This time of year perfume bloggers around the world often post their “best of” lists: new release fragrances, perfume houses, perfumers, etc. that made a mark on them during the year. As Perfume Polytechnic is not just about fragrance releases and reviews, and is by no means comprehensive in its coverage of such things, I feel unqualified to write such a list. However, as Perfume Polytechnic is about all kinds of olfactory matters and the sense of smell, its role in art, science, food etc., I am going to list my favourite olfactory moments of 2015 instead, in no particular order. Perfume Polytechnic also investigates the connections between people and the function that scent plays in bringing people together, as well as interconnections between the various art forms and mediums, including scent. This year’s list deals with some of these themes. Continue reading
The other day I wrote about Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto and his amazing installations that often use olfactory elements. Neto has been known to use large quantities of spice inside his sculptural, multi-sensory works. His pieces encourage engagement and interaction and can be touched, climbed in and upon, and often smelled.
Olly Technic and I visited The Island Bird at the National Gallery of Victoria the other day. The piece is a recent acquisition for the NGV, and will only be on display until the 19th of April, so if you’re in Melbourne, or visiting, and like good art, head along to the St Kilda Road gallery and check it out.
I wasn’t sure if Neto had used any olfactory elements in The Island Bird, but sadly he didn’t. Nevertheless, Olly and I had a great time climbing inside Neto’s beautiful piece, which was knotted out of muted shades of primary-coloured rope. The floor of the piece was filled with squishy plastic balls, and it was hard work to move around inside the tunnels, a bit like walking on very loose sand, but much more difficult. We held on to the netting to help us move around, and in the back of the piece found a circular, cushioned area to sit in. It was lovely sitting in this spot, suspended in the air; a bit like being on a very large swing or on a boat with a subtle rocking motion.
I didn’t feel even slightly ill at ease or unsafe in The Island Bird. I think my childlike curiosity and excitement got the better of me and I forgot to feel afraid, which made for a very joyful, playful experience.
The Island Bird is currently on display at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road Melbourne, until the 19th April 2015. You can find it on the third floor.
Recently, a fellow perfume enthusiast loaned me a compendium of samples by independent Italian perfume house O’Driù. O’Driù is a rather controversial perfume house: in 2013 they released the divisive Peety – a fragrance that is supposed to be “completed” or supplemented, or “personalised” even, by adding 1ml of the owner’s urine.
O’Driù describes itself thus (all text quoted from the O’Driù website):
O’DRIÙ is a project by PLEASURE FACTORY, the Italian specialty communications company part of CnC GROUP (www.cnc-group.it) devoted to well being and leisure market.
With O’DRIÙ, the PLEASURE FACTORY aim is to create a new brand in niche perfumery directed to demanding customers, that yearn for really exclusive products.
So, the O’DRIÙ philosophy is simple: high quality, original products, made to create intense emotions, produced in limited series to be rare and identify their customers.
Starting from ancient recipes, Angelo Orazio Pregoni – the perfume creator – designed intensely emotional fragrances that are truly alive and that create a unique, continuously changing, personal aura.
While I didn’t have Peety in my slightly older sample set, I did have access to seven fragrances that contained some very unusual, conceptual fragrance notes. These notes were things like “bitter battle”, “the nightmare that reveals the pleasure” and “the hug of a woman”. As a practising composer and someone with a long involvement and education in the arts, these kinds of concepts excite me. Clearly these more experimental notes are supposed to express a feeling, an event, or some other thing, rather than strictly representing an ingredient that is in the fragrance. As well as these more conceptual ingredients, the perfumes also contain the kinds of notes we are normally accustomed to finding in perfumery: flowers, woods, spices, incense and so on.
Anyway, as a fun idea, I decided to subject myself, and my perfume-illiterate partner (his words), Olly Technic, to a blind sniff challenge, with the aim of seeing if we could actually detect these very interesting, conceptual notes, or the emotion or thing that they were supposed to arouse or refer to. As these conceptual notes are something that neither a perfumista, nor a perfume-illiterate person would know or be able to necessarily recognise (to my knowledge they don’t actually exist, nor have they been “expressed” or used in any other fragrance so far), I thought Olly’s opinion would be just as valid as mine. As it turned out, Olly not only had some fascinating smell-based observations, but he also made space-or-place analogies from each fragrance. That is, he wrote down the sense of place or space (or bodily sensation) that each fragrance evoked in him. I found this fascinating, and an interesting way to talk about fragrance, and I hope you do too.
We sniffed each sample, on skin, one by one, and wrote notes about our impressions of what we were sniffing. We had no access to the actual fragrance notes (conceptual or conservative), which were listed separately on cards. All we knew was the name of the fragrance as listed on the vial. We allowed ourselves no more than 2 minutes to write down our first impressions.
Once we’d done this we had a look at the corresponding notes for the fragrance, as listed on the card, and shared our impressions with each other. It was a fun experiment and we had very different impressions at times. Our idea of what we were smelling was often very different to the actual notes in the fragrance too. Here is a transcript of our O’Driù blind sniff challenge:
Sample 1 – Ladamo
Polly says: “Woah! Strong, so strong. Potent! Patchouli? I smell birch tar and cough syrup. It’s sweet, in a cough syrup kind of way (bitter too!). Masculine. Wood varnish.”
Olly says: “Hot celery, spicy Christmas pudding wafted over as you applied the sample, roses. It starts to smell like maple syrup a little later. This one has a homey feel.”
top: earth, roots, wind, magnolia, ginger
middle: liquorice, sandalwood, tobacco, the hug of a woman
base: mimosa, juniper, lichens, a bath in the water
Did we smell any of this? Not terribly much. The “earth” note was probably the patchouli, as patchouli has a tendency to smell like dark, dug earth. The ginger may have triggered Olly’s “Christmas pudding” reaction, and maybe the liquorice reminded me of cough syrup. Sadly, neither of us detected “the hug of a woman” or “a bath in the water”. Oh well.
Sample 2 – Leva
Polly says: “Reeling back, my head recoils, but not in disgust. It’s cool, warm, leathery, there’s menthol, camphor, something repellant and bodily and metallic. Blood? Hyper-natural blood orange!”
Olly says: “I smell antiseptic, cool mint, sarsaparilla, lemon with funk. This one feels spacious but busy, like Flinders Street Railway Station.”
top: grapefruit, jasmine, black pepper, under the sun
middle: curcuma, vanilla, jatamansi, the nightmare that reveals the pleasure
base: lemongrass, benzoin, broad bean, a smell in the wood
After one hour, this one has settled a lot. It’s sweeter and more balanced; fruity, woody, bitter, yet still quite strange. Olly and I both picked up on citrus notes, and something cool (menthol/mint/camphor), which doesn’t really match anything in the notes. The bloody smell that I thought I detected at first sniff may well be intended to represent the surreal note “the nightmare that reveals the pleasure”.
Sample 3 – Vis et Honor
Polly says: “Mould and fish and female private parts, woods, and floor polish and incense. It’s warm and cool and fishy and off. It smells a bit like Annick Goutal’s Encens Flamboyant but is much more flamboyant and animalic! It reminds me of an old carpet that’s been pissed on by animals years ago and has never been cleaned.”
Olly says: “Warm, mouldy, pine, rubber. Incense. It feels like being in a phone booth – one of those old style, fully enclosed ones. Fairly snug.”
top: bitter battle, smoked notes, chlorophyll, chamomile, fox fur
middle: olive, mimosa, myrtle, juniper, galbanum
base: laurel, cardamom, bitter almond, wormwood, incense, lichens
The incense is very strong, and both Olly and myself detected it; thankfully there is incense in the base notes, so we are not going crazy, just yet. Now that I know wormwood is in it, I can smell it, and the smoky notes, but I couldn’t pick them out with a blind sniffing. Otherwise, sadly, I’m not sure this one fits the concept or that many of the notes are detectable. It is a wearable fragrance though, once the fishy, animalic and mouldy notes have worn off, which takes less than an hour, it’s actually quite pleasant: dry, resinous and incensy.
Sample 4 – Xvert
Polly says: “More recoil! Female private parts again! Intensely fishy, and not in a good way. Salty. I detect a cool note again and something woody. I don’t like this one. This is very challenging! I smell a syrupy blood orange note.”
Olly says: “A fishy something-or-other is hidden in a spice shop, with a dash of maple syrup. It reminds me of hot concrete in summer.”
top notes: magnolia, dill, echo of dead leaves
Middle notes: tarragon, cardamom, any drug
base notes: hay, sandalwood, the degree of suffering with which a woman punishes who she loves
Neither of us thinks that this matches the notes listed. Where is the fishy, salty note we are both smelling so strongly? Sadly, neither of us can detect “the degree of suffering with which a woman punishes who she loves”, though we both want to know what that would smell like. What a fun concept!
Sample 5 – Allegradonna
Polly says: “I smell smoke and burnt logs. Smoky tea – Lapsang Souchong! Do I detect a note of birch tar or leather? I’m picking up on that blood-orangey, cough-syrupy sweetness again, that note I’ve already detected in a couple of other samples, but here it’s more in the background. I also smell patchouli – deep dark chocolate and dug earth. Is there clove, or perhaps cinnamon too? This one is relatively pleasant. It’s strong, but all of the samples are: intensely strong and characterful. There is nothing subtle about any of these fragrances.”
Olly says: “Smoky orange. Nowhere.”
top: the last dream memories, jasmine, the sheets, the marketplace
middle: basil quiet, a cup of tea with a cinnamon biscuit, galbanum
base: mimosa, annual wormwood, the listening, the seduction
This is the most wearable of the samples that we tried. The cinnamon biscuit note was quite apparent to me. Sadly, we cannot smell the conceptual notes of “the last dream memories”, or “the seduction”. We wish we could! This fragrance is gorgeously rich, sweet and spicy! It reminds me of Eau Lente by Diptyque.
Sample 6 – Linfedele Haiku (Melodia)
Polly says: “Do I smell citrus? There is something cool and camphoraceous here too. Urgh! It’s hitting me! Instant recoil… again! This is so strong and weird, like some kind of liniment or deep heat rub, but not pleasant. A herbal, medicinal smell. I can imagine a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor using something that smells like this.”
Olly says: “Incense in lemonade with a dash of salt. This one feels like a too-small sleeping bag.”
These are not listed in the categories top/middle/base notes. Instead, the back of this card has an extract from a music score on it and the notes are super-imposed randomly onto the image of the score.
The notes are: castoreum, incense, tonka, geranium, black pepper, carnation, pompecolo, pine, vanilla, patchouli, coffee, yerba mate, barley, sounds.
Ah! The geranium is so obvious now that I know it’s in there – it’s that cool, camphoraceous smell that I know so well! Why could I not detect it?! The incense is also quite apparent to us both. Neither of us thinks this fragrance “smells” melodious or musical, which is a shame. This one is quite approachable and wearable after about 5 minutes on the skin.
Sample 7 – Jasmine Mean Time
Polly says: “This is jasmine at its best: gorgeously real and indolic, with a slight amount of rotting flesh in the deep dark background. It reminds me of a late spring evening, when the jasmine is in full bloom. There is also something a little cool and minty-fresh hovering behind the jasmine’s indolic overdose. Camphor? There’s not much else going on here. This fragrance is very rich and strong, as are all of the samples.”
Olly says: “Jasmine, but lemony-sharp. A hundred metre race track.”
top: Marrakesh, London, Brindisi
middle: Suez, Calcutta, Hong Kong
base: San Francisco, New York, Liverpool
This concept is a complete mystery! The notes are represented by city names only. Is this supposed to represent the smell of jasmine from all of these places? You know what? I don’t care; this is a gorgeous jasmine fragrance!
Olly and I had a lot of fun blind-sniffing the O’Driù samples. Some of them matched up a bit to their actual or conceptual fragrance notes, as listed, but more often than not, didn’t bear much relation to the notes or concepts. We had fun trying to name and describe what we were smelling anyway, and Olly had fun trying to think up a space-or-place analogy for each fragrance. To be honest, I think his observations are better than mine! O’Driù is a bold, experimental, daring fragrance house. I admire their courage to include conceptual, imaginary ingredients such as “any drug” or “the last dream memories” in their fragrances. It’s a difficult thing to do, to find analogies in art forms, in ways that are recognisable to the observer. I’m not sure it’s really succeeded here, but hats off to them for giving it a try.
O’Driù has a recognisable house style: it’s woody, generally masculine or unisex at least, with bitter and/or savoury notes. All the fragrances we tested are very strong. Many are quite odd, resulting in verbal and/or guttural reactions from us! We both found it hard to identify notes, unlike with traditional perfumes, as there are so many interesting and unusual ingredients and combinations in most of the fragrances. Olly and I both liked and loathed the samples. Several made me recoil: Ladamo, Leva, and Vis et Honor, though not necessarily in a bad way. Sometimes it was the strength of the ingredients, the sheer unusualness of them, or the way that they were combined. Others were softer and more wearable: both Jasmine Mean Time and Allegradonna definitely fell into the realm of wearable and lovely.
All in all, this was a really fun experiment. Have you tried any O’Driù fragrances? If so, what do you think of them? Have you ever blind-tested a fragrance and tried to guess what’s in it? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments section below.