I recently moved into the 8th arrondissement and quickly became a “regular” (I’m not an alcoholic!) at a nearby bar that just opened. Today, I went in for a drink to unwind and noticed a new house cocktail that was being served.

The owner whipped up his recent creation which was a mixture of rum, different citrus juices, a strawberry flavored liquor and a peach flavored liquor. When I tried the cocktail, I immediately tasted an imbalance between the ingredients. He asked me if I liked the drink.

With the most tact possible, I told the owner that his new house cocktail had too much peach flavored liquor which made the drink too synthetic/sulfurous/cat piss-like (thiazole!!!).

I politely suggested reducing the peach and if necessary, adding peach nectar to compensate and bring more naturalness to the cocktail. (Well, technically there are other strategies like changing the peach liquor to one of a better quality, adding a new ingredient that will mask the unwanted effects, etc..)

But this is what we do at work everyday…

 

My first perfumery internship ended with a month long opportunity as a perfumer’s assistant. I remember weighing formulas right next to the assistant perfumer of Michel Almairac. What impressed me was how quickly his assistant would be done compounding each base or modification. I realized that it was not because his assistant was a fast compounder (she was quick with the pipette) but because his formulas were very short. On my end, I was struggling compounding formulas that were pages long.

I started my training reading Edmond Roudnitska and Jean Claude Ellena’s writings about the mastery of raw materials and elegant formulas of simplicity. Mr. Almairac’s work further reinforced my love for this style. I have since studied many of Mr. Almairac’s fragrances and each time, I was (like other perfumers are) impressed how Mr. Almairac is able to make some of perfumery’s best classics with so few ingredients. He is a true genius in our art.

The idea of simplicity and my experience with it as a student will be written in another post. In this post, I wanted to share an anecdote about a formula that I weighed during my first experience as an assistant. It was a reminder that we should be open to other styles (and that certain situations do not allow us to be simple).

I remember receiving a formula for a soap that was over 100 raw materials long. Looking at the raw materials before weighing it, I saw that this was a low-cost formula. I was used to weighing formulas for fine fragrances using (more expensive) raw materials that smell “good”, but in this case, this formula was filled with (cheaper) raw materials that smelled sharp and functional. Naturally, I assumed that the fragrance would be cheap smelling

When I finished compounding the formula and smelled the result, it was the most beautiful woody rose fragrance that I had ever smelled. I was humbled by the talent that went into the construction of this perfume. I realized that the perfumer did not have the “money” to use natural rose, so instead of using one line (rose absolute or rose essence) or a few to create an accord to give an illusion of a rose, he had to recreate the smell of it using a big handful of ingredients…

 

Perfume and love have been interconnected in my life. I love perfumery. I once incorrectly told a master perfumer that “j’adore le parfum” (equivalent to: I “like” perfume) when I really meant to say “j’aime le parfum” (that I “love” perfume). He shook his head with great disappointment and quickly told me that my “adoring/liking” perfume was not enough. And he was right, you cannot just like perfume. You have to love it.

I chased after perfumery. I wanted her so much…she taught me to take risks, to leave everything behind, to make difficult decisions, to fight, and to make sacrifices. In moments of pain, rejection, and disappointment, I hung and fought on. There were times I wish that she would see my love for her, what I have done for her, and moments she was blind to my efforts. But perseverance and relentless ambition helped her see who I was and my potential. Loving perfumery was never about pain and suffering though – to be with her was joy and it was almost always joy. Just to be part of her life was worth all the trials and tribulations that came with it. What I went through between me and her was between us, and no one will possibly understand what I went through. And all of this taught me what love is.

Before going to ISIPCA, I had the opportunity to sit with a perfumer who was my inspiration. I told him that before I pursued perfumery, I had a pretty decent and stable life. With my finger, I motioned out a flatline. I was dead. And ever since getting into perfumery, my life became a huge sinusoidal wave with polarizing extremes, ups and downs. But I was so alive. This perfumer nodded and smiled without saying anything. I could tell that he wholly understood what I was saying.

To be continued.

Ethyl Maltol is a very strong perfumery raw material that smells gustative, sweet, of caramel, burnt sugar, and cotton candy. It is no secret now that this raw material is one of the key ingredients in the modern classic: Angel. This raw material is so powerful that it is almost always used in dilution. Despite such an olfactive marking and powerful smell, one of my classmates at ISIPCA was anosmic to Ethyl Maltol. She was not able to smell this raw material at all. It smelled of nothing on a blotter. I find this amazing and also perplexing. I have always wondered how she smelled Angel. It would be like having some tiramisu without the marscapone or everything but the lady fingers missing their coffee?

Another group of raw materials in the dry-ambery (ambré-sec) family that perplexes me as well. I had written about the strange effects of karanal in the past (hidden now). Certain people are very sensitive to karanal (and other raw materials like ambrocenide and timberol/norlimbanol) and they describe karanal to have this powerful piercing quality that actually hurts their noses (like pins being stuck up their noses). I still have these repeated images of watching my colleagues shrivel up their nose and see the pained look with a blotter of pure or diluted karanal under their nose and tossing the blotter aside.

For me, karanal has a smell like any other raw material. It smells dry, ambery, oily, woody, and there is a certain greenness to it (took me years to understand this facet). It is a strong raw material but there is no pain, discomfort, piercing, etc. effect associated with it.

Karanal is used in traces in formulations so it is not so disturbing for my “sensitive” colleagues. However, they are able to perceive the presence of ambery, dry raw materials very well when it is there, even when it is microdosed. I am almost jealous because I am not sensitive to this raw material. I would smell a perfume (or my own work) and find the trace of karanal after smelling through all the citrus, florals, and find it amongst between iso e super and other woods (I detect this raw material from its smell and the slight oily texture that it adds to the fragrance). For my special colleagues, karanal is an elephant in a room.

Personally, I am not really that jealous as I love ambery notes and tend to overdose them – only to expect my special colleagues to shake their heads. Oh how many times, I have come out of the lab after weighing formulas loaded with ambery dry raw materials and my special friends inch away from sitting next to me. Or how many times I have heard “AHH Alex, reduce the norlimbanol!!!!!” Or how many times have we played jokes on my ambery-dry sensitive friends. “Hey, smell this!” (blotter of ambrocenide) and watch them squirm in pain, go ugh, and throw the blotter back at us.

On the other side, there is a perfumer in my company that is anosmic to the raw materials in the ambré-sec family. These products are important in today’s perfumery, so this perfumer still has to use these raw materials despite not smelling them. How he doses these raw materials is based on experience and critiques from his evaluators.

To conclude, it is so interesting how certain people are able to perceive a raw material differently. But how does molecule of karanal able to create this extra stimuli to create pain and discomfort only in certain individuals?

A week and a half ago, I came home from the hospital after having my tonsils removed. The moment I walked into my room, I turned to my parents and held one finger up – as in please give me a minute (I could not talk due to my operation). As my parents looked at each other inquisitively, I ran to find an empty suitcase. Then I went to where I had my fragrance collection, olfactive kits, trials, etc and I threw everything in the suitcase and zipped it up and threw it in the closet. I threw all my “dry downs” that I were following in the trash and emptied my trash bin (which had the results of a smelling party) into a plastic bag and threw it outside.

I sniffed around. I was not pleased. I found my company bag that contained some raw materials that I wanted to review for fun during my time away from work – I took that and put it into my suitcase and threw that back into the closet. Better. My mom whispered silently, “Alex?” I wrote on my iphone and showed the screen to my parents: too many smells in my room.

After having my surgery, the first I did upon waking was to smell myself. The ear, nose, and throat are connected and they were going to play around inside. As a perfumer trainee, I had the greatest fear that I would lose my sense of smell. Instead of finding anosmia, I felt an hypersensitivity to smell kick in.

Generally, my room is pretty neutral in smell. However, as I entered my bedroom, I was overwhelmed with this barrage of smell that it made me sick in the stomach. The process of having to reject everything that smells is just as frightening for a perfumery trainee than it is to lose his sense of smell. There was a time that I sent my father to the shower but after a walk outside with my mom, (he smells good usually and normally, I would not respond this way) I had to get him clean. Until now, I could not shower with any scented bath products.

I took little walks around my neighborhood which is full of trendy restaurants and food carts, and I just could not stand to be outside as the smells of oil and fats were accentuated (normally, it is an olfactive pleasure to smell of all this). I had to avoid perfumed people (gasp!).

Fast forward to today. My nose is calming down, but I still feel this extra sensitivity which could be more of a plus than something negative if it stuck permanently (can a doctor please try to explain this phenomenon to me please?). Tonight, I went to the NY highline with my parents, my first big excursion outside my apartment after my surgery. I was able to slowly appreciate of all the perfumed women (lots of Dolce Gabbana Light Blue) and men around me.

Just as I was closing this post, my roommate comes back and says that it has been an eternity since we last hung out and that it was weird that I haven’t done my “hey Steve, smell this, smell that” in a long time.

I guess it is also good to take a break from smells sometimes. This week I hate perfume (not to say I was not inspired). Next week I will love it more, stronger to take on new olfactive adventures.

Next post: anosmia, anosmia to certain raw materials

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