Monday, May 25, 2009

In the meantime... Perfumery: practice & principles

Ok, ok. So I've been a little reticent lately, even stingy with my perfume-and-blog-related correspondence and commentary; stress and deadlines in unrelated areas have intruded rudely into the time I normally reserve for my perfumed pursuits! But in between the spaces, I've been reading Calkin and Jellinek's Perfumery: practice and principles. Perfumery is a 1994 textbook-level work focusing on the recent changes in the area of perfumery brought about by the modern analytic chemist's tools, chiefly gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, as well as growing changes in available raw materials. It is, well, weighty in parts- so unless you're going to be tested on organic chemistry sometime real soon, you might want to skip straight to the chapter called Selected Great Perfumes. For me this chapter is worth the entire book. For starters, I found the list of Great Perfumes selected, as well as those that were ignored, very interesting.
And I even started to feel a little depressed while reading about the perfumes. For example Ysatis is classified with other chypres because somewhere it's fingerprint stamps it as being in that group. But the GC information tells you nothing about how Ysatis really smells- if you don't know it, this perfume is a hot Ylang dominated skin-scent with white florals practically radiating from it's heart. It almost overwhelms me with smothering overbearing 80's style sillage but it was the perfect 1980's rendition of a suntan oil type of vacation scent. If you've seen the neon-colored pink, yellow and green trim of the box logo, well, it fits the scent perfectly.
Kaleidoscopic and buttery sweet with a faintly mossy dry-down (enough to keep your nose returning to tease it from the killer tuberose ylang-ylang combination). But I can't share those technicolor sensations with you if I just stick to the scent's GC profile, and wonder if it is really more of a chypre or a floral-musk. Ironically I feel just a little that the authors rely a bit much on the very same thing they caution perfumers not to rely too heavily on- that is, the GC analysis.

And GC MS is important- oh, so important to the chemistry side of perfume making. But I think in order to discuss perfume fairly, as art and as product, as when we are reviewing it, I think we need to stick very closely to our own impressions of any scent we're talking about. I would rather hear your own free associations and reports about what you think you smell, than just hear you rattle off a list of compounds. I am somewhat torn because I do love to read lists of notes but when I see that so many perfumes keep boiling back down to lists of similar ingredients, everything blurs into differing proportions of a small set of super-scenting chemicals like Hedione, Methyl Ionone or Galaxolide (just a fancy name for polycyclic musk, kittens), Iso-E and a few ubiquitous florals (rose/jasmine) and woods, vetiver and whatever decoration you throw on top. It's hard not to feel overwhelmed and somewhat jaded at the same time.

A GC MS machine...
But the danger in becoming jaded is that you really don't bother to stop and smell carefully anymore, or force yourself to make those associations that made smelling things so much fun in the beginning. So if you think Bvlgari Black smells like burning rubber, then please just say so- it tells me so much more than if you'd just rattled off the list of what was in the juice. In the past and unless they had the recipe, most perfumeologists had to rely on their noses in order to suss out what was in any given juice. It required effort, imagination and creativity. Plus, the more you know about scent and molecules, and organic chemistry, the more leeway you realize there is in smelling perfumes. Sometimes, rare notes appear and you catch little novel sub-tides inside of a complex composition. Some of us can smell things that others of us can't, or in smaller proportions. These little eddies and variables contribute much to the overall experience of a scent, to say nothing of our own internal experiences and tastes. And it's all of those little things that really help us pull more about the scent out of ourselves than if we stick to a "guided by notes" type of discussion.

Because with GC, there is no more need to guess about notes. You just toss a little of your sample 'fume onto the machine and maybe in twenty minutes or less, if you can read the print out or use the software to edit it, and you will be able to pick out and name all of the organic molecules that are in your sample. You even get the order of vaporization, and information about the relative magnitudes of constituents in it. No need to risk a guess and maybe sound stupid with your super smart perfume friends when discussing notes of a new, or rare lost perfume. Why is that so many of us act more like Mensa flunkies than simple scent junkies? No wonder it's been a sore point for some of those who've labored to train themselves to smell without the benefit of such tools!

Maybe I'm just arguing this way because my love of [rare] perfumes was ignited after I'd left my job in the analytical laboratory. I find it a little ironic that I used to run samples on GC/MS machines and idly wonder what ot do with the last 4 or 5 spaces in my machine... I even edited the raw data myself. And I won't lie... if I still worked there, I doubt I could resist the temptation to load up a few extras with my special 'blanks'. Of course I'd want to analyze some of my own perfumes. But I can't and so for now, my reviews will remain as they have, dealing mostly with trying to paint scent impressions for you with words, and dealing less with strictly dissecting out note lists and comparing to some known standard... although, as I've said before, it is a two edged thing.... So know that when you come here, you will find both educated and sometimes totally in the dark guesses. But at least you'll know the impressions are my own and for what it's worth, they're alway honest, mostly from the heart and not so much the head...

The Vintage Perfume Vault where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives!

photo credits:
Lady with rose: diditrocious 'regal nose'
L' air du temps: Ysatis: ebay.cgi
CG MS: uaf.ed
Chimps smelling roses:

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