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
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……….