Thursday, 26 November 2009

Moths and White Blooms

During the Country Living Christmas Fair we found ourselves opposite a stand with some very interesting jewellery. Further inspection revealed insects to have been the inspiration for perfectly cast silver pieces using a technique which utilised oxidation to throw into relief incredibly fine detail.

Lucy the jeweller, we later discovered had been fascinated by insects since childhood and fine tuned the casting process for her M.A. The link between Lucy’s work and ours was a perfectly cast moth (all the insects Lucy uses died of natural causes). The moth features in the centre of Fiona Owens’s narrative painting on the history of perfume because it is the creature on our planet with the most highly developed sense of smell.

Some years ago the WWF conducted a survey about our relationship with animals and how much we cared about the possible extinction of different species. The conclusion was that the larger the animal the more we cared. It is of course ignorant and sentimental to prefer one part of the eco system over another but the consequences of losing bees as we know from recent coverage would be catastrophic. Without moths we could kiss goodbye to all those wonderful heady white indolic night scented flowers, which I celebrate in my White Blooms fragrance.

After a hastily called meeting of the finance committee it was decided that my business partner Sian should honour the moth and Lucy’s radical counter culture eco vision by buying it. Lucy was equipped with a sample of White Blooms and a card, which explains the amazing capacity and function of the moth.

Link to Lucy's Website

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Frangipani and Cat Poo

This afternoon a parcel from Haiti arrived on my desk containing Frangipani absolute. After doing some homework I discovered that the genuine article was being produced under contract for a French company. I had approved a sample a few weeks ago before placing the order. Even after 24 years the excitement of receiving a batch of a new aromatic hasn’t worn off. Frangipani is one of those materials that is offered in many guises and I suspect sales of it far exceed genuine production year after year.

This is particularly ironic because Frangipani is a plant that was named after a perfume. The perfume in question was a powder made of orris, mixed spices, civet and musk and it was created by an Italian aristocratic family called Frangipani. The fragrance became famous later when during the 15th century a member of the same family developed it as a liquid perfume of some tenacity by blending it in grape alcohol.

Scented leather gloves had been popular for centuries – Queen Elizabeth mark 1 was reputed to own 1200 pairs of civet scented gloves. In those days of yore, leather was cured by soaking it in urine, which as one knows left it softer and workable, but it also ponged thereof from pee aka wee. Hair, fur and leather are renowned for their scent retaining capacity, so what to do? Elf and safety prohibited the use of human poo and the vagaries of class-based diet went against the emergent scientific repeatability, so another source was sought. Cats’ poo was the perfect solution. Dogs are too domesticated, and the correlation between their diet and that of their owners being inversely proportional to their size caused alarm bells with the nascent elf and safety authorities. African civet cats without access to fish or doting neighbours were ideal.

Against this background Frangipani gloves as they became known prospered. Familiarity with the scent led early French colonists in the West Indies to name a tree bearing flowers with a similar fragrance Frangipani.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


The last entry on wine and perfume may well have conjured up if not a genie, at least a spirit. I have begun work for a client on blending a set of aromas to emulate those found in whisky. The most complex whiskies are the Islay single malts so I have used their aromatic profiles for inspiration. For the purpose of learning about whisky it is useful to get to know each aroma that contributes to the overall bouquet but in isolation from the rest. This enables one to refine the ability to detect very small traces of each aroma that one becomes familiar with. Other benefits are to develop a vocabulary, which enables more accurate description and provides useful adjectives to focus nasal enquiry.

As the idea is to simplify the process to facilitate learning I have eventually settled for eight aromas which are prevalent in most good whiskies. The fact that they appear in different proportions in different whiskies accounts for the unique character and diversity amongst good whisky. It is of course more complex than this so a medicinal note could conjure up TCP, cough mixture, iodine, carbolic or just be suggestive of bandages or a hospital. The important thing is to notice if a medicinal note is present or not – the ability to be more precise will follow naturally with practice.

I enjoyed the process of deciding on and making up these eight aromas. They are blended using entirely using natural ingredients from the perfumer’s arsenal. One, as you know, is medicinal – I will reveal the other seven if the project goes ahead. Some people might be lucky at Christmas.

Some architects have been pondering the use of smell in designing environments and this has been picked up by marketing people - no more sinister than subliminal advertising or baking bread to sell the house. My other project this week was to develop a range of aromas to scent workspaces for a major company. Research in Japan showed a 30% improvement in grades amongst students taking examinations when they could smell tatami mats. This is probably due to psychological associations with the culture of the mat and possibly of feeling ‘at home’ and relaxed. The mat is made up from different kinds of straw and I have been asked to supply a blend to capture the aroma of tatami along with five other blends which included chocolate and freshly roasted coffee. I almost feel guilty about having such fun at work.