Links to the original articles on "NZZ Folio" are included in each post. Source: NZZ Folio.

Please visit "Perfumes - The A-Z Guide" by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

July 21, 2010

"Notes from the nose -- The Last Duftnote" By Luca Turin

"The Last Duftnote" By Luca Turin

This, friends, will be my last Duftnote. Actors want to direct, artists want to run the Ministry of Culture, dancers want to be choreographers, and I want to write about something other than smell. But before I go, I give you the Duftnote of 2030:

IFRA is over. Now that we can stimulate olfactory cells directly with light, there’s no need for chemicals. At least, there hasn't been since 2013, when a group at the Media Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my current place of work) successfully replicated a convincing smell of bacon by shining light pulses at three different wavelengths.

Three years later the technology was sufficiently advanced that perfumers were fooled about whether they were smelling rose oil or light. MIT Chemistry students were among the first to use the technology to identify and remember molecules by associating them with tunes. My son at age 10 smelled wintergreen in a cough drop and said, “Smoke and mint.” When he and his musically-minded sister arrived at MIT, they soon figured out the smoke and mint chords and learned to play them at different speeds—it turns out arpeggiato is best—until they got wintergreen.

In 2019 at age 20 my son finished a degree in Optogenetic Engineering, while his sister’s third-year assignment at Juilliard was a 3-minute smell piece in which she starts out with a huge cluster chord that smells like wet dog and and one by one removes all the bad notes, ending with Jicky played pianissimo.

To smell a perfume these days, all you do is spray a solution containing about 200 different harmless viruses up your nose. Each virus infects a different type of olfactory receptor and instructs it to make a particular protein, which pumps electric charge across the membrane when exposed to light of a particular color. After about 18 to 24 hours, the proteins are in place.

You insert a small fiber optic into your nostril. It is connected to a small machine containing a dozen tunable lasers, which in turn is connected to your laptop and can read a variety of formats like .olf, .noz and .mp7. (Not familiar with them? You haven’t been paying attention.)

I bought one of the early prototype machines and spent several months just going up and down the scale of molecular vibrations and endlessly playing Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (the second chord smells of lavender soap) on an iPad MIDI keyboard. That was a while ago. Now of course ITunes has a smellable books section, and you can visit the Osmothèque remotely.

But the best things are completely new: the strange, stately harmonies of smell are now explored by a generation of “nazers,” a movement started in Paris around 2020 that soon took over the world. You are all familiar with their work, no need to go into it. I knew they were onto something when I smelled a piece by Calice Becker’s granddaughter that went from bread to nail varnish to curry in the opening bar. I am smelling her second album as I write.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston

June 1, 2010

"Two Italian Perfumers" By Luca Turin

"Two Italian Perfumers" By Luca Turin

I was recently in Milan and set off on an aimless walk west of the Duomo, past Peck, the landmark delicatessen with a prodigious wine basement — 4-litre jeroboams of Sauternes for the price of a car — through quiet streets named after the clangorous trades of swordsmiths, armourers and spurriers, and eventually past a small perfumery belonging to the Farmacia next door at Via Spadari 13. I still cannot resist the sight of unknown perfume bottles, so I doubled back and stepped in.

The place is run by an elegant, courtly woman in her fifties who gives her name only as Jelly, no surname. What caught my eye was an array of ten cubical bottles, which turned out to be a line of fragrances designed by one of her long-time customers, Scipione Zanella, a Venetian businessman and fragrance aficionado. Two years ago, having decided that the state of perfumery was unsatisfactory, he walked in to see Ms Jelly one day, declared his intent to create perfumes and asked her what she thought his first creation should smell of. She suggested a linden blossom on the grounds that the only known fragrance of that type, d’Orsay’s Tilleul, could do with some company. To her surprise he appeared a few weeks later with a linden, poetically named F-051 . Over the next year or so his firm, Onediffusion, came up with nine more, all numbered like industrial prototypes. I started smelling them on strips and was very impressed, all the more so because Mr Zanella is said to be the perfumer: these are confident, big-boned, mature, durable fragrances in the classical mold, made with a judicious mixture of naturals and synthetics, sold at perfume concentration and handsomely packaged. My favorite is F-055, a cross between Lauder’s Beautiful and Piguet’s Fracas, a buttery tuberose against a fluorescent woody-rosy background.

By coincidence, on my return to the US I found a package containing the works of another independent Italian perfumer, Maria Candida Gentile. These mercifully have names rather than numbers and are rich, warm, versicolored, joyful compositions that make you smile with pleasure. Ms Gentile seems to proceed by successive approximations from one fragrance to another and her creations have a strong family resemblance. Unlike many firms, she does not try to do the canonical set to please every type of customer. Those who appreciate the Histoires de Parfums range should try her fragrances.

The fact that these two firms are Italian is a break with tradition. Italian perfumery so far has largely stuck to four genres: derivative, comfortable spicy-floral fragrances from Krizia’s Teatro alla Scala onwards, overpackaged, expensive cod-apothecary products like Villoresi and SMN, insane hippy foghorn confections like Nasomatto and a host of bloodless eco-friendly claptrap with handwritten labels. Onediffusion and MCG are neither provincial nor touristy, do not frighten horses or save the planet: they are proper fragrances, the way the French used to do them when they still cared.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

May 1, 2010

"Anosmia" By Luca Turin

"Anosmia" By Luca Turin

Two weeks ago I received a phone call from a concert pianist and piano teacher in New York who had gradually lost his sense of smell over a period of years, to the point where only three things still smelled faintly: coffee, chocolate and shit. He had seen an ENT specialist, who apparently looked up his nose and told him that his “olfactory bulb” was looking fine, a remarkable feat considering the bulb is inside the brain. The specialist prescribed a mineral supplement, the medical equivalent of airline sweets.

Several things this distinguished musician told me were typical of most people in his unfortunate position. First, losing your sense of smell elicits no sympathy whatsoever. Second, those who lose it often feel a terrible loss because what we call taste is mostly smell, so all the pleasures of food are denied to anosmics. All you’re left with is salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami, not much to go on. Third, the effect on mood is terrible, perhaps unexpectedly so. Another anosmia victim was the journalist Mick O’Hare, who edits the New Scientist magazine. He is as buoyant, positive a man as you’re likely to meet. Yet when he lost his sense of smell after a bad cold he considered suicide.

His story is exemplary in another respect, because he was cured. After searching high and low, he found a doctor in Washington DC called Robert Henkin who treated him with a drug called theophylline, formerly an asthma medication. It is not clear why this works, and theophylline is not without risks. However, it worked for Mick O’Hare: after over a year his sense of smell started to came back, as luck would have it, while he was on the toilet. He described this to me as “the best smell ever”.

There are basically four reasons why your sense of smell might not work. The most common is simply a mechanical obstacle preventing the air from reaching the inconspicuous patch of mucosa where the receptor cells dangle in the breeze. That can be figured out by looking up your nose. The second, and most common is post-viral anosmia. An unusually hardy rhinovirus gives you a common cold and takes the opportunity to wipe out the olfactory neurons. These normally grow back —no other part of the nervous system does that so well— but sometimes they don’t. The third reason is something wrong inside your brain, either due to a blow to the head, a tumor or a degenerative disease. Smell loss is an early indicator of several nasty illnesses from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s. Finally, there is a collection of other causes such as zinc deficiency, cadmium poisoning etc.

The most important thing if you suffer smell loss is not to suffer it in silence, and to find a doctor who takes it seriously. Make sure it is not a blockage, then see a neurologist. You only have five senses, and none to spare.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

April 1, 2010

"Professional" By Luca Turin

"Professional" By Luca Turin

When I was a young lad I used to admire older people with great experience, not so much because what they told me seemed useful or interesting, which it seldom did, but because I wondered what it must be like to be so used to things. And not just frightening, unexpected or merely difficult things: beauty, of all things, was to me the hardest one to get used to. It seemed to me that grown-ups could bravely face up to and judge the beauty of things very quickly and get it right whereas I struggled for weeks.

For example, my parents listened to classical music all the time at home. When they played a new record and declared it wonderful, I felt as if I had been set a fresh, hard problem to solve. All the paintings, books and pieces of music that eventually made me a better person initially felt like bacalhau, nutritious but stiff as a plank. Chewing on Beethoven’s string trios took me years, and I am still soaking his late quartets in running water. Perfume was just as hard, of course, but not part of high culture and therefore never talked about.

I remember my mother’s Diorama floating like an enigma in the air, its contradictory austere and lush facets demanding to be reconciled by an explanation that never came. But what would the explanation feel like ? There is a painting by Magritte, entitled Explanation, depicting a wine bottle, a carrot, and a wine bottle in the process of turning into a carrot. The half-bottle, half-carrot is properly the work of art, as in artificial (note to translator: Robin, is there a wordplay on kunst and kunstlich that would work ?).

Maybe Diorama’s beauty lies only in the fact that you eventually, reluctantly, accept it as a whole. Conversely if it were not beautiful, carrot and bottle would never coalesce, no new form would have been created and you would have learnt nothing. I still think strangeness, novelty, and arduousness that softens into self-evidence with time are the attributes of the kind of beauty I was trying to understand as a child.

There are other kinds: the sublime in which we play no part, for example, the beauty of mountain peaks at sunset or of the smell of roses; and the cute, the beauty of puppies, kittens and cheerleaders. Perfumery lives under constant threat from sublimity and cuteness: wonderful raw materials tempt one to minimalism, hence the endless proliferation of identical vetivers, incense etc. Cuteness, on the other hand, is a sort of artistic dwarfism, the creative equivalent of cooking entirely with “baby” vegetables.

Lately perfumery cuteness has come either in a bleached-blonde style (fruity florals) or in a dark-haired version with a hint of dark fuzz on the upper lip (Coco Mademoiselle and its descent). Where is Athena with one blue eye and one brown? Where is cross-eyed Aphrodite? I, and all perfume lovers, need to get used to something new.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

March 1, 2010

"Opium" By Luca Turin

"Opium" By Luca Turin

Opium is 30 years old ! I make it 33, since it came out in 1977, but lying about your age is ok. On reflection, though, it seems unnecessary: Opium was born middle-aged, and all the better for it. From day one, it was the come-hither perfume of the tanned woman in furs who is beginning to look a great deal more beautiful than her husband. Naturally, young women loved it because it suggested a past that would take some time to explain.

I remember vividly when I first smelled it. I was in London at the end of the dreary seventies, and a French girl, maybe 24 and deliciously named Josette, turned up to work in the fusty London university I was in. She had close-cropped hair and dark red lips, wore emerald-green velvet jeans and spoke in a husky voice that has become scarce since smoking went out of style. She was proof that glamour not only existed but had made alarming progress while I fussed with corduroy flares and snot-green cardigans.

By an illuminating coincidence, Opium came out a few months before the launch of a very similar yet strikingly ineffectual fragrance called Cinnabar. Both referred to China, both used the same red color in the packaging. Cinnabar was composed by Bernard Chant, the man responsible for the fragrances that made Opium inevitable: Cabochard, Aramis, Aromatics Elixir. All these, though wonderfully rich and complex, played with a fallen-leaves palette from umber to deep brown.

Opium wasn’t autumn, it was Christmas. Unforgettably vivid and saturated in color, it seemed to square the perfumery circle by being at once fresh, medicinal and sweet. Above all, it was scarily different. Chant and his collaborator Josephine Catapano had clearly been looking for Opium, but Jean-Louis Sieuzac found it. Cinnabar also gives the measure of another ingredient that made Opium great, one not to be found in the bottle but all around it: perfect art direction.

The name, for a start, outrageous enough to get publicity, but not so much that you lose customers. The slogan was “Pour les femmes qui s’adonnent (give themselves over) à Yves Saint Laurent”. The women in the ads, though fully dressed, looked as if the great gay genius had figured out something better than sex. There were protestations all over the world, and the fragrance was banned in China and the Gulf States. The Chinese couldn’t afford it anyway, and Gulf customers simply went to Paris to buy it. Saint Laurent upped the ante in 2000 with a naked Sophie Dahl making love to Invisible Man, but the original was funnier and more apt.

Opium had a stellar first decade. It then fell into disfavor in the nineties when people decided they wanted pale, thin, overexposed fragrances, which is like preferring a 2-bedroom flat to the Arc de Triomphe. Like it or not, Opium is a landmark that will outlast all who read this.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

February 1, 2010

"Schiff bases" By Luca Turin

"Schiff bases" By Luca Turin

There are plenty of big mysteries left in olfaction, but one of my favorites is a small one, so small in fact that nobody seems to regard it as interesting: Schiff bases. They are chemical compounds named after Hugo Schiff (1835-1915), a German-born chemist who emigrated to Italy and became Professor in Turin and Florence (try doing that today). Schiff bases are the reaction product of aldehydes and amines and contain an unusual arrangement of atoms, -C=N-. Depending on your point of view, they are either a godsend or a nightmare. The reader who has some knowledge of organic chemistry is probably already wondering why aldehydes would ever encounter amines inside a bottle of perfume.

Aldehydes are everywhere since Chanel No. 5, but don’t amines smell fishy? Yes, all except one do, and there’s the first little mystery: methyl anthranilate. Draw the structure on a napkin, ask a rookie chemist to guess its smell, and she will probably say, “Harsh, fishy, aniline like.” Open a bottle and surprise her: American grape. Methyl anthranilate, an essential component of white floral compositions, is what made Narcisse Noir and l’Heure Bleue so wonderful. Anthranilate comes with a warning: mix it with aldehydes and after a day or two your perfume will go dark, your soap bar completely black, because the quantum mechanics of the -C=N- group are such that it absorbs light.

That’s the nightmare. The godsend is that you can make Schiff bases between anthranilate and just about any aldehyde, and they have amazing olfactory properties. For a start, they go on forever and are tremendously powerful. The reason for this is supposed to be that they slowly fall apart into their components and release them into the air, since they are considered too big (more than 16 carbons) to have their own smell. There, however, lies another mystery: most Schiff bases smell different and much stronger than the sum of their parts. If you doubt this, get a bottle of Giorgio. Its canary-yellow color is due to a small dose of a Schiff base between anthranilate (grape) and the aldehyde helional (a fresh, pale metallic smell).

Weld them together and you get the stuff of Giorgio, a prodigious, take-no-prisoners hybrid between fruit and iron that belongs in medieval legend. The perfumer Jean-Pierre Subrénat, who had a hand in Giorgio, told me that when the fragrance was composed in 1980 nobody thought that this small Beverly Hills firm would sell millions. Accordingly, they specified this then-new Schiff base of which only one barrel was in existence. When sales of Giorgio took off and the suppliers had to make more, they found to their horror that they could not recreate that particular smell for months while orders went unfilled. To this day nobody seems sure why this happened, but fragrance chemists seem to have steered clear of -C=N- bonds since.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

January 1, 2010

"Notes from the nose -- Tiare" By Luca Turin

"Notes from the nose -- Tiare" By Luca Turin

It is common knowledge, at any rate in Italy, that the victim of a curse will never understand what is happening without help in the form of a messenger who says, “This is malocchio,” at which point what seemed like mere bad luck suddenly falls into a pattern. Curiously, I find this to be more true for happy events: in my experience, good fortune needs to be pointed out.

I had that flash of recognition a week ago when I read, in the Los Angeles Times (Nov 29), the fragrance historian and taxonomist Michael Edwards say of niche fragrances that they had ushered in “a new golden age of perfume.” Many perfume lovers like myself have witnessed the disfigurement of classic fragrances, the rise of celebrity garbage and the unending plague of flankers, and we have become inconsolable wailers.

True, niche fragrances were always good enough to dry your tears and make you smile, and they have been around since Jean-François Laporte started l’Artisan Parfumeur in 1978. But there was always something deliberately marginal about niche, either exotic (Lutens), dada (Etat Libre d’Orange) or minimalist (CdG), reactions to a classical mainstream that no longer needed knocking down. In other words we had plenty of Gauguin, Picabia and Reinhardt, but no more Botticelli and Vermeer, and certainly no Gerhard Richter.

Few niche firms until recently took on classical fragrance on its own terms, though some came close: Lutens’s La Myrrhe, for example, is essentially Chanel No. 5 in a carnival mask, and MDCI’s Enlèvement au Sérail stands comparison with anything done in the last hundred years. But the perfumers behind these fragrances, Chris Sheldrake and Francis Kurkdjian, were moonlighting from big-project firms and had lavish technical backup. They were merely publishing confidentially a manuscript unsuitable for the majors.

Coincidentally, I read Michael Edwards’ optimistic interview the day the postman brought Ormonde Jayne’s latest fragrance, Tiaré. This tiny London firm has always been modest in word and bold in deed, and it was clear from the start that Linda Pilkington’s ambition was to beat Guerlain at its own game, not invent a new one. Ormonde (Man and Woman) and Tolu are perfumes in the grand manner, with timeless grace, balance and complexity. Tiaré goes one further and takes on the most impregnably classical thing of all: the feminine citrus floral.

For reference, this category includes such marvels as Caron’s Alpona, Diorella and Chanel’s Cristalle, i.e. what Diana the Huntress might wear on a big night. Tiaré is clearly modeled on Cristalle, with a haughty, silken freshness up top and a green, acidic, olive-oil fruitiness below. But Linda Pilkington does not know her place: Tiaré is better than its model, richer, more complicated, more interesting. The formula contains a lot of natural materials, smells like it costs a fortune, and at the time of writing OJ apparently only has enough of the ingredients to make 160 bottles. She may need more.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.