On the Scent Trail

There are some curious events cropping up if you’d like to better understand the intricate and dirty world of scent creation. Not the pretty, puritanical, floral world of the CK conglomerate et al – but a more carnal course of smells.

Last night critic and writer Denyse Beaulieu took an audience through the development of her own perfume with chief nose Bertrand Duchaufour. We got to sample a number of iterations right upto v.103 which finally hit the right note. (How cool would it be if one brand issued a set of different iterations of their perfume as a collection? Now that would attract a cult following). I was always convinced I was narrow in my tastes but this was something new and satisfying. The narrative and complexity of this creation with orange blossom’s tarry, waxy trail was wholly based on one real night of rapture in Seville. Now take that and bottle it.

We learnt about how raw base materials such as Indolene give off a ruinous mothball smell, the overwhelmingly active aroma from lilies – and it’s no coincidence they were scattered amongst the dead pre-embalming days consolidating its iconic status as the flower of the dead. Some flora species emit the decaying smell of Tuberose to compel insects – deep conversations between flower and fauna. Frequently described as a narcotic material, it was Tuberose that the fathers of yore feared would bewitch and waylay their maiden daughters. It has been described as the smell of a Cronenberg film, one that acts on the subconscious.

I guess the world of scent is largely considered a feminine interest but the vision at conception and the matter at development can be very far from dainty, and as Denyse said “You need the ugly to make it beautiful, otherwise it’s just pretty”.

Last year I attended a workshop on how to develop your sense of smell, and only a fraction was focused on perfume. We met artists and a biochemist – the engineers of the industry. George Dodd is a leading smell scientist, who works extensively in academia and the perfume industry. He gathered together a selection of his finest animal pheromones and illustrated on an olfactory tour how the human condition is related, molecule by molecule to the goat. And my god, an afternoon hanging out inhaling those animal sex pheromones really did start to take effect. It took a while to come down and re-adjust – not exactly good clean fun but most….enlightening.

Oh to have been born a top nose with that enviable singularity of talent and vision. But it’s that encyclopedic knowledge I’d struggle with, and a lack of an innate scent synaesthesia. If you want to find out more about the synthesis of those outlawed heady animal scents you could tap into this next week: Superhuman Scents: Perfume in the Machine Age: “An evening exploring the complex world of synthetic smells, from Iso E Super to Galaxolide – with their super-hero style names – you’ll be sniffing away at the chemicals which make up much of what we smell today alongside the fragrances which contain them, while learning the hidden stories of the chemical revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

7.30pm, Tuesday 15th May, at The Book Club 100 Leonard Street, London, EC2A 4RH
Tickets £12