Mood and the psychology of scent

After a chilly and cloudy day yesterday, with the general mood of the class (and me- what a difficult day!) to match, it was a relief to step out of the old wood door into the quiet coolness of my little street this morning and ascend the steep route up through the honeycomb of the centre ville into the blazing glory of a sunny day.  My mood was good; another one of those days I love when I am overcome by happiness at being able to experience the beauty that surrounds me here.  There is pure art all around.  The colours, the light, the sounds, the shapes and angles, the general composition of everything.  My photographer’s eye is constantly sated with so many beautiful possibilities that I don’t even know where to point my camera- so I don’t.  I just take it all in.  It feels like everything is too beautiful to capture.

Today at school was chemistry.  We are learning material that is at a  fairly advanced high-school/first year college level- and at

Flowers in winter

a a speed that condenses three years into about 5 weeks.  It is all  relevant to perfumery of course and today the subject was the science of gas chromatography.  We will be learning how to read the highly technical reports that are produced by these machines and we will also be able to understand the chemical structure of all the components in the materials being analyzed. (both essential oils and synthetic chemicals)  Part of the work will be to choose a perfume to put through the gas chromatography process, then be able analyze the result and decipher the formula of the perfume.  (we can choose anything- Chanel 5 or one of  my favourites, Annick Goutal and at the end, after extensive study and comparative work, we will have a very good idea of the basic formula.)  Because of this technology, there are no secrets in formulation anymore.  Copies happen all the time- it is normal. There are no secrets. So from my what I gather, it comes down mostly to the name.  Yves St Laurent, for example, or Chanel,  could be copied exactly, but it doesn’t really threaten them, because the consumer wants the prestige of the NAME-  Yves St Laurent or Chanel- on their dressing table, and on their body, socially. This can matter more than the actual appreciation of the fragrance itself.  This effect is subtle- hard to pin absolutely, because the power of scent is so emotional that it infiltrates an individual’s experience to such a degree that they don’t even know if they like how something smells because of its name, or because of how it actually smells.  Association plays a roll as well- if it smells how we have been conditioned to think ‘expensive and prestigious’ smells, then in this day and age, we want it.

That said, there is serious research going on these days in the area of aromachology.  Especially in Japan.  (one of my classmates is a biologist who works for Shiseido in this area).      Aromachology* is the study of odour psychology and of human responses to odours. Aromachology does not distinguish between natural or synthetic chemicals.  Heliotropin, for example, has been shown to have a calming effect on the subjects studied, despite being a synthetic material (although it is available from natural sources as well)  The results of these studies is beginning to play a serious role in the formulation of perfumes. We are being chemically influenced by the perfume industry without being aware of it.  Historically, the ultimate goal of the perfume industry has been a healthy bottom-line- not our general well-being. My hope is that the two will inadvertently or eventually coincide.

All this is fabulously interesting and is expanding my perspective in many different directions.  I realize how easy it is to become limited by my beliefs, by what I think I know.   A beginner’s mind, always, seems to allow for an incredibly rich experience in this life……….

*A service mark of the Olfactory Research Fund

Now, my window is open, as usual these warm Spring evenings, and I can hear a cat yowling, and people walking by, laughing and talking, in French, below.  Once in a while, a car roars by, with inches to spare on either side, blasting either hip-hop in a foreign language or Moroccan pop- but otherwise, the heaped up ancient rooms that form this beautiful cluster of humanity isquieting down for the night.  By 10:30, all will be so silent, I can hear my ears ring, and sleep will creep in and encompass all who dwell behind the wood  shutters that are ritually closed by every household, every night……….

becoming a nez II

Today began a whole new segment of the course.  Formulation!  This is what we have all been waiting for;  for here we will begin to learn some of the secrets that are held so close to the chests of the perfumers and others in the industry.  Our teacher is Max Gavarry,  now retired to research and development of new raw materials for perfumery, but previously was a chief perfumer in Paris for years, the vice president of the French branch of IFF (Int’l Flavors & Fragrances) as well as the perfumer who created all the Prada fragrances.  He is a true artist and an extremely gifted Nez.  Recently a Japanese film crew came to the school and interviewed Max (as well as some of us as part of a conceptual setting) as a portion of a film about people gifted with extraordinary sensory abilities.  Max was the chosen subject because he can smell and identify upwards of some 2000 raw materials. 

We were thrown in to the experience by being asked to write out a formula for a rose accord. An accord is a combination of materials to create a single themed outcome.  I chose to create a rose that was fruity and juicy with dry smoky aspect.  I used mostly naturals combined with synthetics that can be found in nature, such as geraniol and citronellol.  Then he had us go to the perfumers stations (organs) and mix the formula.  Needless to say there was much scurrying about, creative juices flowing and many rather horrible smelling outcomes!  Creating an formula from an intellectual only perspective is not enough. I think this was his point, but also to see how original each of us could be and to see how much we know the raw materials.  He encouraged us to try new ideas and I think my ideas of mixing rosy notes with myrrh, black currant bud, violet leaf and clove qualified in his eyes.

 Now, saturated, happy, and tired- off to sweet smelling dreams.

 ps. The Mini is fantastic-  I drove it to Cannes on Saturday and saw a wonderful flea market full of all kinds of goodies.  Driving here is similar to at home, except for the round-a-bouts, which make me nervous,  and the milieu of scooters and motorcycles that can and do pass freely on the left side.  All the French cars are covered in dents and scrapes- either they are all bad drivers or they just don’t give a fig for their cars.  The streets are very narrow as well with many obstacles, so this does not help!

from the resurrection- to a baptism

ezeTwo evenings ago was an event at the school called the’ Promotion of Mane’. Actually, on our posted schedule, it says, ’17h-19h- BAPTISM of the Mane Promotion. (YOU MUST BE THERE!)’   I think, perhaps, there is a slight mis-take in the translation.  Not unusual, considering the teachers here speak a very limited (but endearing) English and I am beginning to think in the dialect that they speak.  I think this is a good transition- from English, to English as a second language with a thick accent, to speaking French.  The mind does well with baby steps! (and reverse psychology) 

By 4:45, class had ended and we all got ourselves brushed up and primped and ready just as the cars began to pull up and a substantial crowd of well-dressed business men began to assemble in the parking lot outside our classroom window.

  The company of Mane (pronounced ‘man’) & Fils is a huge corporation, ( with branches all over the world..  They produce raw perfumery materials, natural and sythetic, and as well as create products for well-known and huge conglomerates, for example, L’Oreal.   They work within the realm of  fine perfumery as well as functional perfumery-such as cosmetics, shampoos, detergents and the like.

Mane is one of the main sponsors of our school and every year this party takes place so that the student body can meet and promote itself to important people in the industry and for this company, in particular, to promote itself to us.  The meeting began in the boardroom that I spoke of at the beginning of this adventure, with all the suits on one side of the room and all of us, rather nervously, along with our teachers on the other.  The president of the organization that created our school stood at the head to the room and made a speech, and then the president of Mane did the same. 

The latter spoke of the three values that the French hold dear- Liberte, Egalité and Fraternité. (Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood)  He applied these three to our experience here in Grasse in this school learning a practice that requires a deep sense of passion to pursue.  It was a beautiful and impressive speech that I found quite inspiring.  Then, each of us introduced ourselves in turn, really as ambassadors from our countries, saying why we are here and what we hope to achieve. (I definitely had stage fright, but I’m so happy for all those circles of speaking intentions with Karuna to have given me some practice!)- And then the party began.  The round table and chairs which normally fill the room were gone and at one end where the huge old glass doors open onto a stone terrace, a table was set with plates of the most delicate delicious canapés along with champagne flutes.  Soon the bottles of good Champagne were popping and flowing and the crowd began to mingle.


I dove in, and struck up a conversation with a woman who turned out to be a perfumer.  We spoke about the sense of smell and its complexities (she said that it never stops changing and improving) and when I said I was interested in an internship with the company, she took me to meet the Director of Creative Development.  We talked shop, well I asked questions and he answered, and then he said that there are 2-3 positions available for the summer with his company.  I have sent him my CV and we will see what comes of it.  This company is one that I have been interested in already, before I knew of the connection with the school, partly because it is located up the valley toward Tourettes Sur Loup- in an area I really like.  I will need a car to get there however, and this brings me to the next part of the story…..


a Mini-not mine, but closeSince being in France I have seen so many adorable little Austen Mini’s, that I got it in my head that this would be the perfect choice for a car for me while I am here.   Sandra, a French student from last year, and a real sweetheart, has a boyfriend who is also a sweetheart and they happen to have a Mini for sale. Tonight they came to the party in the car to show me and he, Xavier took me out for a spin.  It is blue, has only 39,000 km of mileage, and because I am a friend of Sandra’s, her loving boyfriend has taken the car in to the garage and had it checked over.  Not only did he have anything that needed doing done, but he put on 4 brand new tires and has said that if anything goes wrong please call him. Also, they say that they will happily buy the car back from me after the year is out!  This is just too wonderful to pass up, so as of tomorrow, I just may have a sweet and zippy little Mini as my chariot!    

becoming a nose…

Monday, we covered 5 new synthetic raw materials,  quite normal, but one of them, isocyclocitral, was particularly intense.  Almost everyone, including the teacher had a headache.  Only the Japanese students and I were not effected until one day later, yesterday.  In the afternoon, after the class with synthetics, I continued working, but with the naturals, all in 10% dilution in alcohol and on tester strips, smelling and relearning  all of the rose family, the balsam family and the aromatics.  (my nose or sense of smell has changed profoundly in the last few weeks and I must relearn everything on a much deeper level)  I left school realizing that i had worked with the most raw materials in one day ever. 

So then, yesterday, Tuesday, I hit my first overload.  I was just into a test of 10 raw synthetic and suddenly I got really light headed and felt my blood pressure drop and heart rate speed up a bit. It was like the air got sucked out of me.  That was it, for the first time, I had to call it a day and head home, chugging water, to lie down and let my body process.  It was interesting to experience.

Since the beginning of the course, all of us have developed a capacity for processing/understanding/remembering more at a time.  Essentially, from working so hard, we are stronger now.  Interestingly, although we are stronger, we are also much more sensitive.  Many of the materials that I could barely smell at the beginning are now quite strong to my nose.  Now when I go for a hike, I really do feel like a blood hound.  It is so easy to smell- everything and with such ease.  I get nuances that I only had the faintest hints of before- and I now have a fantastic language for what I smell .  For example, I can smell fresh crushed wild thyme between my fingers and realize the fruitiness of esters and the licorice of methyl chavicol as well as warm sweet notes of hay and musk with the green of cis 3 hexanol.  I can dissect scent, teasing it apart into its diaphanous fibres of effect.  And I know nothing yet!  This is only the beginning.  This is a life-long exploration.