Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Notes (Not)

There are quite a few fragrance bloggers out there. Many -- well, most -- of them can rattle off “notes” like the rest of the world would make a grocery list. One delicate and refined sniff and...yes, there it is...helional!

I am lousy at this.

It’s not because I haven’t tried. I have. I even have one of those kits which contains a hundred little vials of aromachemicals and natural essences and so forth. The vials are labeled, and alphabetized, and grouped by name in a ceramic chest designed for spices. I was very excited when I got this kit. Finally, I would be one of the Refined Ones, who can tell natural orris root butter from cheap snythetic “iris,” and can also sniff out real ambergris -- not that I ever have; well, maybe I have.

In my brain anyway, this appears to be a retrieval error. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m sniffing. It’s one of those tip-of-the-tongue things. Wait...don’t tell me...damn it, I know what this is, just give me a minute! (Sniffing through the left nostril helps, some. This is, after all, the more verbal side of the brain, the one that likes to go around sticking labels on everything.) Often, I’ll get it after what feels like a century but is probably more like 3 or 4 seconds. Sometimes, though, it takes much more time and sometimes I just can’t get it at all.

This causes me great consternation, because, after all, I’ve been writing this blog for nearly a year and a half and I’m supposed to know what I’m doing.

So, brought to you from the land of cognitive dissonance: (insert sound of trumpets blaring): Maybe it doesn’t matter.

A well-known smell scientist once left me a comment, the gist of which was that olfactary research now is more about the whole picture, the Gestalt if you will, of fragrance, than its deconstruction into “notes.” Well, that was a relief. (Of course, if you’re about to buy perfume, and you want to know more than that stingy little spritz onto a paper strip can tell you -- will it remain a pleasant floral or morph into an elevator-clearing monster? -- then you probably will want to have some idea of its composition; musk, civet, ambergris and tuberose is probably not going to be an office scent. )

You see the same “notes” listed over and over again in the databases. After all, there are only so many fixatives, so many citruses, and so on. It interests me that you can have two perfumes, side by side, with the same notes, and they won’t smell exactly the same. Similar, but not the same. This brings me to the artistry of perfumery. And its comparison to pigment. Ultramarine blue is ultramarine blue, right? Well, no.

It depends on where it was mined, or how it was synthesized; it depends upon the medium in which the pigment is suspended -- polymer resin is very different from oil, and the refractive properties of types of oil vary too. There are “shades” of the blue (rather like flankers in perfume; “red” shade and “green” shade, neither of which is needed -- save your money, painters)! It depends on the whiteness or other color of the background, the ratio of pigment to medium, the brand and dozens of other things. Finally, formulas are proprietary. The manufacturers aren’t going to tell you everything.

Same with fragrance, really.

Now, after all this time of study, I can say, oh, yeah, that’s a musk. This one’s an herbal leather and this one’s a floral leather. Here’s a fougere, a rose soliflore, an old-fashioned civet monster and here’s a jasmine-based floral. And then of course there’s patchouli, which I’m pretty sure I could detect in a lake.

But if someone handed me a scent strip and said “tell me what the first ten ingredients are” I couldn’t do it. Maybe in another, oh, five years or so. It took that long to learn -- really learn -- color.

Many of the memory issues associated with the aging brain are retrieval difficulties. The information is there, but surfaces only with difficulty. It may be that, for me anyway, chasing after “notes” is a waste. But, truth is, I’d rather imagine than deconstruct.

How about you?


Ines said...

Whew! It's good to hear (read) this. I'm lousy at gathering notes on my own, I get the aha moment when I recognize sth but it's not really easy to put a name to it (I know I know it, I just can't say what it is at the moment - sometimes at all until I read the notes). Learning takes time. :)

Suzanne said...

Pat, you wrote:

"But if someone handed me a scent strip and said 'tell me what the first ten ingredients are' I couldn’t do it."

I just wanted to say, take heart! Neither can I, and I don't think there are many perfume bloggers who actually could. Still, the nice thing about having an olfactionary is that if you refer to it while you are sniffing a perfume and trying to analyze it, it really does help you to identify certain notes within the overall composition. To me, that's rewarding in the same way that learning to identify trees and plants is rewarding. Certainly, you don't need to be able to identify trees to enjoy the beauty of a forest, but when you can distinguish the sassafras and know its nature, versus just seeing a stand of deciduous trees, it deepens your level of appreciation, yes?

Olfacta said...

Hi Ines -- It sure does! Thanks for the comment.

Olfacta said...

Hi Suzanne --

Good to hear from you! The olfactionary did help with some of the more obvious notes. But even in full solo strength, some are very subtle, particularly the different musks (and I'm anosmic to a couple of them). Those are the ones I have the most trouble with.

Same with trees -- in this part of the country we have at least fifteen different pine trees. They're all pines, but with subtle differences.

Will keep trying.

waftbyCarol said...

I enjoy trying to guess
" natural " notes and accords
but aromachemicals ? no way...one at a time I just smell everything and hope I'm learning and enjoying the ride !

Michelle Krell Kydd said...

Knowing the fragrance families first, as opposed to being able to call out an ingredient, is the best way to build your olfactive vocabulary. The Jean Carles Method is very helpful in this endeavor. So is using flavor wheels for things like wine, beer, honey & chocolate. Your words and impressions are what count most. You probably know more than you think you do. Happy sniffing!

The Left Coast Nose said...

Where did you find the olfactionary? I thought I saw one for abou $500 through L'Artisan at Barney's this summer, but I went looking for it again, and now I can't find one ANYWHERE.


Olfacta said...

Hello Left Coast Nose -- Welcome!

Try The Perfumers Apprentice in Santa Cruz -- might even make a fun day trip for you. They have a comprensive online site and offer all kinds of kits for reasonable prices. You can find them online at http://perfumersapprentice.com.

I think I paid around 100 for my kit. You can also by individual essences, natural or aromachemical, from them.

Good luck! If I lived anywhere near this place I'd probably be a fixture there.

The Left Coast Nose said...

Thank you for the hook-up-- I will DEFINITELY check them out the next time I'm down there...

And, armed (and by that I really mean armed and dangerous) with the proper vocabulary word "olfactionary," I was able to go right to what I had seen several months back: a $520 set at Barney's put out by Le Labo. That was my confusion.

So I will save myself mad coin by gassing up the car and driving down to SC before I even think about landing on the Le Labo version.

Thanks again!

Rita @leftcoastnose