It’s been a crazy busy weekend, including Enigma’s 14th birthday bash, so this won’t be the world’s longest or most erudite post (update — oh, it’s still plenty long), but I wanted to blog about how much fun I had Friday night at the Smithsonian’s Art of Fragrance lecture, featuring none other than the Satan Sultan of Scent himself, Luca Turin, along with Tania Sanchez and Patricia de Nicolai. There was another Smithsonian event, a perfume workshop, on Saturday which I couldn’t attend but would love to hear the details from anyone who did.
As is probably clear to most of you, I often find The Guide hilarious or insightful (or both). No, of course I don’t agree with all their assessments, and – yes – it is their opinion. I’m willing to overlook the few places where a review seems mean-spirited or incomprehensible just for the sheer joy of other passages. I would hope nobody has ever wondered this, but no, I don’t get any benefits from mentioning The Guide on here, and Friday was the first time I’d ever met the authors.
The event was at the French embassy, and frankly I was shocked at how many people were there. I’d sort of expected a room with 30 people in it. We were in an auditorium, and I didn’t think to count the rows but I’m guessing there must have been a couple hundred people there. Washington D.C. business attire was the dress, and a lot of people had clearly come straight from work, so picture a sea of navy Brooks Brothers, with a few bright sparkles from the more creative types. I myself had selected a black-and-white-paneled paneled A-line dress, black leggings, and my naughty boots, and I didn’t fall on my face once that I recall.
Luca Turin in person is pretty much the charming raconteur I expected, and he did 98% of the talking, with Tania and Ms. de Nicolai joining in for the Q&A afterwards and a booksigning. LT didn’t reveal any state secrets or change any lives, I don’t think, but it was a pleasure. He either downplayed or dispelled the ideas of scent being an engine of reminiscence, like Proust and his madeleines, nor does he believe that scent ties into emotion in some direct, easy way. He quoted from both writers and composers in his discussions, and pointed out commonalities among scents and the zeitgeist of the times they came from. He did all this without making me feel like I was back in Econ 101 in my freshman year.
We worked through five aroma materials – coumarin (bitter almond/herbaceous); alpha ionone (woody fruity violet), habanolide (a very popular musk), dihydromyrcenol (green citrus lavender, essence of Cool Water and a thousand clones) and gamma undelactone (a lactone, a sweet nutty/creamy peach as in Mitsouko). He’s clearly interested in the chemistry and spent a fair amount of time talking about the creation and elemental structure of these molecular materials, along with his controversial theory of smell based on varying molecular vibrations.
I wasn’t documenting his talk like a reporter for the Post, but I loved how he talked about a perfume being a “continuously changing landscape” as it develops on the skin – pointing out the the evening’s audience, presumably not all scent freaks like you and me, that it’s not just one note (say, rose) you’re getting. He also noted that in older perfumes, you might have to wait for the most amazing part, the drydown – he mentioned Chamade – but that in much of modern perfumery the dazzle is concentrated in the first ten minutes, which is when we’re going to make our purchase decisions.
Finally, there was a general lament about IFRA and the EU regulations which have forced various perfumes’ recent reformulations, which he’s blaming on the Danes (I think the committee originated there?) He offered one argument which seems so obvious when he said it, and here it is: unlike, say, over the counter medicines, perfumes are perceived as having no benefit, so therefore no level of risk is acceptable. Putting aside our Mitsouko-hasn’t-killed-me-yet jokes, this frustrates and saddens me. At least in the United States, chemicals and additives that are largely untested are put into all sorts of manufactured goods, including food, and we’re one giant, long-term study in their side effects. How can this be? Well, there were 62,000 existing chemicals grandfathered in under the EPA’s 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, most with no particular demonstrated record of safety. If they could manufacture it and people didn’t promptly drop dead like flies, it could be in your cardboard cereal box or your bar of soap.
BPA was only recently declared problematic, although it’s been known to be estrogenic since the 1930s. If I google the artificial colors present in popsicles, there are ones in there on the avoid list because there’s actually some evidence that they’re unsafe for human consumption. I’ve no doubt that a small percentage of our beauty products contain surfactants or emollients that maybe we shouldn’t be smearing all over our bodies (as opposed to dabbing on our pulse points), and most any of you who wear makeup have run across something, at some time (probably an eye product or mineral powder) to which you reacted unfavorably, yes? Thus I can, apparently, consume a potentially carcinogenic food colorant out of a plastic glass that shrivels the testicles and causes male amphibians to lay eggs, but I can’t have Diorissimo because some joyless suit in Copenhagen has decided that whatever makes it smell like muguet picked at dawn by Heaven’s choir … could give me cooties. Maybe. If I drank a bottle every day for forty years.
Anyway, after the event we adjourned to the lobby for bubbly and conversation – I met several gals from the Posse who came up and said hi, including StyleSpy, ggs, Dina and NozKnoz (and Mr. NozKnoz) – did I forget anyone? I think some of them toddled off together for dinner, but I had to get home. I did get a chance to speak briefly with Patricia de Nicolai about the vocabulary of scent – how there are perfume materials they work with that have no particular correspondent in nature (peachy, rose, hay) and are more abstract, which allow perfumers to explore new directions and push their boundaries.
While waiting for our lattes Saturday morning, I derided my hometown D.C. to Francesca as having southern efficiency and northern charm, a famous quote lifted from JFK. (Yes! I saw Francesca on Saturday morning for coffee and she was, predictably, interesting and a pleasure to talk to.) But I admit I was pleased by the turnout on Friday night by our local blue-suit mafia, including a woman in the audience who asked a chemistry question that … I have no idea what she was talking about, although LT did. Bloomingdales co-sponsored the event and they had tables set up in the foyer, and it filled my heart with joy to watch folks dive into Dior like it was cupcakes. I myself spritzed a little Cartier Declaration Essence, and it was every bit as deliciously sweaty as I remembered, although Mr. Nozknoz found it a bit too post-5k-run for his tastes.