Friday, July 2, 2010

Mystery of Musk: An Introduction

“Sir, I still have my illusions. When I smell a vanilla scented perfume, I naively want to believe that you’ve put vanilla in it; I hope that violet smells violet, and that the odor of tuberose will flow from its tight, perennially fragrant calyxes and not from a small, dirty, mineral residue. Chemist, know that we know it, come on, we know it all too well, your flowerbeds are covered by dew that is really tar and the shoots of your plants really coal .” -- Colette, Paysages.
In this novel, Colette imagines an encounter on a train with a perfumer/chemist. I found these words in the enormous coffee-table tome “Perfume -- Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin” by Richard Stamelman. Lots of Colette therein; lots of Baudelaire, too, and beautiful photographs of old perfume bottles, but I digress. 
Interesting, isn’t it, that some things don’t change?
When I was asked to be one of the participating bloggers in the “Mystery of Musk” project, I initially thought myself to be too ignorant as regards natural perfumery to participate. I soldiered on, though, racing to read up on the subject so that when the perfume samples started to arrive I would at least be able to identify some of the notes. 
My conclusion: this art is utterly different from the lab-coated manufacture of “modern” perfumes, not only in philosophy and approach, but in ability to summon archetypes: alchemical, historical and spiritual. 
It is, of course, the way perfumes were made through most of our history. When we reference the venerable trade in “spices,” we’re really talking about aromatics, used not only in the kitchen but for incense-making, for fragrant anointing oils as mentioned in the Bible, for unguents rubbed into the skin by the ancient Egyptians. These substances were more like the blended Bordeaux wines of France than the one-grape varietals of California; it was never about notes. It was a bigger, more mysterious, more magical picture, and that’s still true.
At first I struggled to perceive the “notes,” but I began to realize that these natural ingredients smelled very little like the commercially manufactured -- even the niche --   re-creations I’m used to. With those, I like to be surrounded by a cloud of sillage and, since I work alone and don’t have to worry about scent-phobic office NIMBYs, I can spray generously. These perfumes, though, are skin scents, and most of us would think twice about spraying them with abandon, as the prices of the perfumes reflect the prices of the natural ingredients, which is to say high. They don’t lend themselves to that sort of thing anyway. These are meant to be worn close, to be smelled by the wearer and those who might embrace her.
And then there’s musk. The aromachemical variations I’m not anosmic to tend to bring back memories of “Saturday Night Fever” and platform shoes. So many ides -- galoxolide, tonalide….and although chemistry intrigues me, I’m no chemist.  The musks used here are natural -- ambrette seed, angelica root, other roots, barks and so on. They are unlike the chemical musks, and yet they are quite musky.
So, while the perfumers have been kind enough to include information about the perfumes and what they’re made of, that won’t be my focus here. (I will include the information somewhere, probably in the end notes.) What I would like to do is reference them visually. To that end, I’ve done a small sketchy painting -- usually watercolor, but not limited strictly to it -- to convey my impressions of the scents. Texture, color, shape -- some might seem spiky; others roll out at you like smoke or fog. I’ll also include a description of my impressions of the scent, with the more technical information included in the end-notes.
A couple of factoids: I’ve received nine perfumes so far. Each entry post after this one will feature the “Mystery of Musk” headline/logo, and a reasonably-sized image of the artwork (within Blogspot’s parameters, of course). I should be able to upload one post each day, with a minimum of two images per post. So there will be many more “Olfactarama” entries than usual. I'll also be doing a giveaway: one full bottle of one of these perfumes, in one of the entries.
 I guess I’d better get started!
Other participating bloggers are:
I Smell Therefore I Am - Abigail Levin
Indie Perfumes - Lucy Raubertas
Bitter Grace Notes - Maria Browning
The Colette quote is taken from the book “Perfume -- Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin: a cultural history of fragrance from 1750 to the present” by Richard Stamelman, p. 258.
 © 2006 Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.  The original quote appeared in the novel  Paysages, by Colette.
(Disclosure: I bought this book at a very reasonable price from an online used-book seller, Alibris.)


Anya said...

Pat, I have that book but haven't stumbled across the Colette/coal tar quote yet, and it is great! Thanks for sharing it with the kickoff of the Mystery of Musk reviews on your blog. I'm knocked out that you're creating artwork, too. I've shared this post directly with the perfumers and on FB/Twitter. I'm awaiting your comments with great anticipation!

Mandy Aftel said...

Anya forwarded this to me and it is absolutely terrific.

Olfacta said...

Wow, thanks, ladies! I'm honored.

Vincent said...

Please pick me. Thanks.