Saturday, March 28, 2009

How many molecules can dance on the head of a pin?

For years, I’ve been struggling with the concept of postmodernism. The term is thrown around so carelessly. I’ve heard it used to describe everything from The Cure to graffiti art on skateboard decks. Deconstructionism, reductionism – these were just becoming au courant around the time I graduated from college, so I guess I missed out on the endless deconstruction of the meaning of the meaning of “meaning.”

In the blog Grain de musc’s March 26 entry, a very interesting discussion of the concept of minimalism, and whether it does or does not apply to the perfumery work of Jean-Claude Ellena, has come up. This has made me wonder if perfumery can ever be subjected to “postmodern” analysis.

My first exposure to contemporary art was to minimalism. Fifty aluminum blocks on the floor. A neon tube leaning against a gallery wall. A big, square canvas painted flat black. I knew I didn’t understand it, but was willing to accept it, and so I did. I didn’t know then that minimalism was a concept within the concept of the concept of postmodernism.

There is a continuum of representation that was conceived by one of postmodernism’s stars, Jean Baudrillard. It has four “stops,” left to right, the first of these being your basic reflection of reality, like a snapshot; then your “perversion” of reality -- say, an abstracted landscape painting. Then comes a pretense of reality, something which exists without a model, and finally the “simulacrum,” which is its own reality, refers to nothing but itself and has, in his view, replaced “reality” in modern societies.

In this view, cold-pressed oils, dried plants, natural animal essences or perfumes produced by enfluerage would be on the first stop. On the second might be essences produced in a more aggressive way – with heat, usually – that would resemble the natural material but not be completely authentic, for example, using synthetics to make recognizable floral scents. Third would be assembling molecules to make smells that are pleasant or interesting, but not recognizable as anything in particular.

I’d say Ellena’s work falls somewhere between the second and third categories on that continuum. And I suspect that the more radical modern perfumers would love to take the work all the way out to the simulacra, where the only referent is no referent. Something that smells…like itself. Better than the real thing. Better than any real thing.

When we describe a scent we say “It smells like ….” That might be “roses” or it might be “incense” or “wet concrete”. Is there a scent which has no model? How would we know?

Try to describe your favorite fragrances without using referents. Bet you can’t do it. The best I can do is say that a fragrance reminds me of another fragrance.

It appears that our minds need a referent to describe a smell, even to ourselves. If a perfumer made something truly new, his or her audience would still search for existing referents to perceive it, describe it or even appreciate it.

This is the riddle of this art. I hope it’s enough to shield perfumery as an art from endless philosophical postmodernist nitpicking about the concept of the meaning of the analysis of the meaning of the concept.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Two Arts

I’m a painter as well as a perfumista. I’m no art-world phenomenon, by any means. I just like to draw and paint, have been schooled, have exhibited some and sold a little.

My grandmother and a noisy and bohemian great-aunt, whom I adored, were artists, too. They worked in watercolor. As I began to paint and study, I very quickly learned that watercolor gets no respect. It’s for amateurs. Old ladies. (Sound familiar?) So, off I veered, into acrylics, then pastel, then oil, where the big boys play. I got reasonably proficient in all of these, and actually got pretty good at drawing the figure (rather useless, here in the Bible belt, where the nude figure is difficult to exhibit. Many shows won’t take them, especially if there is a school nearby, aaarrrgh!) but I digress. Oil and acrylic; you mix and layer, slather it on with a knife. Make that thick, textured surface. Stepping all over yourself; now, that’s the ticket – or it was, when I was learning.

Then, I went through a dry period. A book I read about dealing with such things said, “Return to what you love.” And I realized that what I loved – really loved – was pushing watercolor pigment around on the paper, watching it granulate, running the colors together to make new ones that were layered, not actually mixed, therefore luminous. I began using a pointed brush and working back into the color with water. The paintings were abstract, small and detailed.

I haven’t painted that much this last year; I’ve been busy studying perfume. So, last week, when I began to return to painting, I was surprised to discover that my style has changed. I’m content with “suggest” as opposed to “bludgeon”. As I painted, and the work seemed to paint itself without any conscious help from me (the true joy of this art, IMO) I began to wonder if all I’d learned in the world of scent might be the reason for the difference. That my preferences really have been leaning toward the light-handed, more modern, lately – the Ellenas particularly, but also the simpler Rosines, the best of which have a crystalline quality, and the greens. I didn’t expect this to appear in my painting, but it has.

I think back to all the reading I’ve done on perfumery. Ellena’s work in particular has been described as being very like watercolor. Done with a limited palette. Luminous. Ethereal.

This is something you have to pass through, I guess. From the over- to the understated, which presumes more taste in whoever is viewing (or smelling, or hearing, your work). Which also, of course, consigns you to the cognoscenti, but, hey, aren't we there already?

The watercolor painting, by me, is titled "Interior Landscape, Alaska." All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Smell and Self-Defense

Ah, spring in North Georgia. The birds perform a symphony for us each morning.* The crocuses, tulips and daffodils are up. Buds are swelling on the trees, and dormant perennials are bursting from the ground. And there are dead squirrels every hundred yards or so, on all suburban streets.

If I were to examine the hindquarters of this roadkill, which I do not intend to do, I suspect most would be male. The male of the species, who would gladly dash across I-75 in pursuit of some faint pheromone he’s detected from a female, is blinded by lust, a.k.a. his species’ urge to pass his genes on. But that’s all that ever gets these bushy-tailed rodents, so far as I can tell.

Any hardware store, garden center or home improvement superstore will carry about 30 different kinds of squirrel-proof bird feeders. None of these work. You might as well open the bag of seed and dump it on the ground. Every day, in every way, the squirrels outwit us. Coat the seed with cayenne pepper? They develop a taste for hot food. Place the feeder far from the trunk? They hang like monkeys, by their tails, from the supporting branch. I’ve even seen them work cooperatively to defeat our efforts; one digs the food out of the tiny opening, designed for small birds; the other gobbles it below. And then they trade places.

I’ve finally given up, and named the two that live in my trees “Frick” and “Frack”. Both are extraordinarily healthy, white-bellied, and as fat as Jabba the Hut. Soon they’ll be making more squirrels, and will teach them where the food is.

Consider this: apparently, at least in California (where everything happens first) squirrels have been discovered rubbing themselves with shed rattlesnake skins so they will smell like snakes, thereby warding off one of their most common predators. Here are the most salient points from the ScienceDaily newsletter’s story, titled “Squirrels Use Old Snake Skins To Mask Their Scent From Predators”:

California ground squirrels and rock squirrels chew up rattlesnake skin and smear it on their fur to mask their scent from predators, according to a new study by researchers at UC Davis.

Barbara Clucas, a graduate student in animal behavior at UC Davis, observed ground squirrels Spermophilus beecheyi) and rock squirrels (Spermophilus variegates) applying snake scent to themselves by picking up pieces of shed snakeskin, chewing it and then licking their fur.

The scent probably helps to mask the squirrel's own scent, especially when the animals are asleep in their burrows at night, or to persuade a snake that another snake is in the burrow.

The squirrels are not limited to the use of shed snake skins, said Donald Owings, a professor of psychology at UC Davis who is Clucas' adviser and an author on the paper. They also pick up snake odor from soil and other surfaces on which snakes have been resting, and use that to apply scent.

"It's a nice example of the opportunism of animals," Owings said. "They're turning the tables on the snake."

Occasionally I find shed snakes’ skins in my yard. Hmmmm….oh, forget it. I know when I’m licked.

*well, not exactly; they’re single males screaming for a partner so they can reproduce.

Citations and links:

The complete text of the article may be found at

Photo courtesy of

The other authors on the paper, which was published Nov. 28 in the journal Animal Behavior, are Matthew Rowe, Sam Houston State University, Texas, and Patricia Arrowood at New Mexico State University. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Animal Behavior Society.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I finally gave in and ordered one of those perfumers’ kits, with the aromachemicals and absolutes and so on. You may now look forward to me guessing at notes, and still getting them wrong.

Last night I was messing around with this and decided to make something really Dirty. So: civet, ambroxan, musks, Kephalis (wood/tobacco), heliotropin, a bit of jasmine, etc. It actually smells pretty good. The DH said, “it’s not repulsive at all.” This is high praise.

But that isobutylquinoline (a.k.a. “leather”) – it’s the Darth Vader of perfumery.

The daffodils are up. Oh, wait a second…they’re gone.

Got a GPS as a gift. Comedians are missing the boat. Imagine if you will: Cheech and Chong on a GPS. Sucking sound; “turn left, man, NO, maaaannnn…..LEFT!” (crashing sound)

Actually, GPS doesn’t work all that well in Middle of Nowhere, Alaska. It instructed us to turn down a dirt road instead of the highway half a mile south. If we’d followed it, who knows…we might have gotten stuck and then eaten by something.

And besides, I don’t even like to use the cruise control. So why would I let some disembodied voice tell me what to do, huh?

On the perfume fora I follow, there is much mention of money now, of refusal to pay exorbitant prices for niche releases. As America slams its wallets shut, what adjustments will the luxury business make?

None, probably.

So much fun watching the arch-conservatives hang their dreams of -- what exactly are they, anyway? -- on the sweaty fat radio guy.

What was it that Bud Fox’s father said to him in “Wall Street?” “I guess, if you live long enough, you see everything.” So prescient.

Madoff. Attica.

OK, I’ll stop with the commentary now.

Wine drinkers: there’s a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand called “Mud House.” Its top note is passion fruit. There are other tropical fruits, grapefruit, grasses and so on. Website is It’s really different, and about thirteen bucks a bottle. If you can find it, try it!

And of course “Wrongo Dongo” (I am not making this up) which is a decent everyday red from the region north of Barcelona. Great label too…and around ten bucks.

Interesting how perfume appreciation opens up wine evaluation skills...

Flea market photo by "Retroholic" on Flickr.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Smells like Allyl Amyl Glycolate

So I finally decided that it was/is time I learned to identify some “notes.”

I was eight when I got my first chemistry set. I don’t know how any of us kids who grew up in the Sixties survived our childhoods. There were none of the safeguards protecting ourselves from ourselves that are so ubiquitous today. I mean, this chemistry set, made for and marketed to grade-school children, had stuff in it you could use to make gunpowder! It did include a warning – “Kids, don’t use this to blow up the house!” – but that was all.

I made some real stink-bombs with that chemistry set. I would find household materials – bleach, Hawaiian Punch, and once, a half-bottle of my mother’s Woodhue cologne – and throw that in, too. (My hide got tanned for that one, I must admit; something else that doesn’t happen to the kiddies any more but maybe should. But I digress.)

Could it be that I missed my calling?

Here it is a few, er, years later, and here I am with another chemistry set. This one includes aromachemicals and absolutes, designed to assist in the identification of notes, and in the making of one’s own fragrances, should one desire to do so.

I actually haven’t had much time to play around with these yet, but at least now I know which of the included musks I’m anosmic to (musk ketone). And which of these really stink (allyl amyl glycolate). I know who the schoolyard bully is (iso buytl quinoline, a.k.a. “leather”). And that perfumers have a tough, tough gig. I knew that before, but there is something about actually measuring these elixirs out, drop by precise drop, feeling that joy of creation if it works, or wondering why it didn’t smell like you expected, what you did wrong, what else you could put in to fix it, what might work to “lift” the fragrance or make it last, and so on, that brings it home in a way all the reading in the world can’t.

Of course, this is like sticking a toe in the Pacific. You can’t exactly say you went swimming. And it’s heavy on the aquatic and “fresh” notes, not my favorites. But, wow. I’m impressed. Impressed with how hard this is. Impressed with how much these people have to know.

I like to make materials. As an artist, I’ve made my own pastels. I’ve delved into pigments down to their molecular structure. I know color theory well, and all of that has made me a more confident painter. But this? Paint’s a piece of cake, a walk around the block, compared to this.

Perfumery truly is where art and science meet. We all rattle off that phrase. It’s one of the axioms of fragrance. But I don’t think I really understood what it meant until now.

I have no intention of attempting to become a perfumer. I’m content to swoon over artistry exhibited by the masters, and to write about how that artistry makes me think and feel. And, when discussing a fragrance, I’m content to say “lily of the valley” instead of “hydroxy citronellal,” and so is my spell-checker, to be honest. You know, it just sounds…prettier.

Does this mean I’m not a newbie anymore? Well, yes/no. After a year’s concentrated study and critique, I’ve learned a lot. But just looking at all these little bottles – a drop in the bucket – humbles me.

And takes me back in time, to when I was eight, making gunpowder in the back bedroom instead of doing my homework.

The kit I’m using is the “Perfumery Notes Kit” from The Perfumer’s Apprentice,
Photo copyright Andrev Kiselev. Used under license from

Monday, March 2, 2009

Special Edition: Winner!

Congratulations to Trish/Pikake, winner of the Rosine and Parfumee au te Vert samples! Get in touch with me at olfactarama at gmail dot com, and I'll send you the samples.

Winner was chosen using

If I don't hear from the winner by Monday March 9, midnight US EST, I'll re-randomize and choose a new winner.

Thanks for entering, everybody!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Perfume and the Room

The deadline for entering the samples drawing (two Rosines and Parfumee Au Te Vert) is tonight at midnight US EST! Leave a comment to enter.

If you’re like me, you have, um, probably a few more full bottles than you actually, er, need. The stuff you maybe bought on fleabay or at TJ Maxx, and now you’re out of love with it. Or a few hundred samples you may not get around to actually trying on your skin. Swapping and selling takes time; what to do?

Eureka, I have found it!

There is a product that used to be widely available at retail, Neutrogena’s Fragrance-Free Body Oil. (The scented version still is, but it’s scented with sesame, and the less said about that the better.) I suppose you can still find it somewhere in the brick ‘n’ mortar world, but there’s really no need, as all the big online drugstores have it. It’s not expensive, and actually makes a good base to “hold” scent (as well as being a wonderful winter moisturizer.)

Here’s what I do: pour a couple of teaspoons of the oil into a diffuser. These are available all over the place online (see “Essential Oil Diffusers”) and at retail. Some of them look like a contraption that belongs on the Starship Enterprise, but not all. (Mine, made by Jurlique, is a flat ceramic disk, about the size and shape of a bagel, with a depression in the middle to hold the oil and a heating element which plugs in.) Spray fragrance four or five times into the oil or pour in a mill or so, tip it back and forth to mix, plug it in and voila: a gorgeous room fragrance that lasts for hours.

The oil hardly oxidizes at all. Simply refresh it with the fragrance every now and then.
Here’s the best part: when you’re ready to change the scent, the oil can be used on your skin. Or simply wipe it up with a cotton pad and use that as a drawer, closet or shoe sachet. Start over with fresh oil and perfume.

My favorites to use in this way (so far) are Opium, Tocade and L’Air du Desert Marocain.

There will be more...