If you were to pick the ultimate scent destination, it would have to be Provence. This region in the south of France has been the cradle of the modern perfume industry since the end of the 18th century, but even before that it was known for its aromatics–lavender, mimosa, rosemary, genet, and other perfumed plants. Although today Provence’s days as the center of rose and jasmine cultivation are long gone, it’s still a place for a fragrance lover when the air is perfumed with the salty-green scent of lavender and garrigue, a distinctly Provencal medley of herbs.
In October, when I arrived in Luberon, the first thing I smelled was the fallen leaves and briny breeze. The mistral, a cold northwesterly wind, denuded the tall plantain trees, but it cleared the sky of clouds and it looked so blue that even the air felt turquoise. I arrived at the hotel Moulin de Vernègues, the venue for The Secret of Scent.
The Secret of Scent is a three-day course by Science & Vacation, a company that specializes in events combining sensory explorations–vacation, in other words–with an educational angle. I was to lecture for three days about the history and art of perfumery, while Luca Turin had a similar task, but with a focus on the science. To be honest, I was a little bit nervous. While I give perfumery courses on a regular basis, my audience is usually industry folk–marketing, sales people and perfumers. While they’re not necessarily experts on all of the subjects I cover, I at least know the rough outlines of their knowledge. The Secret of Scent was open to everyone, and I wasn’t sure what our participants would be interested to learn.
As it turned out, they were curious about everything! Luca and I asked Sergey Kuznetsov, the event organizer, to limit the group size in order for us to give as much attention as possible to each participant and make the class experience more comfortable. There were about fifteen people total, and they included a chef, a chemist, a wine maker, a fragrance boutique owner, an art expert, and even an indie perfumer. Many people came from the US–Seattle, Wyoming, Oregon. There was also a visitor from Canada. One lady flew in from Bangkok. It was a variegated, diverse group, and the one thing we had in common is our passion for scent.
Perfumery as a subject of serious study is hampered by a number of misunderstandings. For one thing, it has the reputation of being a frivolous pursuit. However, it’s also seen as a complex, esoteric field where people don’t even speak normal human language. What’s aldehydic? Why is it that aromatic means “having an aroma” in the English language and “smells like camphorous herbs” in perfume speak? On the first subject, I have little to say, other than to quote the great Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “The pleasure of perfume [is] among the most elegant and also most honorable enjoyments in life.”
As for the complexity of perfumery, it’s true to the extent that, like all fields of art and science–and perfumery is the distillation of the two–it requires specialized knowledge. But anyone can learn how fragrances are put together, how to smell them, how to understand their messages. It’s up to the teacher to make the subject accessible.
Of course, it’s for my group to judge my success in conveying all of these nuances. For my part, I was impressed with how interested people were to learn and how much more precise and vivid their descriptions of aromas became over the three days we studied together. I prepared several exercises on connecting words and scents and showed certain techniques that perfumers use when smelling. Although I didn’t expect any prior knowledge of perfumery, my goal was nevertheless to offer a professional class. I was fortunate to learn from some of the greatest perfumers in the industry like Sophia Grojsman, Dominic Ropion, Calice Becker, and Maurice Roucel, and I wanted to share as generously as they shared with me. I envisioned a class covering both the technical aspects of perfumery and the enjoyment of scents in one’s daily life. After all, the stuff in the bottle is only one aspect of this fascinating pursuit.
But we certainly smelled plenty of stuff in the bottle, starting from legends like Coty Chypre, Guerlain Rue de la Paix, the original formula Shalimar, Mitsouko, Jicky, Après L’Ondée, Chanels, Carons, Diors and moving through the whole 20th century of perfumery. We also had fine Givaudan essences to explore–their tuberose, jasmine, ylang ylang, vetiver, and benzoin are veritable gems. We also tried our hand at making a classical accord. Talking to my group and smelling its creations made me wonder how much richer our world would have been had we learned the basics of aromas from an early age, the way we learn painting or music.
After giving my classes, I had a chance to become a student myself for the second part of the program. Luca’s lectures on the science of olfaction and the properties of aromatics were both interesting and thought-provoking. As someone commented, if chemistry were taught with this kind of passion at schools, how different would the lay understanding of this science be.
There was also wine tasting, lots of good food and evening trips into the neighboring small towns. We even had an impromptu calissons tasting in Aix-en-Provence, lozenge shaped sweets fashioned out of candied melon, orange peel and almonds. The best part of all for me, however, was meeting so many passionate, interesting people. I thank Luca, Sergey–and also Katerina and Zhenia, the other S&V organizers–for this experience, and of course, a big thank you to all of you who joined us on our Provencal adventures. You made for one of the best experiences of 2016 for me.
Because I was completely focused on teaching, I took few photographs during the event. Sergey Kuznetsov was kind enough to send me the images above (the photographs of the Provencal herbs and perfume oils are by me, however).