On categories

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And day of rest it was, yesterday. After a long break, I am coming back to the with a new post, so long overdue. But, what is more important, with a slew of new ideas, projects and inspirations, some of which I am going to disclose here in the coming weeks.

Yes, the book was completed and submitted (but no, it’s not going to see the light before the end of the year) and after a somehow troubled last few months, I just settled in a new place and managed to rearrange my organ. The reason I have neither written nor blended scents in while is that I did not have a space to do so in my old place. Now I have it, and that’s good news, and inspiration is back.

So, rearranging my organ I had to face the issue of sorting the ingredients. It is a useful exercise (and I suggest everyone tinkering with scents to do it from time to time, not least because, by opening the bottles one by one and smelling get you to rehearse the whole set of your materials): some of the ingredients get misplaced with time, others are forgotten or overlooked, and simply never used, resulting in the disruption of the initial criteria according to which I had placed the bottles.

The issue of criteria is crucial. Some of the materials are pretty straightforward: woods are woods, flowers are flowers, citruses are citruses. Although the criterion may be questionable and the boundaries are blurred (I lump cinnamon bark with spices, for example, but it would not be entirely extravagant to group it with woods), these are no-brainers.

The whole thing gets much more complicated (and intriguing) when it comes to other materials, which got me to think that the primary criterion I use to sort them is not what they are in nature, but what their use is and what they smell of. I realised that I have a slot for materials that reminds me of water, but that most of them are in fact more related to earth – geosmin, patchouli (which is in fact a herb), earthy pyrazine, mitti attar etc. – or things that I identify as related to watery edibles, like melonal, calone and the like. Right, I do have a slot for “edible” odours: coffee, cocoa, saffron tincture and safranal (which I divorced from the spices. Why do I see saffron, as oppose to basil absolute, as an edible and not as a spice is beyond me), tonka bean (and coumarine with it), vanilla etc. But I also have assigned a space to reeks, that is, to all those ingredients that are outright disgusting when smelt pure, but are so subtly awesome when are used below the threshold of consciousness (civet, castoreum, different kinds of tars. I also place ambergris here – to me, it smells of rotten teeth when pure – and this is the reason why you’ll find ambrofix along whith my “bad smells”).

Some chemicals are utterly unruly, when it comes to categories. They could stay with the stinks  as well as with flowers or edibles (some aldehydes form example). But one of the most interesting of my own categories stands besides the stinks: it is the slot I have assigned to leathers, tobaccos, hays and intoxicants. Here too the boundaries are not fixed (I have moved wormwood, the plant absinthe is extracted from, with woods and not with drugs), and far from unquestionable. But, after all, the arrangement of an organ must be the functional. An organ is arranged finely when you can quickly find what you need, when you need it. So I found myself putting my anisaldehyde with “drugs and intoxicants”. The path that led me to line an innocuous molecule that smells of bitter almonds is quickly explained. Among the intoxicants, stands methyl benzoate, which is what dog actually smell when trained to detect cocaine. To me, methyl benzoate only smells of one thing: a waxy glue that was very popular in Italy when I was a kid, and ubuquitous in schools and homes in the 1980s:

The name of the glue was Coccoina. It clearly resonates with “cocaina” – hence my assigning the poor anisaldehyde (which nowhere smells of cocaine nor of any other drug) a place next to hashis and cannabis.

When I’ll need to use it, it will come way handier to resort to “the chemical that smell of Coccoina”.

 

Annunci

Anosmia and the “nose of the heart”

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Anosmia is the inability to perceive odor. It is usually temporary (due to a trauma, for example) or permanent (very rare), or limited to one or more specific odors. Many people, for example, are anosmic to musks, which because of their molecular structure, can be hard to detect. Temporary anosmia to musk is particularly common – try to smell a musk for a long time and you’ll likely experience a temporary anosmia to the other types of musks.

This to say, I’ve been away from the blog for a while and the trend is not going to change anytime soon. Thing is, the book is taking more than expected, but I’m in the run up to submission, and can hardly afford distractions. It is not the only reason why I’ve been absent from here though. I have become temporary anosmic. No, I can still smell – I am reminded of it every time a pass by my perfume making station, and this morning my senses were assaulted by a violent scent of honeysuckle and broom (very unusual, for an early February London morning) that make me want to brave a “dirty honeysuckle”. No, my olfaction is alive and kicking. It is my soul that has become anosmic, not permanently, I hope.

Islamic esotericists have developed an articulated physiology of the “subtle body”, in which, by way of analogy, they talk about the “eye of the heart” to refer to that subtle organ that provide the ability to perceive the spiritual realities. I like to think that, besides the “eye of the heart”, there could also be a “nose of the heart” you can smell spiritual smells with (a treatise on perfumery I am translating by Muhammad Karim Khan Qajar, a 19th century Iranian Shaykhi master seems to allude to something along these lines). If that is the case, well: the nose of my heart is somehow anosmic, or perhaps just caught a cold. Whatever that is, I am currently incapacitated to talk about perfumes, think about perfumes, sit down and blend perfumes. I’d probably need to move to a base in the Mediterranean for the nose of my heart to reopen to beauty and sway in the delight of smells again, but that too seems not to be going to happen soon. But oh, how I’d need that.

Ellena on solitude and creativity – A diffuse review of The Diary of a Nose II

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One of the most comforting things that I am learning through reading The Diary of a Nose is that even great noses tinker. They go about doing their job through a trial and error process the exact same way as I do. Now, putting together a formula, blending the ingredients and finding out that you have to start again from scratch because the result sucks, can be depressing. Knowing that the likes of Ellena sometimes happen to ditch a draft because, well, they think it sucks, gives you hope.

This image of Ellena smelling his drafts, evaluating them and ultimately judging them unworthy to survive evoked in me the idea of the delicate relationship that governs every creative undertaking, suspended in between solitude and teamwork.

There are two things that the French philosopher and historian of religion Henry Corbin would remind time and again in nearly all of his writing. The first was how, vis-à-vis the abyss of the monde imaginal, ‘historical criticism loses its rights’. It was Corbin’s elegant way to claim for himself the right to treat the visionary experience in religions as a fact, a mantra he disseminated his work with as a reminder of his own brand of phenomenology. The second is his evocation of the years of study under Etienne Gilson at the Religious Science Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and the elating experience of reading and interpreting the primary sources with him: Gilson would read straight from Latin and the extraction of the meaning was a collective effort, an inexhaustible process whereby the study group would make the text itself alive and speaking centuries after its redaction.

Intelligence, I got to think, pondering the image of Gilson evoked by Corbin, is the result of a collective effort – no significant achievement can be obtained in total solitude. I think, among many other examples, of the Sufi concept of ṣuḥba, or of the many (and cruel) experiments conducted over history where a human being has been left living in total isolation from all social interactions (they would not survive for long, if you were wondering). But, and here’s where Ellena’s account of his working in isolation comes in, companionship and teamwork has to be balanced out with individual and to some extent secluded work; and there you go – Sufi ṣuḥba balanced out by khalwa, the solitary retreat, usually lasting forty days. Ellena, who made the choice of working away from the decision-making centre of the company he is head perfumer of, admits that “the majority of ideas are the fruit of day-to-day work, sometimes the result of meeting people, country walks, idle strolls, readings, moments when the mind is free to roam”. That is to say, a balanced combination of solitude and interaction. I know it can be a luxury. I remember the years when I was an “independent researcher” (a self-reassuring way to say that you’re looking for a job in academia), and the frustration of working away from colleagues, removed from the informal exchange of ideas, inspiration and criticism that you need to produce anything meaningful.

So, yes, I guess that what I wanted to say is that, as a perfumer, I am now somewhere on the solitary side of the creative process and, although I cherish it as it allows me to work out my own way and style with relative tranquillity, my own interaction with fellow perfumers, with few illustrious exceptions, is probably too limited at the moment, and this is something that needs to change. My fragrant khalwa needs its share of ṣuḥba.

On Fabrizio De Andrè, smells and life as a work of art

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Yesterday, in melancholic moment, I bumped into Rimini, a particularly heart-wrenching song by the late Fabrizio De Andrè. De Andrè was an absolute genius, and his sudden death in 1999 left many in Italy with an incurable sense of void. His death woke many of us up to the reality that his voice would not have commented on our world and its miseries and joys forever. Rimini then led me to this interview:

Now, Fabrizio De Andrè wasn’t keen on giving interviews, but in the few he gave every word uttered is heavy as a stone and sharply meaningful. He was used to speak his truth with a warmth, humility and precision that one would think he took it from the same mysterious source he drew the lyrics of his songs from. As much as his relationship with the supernatural was troubled, to say the least, and despite his iconoclastic anarchism, I wouldn’t hesitate to call that source ‘divine’. In this sense, his words were always an entrenching and rigorous exercise in what the Greek called parrhesia.

The way De Andrè conducted the interview had me thinking about the notion of the care of the self and the connection between ethics, aesthetics and truth. Briefly and simply put, the care of the self is a fundamental principle of moral rationality, which has been exiled form modern thought and simultaneously deprived of its ethical content in current practice. The connection between ethics and aesthetics, however, is necessary if one want’s to turn life into a ‘work of art’, to borrow a Nietzschean expression. It is a call to practice beauty, which I think is one of the marks of De Andrè’s life and work.

Now, what does this have to do with perfumes. It does.

This interview sparked a reflection on my own practice and the role I want perfumery to have in what I do. As I have said, in order to make sense of a fragrance, you have to tell a story around it.  But alas! when you do it, you are doing it to make it attractive, to trigger emotions, feelings and memories. The risk of it is slipping into affectedness and inauthenticity.  If, with Plato, rhetoric is the art of making truth persuasive, marketing is the art of making a lie appealing. What I am trying to say is that, in the practice of perfumery and its necessary marriage with words, one has to practice the discipline of the care of the self: making love to words cannot degenerate into raping them.

De Andrè was well aware of that. Answering to the last question on an prize he had just been awarded, he responded by eluding the question. Western, Aristotelian obsession with telling the black from the white, he says, results in being obsessed with victory: ‘I am rather against victories, and awards are victories’. With his usual yet always stunning and unsettling sensibility for the wretched of the earth, he goes on: ‘The other side of a victory is a loss, or even multiple loss. And these awards gratify the most vulgar side of my self’. De Andrè managed to make of his life a work of art, and did so by being truthful to himself by exercising parrhesia in his art as well as in his thought. Whatever the art or craft one is busy with, it’s so easy to slip into falseness, to get phony and affected – which would compromise not only art, but also life.

Making love to words, or a diffuse book review of Jean Claude Ellena’s The Diary of a Nose

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Long and ambitious title for a blog post that comes after a long silence, huh? Thing is, I was carried away by sudden slew of ideas and inspirations as I started reading The Diary of a Nose this morning on the bus, so I thought I should cautiously get back to my blog, maybe writing shorter posts rather than lengthy articles that require time, research and labor limae.

I have not been totally idle, fragrance wise. While I’m still struggling to get my book finished (okay, I promise I won’t mention that anymore, it’s becoming pathetic), I’ve been working in the evenings and in the weekends on a couple of challenging custom projects and on the launch of my own non-custom brand. So, I’ve been busy with design, logo, labels etc., and this is the big news. I am still at pains with the refinement of the concept, as crystallising a whole creative approach into visuals and few words, in a way that is both genuine and commercially appealing, is all except straightforward.

Anyway, I’ve been skipping pleasure reading for a while, but I realised that for some reason I wasn’t reading at all in my commute, not even the pile of academic articles that I keep carrying in my bag for that exact purpose. So, I picked one of the three books I had bought from Amazon quite a few moths ago, intended for leisure reading, and read a few chapters. Inspired by almost every single paragraph, I decided to review it on the blog (1).

Pleasure reads

Pleasure reads (underneath, although equally pleasant, my work reads)

But hey, the inspirations were too many to handle, and I thought that my poor weak memory would have better managed a ‘diffuse review’, that is a review in installments – more of a random array of thoughts scattered with no particular order throughout the blog than a proper review. Continua a leggere

The good, the bad and the Grasse

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The good news is that I am updating the blog, albeit with a micro-post. The bad news is that I’m not doing that because I got my book done – In fact I have not, so this post is not heralding any radical change in the pitiful pace at which I produce my posts here.

The fact is that I have just visited Grasse, and I found it remarkably uninspiring. I was definitely happy to be there – I enjoyed the museum of perfume, went through all the Fragonard museum rigmarole and found it amusing, and revelled in the vibe of the medieval town small centre. It had to be done, it was due in a way, and I am glad I did. However, the place is yet another version of the typical town of the Riviera, that slice of coastal land that stretches from Western Liguria to Nice and Cannes, the quintessence of which is, for me, the Italian San Remo, a depressing town famous for its casino and a culturally decrepit music festival. A decadence conjured up by  palm trees, casinos, Belle Époque buildings and affluent of ex-affluent old chaps whose cultural reference is provided by Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot. Grasse is a French version of San Remo, minus the cheesy music festival and the sea (which is at stone throw anyway), plus the perfumery industry. An industry that flourished in the 19th century, boosted the industrial growth of the centre up the 1970s, and started to decline at the end of that century. The success of the industry resulted in the destruction of the landscape and the proliferation of over-proportioned estate blocks. Although the old town is still delightful (except for the central Rue Marcel Journet, which is filled with perfumery-themed tourist traps), and its narrow alleys prevent from seeing how the rest of the town actually is, Grasse feels like an overpriced monument to the glories of the past.

If what you expect of Grasse is strolls across Rose de Mai fields, good quality raw materials and a vibrant, modern perfumery scene, you are likely to be disappointed. Although you’ll find curiosities like this at the museum of perfume,

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if you really want your smell to be delighted in late May in Provence, well you should head west, and wander between Nimes, Avignon and Alès, where the air is filled with the heady fragrance of brooms in full bloom.

Persia

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I just got back from a two-weeks research trip to Iran, and since I haven’t updated this blog for a while, this is the ideal opportunity for me to get back on here, and bring this embarrassing, nearly month-long silence to an end.

So, I was in Iran on the quite specific task of sorting one chapter of my book – which I apparently did, and that’s good news. Among meetings, library work, lectures and social life, though, not much time was left to indulge in smelling around – which I wasn’t supposed to do anyway, being on a funded business trip. At any rate, whatever the objective of the journey, friends perfumers asked me to bring back some rose otto from the Kashan area – for which I had already established contacts from home. My contacts, however, proved unreliable and the moment I was about to finalise the deal, they made excuses about now being end season and attempted to rise the price by about 50%. I said goodbye, then, and gave up. shah abdulazim1

Frustrated by the failure, I still needed to take a break from Tehran and managed to take a day off and head to Kashan. My intention was purely leisurely – the last thing I wanted was to spend a frustrating whole day at Kashan’s market, dodging the bazaris attempts to sell me perfectly recreated versions of the ‘pure’ rose otto of Ghamsar. I was going to go to Ghamsar on an olfactory pilgrimage, very much like one would go to Grasse if he happens to travel in Provence – but I had totally given up all hopes to come to Tehran with the precious juice. Continua a leggere

Mitti Attar, Meeting Attar

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Per noi piccoli profumieri indipendenti (piccolissimi e molto part-time, nel mio caso), reperire buone materie prime può costituire un problema serio: molti degli ingredienti usati in profumeria sono costosi e spesso quelli più costosi sono difficili da ottenere in piccole quantità.

Così, è importante selezionare i propri fornitori di fiducia per le cose fondamentali, e saper cercare bene, magari anche attraverso contatti personali, i materiali più rari (1).

E’ durante una di queste ricerche (2) che ho scoperto il sito di una straordinaria piccola azienda che importa oli essenziali di altissima qualità, alla cui produzione contribuisce anche. Radicato nello stato di Washington, il sito è gestito da una coppia che si occupa personalmente di selezionare le materie prime soprattutto in India, ma anche in Europa e nelle Americhe. Lei indologa, lui appassionato di essenze, è stato per tramite del loro sito che ho scoperto dell’esistenza degli ‘attar.

Continua a leggere

Chocolatey rose

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A very quick post, today, as quick was my perfume session – just the time to dilute some raw materials and bottle the juices into a new batch of bottles. The short time was enough, however, to come up with a new (idea for a) fragrance.

‘Most novices tend to waste time in just picking smells they like and combining them together, with the hope to come up with a masterpiece’, said once my mentor. That was a great advice, which resulted in me making significant advances in relatively short time: you achieve wonders, by learning how to combine smells you actually don’t like. Eventually, you learn not to dislike any smell.

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Shalimar

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Ametto di aver forse sopravvalutato la mia capacità di produrre articoli a un ritmo decente e con regolarità. Vi è che in questi venti giorni ci sono state le vacanze, sono andato in Italia, ho visto amici e parenti, ho fatto corse prealpine in bicicletta, messo in ordine il poco giardino che mi rimane, potato melograni e trapiantato alberi di osmanthus e molestato Tamara, che quando la molesto non mi ascolta, e pagato una montagna di tasse, bollettini e cartelle arretrate. Infastidito dal clima subtropicale di questa strana prima parte di inverno, non ho fatto il rituale tuffo alla Santissima, che invece mi piace fare quando l’aria all’esterno è gelida (o bollente, d’estate). Insomma, di pensare a questo non ho nemmeno avuto la tentazione e le due bozze di articolo che avevo cominciato prima di partire sono rimaste così, al primo paragrafo. Naturalmente, non ricordo in quale direzione avessi intenzione di portarli esattamente, quindi non so bene dove andrò a parare. Inoltre, siamo vicini a febbraio, mese che, in un tempo in cui ancora non avevo idea che avrei finito per interessarmi ai profumi in modo quasi serio, definii ‘mese senza odori’, ripromettendomi di evitarlo programmando un qualche viaggio verso un paese che avesse un febbraio più odoroso.

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