love poems were set. The temple smell reconstruction is a complex mixture not only of incense and sacred oils used in ancient Egyptian temples, but also the smells of food offerings made to a deity: roast meat, bread, sweet cakes, milk, beer, and wine. Goldsmith includes descriptions of each scent along with excerpts from translated ancient sources mentioning each fragrant substance.

Encountering the scents in this educational, historical context feels simultaneously “transportive” and familiar, taking a subject that can easily feel distant and remote from my present reality, and grounding it in smells I recognize and experience in an intimate, embodied way.