Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Smell of Books

 That wonderful rich smell of books, old or new, with that inherent variation ingrained, which lures seekers of knowledge since at least the time of Egyptian papyrii. Bibliosmia is actually a word, found in the Macmillan dictionary, although not exactly officially sanctioned, but pending its acceptance.

via pinterest
Recenty Powell's and Demeter tried to convey that with the word "biblichor", a play on the scientific, yet poetic, word petrichor, for the scent that erupts from the rock and the soil after the rain. The suffix ichor (borrowed directly from the Greek ιχώρ) means "the blood of the gods", and honestly I could not think of a better word to convey the magical properties that a good book can convey. 

Scent must be at the heart of the following statistic by the UK Reading Habits survey conducted in 2015, which showed that 71% of respondents didn’t use e-books at all, and 76% preferred the traditional book to its electronic equivalent. Holding a book is a multi sensorial experience, with touch being the second best aspect of it; just imagine rolling your fingers over the exceptionally smooth pages of a glossy coffee table book with big pictures, contrasting with the slightly grainy surface of an old paperback you picked up at the very last minute at an airport to pass the time during a long and boring flight... 

Like with many things, the scent is embracing death and decay, as contradicting as that sounds. Perfumephiles have long known, through exposure to their hobby, that a certain degree of death is a necessary component of any potent and poignant blend. Flowers wilting into the fat of enfleurage, a traditional method of extracting precious oils, are slowly dying in front of the perfumer's eyes; essences mimicking the genital regions' scent of animals, prized in perfumery for centuries, inadvertently recall that the animals will not be reproduced after all. 

Bibliosmia is therefore also caused by the chemical breakdown of compounds within the paper, which give a sweetish smell, both figuratively and literally, thanks to the preponderance of vanillin in the final outcome. The slow death of the book, eroding through time, sometimes a very long time, is accountable for the bettering of the smell the longer the book sits. Paper contains cellulose and lignin (a polymer of aromatic alcohols, accounting for the yellowing of the pages as well). This breaks down to vanillin and turns sweet and enticing. Older books also contain other chemicals nevertheless, including benzaldehyde (the smell of almonds), furfural (also almondy), ethyl hexanaol (faintly floral), toluene (a sweetish smell), and ethyl benzene (sweet as well). The older the book, the more lignin it contains, and the stronger the scent. 

New books on the other hand hold the aroma of adhesives, paper, and modern ink as well. The smell of the Xerox room is unmistakable, due to the odor of the inks and petrochemicals. Modern binding adhesives can be based on co-polymers, one example of which is vinyl acetate ethylene, while the treatment of the paper with chemicals, although odorless to begin with, results in various reactions within which produce varied results via the emergence of volatile organic compounds. 

Chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, commonly known as ‘caustic soda’, can be added to increase the pH of the paper pulp and cause fibers to swell. These are then bleached with hydrogen peroxide, among other solubles, and mixed with large amounts of water. This water is also full of additives which modify the properties of the paper, such as alkyl ketene dimer which aids in making the paper somewhat water resistant. Newer paper has undergone processing to remove lignin, but cellulose breaks down all the same in newer books as it does in old, so the aroma is there, if somewhat different. 

 On the whole there is a dearth of scientific research on what exactly makes "new book smell", which I hope to be amended in the following years.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Diptyque Fleur de Peau: fragrance review

The Diptyque story began in 1961 Paris at 34 Boulevard Saint-Germain with, at its heart, three friends driven by the same creative passion, who chose a Greek word which means a dual panel painting. Illustration was the very core of the founders, as Christiane Gautrot was an interior designer, Desmond Knox-Leet, a painter, and Yves Coueslant, a theater director and set designer. From then on, inspired by their Hellenic treks along the Greek peninsula and its mountainous terrain, and from their country cottage on the picturesque Mount Pelion, buried amidst thick fig trees all the way down the sea front, they launched several classics, from Virgilio to Philosykos


But the brand also presents a later day constellation of contemporary stars, like Eau Duelle and 34 Boulevard St.Germain. Picking just one is an Herculean task. The most sensual in the current rotation however is an easy choice. None other than Fleur de Peau. 

 Fleur de Peau relies on that rarity of the "musky idea": it harnesses the vegetal musks from angelica archangelica and ambrette seed oil, flanking them with ambrettolide, a macrocyclic musk which shares properties with ambrette seed and aids diffusion and lasting power. Thus the somewhat nutty, with a hint of berry, slightly sweaty and oddly metallic fusion of the properties in those fine musks gains the upper hand and makes Fleur de Peau very sensuous. 

Backed up with classic starchy iris, and carrot seed, which aids the earthy, starchy effect, it creates a cocoon of scent on the skin; it's as if the Platonic idea of sensuality has landed on our shores. The delicacy of vegetal musk with the central chord of pink pepper and rose recalls the refinement of Les Exclusifs de Chanel No 18 Chanel, and Musc Nomade Annick Goutal, two other fragrances with ambrette seed oil tucked into their heart of hearts. A quiet sensuality that does not plunge its décolleté low.


via pinterest amodelmoment

Fleur de Peau is soft, tenacious, with a discreet but perceptible sillage, radiant and glorious indeed. One of the better launches by Diptyque in recent years.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Aquolina Pink Sugar: fragrance review

The infamous cotton candy note (candyfloss, for those in the UK) lies at the heart of Aquolina's Pink Sugar (2003), and the fragrance made the chord mega-popular. It was cheerful and chirpingly cheap. It was bound to set the world ablaze.

The story of ethyl maltol goes back several decades actually. As chemist M.Yodov writes, "In 1861, a specific compound was extracted from larch bark (back then it was called laxirinic acid), and in 1894 it was identified by a group of Munich chemists, they named it maltol. Later it was confirmed that maltol plays a significant role in the aroma of fresh bread, coffee, roasted chicory, and some conifers. In its pure form, maltol has a caramel smell with fruity nuances of jam. At the beginning of the 1940s, maltol was produced on an industrial scale, but it was the flavor industry that first took an interest in the compound, since it turned out to be very useful in the reconstruction of a variety of flavors – from soups and ketchup (50-100 parts per million) to all kinds of confectionery (up to 3300 ppm).

Maltol has been produced under different trade marks, like for example Corps Praline. In 1962, Pfizer trademarked the name Veltol. Maltol was then obtained from kojic acid,  [...] In the late 60s, Pfizer introduced a new product, Veltol Plus. Replacing the methyl substituent with ethyl in the maltol molecule (by replacing formaldehyde with acetaldehyde during one of its synthesis steps), they reached a substance that smelled 4-6 times more intense – the same cotton candy, but with a more pronounced fruity strawberry aspect and less burnt".

The fragrant impression in Pink Sugar is an intense and persistent throughout strawberry caramel chord, licorice, and there’s another note they might be going for...toasted marshmallow? Whatever. It's the scent of a yummy confection, perfect for an afternoon at the Ferris wheel with 14-year-olds, to make you feel like a 14 year old yourself. If you're so inclined, that is.

Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady: fragrance review

 Portrait of a Lady in the line Editions des Parfums Frederic Malle is named after the homonymous novel by Henry James from 1881; a romantic detail which never fails to stir the imagination as related to fragrance. The novel tells the story of Isabel Archer, a young American heiress who "affronts her destiny". Dealing with one of James' recurrent themes, an American in Europe (as in Wings of the Dove), and the differences between the two cultures, The Portrait of a Lady is a tale of the conspiracy to separate Isabel from her fortune, and subsequently  the value of autonomy and accountability.


The olfactory inspiration however has little to do with ladies, and lots to do with the burgeoning trend, set years before with Serge Lutens opening Les Salons de Palais Royal (find the perfume addresses of Paris here), of Arabian-inspired perfumery. Portrait of a Lady, by perfumer Dominique Ropion, deals with a rose note and spices in a new, contemporary way that varies between the oriental and chypre theme with patchouli, natural and intense, dominating the heart of the composition.

It is interesting to compare and contrast two rose-centric fragrances in the Malle collection, Portrait of a Lady and Une Rose. The Damascus rose makes itself felt in the former, while Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Une Rose, created by Edouard Flechier, contains a record 1% of the expensive absolute of the Rose de Mai, a more crystalline, more citrusy variant, which is hereby allied to a chord smelling like truffles to give it an earthy, fleshy quality.

Rose and patchouli is a classic combination, memorized by every amateur perfumer like a mantra, and used by every professional one, revered for the ability of the latter essence to make the former seemingly bloom out in all eternity; keeping it moist, green, fresh, and yet at the same time dark, thorny and dangerous. L'Artisan Parfumeur's Voleur de Roses is a great example of the synergy of the two, with a minty, camphoraceous patchouli creating something totally unexpected for a rose fragrance, which is so often left to smell prim and proper like bath products.

The damascones present in rose, also make up a significant part as the component of the smell of raspberries, as well as tobacco. The tying of Turkish rose with raspberry in Portrait of a Lady, and underscoring it with honeyed facets and smoky incense, creates ooomph. Volume, projection, a flaming red tongue wagging to everyone in the vicinity commanding respect. 

This is no shy lady. Beware! Her skin is ivory, the rose is blood red, her person is on the cusp of hot and cold. Like in the song Herrin de Fueurs, she has "hair of copper, like a chestnut tree in flames" and "name and blood from the innermost of the earth."


Fragrant notes for Portrait of a Lady:  Turkish rose, raspberry, black currant, cinnamon, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, incense, ambroxan, benzoin and white musk

Monday, January 25, 2021

Luxury and the Hermessences: Fragrant Musings

Hermès has always seemed to me the height of luxury: not just a status symbol to carry around, but a brand organically grown out of that most aristocratic accoutrement, horse riding and its paraphernalia. As saddlers, Hermès have distinguished themselves in the axiom of "beauty serving functionality", a sort of van der Rohe "less is more" philosophy where every touch is truly meaningful, truly essential. Their fragrances are a reflection of this effortless luxury, diverting from bourgeois spick-and-span, and speaks of old money, not new. 


The fact that Réna Dumas (née Gregoriadès), architect and mother of Pierre Alexis Dumas, was of Greek extraction, alongside her pushing a Hellenic aesthetic to the brand through collaborations with artists and illustrators, has solidified this classical approach in my mind. She detested pomposity, she embraced serenity and douceur de vivre.


This fusion of functionality and douceur (softness) is what is also reflected in Jean Claude Ellena's work for Hermès, especially in the Hermessences, their boutique-only line of fragrances which are simple like haikus, harmonious like the Parthenon, but never simplistic, nor unnecessarily imposing. They retain a human closeness, a sort of philosophical proximity with the culture of light, a message read on the pure blue skies of a life bathed in inherent goodness.


The Hermessences line, essences by Hermès literally, is comprised of laconic names, often with a double entendre, focusing on unexpected facets of a given material, rather than trying to highlight its stereotypical olfactory profile. They do not rely on in-your-face exclusivity or luxury, like other designer lines, but rather a desire to explore new pathways to pleasure.

After all these years, I'm still taken with their subtlety, their grace, their effortless nod to luxury, a suspension of time. 

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