Friday, February 24, 2012

Trendia -- A Ramble

Yesterday was one of those freakish May-in-February days we get here on the Piedmont Plateau — 77 degrees, balmy breeze. It’ll be over later today when a big storm passes and the temps dive back down to the 50’s. But the natural world all around me seems sure it’s spring, and has for weeks, with birds chasing each other and all the daffodils in bloom. So do I.

I’ve been tumbling through my florals like a bumblebee. Roses (Rosine’s Folie de Rose body cream layered with their Rose d’Homme EDP). Lily of the Valley (Odalisque and a drop of kinda-vintage Diorissimo). Orange blossoms — a vintage Avon perfume I have which isn’t bad, Serge Lutens Fleur d’Oranger and Bourbon French’s Orange Blossom perfume from New Orleans. Layered, these comprise a skin bouquet. (I work alone, so don’t have to deal with any perfumeophobes, who would probably be made quite unhappy by it.) Oh, and Lutens’ Tubereuse Criminalle and Fracas extrait — not at once through! That would be too much even for me. And I got a great deal last week on an old favorite — Jean-Claude Ellena’s Eau Parfumée Extrême, which I was almost out of. I’ve meant to replace it for some time, so finally did. 

What is it about cardamom? I’d never experienced it until we moved to this town inside a city, with a significant South Asian population and a farmers market that sells green cardamom pods by the pound. It’s one of the most compelling scents I know. It was  Eau Parfumée Extrême that got me started on this perfume thing, five or six years ago when I picked up a tester and tried it. I didn’t know then that this combination of rose, tea and cardamom would be irresistible. But it was, and, as the saying goes, I haven’t looked back.

Anyway, the smell of cardamom sent me to the spice section of the aforementioned farmers market to familiarize myself with all the Indian spices I could. I haven’t made my own curry powder yet, but that’s only because the varieties they sell there are hand-blended by people who know what they’re doing.  

I have been experimenting by making chai and cardamom based iced tea. If you want to try it, take equal parts of your favorite chai mix — mine includes cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, cardamom, black tea and cloves — and loose Earl Grey tea, for the bergamot note. Lightly crush six green cardamom pods and add them to the mix. (I use an old Melita filtration setup for iced tea, but this can be simmered all together and strained if you like.) Put a half cup or so of  the tea mixture in the paper/cone filter, pour a kettle full boiling water through it, dilute to taste, serve over ice. I like this strong. It’s like drinking perfume.

The other day I got a sample of “Hindu Honeysuckle,” by Providence Perfume Company, in the mail. It’s a floral, with a twist; in this case, coriander, another spice used often in Indian cooking. The first stage of this scent isn’t spicy, though. It’s sweet and floral, featuring Sweet Indian Jasmine Sambac. Now, I know something about jasmine sambac absolute. I have a bit of it, just a bit — more might involve a second mortgage. To me, it’s got all the great stuff of jasmine without the indolic bitch-slap that can sometimes be, well, a bit much. The card also lists rose, vetiver, ambrette and coriander, but that note doesn’t reveal itself until the drydown, which is really spicy and interesting, like a creative encore. It’s one of the best botanicals I’ve smelled in a long time, and it lasts.

The interactive olfactory exhibit called “Scents of Place,” which was part of my art exhibit in January, featured one scent I named “Indian Spice Market,” which included sandalwood, Himalayan cedar, Nagarmotha, Sambac jasmine, cumin, saffron, black tea, ginger, black pepper and, you guessed it, cardamom. While not a skin perfume per se, it was one of the most popular ones in the show, eliciting sighs and surreptitious dabs. More than with the “Rose Garden” and “Tropics” scents. I was surprised. A trend in the making?

So, India. It’s a subcontinent, of course, with many cuisines and ways of life, and can’t be generalized. I find myself suddenly more interested in India. I think the spices might have something — a lot, actually — to do with it.

The sample “Hindu Honeysuckle” EDP was sent to me by the manufacturer, The perfumer is Charna Ethier.

The Kerala spice market photo is from an Indian travel promotion site, The photographer was not credited.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Smell of Clean

Yesterday’s New York Times magazine featured a big article about consumer buying behavior. It seems the hot job right now is data analysis, using neuroscience, to make sense of the mountains of consumer behavior data that have been rolling in for years. You didn’t actually think those discount cards just gave you a discount, right? No — everything you buy and click on and track and follow is being recorded — but I digress.

It seems that one gigantic American company, Proctor and Gamble, wanted to produce a product that would take care of household smells, things like smoking, cats, dogs, feet, etc. So, in the late 90’s, after years of research, they came out with Febreze. This product had minimal perfume, as it was supposed to eliminate, not merely cover, stinks.

It died a slow and horrible death. Each month, fewer people bought it.

The development team ran to marketing in a dead panic. What could be wrong? Enter an odd mixture of cultural anthropology and neuroscience.

It seems that Americans don’t want to admit that their homes, er, smell. Plus, one becomes habituated to one’s household smells and personal odors, and, after awhile, doesn’t smell them.  A memorable example given in the article was the woman with nine cats. “Oh, no,” she exclaimed to one nose-holding researcher, “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”

Eventually, it was revealed, through extrapolation about rat-brain research on habits formed by rewards,  that we here in the good ol’ USA enjoy the smell of “clean” as a reward, once we have already done the work of cleaning. These “habit loops” are long-lived. The product team realized that Febreze had been marketed all wrong. In order to maximize its potential as a reward, they needed to add — you guessed it — more perfume, meanwhile downplaying the odor-killing aspect of the product. Febreze is now one of P & G’s top-sellers,  worldwide.

In the interest of primary research, I went to the market yesterday and bought a bottle of Febreze. (It took me awhile to figure out which one I wanted, because there is now Febreze laundry detergent, Febreze Pet Odor, Febreze Rug Cleaner, Glade-scented Febreze and so on.) It cost around five bucks. I brought it home, meanwhile wondering where I could possibly use it in my own immaculately clean and odor-free house.

Why…of course! The cat box!

Anybody with more than one indoor cat knows that you have to use a pickup truck to load up all the cat litter you’re going to need. And, even though I scoop the buried treasure throughout the day and change the box every single night, there is a, um, certain miasma associated with it. But first I had to see what the Febreze actually smelled like. I sprayed some on my hand.

It smells like what Americans call “clean.” That is, it smells a lot like Tide laundry detergent. White musk — what is often called “laundry musk.” It smells like a lot of laundry musk. And kind of floral, and kind of baby-powdery. And very strong.

I sprayed it on a couple of problem areas in the bathroom. Did it work?

My husband came home and said, “Are you doing laundry? Wash my jeans, willya?”

Should I tell him to just spray his damned jeans with Febreze? What’s in this stuff anyway?

The label reads: “contains water, alcohol, odor eliminator derived from corn, fragrance.”

Hmmm. It also says you should spray “soft surfaces — sofas, bedding, carpets, pet areas, clothing.” And the air, “all around your home.”

I wonder if the IFRA knows about this? I mean, bedding? Pretty much guarantees you’ve going to get it on your skin….the only caution is that you’re not supposed to use it around birds. Well, o.k.

I guess the IFRA isn’t planning to go up against P&G anytime soon. Interesting. Especially since the article says Febreze is a top-seller worldwide. What does that mean? That everybody wants to smell like CleanAmerica? I always thought that we were the only really wacko country when it came to this, but maybe not.

But did it work?

It did, and it made the bathroom smell pleasant, if you like that perfumey detergent smell. The next day the, er, problem was back. But I think I’ll just clean the damned box out. That should take care of it. 

European and other not-in-America readers: Do they sell this stuff where you live? Do people use it? 

The article is “How Your Shopping Habits Reveal Even the Most Personal Information” by Charles Duhigg, The New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2012.

Photo of the next-door-neighbor’s cat box by Olfacta.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Too Many Perfume Bloggers? A Response to Responders

There have been quite a few comments about my Friday post "Are There Too Many Perfume Bloggers?" Some have shown up as comments on other blogs, too, particularly I guess there are quite a few annoyed new bloggers out there! Many more than I knew.

I think the question comes down to this: What Is A Blog?

I’ve been online since ’93, and a computer user since the late 70’s. I think back to things like Mainframes, Arapahoe, CERN, Archie/Veronica, Mosaic, Netscape, Mindspring, Earthlink, Real Player, Windows Media Player, Compuserve, Yahoo, and…well, the list goes on and on. But remember bulletin boards? I spent time on those but there was just too much strife on them. Flame wars, they were called. At one time it seemed as though the Internet was populated by a bunch of pissed off basement-boys who had appointed themselves authorities on this, that or the other thing — or everything. Of course, it’s not like that now. It’s an engaging world where we can have interesting dialog with each other. Right?

Here’s what set me off. Not too long ago, “Pere de Pierre” wrote:  “Alright, I'm not turning 80 anytime soon...but lately, things have been annoying me. The perfume world has been overcome by crap new releases, crap niche brands, crap marketing, and worst of all, crap "bloggers". Fact is, it takes a long time to learn something as complex as the world of fragrance, and now it seems every Sally-come-lately is trying to teach lessons on something they know nothing of. I'd give examples, but I don't want to point fingers (I will say this - iris in perfume isn't "floral"). I'm not saying I'm a professor by any means, and I'm happy to share the Internet, but please do a bit of reading before you teach a lesson...and I'm not talking about The Guide.”

Well, anybody can have a bad day. I ignored this, for awhile. But it stuck around the back of my mind.
I suppose the writer considers himself to be an authority on perfume. So, what makes one an authority on perfume, someone who can "teach a lesson"?

Is it that you’ve smelled a lot of perfume? Is it that you know famous perfumers personally? Is it that your musings have been published on paper somewhere? Or that you live in one of the perfume capitals, Paris or New York? Or that your calls get returned? Or that your opinions have been around the blogosphere longer than somebody else’s? 

To me, an expert on perfume is someone who is a perfumer, who has trained as a perfumer, who works as a perfumer or who used to work as a perfumer. The rest of us, however enthusiastic we may be, however much perfume we may have smelled, however seriously our writings are taken by the fragrance industry, are enthusiasts. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. After all, I’m one. 

Ratings came to my party when a fellow blogger, Avery Gilbert, began keeping track of how the perfume blogs were doing on the Alexa scale a couple of years ago. Who was up, who was down. I began to wonder how pervasive these scales were, so I did what I always do: took a seminar.  The facilitator of this one, a local media figure and blogger, was telling the attendants that we must optimize our SEO’s, otherwise why bother to write? She sounded like a carnival barker. Step right up! Only an idiot wouldn’t optimize! I thought, well, she’s a columnist, a single mother with a child to raise, who has tasted a little bit of fame and wants more and assumes that we all want book and movie deals and backstage passes and free stuff and that's why we're blogging.

If that’s you, it's probably best to try to optimize your own SEO’s, rather than complain about the competition. Take a workshop on SEO, it's complicated. Or find somebody to help you — you could barter something, uh…how about perfume? We have all those half-used bottles sitting around….

I originally came to this teeny corner of the internet because I was researching particular scents. Most of the blogs back then were of the informational type, and that was fine — I was looking for information. I think that anyone can tell pretty quickly who the authorities are. But there are now many other perfume blogs that delve into the emotional, the intellectual, the life-enhancing aspects of fragrance; these are the ones recently called “Sally-come-lately” — meaning that the writers aren’t authorities and therefore have no business writing about perfume.

Self-appointed authorities set my b.s. detector off, just as they did way back in the internet’s Paleolithic — 1993 or so. If your blog is, to you, a voice of authority, it’s really better not to call yourself that: wait for somebody else to do it. (Hey, that's just nice manners, y'all.) If you just love fragrance and want to write about how it affects you…go ahead. And never forget: question authority!

There’s room for everybody.

The image is a publicity still from the film "Young Frankstein." 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Are There Too Many Perfume Bloggers?

So, are there?
I've seen veiled and not-so-veiled references to this from other perfume bloggers in recent months. I've given the issue some thought. 
When I started “Olfactarama” a few years ago, it was because I wanted to have a blog that delved into something that interested me. Perfume fit the bill. I had always had a small collection, grew up in a perfume-loving household, and thought I knew a few things about it. As my searches for information on particular scents began to uncover blogs like Perfume Shrine, I realized that I knew almost nothing! So that became my character: the Perfume Newbie.
I became obsessed. For a couple of years, I spent much of my spare time reading about, writing about and collecting perfumes, especially the vintage classics. The threatening specter of reformulation, combined with the existence of online discounters selling “older” (read: original) stock upped my buying considerably; suddenly, discounted bottles were much more desirable than the new ones. (I bought quite a few, and am glad now that I did!) I swapped, too, and acquired many decants, haunted estate sales, went to Sniffapalooza, and generally followed a trajectory familiar to perfume bloggers; reading all the blogs, trolling the fora, commenting, getting to know my fellow perfume-obsessed. A benefit of all this was realizing that my blog was being read. That had not been my original intent, but c’mon: who doesn’t want readers? You can only shout into a void for so long...
At the time I started, there were five or so “Majors” — Now Smell This, Perfume Shrine, Bois de Jasmin, Grain de Musc and Perfume Posse come to mind. After I had enough entries to assure their authors that I planned to be around for awhile, I wrote to some of them and asked to be placed on their blogrolls. For the most part I felt welcomed into this new world, particularly by Elena of Perfume Shrine. No one, back then, seemed to be complaining about too many perfume blogs. Everyone was lovely to me. Brian, of “I Smell Therefore I Am,” discovered me in a way — he wrote about one of my early pieces on his blog. We became real-life friends. We still are.
But things are different now, it seems.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the ratings game has come to the world of perfume blogging, and “too many blogs” means this: for every one of these upstarts, I could be losing a reader, or readers, and my rankings might suffer, and my unique page views might go down and then the industry won’t take me seriously and I won’t get samples and books to review. Insiders might not return my calls or emails.  I might not feel important.
I’m of an age where being important isn’t, well, all that important to me. It used to be. Being Important, when I was in my 30’s and 40’s, was the most Important thing in the world. No longer, and what a relief.
So I welcome new bloggers. I feel that, at the least, I owe that to the perfume blogosphere; to treat the newbies as I was treated when I was one. Clearly, some are angling for industry jobs, book deals or are blogging as writing samples. Many of my commenters have blogs of their own with easily clickable links. So what? Chances are they’re younger than I am and still wanting to climb that ladder. No matter; that’s life. Maybe they don’t know as much about perfume as I now do, thanks to other perfume bloggers. Hey, everyone was a noob once. I still am, in my way. I’ll always be. Perfume is a complicated subject, which is why I chose to write about it in the first place. It is still the joy of discovery that makes me want to write about it. 
I think there’s room for all of us.
What say you? 

The crowd illustration is from a free-images site,

Monday, February 6, 2012

Scents of Place: An Interactive Olfactory Exhibit

In the late 70’s, I visited the Fundació Joan Miró, in Barcelona.  Generalissimo Francisco Franco had died, finally, and the whole country was bursting as nearly 50 years of repression gave way.  Catalunya, which had never truly buried its culturally subversive quality, was leading the way.

We weren’t there to see any particular exhibition, just the place. So, when we walked into the main gallery expecting to see paintings and sculpture, and saw instead hundreds of small glass bottles, I was disappointed. This was an olfactory exhibit, and not all the scents were nice. There were photographs above some of the bottles’ groupings. I didn’t understand much — everything was in Catalan — but, although I’ve seen approximately five million art exhibits since then, I never forgot it.

So I can’t say that my idea for an olfactory exhibit as part of my initial show last week was entirely original. Such is life; nothing’s really new. I can say, though, that it was a hit.

I set up a cafe table, with two chairs, a nice lamp, a drawing, my artist’s statement binder, and a holder for the fifteen 4 ml vials containing the scents I’d made.  Here’s an excerpt from my artist’s statement:

“The vials here contain my “Scents of Place.” These are olfactory abstractions meant to elicit interpretation. Not all are pleasant to the Western nose.  They’re not meant to be. Only a couple of them would work as skin perfumes. They are concepts, designed to make you say “Oh, yeah!” as you identify, in your own mind, whatever associations the smell elicits for you. Your associations might be very unlike those of the person sitting next to you. That’s the point.

Olfaction is still the most mysterious sense. Dismissed during the Enlightenment as primitive and animalistic, smell’s reputation never really recovered. There has not been nearly as much research on it as on the other senses. 

That has changed in recent years. While smell receptors connect directly with the emotional regulation areas of the brain, new research has found some cortical involvement — in other words, smell is not quite as primitive as we once thought.  There is no question, though, that its power to evoke emotion, interpretation and memory is without peer.”

My favorite thing about the crowd’s reaction to Scents of Place? It got strangers talking to one another. At most art openings, people tend to be a little, make that a lot, stiff. Acquaintances speak, eyes roaming as they look for other, more useful, acquaintances. Strangers stand there silently, sipping from plastic glasses of bad wine, or stand in front of the artworks pretending to study them, meanwhile wondering when they can decently leave. You know. You’ve been there.

So it was great to see people who had never met one another laughing, sniffing, talking, comparing notes. Art can be so loaded  — so esoteric, rife with every kind of snobbery. Smell isn’t like that. How refreshing!

I made the fifteen scents from my collection of essentials oils, absolutes, aromachemicals and home made tinctures. I’ll talk about more of them in coming weeks, but I had my own clear favorite: “New York Cabbie.” Cumin and sweat have so much in common, as fans of Rochas’ Femme know well. I tinctured cumin seeds in perfumers alcohol for about four months, and used that as a base, adding calamus absolute (sweet flag, the bog plant whose distilled rhizome smells like scalpy unwashed hair) and some musks — a musk ketone I have, and tonalide. Not a complicated formula, but it worked. 

In his new book, “Perfume  The Alchemy of Scent,” master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena says that perfume “has something extra that fashion and advertising cannot do: it transports you through time. I don’t know of many products that live ‘outside time’ other than works of art.” He goes on to advise marketers to “be pioneers….Choose emotion over sensation.” The results, he goes on to say, will be “innovative, unadulterated, for perfume is not a product that expresses an immediate emotion but a link to the life of the emotions.”

The new book “Perfume  The Alchemy of Scent” by Jean-Claude Ellena is available wherever books are sold. The ISBN is 978-1-61145-330-0.