Septimus Piesse

I've been dragged without prior consent into one of those stilly twitter wars. With a non-scentie, of all folks. I realize this is part of the aftermath of being on national radio, and if you are doing something unusual, there has to be someone out there that is out to get you and direct all sorts of life frustrations towards you without you even triggering anything intentionally.

Consequentially, this turned into an opportunity to educate people about the sense of smell, and break some ridiculous myths that so many uneducated people who either look down at this sense, or erase an entire realm of experiences from their life simply by ignoring this sense. My frustration with this attitude is not new to the perfumer. Here is a quote from Piesse's book, originally published in 1857:

"Of the five sense, that of SMELLING has been treated with comparative indifference. However, as knowledge progresses, the various faculties with which the Creator has thought proper in his wisdom to endow man will become developed, and the faculty of Smelling will meet with its share of tuition as well as Sight, Hearing, Touch and Taste" (G. W. Septimus Piesse, "“The Art of Perfumery”).

Some of the statements and assumptions that came up in that weird twitter dialog:
1) That all perfumes cause "allergic reaction" - which is not actually true. Just because you have a reaction, does not mean it's an "allergy". Sneezing does indicate allergy. Headaches, however, do not. Even respiratory symptoms that sometimes people experience are often emotionally induced. I  truly only wish there was more research done on that. But because perfumes are made from such a vast array of substances, it has become a common practice to just give those reactions an umbrella name such as "allergies" because no one can argue with you when you return something to the store (or the kitchen) claiming it gave you an allergic reaction. Saying that you "didn't like it", however, may not reap the desired results (full refund, or a new dish made for you). The most commonly reported reaction is headaches - which is not an allergic reaction at all, but technically a stress response of the body. If you're overwhelmed by a scent (either because of overdose in your environment, or because you have a negative association with smells in general or a particular scent in particular) -  your scalp muscles may tense up, which in turn creates a headache. That's how most headaches occur - sometimes because of direct life tensions (work deadline, fighting at home, or subconscious tensions that we're not aware of their origin - which is most likely what scent triggers in some people). Migraines are a different thing, but still have more to do with the nervous system rather than anything to do with autoimmune (which is essentially what allergic reactions are). And a lot of people call a very strong headache "migraine" even when it is not.

2) Speaking of negative reaction to scents, tension and psychology: I long argued that the "allergic" claims of antiscenties has more to do with a Pavlovian reaction to smell, rather than the smell itself. If someone is programmed to feel that perfume is dangerous (either by coincidence, i.e.: if they had a negative experience associated with perfume overload; or a stimuli-and-reaction-association with a particular scent tied to a negative emotion) - they will understandably react negatively to perfume - either to particular ones, or in general.  I've mentioned this here in the past, if you want to read more about it. There is even scientific work finally published about the topic (and I hope more will come). I will be also particularly curious to see some somatic healing work done using scents as a tool to overcome trauma. Not just as traditional aromatherapy, using the healing properties and pleasant smells of essential oils, but also going deeper into why someone reacts so negatively to a certain perfumes (or essential oils). Uncoupling those stimuli from the negative outcome (headache, anxiety, etc.) would be a particularly freeing experience for people whose origin for smell-suffering is emotional, and just like in healing traumas in other modalities - can have an incredibly positive effect on many other areas of their life.

3) That perfumes were developed to mask body odour. Now, the concept of body odour as a negative thing is actually a rather new and culturally dependent - mostly Western in nature. Perfume began with burning incense, used in both healing and spiritual practices (the shamans knew all along that the body, mind, spirit and soul are one and operate together), and were utilized in many ways to create a bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. And even the first alcohol-based perfumes in Europe (which the complaining twitterer was maybe referring to, although I doubt they are educated enough on the subject to really know) - although functioned as an ancillary product (instead of bathing) were the cure-all Aqua Mirabillis. They were not only designed for disinfectant/hygienic purposes, but also for healing and tonic taken internally.

4) Questioning my personality and/or morality, because I dared asking that person what smells in real life they like (still waiting for an answer). I think that shows more about the lack of listening/reading skills of that commenter, and also their extreme, automatic bias to the topic. The pattern of thinking here is an illogical series of assumptions: "perfume is bad" and "perfume has a smell", therefore "smell equal perfume", and the conclusion is "anything that has a smell is bad". By "bad" they mean unhealthy, toxic, allergy inducing, unsafe, etc. All of which is putting a very big generic conclusion on a vast number of substances that have different origins, behave differently and have different effect on people, both emotionally, mentally and physically.

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?
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