Reflections: 98 posts

Layla’s Musk : Dark, Rich Fragrances

“Bring, bring that musk-scented wine! That wine is the key to joy, and it must be mine… that wine is the key that will open wide the door to the treasure of rapture’s rich and varied store…” The medieval Persian reader scanning these lines by the 12th century poet Nezami would have understood instantly the subtle nuances of the word “musk.” Since natural musk was black, the reader would have envisioned a dark potion. Also, musk was considered the most sumptuous and alluring of scents, and musk-scented wine would surely be the libation to intoxicate one to the point of ecstasy. Most importantly, however, musk evoked seduction and passion, and in Nezami’s masterpiece about star-crossed lovers, Layla and Majnun, musk is the scented leitmotif. The nights are musk scented and so is the beloved’s hair. Even the dreams about her carry a musk-tinged sillage.

Several centuries later, we also understand the association of musk and seduction, but since natural musks have been replaced by synthetic versions, the darkness of musks has paled. Natural musk, such as the one referred to by Nezami, consisted of the dried secretions from a sac in the abdomen of the musk deer. Obtaining several grams of musk took the life of a dozen animals, and when the creature became endangered to the point of extinction, the use of natural musk became prohibited. Today’s musks are more likely to be the so-called white synthetic musks, which smell soft, cuddly and evoke laundry, rather than lovemaking.

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Scents That Evoke Winter Pleasures

A few years ago, I wrote an article about winter fragrances for the Financial Times. I enjoyed working on that piece and I still like rereading it, but the kind of winter wonderland fantasy that I described in it is no longer part of my reality. The last time I strolled through a snowfall was when I was visiting Bulgaria four years ago. There was a fleeting appearance of snow in late November in Brussels. These days it feels like spring, rather than winter. My daffodils are sprouting. The buds on the trees are full and green. Winter is only a distant memory.

Does it mean that winter scents are anachronistic? In fact, I crave such aromas more than ever. In that spirit, I’m sharing my article and my ideas on recreating winter splendor.

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What Makes a Perfume Beautiful?

“What makes a perfume beautiful?” I pose a question to Maurice Roucel knowing fully well that it is a complicated question to answer. Roucel is a perfumer with more than 40 years of experience in creating exquisite perfumes, such as Hermès 24 Faubourg, Donna Karan Be Delicious, Frédéric Malle Dans Tes Bras, and Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist, and he’s devoted much effort to promoting the notion of perfumer as an artist, rather than a mere “nose.” “We use our imagination and our brains more than noses,” he says.

Perfumery as an intangible art can be hard to champion. Although scents are related to the intangible cultural heritage protected by UNESCO such as cuisine and certain arts, they don’t benefit from the recognition or documentation. (The Osmothèque, a scent archive based in Versailles, is the main institution studying and preserving the historical fragrances today.) Perfume is generally seen as too subjective to define or even describe, which makes definitions of artistic worth complicated.

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In the Defense of Perfume and Other “Feminine” Pursuits

I often receive letters from women explaining that they feel guilty about their interest in perfume, because it’s “too indulgent” or “unnecessary.” It’s a luxury and we can live without it. Or so the argument goes. Except that it doesn’t make sense. Perfume is not a fundamental need for human life, but you could say the same for music, art, fashion, sports, restaurants or millions of other things that are not strictly necessary for survival but essential for a happy life. There is no reason to deprive yourself of something that gives you pleasure, and giving in to it shouldn’t be associated with guilt.

Scent is one of the simplest and most rewarding of enjoyments. By stimulating the sense of smell, you fantasize about another time and place, uncover a whole universe of new sensations and add splashes of color to the most ordinary day. Something as ubiquitous as a trip to the grocery store can become a fun experience as you smell the earthy tang of carrots or the pungent sharpness of onions piled in the vegetable section.  New research has revealed that the sense of smell is even more intricate than previously thought, and that smelling is one of the best exercises for the brain.

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On Scents, Memories, and Borsch

Last night I dreamt of making borsch with my late grandmother Valentina. It’s been three years since I last made it, but in my dream everything was as precise as it was in real life, down to the smells of vegetables and the rough texture of Valentina’s cutting board. My dreams of Ukraine recur frequently, but this particular one was especially vivid.

I have been writing about scents and memories for many years, and yet it always strikes me as remarkable how strong the recollections can be. I also noticed that the more I studied aromas, as part of my perfumery training and later during my practice, the more I could evoke scented memories. For this reason, I encourage everyone to practice simple exercises, such as selecting a couple of simple scents (black pepper, lemon, orange, or black tea,) and smelling them every morning for a few days in a row. As you smell, try to describe the associations that the smells conjure up for you. If you write them down, even better. Once you put something into words, it becomes easier to remember, even if it’s as intangible as a smell.

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