Fragrant Reads – Smell: A Very Short Introduction

Part of a fantastic series by Oxford University Press, Smell: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Cobb is an easy to read and very accessible intro to the incredibly nuanced, complicated and still most misunderstood sense…

Small in stature but big on fragrant facts, it’s one of those ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ type publications, being an overview of ‘the science and physiology of smell and its historical, cultural, and environmental significance,’ in which Cobb reveals exactly what happens in our brains when we smell something, and how our human olfactory processes differ from those of mammals, birds, and insects.

At The Perfume Society we are, of course, fully on-board with how important our sense of smell is; and we suppose seing as you’re here, you agree. But our sense of smell still lags behind – in scientific research and the wider public understanding – in being discussed and even thought about on a daily basis. We wonder, however, if the recent links between Covid-19 and smell loss (and that anosmia being an early indicator of Covid, among many other medical conditions that doctors are still investigating) if smell will be taken more seriously from now on?

After all: ‘The connection between smell and memory is more than a literary conceit’ Cobb shows, ‘with smells proving more effective than images at unlocking memories.’ Cobb does a good job of explaining how ‘The same odour can have different meanings to different people. Smells themselves are often blends, and our reactions to them are influenced by our memories and cultural conditioning,’ as well as asking bigger questions, such as: ‘Is there a link between smell and genetics?’

Although we’ve said it’s accessible, that doesn’t mean it skimps on taking scent seriously, and this book can be read by those interested in smell and fragrance at most levels of understanding – from complete novice to the already well-read. It’s also a great gift for friends and family members who perhaps don’t ‘get’ why we’re so obsessed with smells!

Get it at Oxford University Press

If you’d like some more recommendations to fill your scented bookshelves, do have a look at our ever-expanding list of Fragrant Reads. We’ve reviews of everything from scent-themed romance novels to seriously weighty science books, and stunning coffee-table tomes to a tale of Guerlain’s history told in graphic novel form…

By Suzy Nightingale

 

OlfactoStroll – artist creates guided ‘smell walk’ (with accompanying podcast)

Artist Jan Uprichard has created a unique ‘smell walk’ called OlfactoStroll, with an accompanying podcast to gently guide your senses and help shape your usual daily walk, into something hopefully not only interesting but a valuable moment of serenity…

Devised in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Derry – it doesn’t matter if you’re not in Northern Ireland: the walk can be taken wherever you live. There’s a specially-created podcast of that name, which you can download and listen to no matter where you are in the world. The prompts Jan gives during her so-soothing narration are not dictated by place, but rather suggest things to look out for during your walk, how to navigate your local landscape using the sense of smell.

OlfactoStroll was an idea Jan came up with as part of PhD research, for which she’s developing a method of Deep Smelling. Using smell, walking, archives, mapping, food, sound, film, bookmaking, botany, and interventions as practical, participatory tools for her art, the idea is to offer differing ways to experience familiar surroundings. Says Jan:

‘Deep Smelling is a meditative, experiential and process-based art practice, which brings our attention to our sense of smell. The smell walk has been configured with Derry city in mind, however you can apply the principles of the walk to anywhere in the world, including your own home.’

The podcast/guided walk is an incredibly relaxing listen – Jan has a naturally soothing voice and instead of talking all the time, you’re offered suggestions several minutes apart, for how to control your breathing, things to look out for and special circumstances to take note of (such as air temperature) which make this an experience that would be interesting to repeat several times during the next few months, to see if you notice any changes.

You can download the podcast from Anchor, Spotify and iTunes, or listen to it by clicking below…

 

If you do happen to live in Derry, the walk is apparently ‘accompanied by a series of Deep Smelling protocols, visible through the gallery windows and at various spots around the city.’ But as Jan says – this is a walk you can take absolutely anywhere, whether you’re in an urban environment, going for a hike through the woods or walking beside the seashore.

 

 

Besides being an anxiety-busting method of slowing down and taking notice of nature around you – and a way to improve your sense of smell simply by learning to focus on it and being mindful of what you sense – it’s also an important exercise in the current climate. As a spokesperson for the CCA commented on the joint project:

‘Both walking and smell have taken on added importance during the pandemic. Jan’s hope, as we try to figure out what a ‘new normal’ could be, is that we take the opportunity to maintain a slower pace. That we will reflect on our experiences with a quiet activism, that utilises taking time to do nothing but wander around, and in this case, notice what we can smell and sense around us.’

Indeed, Jan drives this point home on her blog, saying that ‘Smell has taken on special significance in the past year,’ and so ‘If you have experienced a loss of change in your sense of smell AbScent.org is a UK charity that offers support and advice to people with smell disorders.’

We’ve written several features on smell-loss being an early syptom of Covid-19, and something scientists are currently exploring further; and we hope our sense of smell will be taken far more seriously in the future. In the meantime, what a wonderful way to change-up your daily walk into a scented stroll…

By Suzy Nightingale

 

Sensehacking – professor Charles Spence reveals ‘How to Use the Power of Your Senses’

Sensehacking is the just-published book by professor Charles Spence, and the tantalising subtitle – ‘How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living’ – suggests we can all make use of these hidden super-powers…

We’re adding SO many great books to our Fragrant Reads section, lately (and might have to add more bookshelves soon!) and this latest is particularly exciting. ‘How can the furniture in your home affect your well-being? What colour clothing will help you play sport better? And what simple trick will calm you after a tense day at work?’ These are the questions posed (and answered) by Oxford professor Charles Spence – an expert on the senses who we’ve seen speak at IFRA Fragrance Forums over the years, and whose research has often sparked or informed many fragrant features of our own. As head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Spence focuses on how our senses often overlap – sometimes very confusingly – and this book aims to demonstrate how ‘…our senses change how we think and feel, and how by ‘hacking’ them we can reduce stress, become more productive and be happier.’

Exploring how our senses are constantly stimulated – in nature, while in the workplace, at home or while we play – Spence splices his cutting-edge scientific research with practical examples of how we can use this knowledge to our benefit. For example, now we’ve all been constrained due to the global pandemic, Spence drives home the point of how beneficial going out for a walk can be, for our mental health perhaps even more than physically. In the Garden chapter, he cites how even ‘Two thousand years ago, Taoists in the Far East were already advocating in print the health benefits of gardening and greenhouses.’ And recent studies have revealed those who regularly spend time in quiet contemplation on a woodland walk – a practice known in Japan as shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’ – ‘…exhibit lower stress levels as well as an enhanced immune response.’

 

Sensehacking forest bathing walking nature woodland smell photo by FreePik

 

There’s some fascinating sections on how we’re ‘led by the nose’, too. Ask most people about how they think large corporations try to entice us with smell and many will say something about supermarkets and the ‘fake’ but tempting waft of freshly baked bread. Spence reveals that no research is available on this subject – ‘It’s not that the research hasn’t been done, you understand, for it most certainly has. It is just that the supermarkets have chosen not to share their findings.’ But at least that baked bread smell is ‘unlikely to be artificial’ he explains, because ‘the delectable smell of freshly baked bread is one of the aromas that, at least until very recently, chemists struggled to imitate synthetically.’

From the tricks of ‘Subliminal seduction’ and ‘Multisensory shopping online’, the way are senses are appealed to and why we find certain things/people/experiences more appealing than others, to what the future holds for ways we can hack our senses; it’s certainly a thrilling read. And will provide you many ready answers to the inevitable questions we fragrance-lovers always get: ‘Why are you so obsessed with perfume? Doesn’t it just smell nice, and that’s it?’ Well, we’ve always known there’s far more to it than that, and now you can recommend this book for any olfactory nay-sayers you might meet…

 

Sensehacking: How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living by Charles Spence (Viking Books)
Buy it at WHSmith

 

By Suzy Nightingale

The ‘e-tongue’ – a ‘powerful tool’ that can tell what perfume you’re wearing…?

Scientists have developed an ‘e-tongue‘ – an electronic tool for analysing perfumes and helping decide how they should be classified. Could it revolutionise the fragrance world? Could a robot replace a ‘nose’…?

‘The identification of more than three perfumes is difficult,’ a report at sciencedirect.com begins. And as anyone who’s stood at a perfume counter, trying to weigh up the differences between an armful of scents can attest, they’re not overstating the matter.

Scientists have been trying to find a way to introduce electronic devices into the world of fragrance manufacturing for some time – the majority of large fragrance houses have used computer systems to correctly weigh and mix fragrant ingredients according to a perfumer’s formula, for years; but still a human nose is preferred to gauge the nunaces of the final fragrant result. Because, as the report continues, ‘…no analytical tool can completely replace the human olfactory system for fragrance classification.’

 

 

Last year, the annual IFRA Fragrance Forum had the theme of Artificial Intelligence in fragrance, and we reported on a talk by Valérie Drobac, Digital Innovation Manager from Givaudan (one of the world’s largest fragrance creation houses), who talked about their latest intuitive and interactive system, ‘Carto’ – a new system that reinvents the way perfumers create fragrance. Drobac explained that ‘Carto is an AI-powered tool that brings science and technology together, to the benefit of perfumers who create Givaudan’s fragrances. The new system is designed to intelligently use Givaudan’s unique ingredients ‘Odour Value Map’ to maximise the olfactive performance in the final fragrance.’ Using the recent Etat Libre d’Orange fragrance She Was An Anomaly as an example, she explained how perfumer Daniela Andrier had been suggested to initial formulas to use, which she then worked on, evaluated and perfected.

This ‘e-tongue’ is not about the creation of fragrances, however, but the efficient analysis of a perfume, because, ‘For the perfume sector, the possibility of applying fast, cost-effective and green analytical devices for perfume analysis would represent a huge economic revenue.’

Which is all well and good, but one thing we might raise an eyebrow at is the device’s being tested to ‘…successfully discriminate men from women perfumes.’ In an age when so many fragrances are seemingly being marketed as ‘gender free’ – a phenomenon that has long transcended the niche trend that began this move (and in fact represents a return to how fragrances always used to be, with no marked difference in the scents men and women wore for centuries) – we might wonder why this is a concern. However, this ‘e-tongue’ has also been used ‘to identify the perfume aroma family,’ and for ‘assessing the perfume storage time-period.’

The future uses of such a classification device are surely far wider than we can imagine at the moment. But one thing we know for sure: perfume lovers won’t be replacing our noses with computers any time soon…

By Suzy Nightingale

 

 

Petrichor & Pluviophiles: why the smell of rain is so seductive

Petrichor is the term given to that unique scent following a rain shower – when the world seems to sigh with pleasure, and we, unconsciously perhaps, breathe in a little more deeply, savouring the smells in return.

petrichor /PET-ri-ker/. noun. The smell of rain on hot earth or pavement. From Greek petra (stone, rock) + ichor (or I-KORE) which, in Ancient Greek mythology, was the liquid that flowed in the veins of the gods.

Coined by scientists Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Thomas in 1964, the term ‘petrichor’ was used in their scientific article, The Nature of Argillaceous Odour, observing that cattle seemed to react strongly to this particular smell of fresh rainfall, following the scent to seek drinking water.

Some people believe that ‘petrichor’ alludes to smell of rain itself, but they are mistaken. It’s in the moment raindrops kiss the arrid land the magic happens. Rainwater releases micro-organisms hidden in the earth, mixed with the smell of plant oils and ozone itself: that’s petrichor.

It smells like a secret.

 

 

Though we’re only recently aware exactly how the phenomenon occurs, poets and artists have long been seduced by the scent following a downpour, and in 1916 James Joyce had a good guess at the science when he wrote in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, how:

‘…the trees in Stephen’s Green were fragrant of rain and the rain-sodden earth gave forth its mortal odour, a faint incense rising upward through the mould from many hearts.’

Perfumer H, Lyn Harris, bottled the smell in her utterly joyous fragrance, Rain Wood, coaxing a sense of new beginnings with the snapped-stalk freshness and lacey leaf smell of galbanum. Swirling tender shoots in a foggy haze, green angelica settles on camphoraceous cedar, punctuated by juniper berries and pine trees bejewelled with spider webs; and beneath it all a loamy rumble of rich patchouli amidst the nebulous drift of Joyce’s evocative incense. More than a perfume, it’s a thing to wear and wonder at for hours.

 

Perfumer H Rain Wood, from £100 for 50ml eau de parfum

Petrichor led former civil servant Barney Shaw on a journey of discovery in his book, The Smell of Fresh Rain. But though we can now trace the origin, it doesn’t dampen our seemingly primal urge to rush out and gasp great lung-fulls of the smell. For, as Shaw explains:

 

‘…we recognise smells not as a mix of separately-identified components, but as a ‘chord’ that makes an odour we can recognise, a smell with a meaning. Not petrichor and geosmin, but the smell of fresh rain.’

 

I wonder, too, if we’re experiencing a kind of mass synaesthesia – an overlapping of synaptic responses – after a rainshower? Perhaps the scent of petrichor plus the soothing sound of the raindrops (so often used on sleep apps and calming soundtracks to quieten troubled minds) adds to the feeling of a slate wiped clean?

 

 

Explain it how you like; petrichor is a lullaby for the senses, and wearing Rain Wood is a precipitation of joy for we pluviophiles.

Written by Suzy Nightingale

What makes line-dried laundry smell so good?

Fresh laundry – crisp cotton sheets on a washing line – is often cited as one of our all-time favourite smells. But what exactly makes line-dried fabric smell so good, and which fragrances can equally evoke the immediate comfort we long for…?

The only time I’ve ever been to Amsterdam, it wasn’t to gawp at canals and clogs and cheese (or even indulge in legal cannabis bars), but to visit its industrial district, and the secret centre where most of the world’s laundry detergents and fabric conditioners are made.

‘We basically create the smell of people’s babies,’ one of the technical perfumers told me, ‘and if we even change the scent of their washing powder a little bit, we get so many complaints.’ They produced many thousands of possible options to fragrance people’s washing – from caramel (popular in Brazil, apparently) to chic multi-layered, musky perfumes. But the most popular of all (and one of the most technically challenging to re-create)? That freshly line-dried smell.

So what is it, beyond your choice of washing powder, that makes fabric smell particularly pleasing if it’s been dried on a line (preferably in a flower meadow, and hung while wearing an Edwardian broderie anglaise gown just prior to picking apples in the orchard, in my dreams, but we work with what we have.)

In a scientific paper examining the ‘Chemical analysis and origin of the smell of line-dried laundry‘, atmospheric chemists have published their analysis of ‘line-dried towels at the molecular level’, now they’ve discovered the exact source of this so-specific smell. Using cotton towels from IKEA, they washed them three times, then dried them in three differing ways: inside the office, on the balcony under a plastic shade and on the balcony in the sun.

Percy Harland Fischer – Washing on the Line (1867-1944)

Extraordinarily, they found that ‘Line-drying uniquely produced a number of aldehydes and ketones,’ Sylvia Pugliese – the leading researcher – told the New York Times – which are ‘…organic molecules our noses might recognise from plants and perfumes. For example, after sunbathing, the towels emitted pentanal, found in cardamom, octanal, which produces citrusy aromas, and nonanal, which smells rose-like.’

Fascinating stuff, and it got me wondering which fragrances we could reach for that could also recreate that feeling of sunlit cleanliness and comfort, bottled…

A whoosh of silvery, sun-dappled airiness shot through with ginger, mint, and leafy green notes, softening to powdery florals, cushioned by warm skin-like musk and vetiver. One to spray when you need to be reminded of lazy sundays and lie-ins and snuggling up in bliss.

CLEAN Reserve Warm Cotton [Reserve Blend] £82 for 100ml eau de parfum
spacenk.com

BJORK_BERRIES_FJALLSO

Yearning for an eco-luxury house with a Swedish mountain lake view? (Uh yes, always.) Bright cotton and bracing air’s evoked with ambrette seeds, freesia, spring magnolia, and soft musk. You’ll be yodelling from first spritz.

Bjork & Berries FJÄLLSJÖ £85 for 50ml eau de parfum
eu.bjorkandberries.com

Who doesn’t want to be wrapped in a whisper of white fluffy towels and powdery peonies? Effortless and uncomplicated, sooth cares away with delicate freesia nuzzling fuzzy peach, gauzy ylang ylang, sheer rose, wisps of incense and a cloud of creamy froth.

Cacharel Noa, £15 for 30ml eau de toilette
superdrug.com


Mandarin swathed in powdered sandalwood shavings, violet suffused in a cool fig milk and tonka bean draped with the feeling of washing blowing in the breeze. Think muslin curtains framing a perfect view, the deliciously cool side of a pillow against a flushed cheek.

Van Cleef & Arpels Bois Blanc £130 for 75ml eau de parfum
selfridges.com

Think: deliciously smooth, Egyptian cotton (high thread count, obvs) boutique hotel sheets, just-showered skin and roasted coffee beans sitting atop a warm snuggle of back-lit amber and the sexy hay-like muskiness of the base. For dirty weekends (but in clean sheets.)

La Maison Hedonique Samedi À Paris £135 for 50ml eau de parfum
lamaisonhedonique

So, next time you bury your nose in a freshly dried, fluffy towel, slip into deliciously clean sheets that were dried in the sunshine or spray yourself with a fabulously ‘clean’ smelling fragrance – consider if you can pick up these ultra-nuanced notes with your nose. The more deeply we analyse smells – especially those ‘everyday scents’ we think we know so well – the greater our understanding and the better our sense of smell ultimately becomes. It’s a washing-day win-win…

By Suzy Nightingale

A whiff of hope: smell test detects Covid-19 early warning

The whole world has felt ambushed by COVID-19, but it’s only recently that experts have realised that the sense of smell is one of the first things to be attacked – well before any other symptoms present themselves. Now, IFF (International Flavors & Fragrance) have helped develop a smell-test to take at home, donating scents from their living technology collection to aid the testing process…

Scientists now agree that the loss of smell represents an early warning sign of Coronavirus. Anosmia (smell loss) and dysgeusia (taste loss) are extremely common symptoms that may appear before any other symptoms to suspect a patient might be infected. Researchers developing the pioneering (and self-administered) test say that ‘early awareness of exposure may trigger testing sooner and improve the overall accuracy of testing for COVID-19.’ And as we now know – the earlier a possible infection can be detected and the patient made aware, the fewer other members of the public could be infected.

‘IFF has a long history of developing innovative solutions for a multitude of global challenges,’ commented Dr. Gregory Yep, IFF’s Chief Scientific and Sustaina­bility Officer. ‘Our ongoing collaboration with Dr. Albers underscores our commitment to do more good for people and planet, and I hope our donation can help contribute to a solution for this pandemic.’

The Blavatnik Sensory Disorders Fund at Harvard Medical School is enabling the building of apps that allow long-distance symptom tracking and smell testing from home, and up to 400 patients at MGH, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Spaulding Rehabiliation Hospital will be participating in their first round of testing.

After receiving a small and simple to use scratch card, the test will then be conducted on a patient’s own phone app (or via a tablet, or computer.) During the test, participants will answer a series of questions about possible COVID-19 symptoms and loss of smell and/or taste. By distributing this free smell test, the hopes are that presymptomatic detection of anosmia will trigger full testing and prompt patients to self-isolate – even if no other symptoms are present.

With the recent lowering of social distancing measures, many experts fear a second (and possibly even larger) spike in the numbers of new COVID-19 infections, it behoves us to be extra cautious and to be forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

Dr. Mark Albers, an MGH neurologist specialising in memory and olfactory disorders, was one of the leading experts who wanted to set up the test, explaining that, ‘There is so much we don’t know about COVID-19, but the research shows that loss of smell and taste play a prominent role in identifying possible patients with the virus,’

‘If we can provide reliable self-administered tests to people and health care workers,’ Dr. Albers continued, ‘we may be able to slow the spread of the disease in the future and chart recovery of smell function, which may be helpful to determine when it is safe to reengage after having the COVID infection.’

Fascinating, isn’t it, how we are only now discovering how many medical conditions have early warning signs reflected in a loss of smell? Perhaps now, those scientists who were toiling away studying the sense of smell – which for so many years was disregarded as insignificant – will be taken more seriously; and (we hope – perhaps naively) will be given the funding they so desperately need.

By Suzy Nightingale

Fragrant reads we recommend: Nose Dive by Catherine Haley Epstein

This week we’re diving in nose-first to Catherine Haley Epstein‘s Nose Dive – a brilliant book for adventurous noses. We have a whole scented bookshelf of Fragrant Reads we recommend, so do please feel free to browse at your leisure, from literary to scientific and everything in-between.

Meanwhile, let’s get up close and personal with our sense of smell, and re-connect our sense of wonder as we read…

On the back of the book, author, artist and scent-maker, Catherine Haley Epstein, introduces her book in a way that intrigued and delighted us immediately. Describing it as a handbook for taking ‘…Adventures for your nose in art, anthropology, and science, the book Nose Dive is a broad introduction to olfactory culture meant for artists or anyone curious about the power of scent.’ Well that’s pretty much a checklist of our intersts, so we were eager to learn more, and Epstein contnues: ‘Something is in the air with respect to our most powerful and least regarded sense. This book demystifies the world of scent, provides springboards for further study, and presents exercises for shifting gears with your nose. A must-read for anyone intrigued by the superpower right under our noses.’ Consider us sold!

Epstein was lovely enough to send us a first-edition copy of her book with a letter, saying further that she wrote it because she wanted ‘…to invite dialogue from the different aspects of the scent arena.’ And also explaining the cover of the book is ‘Tiffany blue… not for the reason you might think – it’s actually the colour of my favourite smell, a pool toy.’

You know what they say about finding kindred spirits? We think she’s definitely one of us

Reading Nose Dive is an absolute must for anyone of us who’s wanted to dive deeper than merely smelling nice by spraying something beautiful, deeper still than having a particular memory connected to smell – Epstein manages to express both a childish glee at this super-power right under (and in) our noses, while explaining some complex theories and inviting the reader to explore. There are short, easily digestible chapters on Art, the science of smelling, things to consider when making a perfume and on extolling the utter joy that our sense of smell can bring. On that first thorny issue of art, and in answer to the on-going debate as to whether perfume ‘deserves’ to be classed as such, Epstein puts it perfectly by saying, simply, that ‘Art is translation. Art is a human-specific activity for translating our experiences, using whatever mediums we can.’

Along with theoretical discussions, pondering on her own years of research and development, Epstein also offers some practical exercises for those interested in making their own fragrances, or things to think about, study and and enjoy in your own time. Half the joy of Nose Dive, in fact, is that it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers or place itself on a pedestal to preach about perfume to the already converted. Neither does it simply re-hash historical references and methods of making fragrance or only focus on new, exciting niche houses. This is a well-considered work that manages to pack in some powerful topics and truly thoughtful themes into such a slim volume, you can practically feel the waves of excitement about perfume and smell pulsating from every page. Not only to read and enjoy for yourself, we suggest this is one to press into the hands of everyone who’s ever asked you why you’re so obsessed with scent… Spread the love!

Nose Dive by Catherine Haley Epstein, $25 catherinehaleyepstein.com

By Suzy Nightingale

Smell, Love & Memory: do male & female brains react differently?

Sometimes we love to get super geeky and take a deep dive in to the world of smell – the work on our sense of smell, memory and emotional responses triggered by smelling certain things is constantly revealing further insights into this ‘fallen angel of the senses’, as Hellen Keller once desribed it.

The 2019 Francis Crick medal was awarded to Dr Gregory Jefferis for his fundamental discoveries concerning the development and functional logic of sensory information processing, and he recently gave an utterly fascinating lecture at The Royal Society explaining his work, asking: how does the genome encode behaviour through the development of the nervous system? What makes male and female brains different? What is different about brain circuits for learned and unlearned behaviour?

Luckily for those of us who weren’t able to make it there, The Royal Society recorded the entire lecture and have uploaded the video to watch online – just click below to have your mind blown…

Ignored for years as our least important sense (and often the one people say they’d give up first), thanks to modern technology, scientists are only now beginning to uncover smell as a possible super power, and the impact that smell can have on our every day lives. The more we learn, the more we hunger to know, and although we can’t pretend to have understood all of the information, lectures like this simply set that fuse smouldering.

By Suzy Nightingale