"Moving parts" By Luca Turin
Some years ago, in collaboration with a strange and charming guy who appeared in my office one day and later turned out to be a fantasist, I became interested in the possibility of developing an electronically controlled perfume spray. The idea was to use inkjet technology to spray fragrance rather than color. The cartridge would hold four different fragrance bases and spray them in different proportions on your skin according to the software settings. These could in turn follow the time of day, or your mood, or the seasons. The whole thing would fit in the palm of your hand and look like something you’d found in the duty-free of the Starship Enterprise.
Considering how inept we were, the idea went remarkably far: we met engineers from the admirable firm of Hewlett Packard at Chicago O’Hare airport, we saw people from Estée Lauder, Avon, the Body Shop, and we got a lot of technical help from what was then Quest International. At one point Christopher Sheldrake split up one of his fragrances (Tocadilly, if my memory serves me) for me to fill empty inkjet cartridges provided by HP and print invisible fragrance squares onto a white sheet of A4. It worked, and could no doubt have been developed into a workable, possibly desirable, maybe even successful device.
But it didn’t, and the reasons are interesting. Everyone hated this thing. Perfumers didn’t like the notion that anyone should be able to adjust their compositions. Executives at beauty firms, chiefly women, hated batteries being included. Though we tried to make the thing look like perfume rather than a GPS it was still a gadget, and ultimately, electrical devices are boy stuff. The notion of a fragrance player made by Sony in which fragrance would be software was anathema to image-obsessed perfume firms.
Conversely, technology firms were wary of the fickle world of fashion. What is remarkable is that clever devices are now abundant in plug-in room smells, piezoelectric sprays with little fans, wax CDs heated by a laser and much else, while the fine fragrance end still sticks to the archaic candle, with all its technical limitations. This at a time when every woman walks down the street speaking into a device with more computing power than the first IBM 360. I think times may be ready to change: one of these days Chanel will team up with Nokia, ask Philippe Starck to design the Zero and sell plug-ins of 5, 18, 19, 22 and other integers.