17 March 2010

Gettin' Nerdy: Part 1 -

Mandy Aftel at the American Museum of Natural History:
Silk Road Aromatics (and the Puzzle of Luxury for Everyone)

The more I learn about fragrance and perfumery, the more I awaken to the irony of how unimportant it seems the human sense of smell has become. The bewildering variety of air fresheners and odor neutralizers at our disposal suggest that we are as reluctant to explore the world by smelling as we are eager to explore it by seeing, hearing and tasting. (I’m aware, of course, that 80 percent of experiencing any given ‘flavor’ relies entirely on our sense of smell, but we still mentally attach the experience to our mouths, and still call it ‘tasting.’ I’ll be coming back to this in Part 2.) And yet smelling is arguably our most visceral and emotionally connected sense, to the extent that we have built up a fortress of Febreze and Glade plug-ins around us to protect ourselves from olfactory discomfort.

Two recent lectures I attended touched on this idea that we don’t really smell much these days (and often prefer to smell nothing), but from vastly different perspectives. The first was given in late January by natural perfumer Mandy Aftel in conjunction with AMNH’s Silk Road exhibition. She outlined the history of some of the oldest perfume ingredients, and lamented modern perfumery’s lack of the crucial ‘otherness’ that these aromatics brought to the ancient and medieval people priveleged enough to enjoy them. The historical presentation was nicely informative, and I was not surprised by how dim a view of modern perfumery the lecture implied. It occurred to me in retrospect, though, that Aftel seemed to be arguing on one hand for a broader and deeper appreciation of fragrances among society at large, while on the other hand emphasizing the tradition of fragrance as an exclusive luxury.

More on that later. First, the fun bits.

To go along with her powerpoint, Aftel passed around scent strips bearing essences from her personal library. The aromatics she covered can be loosely categorized as flowers/leaves, resins, spices and and animal essences.

Rose (vs. synthetic rose)
The first strip to come ‘round was a natural rose essence, accompanied by a synthetic one. Before I got my hands on them I was imagining how fun it might have been for Aftel to mislabel the strips intentionally and fool a whole room of sycophants, and their bored boyfriends, into thinking a natural rose was synthetic and vice versa. Alas, there was no mistaking them for what they were. The synthetic rose was distinctly flat, monotone and familiar as the smell of dish soap, whereas the natural rose was much more dimensional, full-bodied and contained a rich variety of trace notes (honey, tobacco, earthy notes).

Looking back, I’m keenly aware that there was no mention of where that particular synthetic rose fell along the undoubtedly vast spectrum of synthetic roses. Was it a BMW rose or a Hyundai rose? My feelings suggest the latter. And so I’m also wondering if a higher quality synthetic rose, the cream of the crop, perhaps, could rival the presence and individuality of Aftel’s natural essence. Or could a blend of several synthetics, for that matter, achieve the same nuance and authentically ‘rose-y’ effect?

Much to my delight (I’m a huge geek for resins and balsams: labdanum, benzoin, elemi, opoponax…the list goes on), some frankincense and myrrh were passed around in their natural form – small beads of resin – rather than on scent strips.

The frankincense was a variety harvested from Boswellia sacra trees in Oman (Aftel called it “the Mercedes of resins”), and the little resin beads smelled surprisingly fresh and almost gingery, but also dry and a bit dusty. It took a lot of willpower not to dig for my lighter and fire up one of the resin beads, just to see how the smell of the raw frankincense translated into white smoke. (The smell of that smoke, and not the raw resin, is the signature aroma most often associated with frankincense and frequently the aesthetic target of incense accords in perfumery.)

Frankincense on the left, myrrh on the right

Unlike frankincense, the myrrh gave me a sense of transcendence without the aid of combustion. It seemed a bit more pungent, a bit woody, and it produced a feeling both contemplative and sharp. Evidently myrrh was used often in mummification and other rituals that sought to create a passage from one time or world to another. That’s not surprising in the least. It’s hard to describe the smell of myrrh further than simply to admit that its mystical dimension is undeniable.

Cinnamon, black pepper, ginger and saffron were the most popular (and most expensive) spices transported along the spice routes between Asia and Europe.  Accordingly, the cinnamon and black pepper that were passed around smelled many times more exotic than what I have in my spice cabinet.

In addition to being unexpectedly sweet and rich, the natural cinnamon had an appealing mustiness to it – a still-dirty, unrefined quality that reminded me of Antoine Maisondieu’s terrific bay leaves in Monocle Scent Two: Laurel. The black pepper was equally rich, strikingly floral, and at times a bit chocolatey.

I’m planning  to write a separate post on my favorite heavily animalic perfumes because I’m totally gay for the funk, too. In her lecture Aftel focused on three animalics: musk, civet and ambergris. (I was disappointed that she didn’t say much about castoreum, traditionally harvested from beavers and used to spectacular effect in Maurice Roucel’s Musc Ravageur for Frederic Malle.) Natural musk comes from Asian musk deer, and has been almost entirely replaced by synthetic recreations of the muscone compound. (If you’re game, Perfume Shrine has a great piece on the chemical structure of the most commonly used synthetic musks, here.) The practice of harvesting civet from the perineal glands of civet cats is similarly on its way out as synthetic civet compounds continue to impress.

The most interesting, and rarest, of the animalics is ambergris, a sperm whale secretion that hardens and cures under the marine sun for years before washing up on a beach. Before its origin was discovered, people speculated that it was petrified elephant dung or possibly a mysterious tree excretion. Natural ambergris is extraordinarily expensive, in part because it can’t quite be actively harvested. (Most online sellers of ambergris insist that theirs is certified “flotte”, or ‘floating’ ambergris that has occurred naturally and involves no interaction with any animal.) It’s also extremely potent. Scent strips dipped in a natural ambergris tincture were the last to be passed, and the smell was mesmerizing – both aquatic and earthy, a bit sweet, vaguely medicinal, nowhere near as funky as musk or civet but still decidely animalic.

Apparently it tastes amazing, too. After the lecture I met a blogger named Deana, who had been chronicling her recreation of Cosimo de Medici’s 15th century hot chocolate recipe, which includes ambergris and jasmine absolute. One of the methods Deana used to incorporate the ambergris (she ordered it from New Zealand) was to melt a small piece in a spoon and then let it cool, so that the spoon was coated with a hard shell of ambergris. She then simply used the spoon to stir the hot chocolate, and said the effect of that alone was near life-changing.

Another use of this bizarre substance that I found particularly interesting was the wearing of “ambergris apples,” otherwise known as pomanders (from the French “pomme d’ambre”). These were little chunks of ambergris and sometimes other aromatic substances, usually enclosed in a perforated metal globe and worn around the neck or on a belt as a simple way to alleviate unpleasant odors or to ward off infection and evil spirits. Man, if a pomander could protect me from the crazies on the subway, I swear I’d have five of them swinging from me at all times.

The Smell of Class
In discussing pomanders, Aftel noted that the spherical enclosures themselves, the product of intricate metalwork and often inlaid with precious stones, were both a powerful status symbol and a mark of individuality. It was just one of numerous examples in her presentation that positioned aromatics as an exclusive luxury – one of the themes I mentioned earlier on. She frequently mentioned that aromatics commanded exorbitant prices everywhere they were imported, noting, for instance, that in 15th century England a half kilo of ginger cost as much as a whole sheep.

Aftel also showed a painting of ancient Egyptian women at a party, adorned with what looked like conical hats. They were in fact solid animal fats perfumed with resins and oils, molded into cones and worn on the head so that they would scent one’s hair and face as they melted. Aftel said she believes this practice to be the “first perfume.”

Some very casual research indicates that these “scent cones” were in fact not a luxury but instead almost ubiquitous; it seems even servants wore them (and little else). This is an example of an even stronger theme in Aftel’s talk: that historically, perfume wasn’t an afterthought, but a given. She spoke poetically about how medieval people were obsessed with pleasurable olfactory sensations, owing to the “panoply of smells” both good and bad that were an unavoidable fact of life for them, and argued against the “neutral non-smell of modernity” into which we retreat from the real olfactory world.

Those two themes seem at odds to me – to suggest on one hand that everyone should be more in tune with and appreciative of our senses of smell while with the other selling perfumes that cost as much as $56 per milliliter. It’s even more troubling considering how dismissive Aftel was of mainstream perfumery and synthetic aroma chemistry (“just not my thing,” she said nonchalantly), i.e. the industry that convinces the mainstream consumer to smell at least something. It would seem, given the dense clouds of Axe invading middle school locker rooms across the country, that maybe Aftel shouldn’t strike such a pessimistic tone about the assumed neglect of our noses.

I don’t mean to be harshly critical, and in fairness, during the Q&A portion Aftel did recognize the creative potential of synthetics and their usefulness in replacing naturals that are either too expensive or banned by IFRA. I also admire that she approaches perfumery from as knowledgeable a perspective as she does (and I’m actually dying to try her “Cognac” and “Cepes and Tuberose”). I just think that if one wishes for the world at large to rediscover a love of fragrances, it would follow to appreciate all efforts toward that goal, as unsophisticated and ‘unnatural’ as the results often are.

I also think I really must attend my next party with a cone of perfumed animal fat on my head, rivulets of the stuff streaming down my face like fragrant tears.

Coming up in Part 2: Jelly beans, aldehydes and a French man with a mohawk.

Painting of deer: William Daniell (1769-1837) - Musk Deer, and Birds of Paradise (via Wikimedia Commons)
Image of myrrh via Herbology Manchester
Image of pomander via Wartski


  1. Hello.. I have enjoyed this post immensely... your objectivity is so very refreshing! I started out as a complete naturalist when it came to raw materials in perfumery; but upon actually studying the 'synthetics' in perfume school, I was very surprised at their potential for beauty, and I went through a major identity crisis while I came to terms with my new perspective. Rather like a vegetarian having to admit that that piece of meat they reluctantly tried was really quite delicious! I went through that too, and although I don't indulge often, when I do, it must be organic or free-range... but I had to let go of being so defined. Similarly with the natural vs synthetic arguments. Some perfumers are all natural just because they don't like to work with anything else... but to shun something simply from self-imposed, close-minded bias is rather sad. What do they say? A mind is like a parachute... it functions best when it's open.
    Very happy to find your post!

  2. Thank you for coming to my talk and for your thoughtful writing about it. I posted it on twitter and FB.

  3. Mandy - I enjoyed the talk tremendously, so thank you, too, for taking the time to share your knowledge. And of course, thanks for reading (and tweeting) my blog post!

  4. September - Thanks for your illuminating comment. I feel similarly -- that natural raw materials can be so amazing, and in many cases, yes, worth the price. And at the same time I'm always impressed by what some truly talented perfumers can accomplish with synthetics. I think your comparison to a vegetarian reluctantly admitting a yen for meat is highly appropriate!

  5. I'm still upset that I somehow over looked this amazing opportunity that landed in my backyard! A lecture on fragrance by Mandy Aftel? At the Museum of Natural History, no less? Thank you for this lovingly detailed review. I feel like I have now at leat read the Cliff Notes to a piece of great literature : )