Reflections: 71 posts

Renegades, Artists, and Artisans : Women in Perfumery

“Only a few people have the supersense of smell necessary to become a Nose—for reasons known only to Noses themselves, no woman has ever had it,” wrote one Donald William Dresden in a 1947 article about “twenty noses of France.” All of these twenty noses, as Mr. Dresden explains to his New York Times readers, are middle-aged men, imposing and intellectual. At round the same time, Germaine Cellier was galvanizing traditional French perfumery with her unforgettable Bandit (1944) and Vent Vert (1947). But she remained invisible for the likes of Dresden.

Fast forward to 2017. Since 1947 perfumery around the world has been altered dramatically by the greater openness of the industry and the opportunities it gave women. One would have hoped that their contributions were honored and recognized. In July 2017 Allure ran an article, The American Perfumers Modern Approach to Fragrance. Yet, in the magazine issue devoted to diversity, the article about the American indie movement didn’t mention a single female perfumer. It’s a serious oversight, since the indie movement is inconceivable without female perfumers. Having found the traditional houses either closed to them or limited in creative opportunities, talented and ambitious creators turned to the indie approach. The former situation was especially true for women.

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Warmed by the Sun in Iza

Last month I visited Iza, a village in western Ukraine renowned for its grapevine weaving tradition. Tiny shops lining the roads offered a selection of baskets, boxes, furniture and toys. I walked from one store to another, admiring as much the intricate patterns of braids, stars and coiled loops as the scent of weaving warming in the spring sun.

The fragrance was sweet like vanilla biscuits, with a mellow accent reminiscent of an antique shop–wood shavings, dust and varnish. Have I smelled it before? It seemed familiar to the point of disturbing, like a half-remembered face in the crowd or a word sitting on the tip of the tongue.

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The City of Jasmine

Writer Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) described his native city of Damascus as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity, and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.” Although the most fragrant of roses bears the name rosa damascena, Damascus rose, the Syrian capital is known as Madinat Al Yasmine, the City of ­Jasmine. Each fall it holds a festival in homage of this national flower, with people giving each other stems of jasmine and decorating their home with fragrant blossoms. It was even held in recent years, despite the conflict that left thousands dead and millions displaced, with flowers given to those who lost loved ones.

“A Damascene moon travels through my blood
Nightingales . . . and grain . . . and domes
From Damascus, jasmine begins its whiteness
And fragrances perfume themselves with her scent
From Damascus, water begins . . . for wherever
You lean your head, a stream flows
And poetry is a sparrow spreading its wings
Over Sham . . . and a poet is a voyager,”

writes Qabbani in one of his most renowned poems, A Damascene Moon. He was born in Damascus in 1923 in the old neighborhood of Mi’thnah Al-Shahm, which you encounter time and again in his poems. Qabbani’s poems are romantic and political, erotic and lyrical, breaking conventions and offering a glimpse into his lively, rich imagination. Since 1966 and until his death in 1998, Qabbani has been living abroad, but in his exile he has produced some of his finest poems. The longing for the City of Jasmine gives his words a strong charge, and as I read them, I think of all the places that I miss, all of the colors, scents and voices that make up my memories. As someone who created a fantasy jasmine forest, to replace the real one far away, I feel a poignant kinship with the Syrian poet.

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Things I Learned in 12 Years of Bois de Jasmin

12 years is quite a milestone for a project that I started as a political science graduate student wanting a creative outlet beyond politics and economics. I picked a name, Bois de Jasmin, Jasmine Forest, fantasing of a place where I would rather be instead of a small university town, and wrote a review of Guerlain Jicky, a fragrance created in 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower officially opened in Paris. The tower received scathing criticism–“a metal asparagus,” as one reviewer called it, while Jicky was praised as avant-garde. So I wrote about perfume classics and the time during which they were created, Balanchine ballets and the links between scent and painting. I was having fun and I thought of Bois de Jasmin as a much needed diversion. Little did I suspect that soon enough it would inspire me to make even greater changes.

When I started thinking and writing about perfume, I rebelled against the idea of olfaction as a superfluous sense. “To which organic sense do we owe the least and which seems to be the most dispensable? The sense of smell. It does not pay us to cultivate it or to refine it in order to gain enjoyment; this sense can pick up more objects of aversion than of pleasure (especially in crowded places) and besides, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell cannot be other than fleeting and transitory,” said Kant. I was discovering exactly the opposite. Paying attention to my sense of smell helped me make connections that I ordinarily wouldn’t have noticed.  It inspired me to study new subjects, travel and even learn new languages. Using my nose more often made my world infinitely richer.

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Scents of Evanescence

I often come across comments that many spring flowers are unscented. Tulips, cherry blossoms, and snowdrops fall into that category. But are they really? Tulips smell of earth, green sap and unripe apples. Cherry blossoms have a mild bitterness that contrasts with their frothy looks. Snowdrops smell green, dewy, with a curious musty note. Their aroma is mild, lacking the generous sweetness of late spring-early summer blooms, but they’re hardly unscented.

These watercolor fragrances are among the treasures of spring. Taking a bit of effort to discover them makes their delicate beauty more memorable. Even more so when you find them in an urban setting.

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