I haven’t seen this deep a snowfall since I was a kid. I think the Inner Child is throwing a fit. Meanwhile, the Responsible Adult keeps saying it’s too cold, and I’m too old, to go outside and ride a flattened cardboard box down the street. The result? I can’t concentrate, so this week’s post is going to be a litte, um, scattered.
Bag o’ botanicals: I ordered twenty botanical samples, pure essences of things like orris root butter and davana from a company that offers samples of them by the drop. Fabulous stuff, pure and strong. Some of the resins are thick as tar. I diluted the thickest and scantiest of the samples with perfumers’ alcohol. Each 1 ml sample vial is enclosed in its own little plastic bag, and an outer plastic bag holding all of them. Still, when I open the drawer they’re in, their combined scent rolls out and fills the space around me. Now, that is impressive.
My favorite so far is the Somalian myrrh essential oil. Its smell is like divine dust, certainly not sweet. Almost none of these are sweet, and I doubt that many of the perfumes of antiquity were, either.
Orris butter: dry, rough, silvery, incomparable; a waxy drop the color of and as precious as gold. I now understand the appeal of iris-based scents. They are for the initiated.
Jasmine Sambac. Green, fresh jasmine. Yum.
I’ve been asked what I plan to do with these. Nothing, maybe; just keep them around and smell them. Maybe experiment with making scented oils for hair and skin. (The catalog mentions the aromatherapy properties of each. I’m not sure how I feel about aromatherapy. You?)
Each of these -- well, most of these -- essences deserves its own post, really. Or at least a paragraph. Another time.
I’ve also been reading a book about the history of pigments. So many turn up in both places! Spikenard oil. Dissolved amber resin, which I’ve seen in art supply catalogs as a ridiculously expensive varnish, rumored to be the secret of the Old Masters. Mastic, as a varnish ingredient. Saffron, you name it -- what hasn’t saffron been used for? Pandanus leaves, still used as a mordant (dye fixative) in parts of Australia, to make paint for native art. Gum arabic and gum benjamin (benzoin), used by ancient lute-makers to bind wood, and oils of clove and aniseed to season it. (How wonderful their workshops must have smelled!) I’ve also read that the ancient Egyptians sometimes used linseed oil as the basis for perfumes. People ask me why I continue using oil paints instead of the more modern acrylics. I tell them I like the smell.
One discussion that caught my eye was about madder root. I once bought a tube of the watercolor “Rose Madder Genuine,” from the British company Winsor-Newton. I remember being intrigued by its pleasant floral scent, so unlike the vague chemical smells of most modern watercolor paints. It’s not much used now, because it’s “fugitive” (artspeak for “impermanent”) and has been replaced by the take-no-prisoners synthetic quinacridones, with color names like “Permanent Rose.” But madder dyes were once used to make the best Persian carpets.
A German chemist, Harald Boehmer, was dismayed by the carpets he saw being made in Turkey in the 70’s, with newer, synthetic colors. His subsequent research revealed that the old dye recipes were disappearing. “Synthetic dyes,” Dr. Boehmer explained, “contain just one color. But in madder there is red, of course, but blue and yellow are in there as well. It makes it softer, and at the same time more interesting.”
Dr. Boehmer and his wife started a cooperative to encourage the weaving of carpets using the old dyes. It has been a success, so much so that madder plants are once again being grown in Turkey.
One can always hope.
The book is “Color, A Natural History of the Palette” by Victoria Finlay, Random House © 2002, ISBN 0-8129-7142-6. Quote, p. 189.