Friday, August 9, 2013

The Bottle Club

Yesterday I attended a meeting of perfume bottle collectors. 

Among vintage perfume collectors, these people are sometimes called “The Enemy.” They buy for the bottle, not the juice. And (the horror!) I’ve heard that some bottle sellers pour the perfume in them down the drain.

Incidentally, displaying fragrance in clear bottles is not advised. The perfume in them cooks in bright light, resulting in that nail polish remover top note vintage buyers know too well. So the beautiful bottles presented by Lalique yesterday — all clear glass — wouldn’t benefit any perfume that might be inside them. Not that you’re going to put your limited edition signed-and-numbered Lalique flacon inside a dark cabinet. Are you?

I wish I could display my collection on a dresser top or shelf. Many of the bottles are beautiful. But for me, display is limited to the opaque ones, because it’s the contents I care most about. You can’t wear a bottle. The bottle is something you own, but it doesn’t become part of you like perfume does.

There are some bottles that are swoonworthy, though. One is pictured above.

Elsa Schiaparelli was the grand doyenne of the perfume bottle as surrealist art. She collaborated with Salvador Dali on a number of perfume bottle projects. The most well-known one is the “Le Roi Soleil” bottle, crafted  by Baccarat, which was released in 1946 to celebrate the end of World War II. Dali drew the sun’s “face” as a series of birds in flight, across a rising sun, over an enamel-blue molded glass sea. (I haven’t been able to find any description of what the perfume inside smelled like — this alone is interesting, as such information is readily available on the ‘net nowadays — but most of Schaiparelli’s fragrances were of the take-no-prisoners type.) So, in this case, the bottle, er, eclipsed the perfume inside it. 

Even as a young girl I hoped to someday have a vanity, on which there would be a mirrored tray, full of fine perfumes in their beautiful bottles. The bottles atop my cabinet now — Agent Provacateur comes to mind, in its  pink ceramic egg crowned by a plain metal spray nozzle — aren’t the most appealing ones. Those are stashed safely in the dark interior.

For me, it was odd to walk into a room  like the one yesterday and not smell a bit of perfume. No one was wearing any. That included me. I didn’t want to offend. So, as I passed through the very upscale department store in which the meeting was held, I sprayed  samples of Kurkdijan and Ford  and Creed onto cards, not onto my skin as I usually would.

I guess these people love the bottles a beautiful objects, as art, so I ask: these art aficionados, these collectors, are they more in step with the concept of perfume as art than are those who (so I’ve heard) have been known to decant the perfume for wearing, and put the bottle up for sale to them?

The image of the Dali bottle for Le Roi Soleil comes from Richard Stamelman ’s book “Perfume”  c 2006, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. No photo credit was given.

The Dali bottle in perfect condition, not that you’re interested in such things, is currently priced at around $25,000, if you can find one. I saw one on a popular auction site that was in very bad condition (chips, broken rays, faded, no box) for just under $4000.

Monday, July 22, 2013


I left Los Angeles nearly twenty years ago. I go back to visit family at least once a year, so in a way one foot is still there, and the place still beckons: the energy, the art, the variety, the feeling of being at the leading edge of well, everything. 

When I read about the opening of the Institute for Art and Olfaction last year, it made me want to go back. For a few days, anyway. It is fitting that this center arose in Los Angeles, as there is still an odd sort of purity associated with California that simply doesn’t exist in all-business New York.  (I don’t think I was the only blogger who was disappointed in MODA’s extremely well-sponsored and mainstream scent exhibition there.)  Anyway, if I was still in L.A. I’d be involved with the IAO. Sweep this ground floor. 

The IAO’s first conceptual scent project involved a collaboration between the filmmaker/software architect Mark Harris and conceptual perfumer Josh Meyer. Harris’s film “The Lost Children,” is described thusly on the IAO website:

“The Lost Children is a sci-fi thriller that tells the story of Evelyn Hamilton, a NYC socialite turned would-be messiah. Running from her troubled family, Evelyn joins The Lost Children cult, who believe they are aliens from another world, stranded on Earth and awaiting rescue by their mother ship. Evelyn’s family hires professional cult deprogrammer, Jared Allen Tyler, to extract her from the cult and to “un-brainwash” her. But soon everyone in the film questions what they know to be real as the cult’s beliefs all seem to come true.”

I haven’t seen the film. To my knowledge it hasn’t screened here in  At-Lanta. But I did order a sample of the scent that goes with it. It was featured in two live “immersive experiences” presented at The Film Society of Lincoln Center last January.

It would be silly to do a straight perfume review of “Cult,” but here’s an impression. Right away, I get the flat knockout punch of human body, not stale sweat, not cumin, human. (It fits. Cults are decidedly human.) That punch sticks around, too, through the mid tones of the scent, along with citrus and geranium. Later, it fades, and the result is a more pleasant drydown, with leaves and woods. Still, no mass-market fragrance distributor would touch this. It would give a niche perfumer pause. I’ll wear to some opening or other art event and see if it gets noticed.

But that’s not really the point here. 

Upcoming IAO projects involve a lot of multimedia and multimodal materials which serve to place the scent components within a broader structure, make them more familiar, perhaps more acceptable, to the rather, ahem, insular Art World. This should help disassociate art-based perfumery from the concept of “Perfume” as it exists today: celebrity-driven, fashion-associated, designed to seduce, certainly downmarket as compared to Art. 

While I would like someday to see conceptual scents stand alone as a painting would, this form of introduction works. I look forward to much more from the IAO. 

Click here to visit the Institute for Art and Olfaction's website. The link offering further information on the "Cult" project is here.

The photo is from the IAO's website.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sandrine Videault

It is not as through there are hundreds of fragrance artists, but there are some, and the passing of Sandrine Videault is a great loss to that small group.

Videault was a kind of anthropologist. She was born and lived on the impossibly beautiful tropical island of New Caledonia. In an interview with Perfume Shrine's Elena Vosnaki, she spoke of the indigenous tribe there, the Wallisians, who frequently rub perfumed pastes into their skin. She included some of their ingredients — Frangea, a white flower, sandalwood, Javanese vetiver — in her 2009 fragrance Manoumalia. She left some things the Wallisians used out, though;  most notably the hea seed, which she called “too rancid for the Western nose.”

So, we can see that Videault did assemble a perfume, not a reconstruction. A fragrance to be worn by Westerners on skin, to enhance, to make more beautiful, the wearer’s day. Is this art? I think it is.

So often, written descriptions of “olfactory art” seem kind of silly to me. It could be that all forms of  conceptual art have that in common. Perhaps they are better by far observed, or participated in, than read about. Videault composed olfactory art pieces as well as fragrances. Among them were an olfactory “happening” which included releases of metallic bubbles, presumably containing scent to be released when the bubbles burst, and “The Song of Senses,” an olfactory theatre with holograms. Both, I’d like to have seen.

Manoumalia, which I still have a drop of and am wearing as I write this, was a participant-observer fragrance, to use field-anthropology jargon. A student of the great perfumer Edmound Roudnitska, Videault knew how to construct a fragrance using naturals and synthetics, so although it references the Wallisians Tui-Tui fragrant paste, it is not the same thing.  Smelling the fragrance in its initial stages and in drydown, I perceive the unmistakable white flower essence, a little bit of rubber (common to tuberose) , a slight peppery quality in the middle, and the drydown just a hint of root and indole. On my skin, the fragrance is fleeting.

As is life.

I was happy that Sandrine Videault existed. I was waiting for more fascinating ideas and fragrances to come from her. But, like the Italian fragrance innovator Mona di Orio, she didn’t live long enough.

When asked by Vosnaki what one thing she’d learned from Edmound Rodniska, she replied it was that “we know nothing.”

That is a succinct description, the beginning, of inspiration.

Photo of Sandrine Videault courtesy of Google Images. Image may be subject to copyright.

Thanks to Scented Salamander for some of the material here.

Monday, August 20, 2012


(2017 update): I had a great cartoon here. It involved two cattle in a cattle car, talking as they spy a stuffed-to-the-gills passenger aircraft ("Stuff-Em Airlines"). One steer remarks to the other, "at least we're not flying on one of those!"
The cartoon was a little blurry. I searched and searched for the cartoonist's name (I always paid for images), could find nothing, so took a chance and added it to my website. The upshot? An organization in Seattle, rumored to be a poor relation to Getty Images, caught me. I had to pay, a small sum but still...let this be a lesson to you boys 'n' girls -- don't publish images if you don't have the rights!

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to welcome you aboard (insert any major airline name here) flight number XXXX, from Los Angeles to Atlanta. We have a full flight today, and since we expect this flight to be a hot and smelly fucking nightmare, let us suggest that if you have any medications such as Xanax, Valium or Ativan with you, take them now. And feel free to see the Flight Attendants if you have any left over.’

‘We would like to encourage those of you currently boarding to move your fat asses along as quickly as possible, so we can fill this flight to our Boeing 757-200’s ideal cattle-car capacity. For those of you holding up the line by attempting to jam a large suitcase into the overhead bin, let us join your fellow passengers in the sincere hope that your luggage is filled with bedbugs which will infest your home upon your return.’

‘Currently, we are number 157 in line for takeoff. We wish those of you with connections to make in Atlanta the very best.  Now, please direct your attention to the tiny screen in front of you, where the Chairman and CEO of (airline) is making a completely  bogus and utterly laughable attempt to tell you how wonderful flying with (airline) really is.’

‘Flight Attendants are currently passing throughout the cabin with applications for the (airline's) credit card. We expect that you will use it frequently, believing that we will actually redeem your points with free tickets and upgrades. Hah! Suckers!”

Cartoon image from, via Google Images. Image may be subject to copyright.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: "Coming To My Senses" by Alyssa Harad

Are you unique?

I’m not.

As I read through Alyssa Harad’s “Coming To My Senses” over the holiday weekend, I was struck, time and time again, by close trajectories.  For both of us, the exploration of perfume has led to a deeper and much longer-lasting knowledge of what a sensual life is and what femininity is. An understanding, like a gift. 

Harad says that, prior to perfume, she was a “Birkenstock-wearing feminist.” I wasn’t exactly that, but there was a lot I’d lost sight of over time. She was unsure about life after grad school; I had seen both my parents through their last days and badly needed some joy. She stumbled across her first perfume blog by accident. I was taking calls at a consumer-oriented radio talk show and heard that you could buy deeply discounted perfumes on the internet. I googled a name, several blogs appeared, and down the rabbit hole I went.

After that it should all be quite familiar to those of us who are already perfumistas or fans or obsessives or whatever label you’d like to use. Here are the Big Blogs — NST and PST; BdJ and Perfume Posse. Looking around the room I see March, and Victoria and Marina and Ida — hi, y’all! And I’m guessing about the perfumes she’s discussing: is that Chergui? Lonestar Memories? Avignon? Here is the culture on perfume on the internet: the abbreviations, the swapping, the gifts, the decant sellers and splits pages; “the Perfumista Black Market.” 

One of her early discoveries concerns the reaction of friends when you tell them you’ve become deeply interested in perfume. “Perfume? Really?” And that quizzical look, the one that says, “Should I start being disappointed in you now?”

Since Coco Chanel, the mainstream perfume industry has ridden fashion like a remora rides a shark.  Recent converts to perfume are forced to pay for this with shame. Shame at collecting much more than you’ll ever use. Shame at the frivolity and the expense. Shame at your unseemly attraction. Almost no one, Harad points out, looks at a wine, book or art collection this way. 

Perfume wears close to the  psyche. This beautifully written book is a story of a life reclaimed, a maturity attained by making peace with femininity and with traditions of an earlier time. More than that, it’s a guide to bravery: enough to insist on a little glamour. Here’s how the beauty of the fragrance you’re wearing sinks in and becomes, well, you. Here’s how this little habit, which you might have once scoffed at, changes everything.

“It didn’t stop with smells,” she says near the end. “Flavors had a new clarity and complexity. I invented new recipes with familiar ingredients and sought out spices and fruits I’d never tasted. I paused to enjoy the silky cool of the flour between my fingers….The world had more color and more contrast.”

It does for me, too. 

Full disclosure time: “Coming To My Senses” was sent to me by the publisher for review.

Available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-0-670-02361-5.

Photo by Pat Hall Borow. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Pretty soon, it will be “OlfactaRama’s” fourth birthday. 

When I started, I didn’t think anybody would ever read it. I was a newbie and wrote as one, and made mistakes, and learned some things, and became part of a great community. Nobody can be a newbie for four years, though. So for the last couple, I’ve just been an enthusiast.

When I started the blog, I was obsessed. It seemed as though I just couldn’t learn enough about the subject. I devoted a significant part of each day to reading all the other perfume blogs I could find, and the fora, and the books. My perfume collection grew and grew, as I learned how to buy fragrance the smart way, how to identify a bargain, win an auction, how to do splits and swaps and decants. Ultimately I had to get a new cabinet as the collection outgrew a smaller one, then dresser-top space, then all of the above plus shoe boxes and drawers. That cabinet is full now.

All obsessions end. 

“OlfactaRama” is what I guess I’d call a personal experience blog. That’s why I’ve always written it first-person. It’s not informational — God knows there are several perfume blogs who do that better than I ever could — although there is information in it. It’s not a perfume review site, although I’ve done them. It’s not p.r. or stealth marketing. I’ve never made a cent from it, although I have received a few books and a few handfuls of samples and some truly mind-blowing gifts from readers. It’s not about trends —I could hardly care less. I guess it’s been a way of communicating with the like-minded, and exploring something I love. I’ve made some great pals, too, and plan to keep them.

But I look back at my roughly 275 posts, and even I can see that the level of enthusiasm in them has waned. It’s not because perfumes are less interesting than they used to be (although many are). There are enough niche perfumers and artisans and vintage finds and the occasional interesting mainstream release to keep a perfume reviewer going indefinitely. It’s not because there are more perfume bloggers than ever before (although there are). It’s that I’ve said what I want to say, and I feel like keeping on just for the sake of keeping on would be, well, jumping the shark.

I’m not going to disappear from the perfume blogosphere, though. I’ll be around, commenting and contributing to fora and so on. 

So, to all of you who have read me and commented and entered my drawings and sent me samples and decants and even bottles — thank you so much! I’ll always be astounded by the generosity of the perfume community.

For four years now, I’ve made and kept a weekly deadline. I think not having the pressure of that deadline will free me to keep playing around with my oils and absolutes, trying perfumes that interest me, and especially to keep delving into the general olfactory and sensory world. I’m keeping the domain name, for that reason. The “Rama” part of “OlfactaRama” is a take on “Cinerama” — the early wide-view movie projection system.

 I see from my stats that many readers are subscribers now, so don’t take me off your feeds — I’ll use the name to write about a more general aesthetic: smell, taste, books, art, life. 

Photo by Pat Hall Borow.

The photo is of my empty Un Jardin Sur Le Nil (Hermes; perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena) bottle. It was the first full bottle I bought online after becoming a fragrance blogger. I finished it a couple of months ago.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Language Help: iTranslate

I’m terrible at French. I murder it. Just about every unfortunate French person who has ever heard my lame attempts to speak the language visibly winces.

I think this is because my “other” language is Spanish, although it’s disappearing now that I don’t hear it every day. Spanish was taught the old way in my high school, not by conversation but by drills; written word to speech, over and over and over (and over). The result is that, when confronted with a written French word, I can’t pronounce it. My mind returns to the Spanish vowel and consonant sounds and stays there.  A true source of shame when trying to talk about perfumes by name, so many of which are French!

Recently, Perfume Shrine featured an article about the website Frag Name of the Day featuring an interview with its author, Bela. I’ve been a fan of that site for quite a while now. But since I got an iPhone a few months ago, I’ve discovered a translating app that seems pretty amazing, especially for quick, one-sentence things like “Where is the ladies room” and “Will you take less for that?” as well as complicated perfume names.

There are quite a few of these translating apps, and I haven’t tried many, but the one I’m playing with now is  “iTranslate Voice,” by Sonico GmbH. You speak into it — a word, phrase, or sentence in your own language after selecting the appropriate icon, and that of the language in which you want to hear the phrase spoken (currently 31 languages). Voila, out it comes, perfectly pronounced, with both lines of text in written form too! (There’s also a keyboard, but I haven’t tried it.) 

This is one of those apps that makes me feel like I really am living in The Future. I’m sure it has limitations. They all do. I hear that quite a few people have given up on Siri — my iPhone is a hand-me-down 3G and I don’t have it— but give ‘em time. 

In the meantime, I can think of many uses for this!

Not affiliated, honest.

I ordered this from the iTunes store. Current price is $1.99. Apparently it’s available for Android also.

Illustration from Engadget ( courtesy of Google Images.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: "The Lower River" by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has been a favorite writer of mine for a long time. I didn’t realize until I started writing about fragrance that he is more aware of the olfactory sense than any other writer I know. I’ve featured his smell-centered prose before. This quote comes from his new novel, The Lower River

The main character, Ellis Hock, is an American businessman who once served in the Peace Corps. As his life at home begins to unravel, he returns to his old African village, thinking he’ll be able to regain the sense of purpose he had there as a younger man. Theroux describes Hock's arrival in the nearest large town:

“The air was dense and hot, woven of many odors, and just a whiff brought it all back. He was walking down Hanover to Henderson, to the corner of Laws, to the bookshop, where he’d caught a glimpse of the sign Office Supplies. The countryside, so close, penetrated the town. You could not see the bush from the main street, but you could smell it: the wood smoke floated past the shops and seeped into the brick and stucco, the peculiar hum of scorched eucalyptus, the dustiness of dead leaves, the fields chopped apart by rusty mattocks to release the sharpness of bruised roots and red earth, all of it stinking ripeness and decay; and on every sidewalk the sweetish feet smell of the people, the sourness of their rags.”

Theroux, who was a Peace Corp volunteer in a similar time and place in his youth, writes with stinging authority. This modern sub-Saharan Africa is ravaged by AIDS and well-meaning relief organizations whose celebrity benefactors finance food drops from helicopters, humiliating the native people, who must scramble after it like animals. Much has gone wrong, and Hock’s idealism fades to a helpless passivity in the midst of it.

I found this book hard to read and equally hard to stop reading.  It’s new, and has already caused some controversy. Some have compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For my purposes here, this — and all Theroux’s writing — is unusual in that it emphasizes the sense of smell, thereby giving the prose real immediacy and power. 

The Lower River is available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-00547074650-0.

The illustration is taken from the books’s cover art, designed by Melissa Lotfy.