Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

I've had the pleasure and honour to receive a media copy of Fragrant, the new book by Mandy Aftel. It is no secret that Mandy is a great writer, and diving into her book was quite a treat. Especially after months of hard work on my own book - it was like a retreat from all the editing, polishing and spell-checking...

When Mandy initially told me about the book, its premise sounded like a personality study of five essences, and how they correspond to five different appetites of the human nature. The essences are: Cinnamon, Mint, Frankincense, Ambergris and Jasmine. A companion kit was also sent to me from the publisher (which you can purchase at Aftelier.com), with a beautiful chunk of frankincense in the middle, and little vials of the other four essences. In reality, the book covers way more than just five essences, extending to spices in general in the chapter on cinnamon; other herbs in the chapter on mint (botanically speaking, many of the fragrant plants used in perfumery are in fact from the mint family - including lavender, basil, sage and the like); the chapter on frankincense talks about many other resins, wood essences and incense in general; amebrgris covers all manner of animal extracts and the myths surrounding their phenomenal magic; and the chapter on jasmine talks about the rarity and fleeting beauty of floral extracts, which are at the heart of Aftel's aesthetic philosophy.  

From the outside, the book is exceptionally beautiful, with meticulous attention to detail as would be expected from any other product that comes under Mandy's artistic direction. The dustcover is a shimmering orange-and-purple colour combination that has become the Aftelier trademark, brimming with historical illustrations from the author's personal collection of historic perfume books (as many would have expected to find after reading Essence and Alchemy), and with deckle edged pages (AKA uncut pages), which allude to a period when most things, even printed books, had a handmade component to them, namely the reader had to slice open each page, as they read along.

In Fragrant, Mandy Aftel really opens up about her creative process, aesthetics and philosophy. To me what was most surprising element of the book. I had many expectations from this book, which was greatly anticipated (Mandy told me about it being in the works about two years ago), but this by far was not anything I would have expected to find there. There is more detail than usual about the creative process, and this is also demonstrated in building subsequently more complex perfumes in the formulae provided for each chapter (another pleasant surprise - but I should have known better: all of Mandy Aftel's book include recipes, so why would this book be any exception, right? I still did not expect it, somehow). For each chapter, you'll find a collection of recipes that are themed around this chapter's theme. For each of the essences, there is a simple accord of 2-4 essences for a solid perfume, a perfume oil and a body oil recipe, and then also an alcohol-based perfume formula, which is more complex and builds upon the initial note and its companions in a more intricate, sophisticated way. There are also some intriguing edible recipes from Deana Sydney's blog, Long Past Remembered. For example, frankincense and lavender shortbread.

The book is very similar to Essence and Alchemy in its breadth and attention to detail, presented in an almost fairytale-like style. The beauty of this new book is the perspective of the author some 13 years later, which comes from both experience in teaching her craft, and running an artisan perfume business. It is delightful to see that much passion still infused into one's art after all these years.

The two books - albeit the 13 years that separate between them - beautifully complement each other, and I recommend both for anyone who cares about perfume, and also for those who are beginning to delve into the art of blending. Last but not least, the book truly highlights the value and benefit of artisan perfumery in our day and age, and anything that is handmade. And with now being the season of excessive consumerism, I think this book brings to the fore important food for thought about our relationship to the material world and how it reflects our culture, innermost desires, connections to others, and more.
Fragrant can be purchased via most major book stores and online, or better yet - directly from Aftelier, where you can also get the companion kit. 

If There Ever Was - A Book of Extinct and Impossible Smells

The book that came out of this unusual smell-art exhibit is now available to the public, and one can experience these uncomfortable scents at the comfort of his/her own home. These include the hypothetical scents of the atomic bomb exploding on Hiroshima, the scent of the sun, extinct botanical species and the smell of communism. The concept was conceived by curator Robert Blackson for an exhibit of that name, and perfumers Bertrand Duchaufour, Christoph Hornetz, Mark Buxton, Christophe Laudamiel, Geza Schön and Sissel Tolaas created these as scents.

Thanks to Steven for the tip and for the link to the NY Times article.

Reviewing the Reviewer

In my past week with no laptop I've done the unthinkable: I've read Perfumes: The Guide. The much anticipated book by the man who invented perfume reviewing and a few molecules and writer and blogger Tania Sanchez has one large-print statement on the back: "THE FIRST BOOK OF ITS KIND: A DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO THE WORLD OF PERFUME".
Now, that's ambitious.
If anything, it's definitely "definitive".

If it is a "guide" it is not exactly first of its kind though: there is Susan Irvine's The Perfume Guide, Jan Moran's Fabulous Fragrances for both Women and Men (in two separate volumes),
and Nigel Groom's Ultimate Guide to the World's Finest Fragrances, several books that are quite handy and informative by John Oakes, not to mention Michael Edward's Fragrances of the World 2001 (by now hardly current with over 600 yearly new releases of fragrances) and several online fragrance databases that are far more current and inclusive than any book could ever be.

Reading the book as I have made me question the concept of "perfume reviewing". When I joined several online fragrance communities in 2003 the whole notion of calling my perfume-evolution descriptions "reviews" was very foreign to me to say the least. But I learned how to live with that. And as an aside: contrary to common belief, joining these communities happened 2 years after I pursued my career in perfumery and opened my business and preceded my online “perfume addict” and “perfumista” days. I leverage my obsession with perfume and use it as a tool to study and better understand perfume and become a better perfumer. I sincerely believe that creating perfumes without passionately caring about wearing fragrances is a form of hypocrisy, that can be likened to being a criminal lawyer and never believing your client could win a case.

I learned so much through my interactions with perfume lovers around the world, the most important thing of all was realizing that when it comes to perfume - I can write and feel completely comfortable and confident about it, especially in my not-native language, English. And as I became aware of the concept of "perfume reviewing" and being a perfumer and a perfume user (or addict...) that likes to discuss perfume, I learned that this is a very dangerous thing to do: I walk a fine line between making and selling perfumes, while at the same time also being "one of the addicts", writing about perfume and "reviewing them". Probably the most undesired placement for a journalist. But I am not a journalist. I'm a perfumer who writes about perfumes, perfumery and what it all means to me as an individual. And when I write a review, I pick my words carefully. Sometimes I'm even surprised when I write something that to me seems kind of negative yet it comes across as a positive "review" of the perfume.

Now, what I do attempt to do in my so-called "reviews" is to describe the scent, its evolution, the notes and what I feel that it means to me. Sometimes I do it better than in others but I do try to be "subjectively objective" in the sense that I'm trying to describe something very personal (my own experience wearing a fragrance) and at the same time give you objective information, hopefully sufficient for you to be able to "smell it in your imagination" if you don't have it right under your nose.

I pick my words carefully and I also pick my perfumes carefully. I rarely write about a fragrance I really dislike or think is mediocre and boring. There are plenty other places online (and now also offline) where you can read about them. A fragrance either needs to be of personal importance to me in the way I've experienced it or the notes within it; or I think it has some kind of a meaning to the history, trends (oh, the horrors of pink chypres!) or culture of perfume (for example: 3121 by Prince is not a very interesting fragrance on it's own but I couldn't ignore it just because Prince was such a huge influence on my teenage years and I still love his music).

Since the innocent forum days of the early 200o's, lots of things have changed: there are now too many perfume blogs to even start counting, and even a few perfume-reviewing columns in a handful of magazines rating them like movies, supposedly contributing to the status of perfumery as an art (or food, or wine... whichever way you think is most flattering). Now, I was never fond of the idea of art reviewing. After all, the art reviewer is always that person that went to art school, and can appreciate and understand art just enough to come to the realization that they could never produce a masterpiece. So instead of making art they talk and write about it. And nothing could possibly insult an artist more than having someone trash their work to which they poured their heart and soul into, just because they are frustrated, unrealized artists.

Perfumery is weird that way. Up until recently (and even still), the perfumers are unknown to the public who enjoys their art. In fact, for the most part who gets the credit for the perfume is the brand that sells it. The general population doesn't love Roudniska, Beaux or Roucel. They love "Chanel" or "Dior" or "French Perfumes" (such as Paris, created by Russian-born perfumer Sophia Grojsman) or "Italian Perfumes" (like Bvlgari Femme, also by Grojsman) or whatever they think of as high status and good taste or that is trendy at the moment.

As noted in "Perfumes: The Guide" (p.8), unlike art, perfumes are sold as products and are mass produced (except for the 9% or so of the international perfume industry that niche brands account for - though keep in mind many are not really independent perfumeries - they hire their noses from either one of the 5 big firms that rule over the perfume market worldwide (Takasago, Givaudon, Firmenich, IFF and Symrise).

Finding information about perfume now is easy if you have internet. Opinions about fragrances are discussed and posted as I write these lines. Some are excellent writers. Some have blogs long enough and so full of content they may as well consider turning it into a book too. But is there a point to that?

The Guide is not the first book about perfume and by the same author(s) to originate in a blog. The first one, The Secret of Scent (written by Luca Turin and edited by Tania Sanchez) practically recycled entire blog posts and comments from Luca Turin's now defunct blog Perfume Notes (you can still download the archives as a pdf document). The recent book fortunately contains a few reviews I fondly remember from reading Perfume Notes
and brings them to print (Borneo 1834 - p. 104, Narciso Rodriguez - p. 254-255 and several others). Aside from a few of Turin's famously steel-like and oddly nostalgic prose, which is his trademark I believe - many of the reviews seem like an endless thread on a discussion forum - with two members only participating - and who got caught up in a little rap-competition-like on a perfume theme (organized in alphabetical order, thankfully). Overall, despite being very easy to read (but what book about your favourite topic in the world isn't?) - I found myself disappointed at the content. There are many one-liners, some more descriptive and helpful than others (i.e.: "Competent chemical fruity floral with a citrus top note" - p. 273; or "Polite, dull little soapy woody floral" - p. 289 ) and some are just plain mean (i.e.: "faceless drone-clone juice" - p. 305; or " Light Blue, but with the light off" - p. 350; or "hideously screechy" - p.106 or "dreadful little thing" - p. 113). Why waste all the ink, not to mention paper?! Or in other words - if you can't say something nice, say nothing at all. Which also reminds me of another observation: while many badly-reviewed mainstream fragrances did not include any mention of the nose behind them (which on its own seems graciously opinionated – as if putting the blame of a bad fragrance on the corporate world who forces some talented noses to compromise their olfactory and artistic judgment); however, there are some reviews of perfumes from small houses where the nose seems to be almost personally attacked for not being able to satisfy the writer’s taste in perfume. More than saying anything about those small niche houses and their products, this exemplifies the notion of the reviewer being a frustrated wannabe artist, one that is a sayer rather than a doer and while being able to appreciate the art cannot create it, but can only produce criticism of it, which could never, ever be subjective and sooner or later is bound to show the reviewer's true colours - their fear, ambition, frustration, unrealized creativity and so on.

And than there are a few gems where the authors' writing (especially Turin's) truly shine with wit, accuracy, creativity and expressive power – and not at the expense of anyone else involved. Long poetic reviews studded with bits of perfume history and chemistry storytelling that is admittedly fascinating even when you don’t agree with the writers’ taste (to list a few of the highlights: Bulgari Black, p. 96; Calyx, p. 111); Chamade, p. 115; Chintown, p. 119; Thiery Mugler's Cologne, p. 126; Fracas, p. 179; Osmanthe Yunnan, p. 274; Tommy Girl, p. 339; Sacrableu, p. 312; Vetiver Extraordinaire, p. 352). I could only wish that there were more of these and none of the other kind of reviews. Since the editing in this book is lacking in this regard, readers may want to take matters into their own hands and skip all the 1 & 2 star reviews, one-liner reviews and simply enjoy the rest.

The word on "Perfumes: The Guide" is divided as can be seen on the consumer reviews pages on Amazon. Other opinions can be found here:
The New Yorker

Septimus Piesse, Potpourri and Film Noir

Today was a potpourri experimentation day for me. The trigger was an email from one of my students with an electronic version of Piesse's book “The Art of Perfumery and Method of Obtaining the Odors of Plants” has inspired me to re-visit my perfume collection and search for ideas for various “dry perfumes” – something I meant to do for quite some time. Unfortunately, this electronic edition (www.craftsebooks.com edition by Maria Wilkes) is full of misleading typos that could confuse the reader who is not already familiar with some of the materials (and in some cases the translation of names and terms is not too accurate either); but overall it’s a great resource and an interesting portal to Western perfumery in the mid 19th century.

The book is a well of information, including perfume formulas - many of which are flower replicas that rely on almond oil (bitter almond I presume) to do the trick of transforming the floral bouquet into lily of the valley, sweet pea or what not.

Some of the recipes there for potpourri and sachets are quite simple. For example: a patchouli sachet includes nothing more than 1lb of dry and ground patchouli leaves and 1 dram of patchouli essential oil; and than there are more sophisticated recipes evoking the scent of heliotrope (pounds of powdered orris roots, rose petals, tonka beans, vanilla pods and musk pods with a few drops of almond essential oil - the only case in which the almond actually makes perfect sense for the flower’s odour profile.

I’ve spent the entire morning in my little lab experimenting with my dry herbs and I’ve came up with 3 potpourri/sachets that are not half bad, all of which are based on my existing perfumes, The whole ritual of stuffing a little bag and placing it in between the clothes set me in a completely different pace and state of mind; it set me in that very old-fashioned, Imperialist mind frame of using exotic botanicals sourced elsewhere in little lady-like mousseline bags and so on. Perhaps I should have seen the warning signs when I became smitten with Pashmina scarves... Now I’m officially old: wrapped up in my silk Pashmina I look for secret places to hide my Film Noir potpourri/sachets made of dried patchouli leaves soaked in dollops of vintage patchouli oil and cocoa absolute… It's deliciously old fashioned and modern at the same time. Does this make any sense?


Stanley Greenspan is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Behavioural Science and Pediatrics and a practicing Child Psychiatrist. Greenspan developed DIR aka Floortime, a unique therapy approach for working with children with special needs, which has been significantly successful with children diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder that deeply affects the child’s ability to communicate effectively with their environment.

According to Greenspan’s theory, there are six preliminary developmental milestones, which underline all human intelligence and interactions with the world: language, communication, turn taking and other social, emotional and cognitive skills. The six milestones are:
1) The child’s ability to be interested in the sensation from the world as well as calm him/herself down.
2) The ability to engage in relationships with other people
3) The ability to engage in two-way communication
4) The ability to create complex gesture, to tie together a series of actions into an elaborate and deliberate problem-solving sequence
5) The ability to create ideas
6) The ability to build briges between ideas to make them reality-based and logical
(Greenspan and Wieder, 1998).

The Floortime approach is designed to help children that for some reason (i.e. their particular structure of the brain, etc.) did not develop one or more of those six milestones.
Floortime helps the child go back to the missing milestone and re-build it, so that more advanced and complex skills will be built upon.

The philosophy of Floortime is very unique and it is very humanistic in nature. It stems from deep respect for the child, and tries to use the child’s strengths and areas of interest in order to build upon new skills and to challenge the child. Also, it is most important to note that Floortime tries to bring out and nourish the internal motivation of the child in the areas of speech and communication. Rather than “teach” the child how to communicate, the parent/therapist/caregiver leads them to find their own internal motivation, from which stems the will and drive to communicate with us.

Another principal extremely important in Floortime is that children learn much better through activities that involve a relatively high level of emotional excitement, especially positive one. Actions such as raising our voice to a vivid, dramatized and high-pitched sound, making broad gestures, or engaging in a pleasant physical ativities are some examples of how we can bring the child’s system to a level of excitement that is optimal for their learning. The child will be more inclined to pay attention, engage in the activity, and as a result – close more circles of communication, and even increase output of language. When we follow the child’s lead, there is more chance the activity will end up being “high energy” and stimulating, and engaging for the child, since it is the child’s interest to begin with.

By following the lead of the child, the parents, caregivers and therapists try to increase circles of communication with the child. The focus is on how many circles the child closes, rather than the actual means of communication (the child can communicate with their actions as well as vocalizations, etc.; In some cases even “avoidance” is communication – if it is a response to a communication circle that was initiated by the caregiver). By responding to the child’s actions and acknowledging
his/her interest, we help the child step out of their “shell” and engage in the world outside them. It is essentially like inviting ourselves to their world, reach out to them, and than pull them out to be interested in the world around them.

According to Greenspan (1998), following these principals can change the structure of the brain of children that otherwise were known to “lack” the ability or the will to communicate. Floortime can be adapted to different needs and levels of communication.

Recommended reading:
The Child With Special Needs: Encouraging Intellectual and Emotional Growth by Stanley I. Greenspan and Serena Wieder. This book covers not only the basics of Floortime, but also brings case studies of both children and their families, including the families' coping styles with the child's condition.
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