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notes

We always have the same teacher, Laurence Fauvel, so you can imagine how much she influences our experience. Laurence is great. Apart from her expertise, she is also funny, kind, generous and seems to always find the right balance between guidance and freedom to create. During these days we get access to so many parts of the perfume world, it’s not only the never-ending raw materials but also practical details about the working process for a professional perfumer or evaluator and about the business.


An example of a day at school (for new readers: I am talking about the summer course at Grasse Institute of Perfumery) is that we start with a test. This means that Laurence gives us ten raw materials (can be both natural and synthetic) on paper strips and we have to conclude which ones they are. We have our noses of course, but at our stage it is also essential to have good notes for example to remember how to separate the natural lavender from the synthetic lavandine or the various citrus fruits. It is still quite often that we mix some specific ones up when they come on a separate strip – but when you get two strips with one on each it usually seems obvious which one is which. This is an example why the notes are important – there is always some difference and there might be a tiny detail that is a personal reflection and this will help you remember.

I love the tests, they are a moment to really go deep into detailed perception and cherish the nuances of things. And you know how I feel, perfume is like life, life is like perfume. During the test I also think we stimulate our curiosity through new discoveries while at the same time discovering some personal preferences. It is very interesting how previous experiences and memory affect the initial reaction to a new smell – for example we had seaweed in a test. For me it reminded me of a bath room on a beach, for someone else a pleasant walk on a beach and for another person it was a smell related to food. When we exchange associations in class we can approach the materials from new perspectives and rediscover them. I read a book by Rachel Herz before Grasse about olfactory psychology where there are many interesting things about this – I will write a separate post on this when I come home.

Some notes instantly feel so inspiring every time they appear under the nose. Vetiver makes me want to go straight to the lab and experiment. I love cedarwood and petitgrain and ambroxan (I still have not smelled real ambergris, this is becoming a life mission!). I have less spontaneous affection for many florals and more for spices and woods. Also I often feel a preference for most naturals even though understand and appreciate the possibilities that synthetics offer. But for example vanilla and vanillin… you do get a very rewarding instant softness with vanillin, but real vanilla has so much more integrity and nuances and is unruly. The naturals always feel a bit unruly and I love that. Again, perfume and life.

After the test we smell more, for example we compare naturals to corresponding synthetics or notes that we find it more difficult to separate. We have also analyzed popular perfumes that are on the market which is great fun under the guidance of Laurence.

We have spent two afternoons on creation during the last week and this has been just amazing really. Some in the group have made formulas before but for me the entire situation was new – from pipettes to counting grams. The idea part however felt very natural, I have been walking around with note combinations in my head for a long time but never had the opportunity to physically sit down and create them. Even on our very very basic level it is an extra-ordinary experience to have an idea in your head, smell the raw materials in our bottles and then get to actually make a formula trying out the right proportions (very small quantities make a very big difference) and make it. This week our two creations were an eau de cologne and a fougère. Laurence gave us a base and then we could add raw materials with her guidance regarding amounts. To find the exact proportions is really a challenge and it is an intricate adventure to predict how the formula will evolve. At this point it astounds me how a perfumer can orchestrate the notes with the precision that some masters do and control the transitions over time. I will tell you more about on of my creations in a separate post.
At the end of this day we have an evaluation where everyone smells everyone’s creation and we discuss and get feedback and advise from Laurence. At this point we have been at school for about eight hours. Normally at the end of a day I would be a bit tired and want to go home. Here I keep finding myself thinking “oh, now I have to wait to tomorrow to smell more…”. I am very happy in this experience that I am having right now.

…our teacher Laurence keeps reminding us of this and I love it every time.

I am in Grasse for a two-week course at Grasse Institute of Perfumery, GIP. Actually I started this trip three years ago when I wrote to the school to ask if there were places available. I didn’t go then, life took a different path and led to me to other priorities. But now I am here and today was the first day. We are eleven students from all over the world and with different perspectives on perfume which creates a very interesting setting for discussions. And we have Laurence, I could not imagine a better teacher.

We spent a big part of the day smelling separate notes from different olfactive categories and Laurence told us how they are used, practical significant things like prices and how they affect creation and gave us fantastic insight into the work of a perfumer. We also looked at the differences between naturals and synthetics, this was absolutely fascinating. Both to hear about strengths and weaknesses with both and to compare by smelling.

No matter how much one reads and thinks and smells perfumes there is nothing that can substitute the enormous privilege of having a real lab with so many notes of such quality to discover separately. This is such a luxury. I cannot wait for tomorrow. As Laurence says, “At 9 o’clock we smell”.

I will share more with you during these next two weeks, I am just so overwhelmed today that I do not know where to start. I don’t know how many of you reading this have had the experience of brining out a private passion into the spotlight and just doing it, making it concrete, booking that thing you dream about doing and going there. It is a sacred experience. I feel privileged that I can do this and grateful for being here.

To be continued… I leave you with some photos from yesterday and today and wish you whatever it is that you need – money, confidence, support, timing or other – to follow your inner dream and let it take you to really special moments in your life. Sometimes it is closer than we think.

A special thanks to Clayton at What Men Should Smell Like (is there any perfume blog better than this!?)  for some much appreciated preparation support.

Treasures.

Bought some old perfume posters in the old town.

Very motivated student!

The luxury of all this there to discover…
There is a shop here with only vintage flacons…

I had a conversation the other evening about scents and music with a friend from Swedish band Diablo Swing Orchestra. Two of my favorite topics in life, so you can imagine my mind went all the way to eleven. (Sorry, musicians’ joke, some of you might catch the reference).

Music and perfume are related in so many ways, after all it is not by coincidence that the language of perfumes with notes and accords is taken directly from the terminology used to describe music composing. I don’t know how you feel about this, but for me the bond is much more profound and omnipresent. As with any language connected to any of our senses, I feel that the language that scents “speak” also has rhythms, paces, vibrations, textures that can be detected in music. Listening to music I associate the instruments, moods, transitions etc with scents and I feel instant affinity between certain fragrances or smells and songs. These associations are of course very personal and subjective, so any other person would be likely to make other connections than I do.  With some persons that I have helped find signature fragrances, or created fragrance wardrobes for, their music preferences have been a very valuable tool in the process after I felt like I grasped their way of “sense-translating”.

I don’t know how many of you share this way of thinking. I’m guessing I am not alone in this and I would love to hear your reflections. So let me start this topic by sharing some of my reflections from the conversation I had with singer/composer/musician Daniel. These are not revolutionary thoughts or ground-breaking associations. Some are quite obvious, others less. But I do find the interplay between sound and scent very inspiring and helpful so maybe these reflections will be useful to some of you.

Daniel Håkansson, Diablo Swing Orchestra

Let’s take for example instruments. Drums, I love drums. I am perhaps slightly obsessed with drums. To me drums are resinoids, some woody notes and animalistic. Drums are never flowers in my mind. Never moving or floating. Other sounds, like for example a cello can have something very mobile, alive and almost painfully transient about it. For an olfactory exercise – here’s a mind blowing reference to play with:

Diablo Swing Orchestra – How To Organize a Lynch Mob

My associations are not always directly from music to scent, sometimes they go via color, texture and pattern. Details in a song will feel like white dots or like a string about to burst or like a sweeping caress. Some ingredients will share one of these characteristics. It is highly subjective, but completely unarbitrary. And just like instruments or accords can be dissonant, a scent accord can be in conflict. To me the smell of dissonance is sour or like bitchy little flowers.

I like to use music as inspiration for fragrance composing in my mind… This spring there is one specific bridge that I have crossed a gazillion times as it takes me from my work to my favorite coffee bar. Many many of these walks I have listened to the song ‘Undisclosed desires’ by Muse while creating a fragrance in my head. I used a poem to remember the transitions between top, middle and base. (If you google “Trisiagion et L’Ame” you should be able to find it if your are curious). I would like to make this fragrance someday so I don’t want to talk it apart beforehand. My point is this, sometimes a specific song brings ideas of colors, characteristics, tonalities, opacity or denseness etc… that can be directly translated to notes and in this process music can serve as inspiration, storyboard and reference.

Can scents be used as an inspiration tool for musicians? Just as music can be used to augment olfactory thinking, I am convinced that scents can benefit the music composing process. Scents work with the brain in a very powerful way. This has to do with the human anatomy, the passage between the scent and the brain is short and direct. I will look into this more so I can provide you with a better more thorough explanation but until then let’s just embrace this fact and the possibilities it creates. We have the obvious aroma therapeutic aspects, such as citrus as uplifting. But how can we go a step further? My idea here is that by surrounding yourself with mood scents you’ll be stimulated to balance the music you create or to add a certain atmosphere in a helpful way. For example when looking for a way to add softness or desire or savageness or depth to a melody. Say if you want to make the music darker, I am sure that incense or animalistic notes would help your mind find the way.

So, what about G minor? This was the question that triggered the conversation the other night, “what does G minor smell like?”. Take a moment to think about it and then I will tell you my thoughts.

G minor. This is where I go with my brain – the sound smells like a plant to me. Not a flower, not a spice, not resinoid, not animalistic. It is something that moves and lives. Like the strings on a guitar it stretches, vibrates. My first specific scent associations were the way that air smells between the lightnings during a thunder storm – wet, sweet, angry and vibrant. But also new. The idea that comes to my mind is vetiver. Solid but flexible, alive. Dark and light at the same time. Rooted and reaching out.

Thank you Daniel. For the music and for a great question.

This has been an interesting week. Las weekend Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter had an article in the Sunday paper about perfume. I am really honored that I was chosen as one of the persons that they interviewed. The appearance has led to e-mails from people in different countries with various great and interesting questions. Some of the topics that I have had the pleasure of discussing via e-mail in these last days are vintage perfumes, samples, where to buy perfume online, should you wear perfume everyday, is it ok to wear perfume in a restaurant, how to support a child’s interest in scents… Well, you get the picture. Amazing topics and I feel privileged to be the person asked for advice. I have kept all these thoughts in an Inspiration File for future articles, posts etc. But I thought I would adress one of the topics here as it might help you accelerate your perfume curiosity.

As followers of this blog know I am a strong opponent to hasty stressful perfume shopping and to shops that sell perfume in such a way. A new perfume is an intimate acquaintance and deserves a more sublime process. It takes a few hours to discover the character of a perfume – even if it indeed IS a perfect match. So, I am pro samples and pro perfume shops that understand when a client comes the third time in a week and wants to try the same perfume. And so on. I think samples are great. Yes, it is not always optimal for every perfume (more about this in a later post!) but generally they are a great tool. A sample allows you to try a perfume for a few days, and it is less of a decision and expense than a full bottle so it becomes easy and fun to try more new fragrances. Perhaps you have identified a note that you love – say vanilla or vetiver. These two come in so many different varieties and are used in completely different ways. Samples allow you to discover the spectra of your favorite note which will teach you more about it – and help you find The Right One For You.

A lot of samples also circulate around me as I sometimes help people find a new perfume. This is one of my favorite things to do, it is so much fun and leads to SUCH great conversations. When I have an idea of what would work and what this specific person is looking for in terms of notes or character and the needs (for example if it is a signature scent or a perfume wardrobe) I will usually give them a couple of samples to try out for a while before making a decision. (Remember – perfumes need skin. Just the perfume is only half the story).

The obvious question then is: where to get samples? One way is to ask at the perfume shop. Sometimes they will have the sample you want and sometimes not. Not all perfume houses provide samples. Some shops are reluctant to hand them out it seems and this is a bit of a sad attitude problem – if that is the case find another shop. However, and this is important: the perfume in a sample that is given for free has been produced with as much care and investment as the perfume in the bottle. So treat your perfume samples with respect. The other way to get samples of fragrances that is becoming increasingly common, is to buy them from the perfume houses through their web shops. Sometimes they offer miniatures of separate scents and sometimes a kit with a selection of scents. This is a great and affordable way to try a new fragrance, or to get to know a perfume house better. The third alternative is to go through one of the companies/websites that are specialized in samples. Examples of these are The Perfumed Court, First in Fragrance and The Posh Peasant. These three are the ones that I have heard most about but if you know of other similar websites please share! It seems to be that there are more options in the US than in Europe so it would be fun to see this develop globally as shipping makes even limited shopping slightly more expensive. I love these websites and I think it is great that small amounts of perfume are becoming accessible as a commodity. The range of brands and products is very impressive which allows you to choose your own little collections of samples around a theme, for example a nose, a note, a brand. It is also a super-smart risk-free way to introduce someone else to a fragrance that you think they might like. Last night I browsed First in Fragrance to find a musc scent that I think a friend of mine would like, and created a little kit of Keiko Mecheri fragrances for myself as I am curious about this brand but have not yet identified my match in their range. This is a great way to end a Friday night for a perfume nerd like me!

Long post this one… But hoping its helpful! 🙂 Happy hunting!