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

December 1, 2009

"Cocktails" By Luca Turin

"Cocktails" By Luca Turin

There is something dangerous about cocktails. For a start they have nothing to do with food, and certainly do not put you in the mood for it. They are the stuff of the fifties, of men in hats and raincoats hanging on to Manhattan lampposts on Friday night, unable to locate Grand Central, of cartoons involving the now-extinct pink elephant. Cocktails were always far too grown-up for me, like wearing a coat and scarf over a tuxedo or deftly slipping a tip, like a baton in a relay race, to the usher who shows you to your opera seat. This was until a recent Sunday brunch in a very good Boston restaurant called Craigie.

The American brunch is a brilliant invention which, I have found, helps get me through my least favorite day of the week. I did not recognize the names on the list and ordered a Tavern Sparkler, which turned out to be a sensational spiced apple confection made with the Karlovy Vary speciality Becherovkà. It immediately put me in mind of a fragrance, Caron’s Anarchiste. My companion ordered a Cucumber Gimlet, and opined with a big smile that it was like drinking Chanel’s Cristalle. These two drinks were a revelation: as good as perfume, free of all the organic, nature-knows-best burden of wine, real works of art.

Every cocktail on the list was a creation of the barman, a young man called Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli. We spoke to him after lunch and he explained that he had, so to speak, been born in a restaurant to a family of cooks and restaurateurs and had learned the trade on the job. A formative influence, apparently, was three years spent at Eastern Standard, a restaurant which he said had a good cocktail “program”, a term usually reserved for university courses of study.

In structure, cocktails are like perfumes of the pre-war years, composed from a mixture of naturals (lime, orange water, whisky) and bases (vermouth, angostura, gin). They differ from fragrance in that the odorant materials must be reasonably water-soluble (when they are not they go cloudy like Pastis), with the added advantage that they will not linger in your mouth and nose and will not taste bitter the way fragrance does when accidentally ingested.

What I hadn’t noticed was how far fine fragrance and cocktails have converged, indeed crossed each other’s line: the ever-popular fruity floral is essentially an undrinkable beverage, and the quality of the raw materials in a cocktail now far outstrips that of the average fragrance. In cocktails as in fragrance, the great classics are abstract: the Martini is Chypre, the Manhattan Chanel 5, the Gin and Tonic Pino Silvestre, the Margarita Chanel Pour Monsieur. This thought brought back a distant memory of an email I’d received two years ago from Damian Sim, a Singapore-based cocktail composer who let me know he had put together a bespoke mixture for, of all people, American Express. It is called Pure Platinum and contains kewra flower. Now I want to taste it.

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

November 1, 2009

"Hyperosmia" By Luca Turin

"Hyperosmia" By Luca Turin

We seem pleased with the way our senses work in everyday use, and you don’t often hear people dreaming of being able to see in the dark or hearing tiny sounds from miles away. Of course if they did, their wish could be granted immediately. Night vision goggles are available for a few hundred euros, and hearing aids or parabolic microphones for a few hundred more. Smell is another matter: lots of things around us seem written in magic ink that only dogs can see, and every one of us has wished at some point to be able to sniff a dropped scarf and run in the right direction to tell the owner you love her. But a smell in the air is made of matter, not light waves or sound waves, and you can’t multiply matter.

What you could do, in principle, is turn up the volume button inside our head. We know there must be one, because our smell acuity varies quite a bit from day to day. Imagine getting hold of it and setting it to full. I have experienced this, and it is wonderful. I once designed a lily-of-the-valley molecule called Lioral containing an atom of sulfur. It was smooth, powerful, had a pleasant sucked-silver-spoon angle to it reminiscent of helional and was much liked by perfumers. It took me a long while to realize it did something more than just smell. I remember coming up for supper from my home office where I had just been sniffing a new batch sent by our chemists, taking a sip of a cheap chardonnay and finding it as good as a Montrachet: powerful ,rich, deep and seemingly going on forever in a russet-apple and walnut style.

A few weeks later we had some guests over and one was a former editor of a women’s magazine who declared herself indifferent to perfume. I decided to try an experiment, and gave her some of our Lioral to smell. She absent-mindedly waved the smelling strips under her nose for a few minutes, whereupon I handed her a strip of Mitsouko, a fragrance she had earlier dismissed as just so-so. Her reaction was gratifying: she started crying, looking at me fixedly through her tears and eventually said “Now I understand”.

There may be other ways of doing this. A group of scientists at the University of Auburn, Alabama headed by the Russian-born polymath Vitaly Vodyanoy have recently discovered that metal nanoparticles made of zinc increase measured smell responses in rats by as much as fivefold. Remarkably, it has to be zinc: gold or platinum nanoparticles don’t work. The reason this happens is unclear, but Vodyanoy and his colleagues have found zinc nanoparticles everywhere in the body, so this may be a natural process. If it works on humans (do not try this at home) and if we could control it, we could at last walk the dog and discuss with it what news are floating in the evening air.

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

October 1, 2009

"Designer Genes" By Luca Turin

"Designer Genes" By Luca Turin

The Second Law of thermodynamics stipulates that whenever you see your cup of café crème spontaneously separate into cream and black coffee, you must buy a lottery ticket. A more subtle omen of the End of Days for those who do not stare at coffee endlessly: you spray a fragrance on your wrist; it starts with a muted patchouli-sandalwood accord, gradually gets more floral as time goes on and wakes you up with a start at 2AM with a cymbal crash of citrus. Every perfumer and fragrance chemist I’ve met dreams of such an Apocalypse Eau Fraîche working in inverse time.

One day, when we really understand olfaction, we will find out whether it is even possible. My guess is that a top note musk may be forever beyond reach. However, as CTO of a molecule design company, I once made an attempt at a drydown citrus which worked wonderfully for a time but died a dramatic death a few months later.

Here’s what happened. What makes a molecule last long is mostly its weight. Adding a carbon (weight 12) usually doubles the time a molecule stays on your skin. Adding three would slow things down eightfold. What makes the problem interesting is that adding even one carbon usually changes the odor completely, never mind three. I and others had noticed, however, that replacing a double bond between carbons with a little carbon triangle called a cyclopropane leaves the odor reasonably unchanged. Armed with this idea and some clever methods for calculating odor, I tried to see whether other triangular arrangements would do better.

A triangle of two carbons and oxygen, while stable and easy to make, gives everything a bright metallic smell. But to my surprise calculations said that replacing the oxygen with a sulfur (to give a triangle the chemists call a thiirane) would not change the smell and add fully 32 weight units, a touch short of three carbons.

Dihydromyrcenol seemed a suitable candidate: very popular dry citrus-lime topnote, sold by the ton, nice carbon-carbon double bond just begging to be messed with, stable as a rock otherwise. We made the thiirane. To my delight it smelled very close indeed to the original, but went on forever. I took it to a trade show and showed it to two perfumer colleagues working for one of the big five. They declared it to be pure magic. We made a bit more and decided to show it at a meeting with one the largest firms in the business.

The day came: ten perfumers, their boss and some technical staff sat around the table. I passed smelling strips. All but two of the perfumers loved it; the last two said it smelled of skunk, not lemon. What we had discovered was not just a long-lasting citrus, but a new genetic variation among humans: the ability to break open thiiranes into sulfides, the smell of skunk and rotten eggs. Still, eight out of ten perfumers were impressed.

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

September 1, 2009

"In search of a lost smell" By Luca Turin

"In search of a lost smell" By Luca Turin

The French have a wonderful phrase for disturbing ideas that recur at long, random intervals and catch you unprepared each time: serpent de mer, sea monster. Monsters can be good news, as in Dino Buzzati’s short story about the colombre, a giant shark that relentlessly follows a sea captain. The captain, certain the shark wants to kill him, manages to elude the beast for a lifetime. At last, near death, he decides to face the monster.

The colombre explains that what he wanted all along was to award him the Pearl of the Seas, which brings riches and love to its owner. The monster disappears forever into the depths; the captain dies. Some years ago, helped by the Genie in the Google, I embarked on a monster-clearing operation of my own. I tracked down a girl I had met once three decades earlier (no Pearl), obtained recordings of longed-for pieces of music (Pearl: Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns), had a ring made to replace a lost one (lost the second too). Not surprisingly given my interests, there were instances of unfinished perfume business. One was getting hold of Nombre Noir. After years of waiting, two full bottles arrived independently the same day. The other serpent was, more mysteriously, an accord I first encountered in an unmarked, cork-stoppered aluminum bottle my stepfather brought back from India forty years ago.

The smell was properly archangelical, at once searingly bright and darkly fresh, and seemed to swirl too fast for the mind to follow. The bottle was lost, that accord never surfaced again, and I could find nothing similar while snooping around in India or the Middle East. The first clue came from a near-empty bottle of Jean Carles’ Elle...Elle... found in a flea market. In the brief interval between buying it and the bottle being accidentally upended and emptied by an enthusiastic cleaner, I caught several fleeting glimpses of the Indian Deva but could not figure out what it was made of. Years later, I was asked to oversee a fragrance and decided to model it on Elle...Elle.... The great perfumer Guy Robert kindly agreed to help. Elle...Elle...? Easy: he phoned Jean Carles’ son, Marcel, and asked him for the formula. The two main materials were rose and chamomile; I rushed back to Fragonard and asked the lab to weigh me a chromatic series.

There is a proportion at which the heavy sweetness of both materials, instead of adding up, magically cancels out and the perfumery equivalent of the biblical pillar of flame surges up before you. I smelled it endlessly until there was nothing left to understand. The monster still follows me, now smaller and friendlier. It recently reappeared in the form of a rose and chamomile shampoo made by EO. I now habitually shower in the company of a medium-sized creature of light.

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

August 1, 2009

"At the dragon zoo" By Luca Turin

"At the dragon zoo"

Airplanes are as large and loud as the dragons of yore. And, thanks to the imperfections of fuel distillation, they also smell highly evocative.

By Luca Turin

An airport is a zoo where fire-breathing dragons are fed and watered. When you come near, you can hear and smell the fearsome beasts long before you glimpse them, the warbling whistle of jet fans, the aromatic hot breath of jet fuel.

Piston engines burn all the fuel they’re fed and just smell of smoke. Jet engines are sloppy until warm and spit out a lot of unburned fuel at idle, hence the smell. If distillation of petroleum were perfect, kerosene would be made up only of heavy molecules, and would have almost no smell. But no one can afford perfumery-grade stills for mere fuel, so kerosene contains the petroleum equivalent of cognac, a mixture of indenes, tetralins and alkylbenzenes.

For those born just after the war, that smell recalls the epic time, roughly 1959, when dragons were finally domesticated and became beasts of burden: the effete Comet, the manly 707, the gorgeous Caravelle.

If you happen to be fond of dragon zoos, smaller is usually better: you can come closer to the animals, almost pet them through the fence. My favourite was the lovely and very decrepit museum of the Fuerza Aérea Argentina. It lived at the south end of Jorge Newbery airport in Buenos Aires, in a little triangle of land stuck between a taxiway and the main coastal road north of the city.

Big jets taxiing for take-off swept past so close you could read the markings on the tires. Old aircraft were scattered among the bushes, with the battered look of old saucepans. A small, low building housed relics of the air force. One room was full of blue-white-blue Argentinian flags, each with a sun embroidered in heavy gold thread at the centre. Each sun had a face, and each face was different, mostly melancholy, occasionally angry, as if the country itself had moods.

A second room housed aircraft engines, some cut open to reveal their shiny, now immovable innards, with the cut metal painted red like living flesh.

A third room housed the centrepiece of the museum, a glass case shaped like a coffin with bevelled crystal windows on all faces, containing a mangled mass of wooden struts, brass piping and leather straps, with the accessible parts buffed up to a high sheen. Ribbons in the national colours connected various parts of this unrecognisable object to little plaques affixed inside the crystal panes. One said "carburettor", another said "altimeter".

This turned out to be all that was left of an aircraft that had attempted to pass the Andes at their lowest point in the early 1920s and found that the lowest point was higher than it could go. The passion, the tragedy and the loneliness of early flight gripped you by the throat.

Stepping out into the sun, I was nearly blown over by the fragrant blast of a Boeing 737 turning from the taxiway to line up for take-off. I have just checked on Google Earth. The museum is gone but you can still see the shadows of the aircraft in the grass, no doubt rippling docilely when dragons growl.

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

July 1, 2009

"One-way functions" By Luca Turin

"One-way functions" By Luca Turin

I have never gone to perfume school, and it is sadly too late for me to do so, but I can imagine how the student perfumer feels when first given access to the full palette of raw materials. When I was nine years old, I used to sit at a Bechstein concert grand that belonged to family friends and, as the British say, “tickle the ivories”. Even simple chords were so beautiful, especially with the sustain pedal held down, that it was easy to understand why sung polyphony was the greatest hit for centuries. But the strange thing was how different the component notes of a chord were from the chord itself, how mysterious the added magic of playing them together. A chord never felt like the sum of its parts, some other operation seemed to be at work.

We now know that the perception of harmonies involves the comparison and matching of all the frequencies contained in each of the notes, such that the analysis our brain performs so willingly is more akin to the product of several Fourier transforms, one for each note. Such operations are not easily invertible: to dissect a complex chord into its component notes requires practice, and can be near-impossible when tricks are played with timbre: when Egberto Gismonti and Mauro Senise play a fast tune called Lôro on piano and flute in exact unison it sounds for all the world like a new instrument, a concert grand made of Baccarat crystal. Listen to 30 seconds of it on iTunes, and I am sure you’ll agree that no computer would give the correct answer.

Perfumery chords are no different: the classic bergamot-cistus-oakmoss of chypre is, once invented, as self-evident and capacious as perspective drawing. It’s as if the citrus-sweet-bitter were orthogonal axes of an invisible space, and once you had made them appear into thin air you could then put in walls and floors, hang paintings, slide sofas, move in and have a party. Even binary accords can have non-invertible magic. The vetiver-vanilla accord, once explained, falls to the floor with a loud crash and is very hard to put together.

If someone you know loves Habanita, don’t tell them how it’s done. Of course these days professionals use gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to analyze the competition and replicate it. It is easy with synthetics and harder but still doable with naturals. But how did they copy fragrances in the old days? An old perfumer told me that you could do it by identifying one raw material, smelling it pure to desensitize your nose, smelling the original mix again from which that one would now be “missing”, identifying another etc.

Such was the power of this chemical cryptography, however, that until recently, merely splitting the formula in half and never giving a single person access to all of it would guarantee its unbreakability. This is the exact equivalent of public-key cryptography: Guerlain publishes the product of two large primes, and only Jean-Paul knows both numbers. The rest of us smell a 128-digit marvel.

June 1, 2009

"Magic Moments" By Luca Turin

"Magic Moments" By Luca Turin

One of the many things I love about the US is the majestic size of home appliances: to European eyes, US washing machines and driers belong to a friendly race of giants and serve as a reminder that space is always a luxury, even if you merely intend to fill it with dirty laundry. These large creatures inhabit house basements, open-plan spaces typically full of obsolete children’s toys, gardening equipment, things bought in haste and repented at leisure and, where I live at least, snow-clearing equipment ready for the next time you wake up and can no longer see your car parked in front.

As you walk past the curiously flimsy houses Americans live in, meant to last no more than one lifetime, extractor fans at street level breathe powerful blasts of laundry soap and fabric conditioner across your face. These smells suddenly make you feel you’re no longer outdoors, but in a mysterious room the size of a city. The combination of crudeness and volume tugs at your heart, like a snatch of melody played too loud by a passing car. Appliance breath has the poetic beauty of objects the wrong size, like Claes Oldenburg‘s giant telephone, three-story tall half-eaten apples and truck-sized clothespin. These fragrances are clearly not meant to be smelled at this magnification, and seem rough and hairy like newsprint seen in a microscope.

When displayed at the correct, legible size, fragrance in soap and conditioner is meant to elicit loyalty. People ultimately choose a brand because they think April Fresh or Summer Pasture smells great. It does not do so by accident. Soap manufacturers are the political parties of perfumery: a few percent change in market share is a very big win. Thousands of volunteer testers take home small test packets of proposed new fragrance compositions, and diligently fill questionnaires at critical points: after opening the washer door, while hanging the clothes to dry, and while folding them. These time points are known in the trade, without the slightest irony, as “magic moments”. Despite the very low cost of these compositions, this is where the money is made in perfumery.

A week’s worth of Tide fragrance oil is probably worth ten years of Patou’s turnover, yet every penny spent by soap makers on fragrance compositions is scrutinized as if it were a gold sovereign. Does it have to be so? Why doesn’t Guerlain make a luxury fabric softener? Probably because we wouldn’t buy it. Objects too have their castes, and we seem to like it that way: telephones must do a poor job of reproducing the human voice, burgers should be greasy, car dashboards should be plastic pretending to be leather, washing products should smell pleasant but obedient, unadorned—in one word, deferential. To borrow a Victorian phrase, they should know their place, below stairs.

May 1, 2009

"Millefleurs" By Luca Turin

"Millefleurs" By Luca Turin

A few weeks ago I was given a tour of the Henkel plant in Krefeld, a sleepy little town near Düsseldorf. Henkel is the largest German soapmaker and stands alone among its peers in having had a molecule discovery department that, in the eighties, famously stole a march on Firmenich and made Henkel’s very own Ambroxan.

The Krefeld site is a jumble of buildings, mostly lovely century-old brickwork with ample courtyards. The place is quiet, with few people visible and very little smell in the air. The plant manager showed me around, and was justifiably proud of his charge. He got a doctorate in process control and was immediately given by Henkel a chance to put company money where his mouth was, with impressive results: the place seemed to hum more smoothly than any I have seen.

We started at the beginning, where the drums of smelly stuff come in. On the principle of “trust is good, control is better” one in ten drums is sampled from the bottom (not-so clever suppliers sometimes put a layer of good stuff on top) and sent for analysis. The drums are then loaded into one of 700 vats of differing sizes from which they can be automatically dispensed under computer control to make perfumery mixes ranging from about a pint to a couple of tons.

This, among other things, means 700 stainless steel pipes running from room to room, each the size of a tennis court, while making right-angle turns right, left, up and down in formation. Thousands of valves direct the flow, and extraordinary scales weigh bathtubs full of fragrance to sub-gram precision. Everytime we moved from one building to another, giant vertical sliding doors shot up before us with a speed that made me feel important. I was taken to a room kept at the temperature of a hot day in Java, where the resinoids are kept to make sure they flow when needed. It felt like a hothouse in a zoo, as if those exotic ingredients might otherwise feel homesick.

The process is amazingly error-free and efficient: virtually the only surplus comes from the half-litre bottles of compositions that perfumers sample and then discard, because the automatic mixer cannot make a batch smaller than that. What happens to the leftovers? They get mixed into a big vat, thirty tons each year, and sold under the elegantly cynical name of Millefleurs. I asked to smell it and was offered smelling strips dipped in the last four batches, each randomly different. They smelled better than many things made on purpose.

Every company has its own Millefleurs, and each apparently has a house style. Who buys the stuff? North African soap makers, who pay € 1.50 per kg for it, i.e. at least twenty times cheaper than the cheapest proper fragrance. Henkel tried to up the price to € 1.80 recently and found no takers. It is a wonderful to think that the perfumery product most closely approaching an unrepeatable limited edition is also the cheapest.

Zu Duftnote -- Millefleurs - NZZ-Folio Do it yourself (05/09)

Da haben sich mir doch, eigentlich zum ersten mal, seit ich das nzz folio lese, die nackenhaare gesträubt. in dem artikel steht, dass "krefeld eine verschlafenen kleinstadt nahe düsseldorf" sei! daran richtig ist nur die nähe zu düsseldorf, krefeld ist aber nicht verschlafen und auch keine kleinstadt: krefeld hat ca. 240'000 einwohner ! (und beherbergt, nebenbei bemerkt, den deutschen eishockeymeister von 2003) die henkel-seifen-fabrik liegt im uerdinger industrie-/hafengebiet, dass dort dort geschlafen wird, kann ich mir auch nicht vorstellen. wie kann luca turin nur so daneben greifen?
Reinhard Wagener, Krefeld

April 1, 2009

"No Benefits" By Luca Turin

"No Benefits" By Luca Turin

Perfumery, a hundred-year-old art, has taken a long time dying, but on January 1, 2010 it will be officially dead. On that date, amendment 43 by IFRA, the international fragrance association, will take effect, and all perfumes on the market, old, young, fine fragrance or shampoo, must follow its guidelines or be in breach of the law in the EU. Among the many disasters that will befall fine fragrance, let me pick an emblematic one: oakmoss. This material is essential to perfumery and especially to the chypre category, including Mitsouko and hundreds of others. From 2010 it will be replaced by things which do not smell like oakmoss. Why? Because it contains some things which sometimes cause rashes in some people. The death blow to oakmoss was dealt by an environmental chemist called Suresh Chandra Rastogi, working in Denmark. He and colleagues identified two molecules, atranol and chloroatranol, as particularly powerful sensitizers.

One of the subcommittees of the SCCP (Scientific Committee on Consumer Products) in the EU then looked at the evidence and decided to set very low maximum levels of these two compounds. Dr Rastogi was a member of this committee. In the civilized world this might be considered a conflict of interest, but in the nebulous world of EU policymaking it is considered due diligence. Why, you ask, does that worry me? Aren’t scientists impeccably objective? I am not disputing the veracity of Dr Rastogi’s research, though it makes mind-numbingly dull reading. But consider this: you discover some real but minor problem in a fragrance ingredient. Nice work, and you can tell your family when you get home. But if an EU committee bans the thing, that enshrines you as the Man Who Saved the World From Hideous Disfigurement by Oakmoss. In environmental science as in tabloid journalism there’s no story till the plane crashes. In another scientific paper titled “The Composition of fragrances is changing” Dr Rastogi analyses old and new perfumes and notes that his work is having an effect.

It now seems fragrance is to be composed not by perfumers, but by an EU committee of experts. What can be done to resist this? There is no point questioning the evidence for and against, or the logic of the EU decision, and here’s why: fragrance has no demonstrable benefit other than beauty. Beauty cannot be measured by environmental chemists, or, to be fair, by any other kind. In the case of medicines, you balance the positive against the negative and call the negative “side-effects”. When there is no perceived benefit, any risk is unacceptable, much as dividing anything by zero gives you infinity. By all means change the scents of skin creams and shampoos, but fine fragrance is another matter. For real perfumery I see only one, beautifully simple solution: Guerlain, who will stand to lose most from all this, must take the lead and a) bravely restore Mitsouko to its pre-reformulation glory (no point in messing around) and b) add a small label that says DO NOT SPRAY ON SKIN.

March 1, 2009

"Passionfruit" By Luca Turin

"Passionfruit" By Luca Turin

They say Passiflora is a mild hallucinogen, which may explain why the South American missionaries who “discovered” the plant saw in it a crown of thorns, five stamens representing the five wounds of Christ, five petals and five sepals the ten apostles (excluding, handily, Judas and Peter) and three stigmas for the nails on the cross. But the stoned padres ignored a far more cogent proof of the existence of god close by. I write this from Thailand, while tasting passionfruit in full glory. What passes for it in Europe is usually a mean, shrunken shell containing a spoonful of grey snot that tastes like cheap fruit cocktail. In Thailand a bag of passionfruit (1 euro) fills the room with a fragrance that all the world’s perfumers would give their last quarter-ounce of vintage Iris Gris for.

The taste is unusually true to the smell, merely stronger, parfum to the smell’s eau de toilette. In the mouth the fruit, like a perfect Sauternes, has tremendous acidity to counterbalance the lushness of the flavor. But smell a Sauternes in the glass and you’d never know it was acid: sour is a taste, not a smell. Amazingly, as if it bestowed upon us an extra sense, passionfruit manages to smell sour. Fruit have personalities: peaches are generous, apples hale, pears aristocratic, apricots gentle, mangos grand, lychees peaceable, pineapple glitzy. Passionfruit is the impossibly pretty joker in the pack, perhaps the only fruit worthy of the strange phrase tutti frutti.

I imagine flavor chemists, on the walls of their student rooms, have posters of scantily clad papayas instead of Salma Hayek and Eva Mendes. Since 1977 and the identification of a sulfur-containing molecule called Oxane, the code of passionfruit has been partially cracked. Oxane is now used and abused in all tropical fruit fragrances and flavors. It is sensationally powerful and therefore cheap: a chemist colleague once told me that 100 grams accidentally spilled in the factory drains caused the surrounding English countryside to smell of the tropics for days. But, just as tying a sarong round your waist won’t turn Basel into Bali, Oxane is only part of the answer.

A thorough analysis of the molecules emitted by passionfruit done by the great firm of Haarmann and Reimer in 1998 revealed 180 different molecules never before seen, 47 of which are sulfur compounds, with smells ranging from rotten cabbage to blocked drains. The proximity of beauty to ugliness is never clearer than in tropical fruit. Perhaps because they have to compete with powerful smells of decay for the attention of birds, tropical fruit have decided to play dirty. Adding tiny amounts of rot on an otherwise conventional fruity smell is as invigorating as finding out that a theoretical physicist colleague was once a stripper. Try this at home: buy some sulfurous kala namak salt from an Indian shop, sprinkle it on tinned fruit salad, and send me a postcard from wherever you find yourself.

February 1, 2009

"Celebrity" By Luca Turin

"Celebrity" By Luca Turin

Perhaps more as a wishful thought than a sober one, I have so far taken the view that celebrity fragrances could be no worse than average, which is to say pretty bad. I was shocked to find out recently that I was wrong: a UK tabloid journalist arranged a smelling session of all the latest ones, and it was instructive to smell them one after the other. They were uniformly awful, cynically cheap compositions in ugly packaging, the saddest, cheesiest objects this side of the girl’s section in a toy store. They were also unusually bad value for money: twenty euros’ worth of celebrity fragrance gets you a fabric softener stink, while twice the money gets you the smallest-size Guerlain, a leap equivalent to going from The Eagles to Beethoven.

In the UK at least, celebrity fragrances have simply become as bad as any fragrance ever gets. But then, celebrities themselves have taken a turn for the worse. I have never understood the educated surprise at the fame of athletes, actors and explorers, since it dates back to antiquity and by now we should have gotten used to it. What is new and remarkable is that celebrity has become sexually transmissible, as if some spirochaete were responsible. We are now dealing with the wives, and in some cases the husbands of famous people: footballers have girlfriends, the girlfriends have names, the names become brands and pretty soon some thirteen-year-old girl in Sunderland steals two tenners from her mother’s purse to smell terrible.

But on reflection, that’s not new either. In some ways the famous now embody all the absurd eminence of aristocracy: complete independence from talent, transmissibility by name, elevation by marriage, ready convertibility of prestige into cash, automatic admittance to the demi-monde. They trade the elusive quality of being, as opposed to merely having. The rich want fame, and the famous want cash. It is arguably more common to be rich and obscure than poor and famous, and in any event fame can be converted into money more easily than the other way around: consider what Paris Hilton had to endure to go from stinking rich to stinking famous.

After all, if Prince Charles makes Duchy Originals biscuits, why should Wayne Rooney’s girlfriend not make a fragrance? And when you smell them all and discover that the only ones that don’t make you retch are by Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Jessica Parker, is that not a reflection of the fact that the US is charmingly middle class, with stars that can act, sing and dance, that care about their image and oversee their products?

On this side of the ocean, the celebrities do not concern themselves with such trivia: they are content to merely exist, and for little pieces of their lifestyle to be traded like fake relics of the saints. When the tabloid wrote up the piece, they came back to me to ask what I thought of No. 5. They seemed to think it was Nicole Kidman’s celebrity fragrance. Mademoiselle Chanel would be amused.

January 1, 2009

"Purification" By Luca Turin

"Purification" By Luca Turin

The idea that adding something can take something away is magic. Air fresheners rely on this, for example in toilets where bad smells in a small space will be somehow subtracted by good smells coming from a spray can with a picture of the Alps on it. It works with spirits, i.e. metaphysical farts, as well. My mother lived in a haunted flat for a while, where strange noises, sensations and moved objects made her life miserable until she used a Lampe Berger, that wonderful flameless burner invented a century ago, and filled it with a Patricia de Nicolai scent. Things calmed down instantly.

This is the rationale behind Papier d’Arménie, blotting paper steeped in benzoin resin you find in the form of green and yellow booklets in French Tabacs. The booklet says “burn it in hotel rooms where unclean individuals have sojourned before you”, a clearly magical instruction. But to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, any magic will sooner or later will become indistinguishable from technology.

An improvement on Papier d’Arménie, closer to real effectiveness, is Ozium, a mysterious fluid in a striped spray can of pure ‘fifties design, three shades of light blue, with the cursive inscription “Glycolized”. According to Ozium’s makers “Each use will release a pleasant fragrance that kills odor-causing bacteria and converts smoke particles into clean, fresh air”. We are still close to magic, but in my experience Ozium works rather well.

Then, without much fuss, after centuries of rituals there came technology. Procter and Gamble’s Febreze contains cyclodextrins, cup-shaped molecules that actually attach to odors. Oddly, as a sort of homage to past magic, P&G still puts fragrance in it, which must complicate things. The stuff works so well guys in the US spray their clothes with it instead of washing them, a fine example of unintended consequences of both magic and technology.