Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Synethesia: Color and Fragrance

And the winner is:  Lucy! Send postal details to me at olfactarama at att dot net and I’ll send you the samples posthaste!

Back in June, artisanal perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz graciously sent me a set of nine fragrances she calls the CHROMA Collection. She explores fragrance as a synesthete -- someone who is able to cross sensory fields such as color and scent. I’ve been interested in synesthesia for some time and have finally had the time to evaluate these properly.
The term “Synesthesia,” if you look it up, describes an involuntary brain condition. Sometimes it results from brain injury, while some are born with it. The form I’ve seen mentioned most is “seeing” letters or numbers in color, as in 1234567. There are other forms, too: visual/auditory for example, like “seeing” musical notes.
Studies on olfactory synesthesia are sparse. The sense of smell is still taking the back seat to vision and hearing, pretty much everywhere, but there have been some efforts. One, from What the Nose Knows author Avery Gilbert and partners, identified a link between superior odor perception and the ability to conjure imagery when presented with an odor. In other words, those of us who are constantly evaluating and identifying “notes” in perfumes should be able to visualize them as colors more easily than those who don't.  I can, fairly easily. (This does not make me as a synesthete, though. The condition “Synesthesia” is involuntary, whereas I have to think about what color a scent might be.) But do we visualize the same colors as others? Would I “see” the same colors the perfumer saw?
So, in a spectacularly unscientific experiment, I covered the labels on the nine bottles so I could not see the name nor the color of the juice, then mixed them up. I numbered nine scent strips and got to it, applying fragrance to the strips, smelling them twice over a 5 minute period, and writing down my guesses (and the “right” answer, afterward) in real time. Here’s what happened.
# 1.  I’ve smelled this before. It smells like cherries, fruit. Red. Cherry Red. (Answer:  “Quinacrodone Violet,” based on the very bright and very synthetic artists’  pigment of that name, which is a sort of fuschia.) I would have guessed  “Quinacrodone Red,” a cherry red.
#2.  Peppery and green, not like leaves, but a warmish blue-green. (Answer: “Celadon.”  Close.)

#3.  Foresty. (Answer: "Blue-Green.") Pretty good.

#4.  Fresh. Freshness. I can’t see this as a particular color, but I know it’s from the cool end of the spectrum. (Answer: “Viridian.”)  In pigment, an intense blue-green that isn’t very strong in mixes.

#5. A yellow? No: "Cyan," which is the green-blue used in printing and also the blue tone in light, like the screen you're probably staring at right now.

#6. Ginger? No, licorice. But something about this reminds me of a natural yellow ochre, a warm earthy yellow. (Answer: it’s “Prince,” which Hurwtiz says in her notes was a textile color from the 17th century, an indigo-blue-black shot through with crimson red.”) I would never have guessed black. Never.
    #7. I see purple. A cool, blue-purple. (Answer: Wrong again! It’s “Sienna,” which is a warm, coppery brown.)

    #8.  Okay, this is a citrus. Um, orange. (Answer: Yes! It's "The Color Orange.")  

    # 9. This is a spice, woody kind of scent. A brown. We’ve already done Sienna. Is it an  umber? (Answer: Yes! It is, in fact, “Umber.”)

    I got approximately 4 out of 9, but there is a problem here (or perhaps this is just a very badly designed experiment.) I know Hurwitz wouldn’t use the same color twice in a 9-bottle collection. So, since I eliminated the used colors as I went down the list, my chance of success became greater.  

     If I did this over again, I’d wait and smell the strips before unveiling the bottles. And I would ask someone else to do the test  -- somebody who doesn’t know and/or doesn’t care about perfume.

    As perfumes, my decidedly non-objective preferences are # 2 -- “Celedon” -- and # 7 -- “Sienna,”  but all are interesting and unique. 
    Do you “see” perfumes as colors? Do you have to think about it first?

    Click here for more information on Parfums des Beaux Arts.

    The Avery Gilbert reference is from “What The Nose Knows -- The Science of Scent In Everyday Life” by Avery Gilbert, Crown, 2008 (ISBN 978-1-4000-8234-6) p. 132.  The original paper appeared in the American Journal of Psychology, 1996 Fall; 109(3):335-51.

    Photo by author.

    Winner chosen using random.org.

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Arpège vs. My Sin

    Wardrobe malfunctions are nothing new, as this infamous photo of Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield, taken at Romanoff’s restaurant in 1958, proves. I chose it to illustrate this post because it comes from the era of the knock-em-dead perfumes, formulated to stand up to a room full of other ones and a fog of cigarette smoke, the ladylike-at-first Arpège and the don’t-mess-with-me My Sin. Also, let’s face it, “versus” had to be the reason why these two ladies were seated (and photographed) together!
    My mother wore Arpège, but I don’t remember ever smelling My Sin. I suspect that My Sin wasn’t supposed to be applied while children were around, while Arpège could be worn, by the daring, during the day. In my own time of madly collecting the classics, I got a nearly full quarter-ounce bottle of My Sin extrait. I received the matching bottle of Arpège not too long ago from a generous perfume pal. Both are vintage, in the rectangular flacon with the squared Bakelite top. My best guess is that these bottles are from the Fifties or Sixties. 
    Of the two, the My Sin is by far the most abstract, the most modern, in the sense of modern art. It’s nearly non-representational, and hugely aldehydic.

     I waited for the florals to appear. And waited. And waited. They really never did. Instead, there’s incense, clove, more aldehydes, an abstract idea of flowers -- and it’s only an idea. “My Sin” is a chewy, challenging perfume, one I’d be very unlikely to wear in daylight. Maybe to an after-hours place. This is a night perfume. Late night.
    Arpège opens aldehydic too, but the abstract notes are less so, and within a minute or two I can detect rose, and a sweet suggestion, probably of ylang-ylang. These are flowers, not a cubist painting of them. It’s much sweeter than My Sin. Much more pleasant, but also less challenging. It could be worn during the day. It could be worn to the bank, in a time when people actually went to banks, and although it fades faster than My Sin does, that errand-running Fifties housewife might want to get home before the drydown kicks in, because that part is, well, not quite, um,  nice
    When I think of the aldehydic florals, the spinsterish Madame Rochas comes to mind; the equally abstract Chanel No. 5, and this.  My Sin would take them all out in less than one round. That said, it is the most intellectually interesting, the most demanding, the least wearable in our time, but the most essential as a reference.
    I noticed in researching Arpège that the notes list “Ambrein” as one of the ingredients. (Just how many variations on the phrase “fake ambegris” are there?) Ambrein, according to one source, is a conglomeration of bergamot, vanilla, coumarin, civet, benzoin, opoponax, Tolu balsalm and labdanum, all standing in for real ambergris. Another source says it’s merely extracted from purified landanum. Who to believe? At any rate, I think that this Ambrein contributes softness and smoothness to Arpège, while styrax, civet and those gargantuan aldehydes make My Sin a rough ride.
    What are these vintage perfumes to us, anyway? To me they are a way to touch the past, and I love wearing them. But I’m careful about where, because, truth be told, I’m actually a wimp when it comes to offending others. I can just imagine what a guy in his thirties might say about “My Sin.” I did wear it once, though, to a late night art opening, but I layered it with vintage Habanita. I know, that sounds strange, but it got compliments. Lots of them. Mostly from men, mostly of an age unlikely to have ever smelled “My Sin,” or “Habanita” for that matter. 
    But back to Sophia and Jayne. “Arpège” just seems like a blonde’s perfume, while “My Sin,” with all its darkness, would be better, more fitting, somehow, on a dark-haired woman. Sophia, I’d say. (But, geez, Jayne, that dress!)

    If you want to try these vintage perfumes, leave me a comment by midnight, U.S. Eastern Daylight time, July 25th. I’ll pick a winner at random, and send her (or him) a generous sample of each.
    The photo of Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren is from Wikipedia, and its usage here falls under Wikipedia’s fair use definitions. 

    “My Sin,” called "Mon Péché" in Europe and  introduced by Paris couturier Mme. Jeanne Lanvin in 1925, was discontinued in 1988. The perfumer was one “Madame Zed,” who was apparently a White Russian exile who created a number of perfumes for Mme. Lanvin prior to 1925. “Notes” include aldehydes, bergamot, lemon, clary sage, neroli, ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose, clove, orris, Lily of the Valley, jonquil, lilac, vanilla, vetiver, musks, woods, tolu, styrax and civet.
    “Arpège,” also from Lanvin, was introduced in 1927. It’s still available, albeit in a 1993 reformulation. The perfumer was Andre Fraysse. “Notes” include bergamot, neroli, peach, rose, jasmine, Lily of the Valley, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, the accord “Ambrein,” vetiver and musk.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Infatuation and Perfume

    “Olfactarama” is three years old this week. Writing it has taught me a lot about infatuation.
    I know that infatuation is, essentially, huge amounts of neurotransmitters being released in the brain in response to, well, something, another person usually. It’s one of the most powerful forces that exists. Millions of songs and poems, books and essays, have been written because of it and millions more will be. It’s that strange combo of joy, longing, lightheadedness and giddiness, those qualities often called “love.” But if the object of one’s infatuation withdraws, then it’s misery. The mind struggles to regain that high. Sometimes the result is obsession, with all its humiliation and destructiveness; sometimes merely a roller-coaster ride through Hell. 
    (Ok, so maybe I’m not exactly what you’d call a romantic.)
    I get infatuated with subjects. I get this extreme need to learn everything about whatever the subject is. It’s actually my best quality -- my favorite one anyway; I’ve learned lots of stuff this way. It’s a little sad when it leaves me, but I’ll retain what I learned (I hope). With the big subjects -- like perfume -- there is always more to know.
    At the moment, I’m turning more towards the essences and molecules that build fragrances. (I know, I know, the pros use patented bases I couldn’t get if I tried, etc.) I want to understand perfumery in depth, how certain essences form accords while others duke it out in the bottle forever, why some things are fleeting and so on. I’m making things in the process, but I doubt they’ll see much light of day, except, perhaps, on my own skin and that of my more tolerant friends. It is the process that is fascinates me now.
    Initially, I thought that if I could get familiar with the essences enough to nail the damned “notes” that it would help me become a better evaluator, a better critic, better blogger. This fascination with process has really come out of left field, as that say, and I’m truly surprised. But I guess the ability to surprise one’s self is one of the things that keeps us vital and alive.
    Infatuations tend to last two or so years at the most, and that’s true, for this one, too. I’m no longer swapping madly and waiting impatiently for the mailman and the UPS truck or spending too much on Our Favorite Online Auction Site or ripping packages open when I’m barely through the door. I kind of miss that high. But my thoughts and explorations of fragrance now are more relaxed, and I don’t mind taking my time.  
    I guess my infatuation has deepened into true love.
    So I’m thinking about a different kind of delving, of elements, experiments, associations; a calmer, more stretched-out way of thinking about fragrance and smell, this perfect springboard into the exploration of the senses, of memory; sense memory, too. It makes sense now.
    I know that many of you are writers and forum participants too. Where are you in your own trajectory?
    (The photo is taken from an old Bal a Versailles ad, the classic perfume that was the subject of my first post. Because Bal is one of those that seems to be an olfactory chameleon -- some say leather, some amber, some Oriental, some floral -- I think the multiple mirrors are perfect.)

    Monday, July 4, 2011


    Not a big Fourth fan.  Yahoos with access to explosives make me nervous.
    Can anybody remember a Fourth when there wasn’t a “Twilight Zone” marathon on? I can’t.
    “Rose Key Accord,” is an aromachemical that smells more like roses than roses. Is this a true simulacrum?

    Does anybody really give a rat’s ass what a simulacrum is?
    Does having 2,498 “friends” on Facebook mean you’re not lonely?
    “True Blood” last night -- ok, I’m old or just old-fashioned, but I’d rather not see, well, ANY of this. 
    I’m still trying to figure out why I have this strange urge to apply four or five perfumes at once. I read that Jerry Hall used to do that and I thought, “Serious overkill, Jerry.” And now I’m doing it, OMG!
    Got some of those nerd glasses. Big tortiseshell horn-rims (is that a contradiction?) I luuurrrvvve them. They make me feel cool. 
    Aviators, though? No way.
    Since when does a health care provider partner up with a coupon giver-outer and offer discounts at restaurants and everything to its members? Since now.
    Seriously. Looking at you, United Health Care. How many coupons for a colonoscopy? How many coupons for a break on that $1000 deductible?
    “Vivienne Westwood’s Boudoir” really does smell like, well, you know, the next morning.
    I finally got some of that vintage Paco Rabanne “La Nuit” and yeah. It is all that. 
    Can’t imagine why anybody would want to follow American Express on Twitter, but some clueless nabob at American Express thinks they will.
    Next up: Vetiver vs. (insert your favorite essential oil here)
    Caleb, don't throw cherry bombs at your sister!

    Happy Fourth (to all of you who celebrate it)!

    photo from Gawker.