What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, and the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products. To counter my inherent grumpy tendencies, I try to write about something I appreciate at least once a week. Once in a while I get up on my soapbox and write about things that aren't at all related to perfumery. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Friday, February 27, 2015

AMBERGRIS

Guest post by Jesse Hardy (LovingTheAlien)


A few months ago, a television network interviewed me for a production about ambergris. They were looking to film a series on ambergris, including filming a group of people on a search for the elusive substance. While it sounded like fun, there were more problems brought up in the interview than ideas. It wasn’t the fault of the producers, though; there just isn’t much information out there. The US Government even has laws in place that are based on misconceptions about the substance. This isn’t just because it’s a rare and rarely studied material; it is part of the business strategy of the few professional ambergris collectors in the world. Like the fantastic origin stories told by Eastern merchants of the ancient spice trade, the mystery and legend largely preserve the value of ambergris.

Thanks to the investigative work by Christopher Kemp presented in his book Floating Gold, there is now some published literature compiling facts, not myths, on the substance. The book is a fascinating read about the author’s obsessive journey for ambergris and the elusive people behind the ambergris trade that he meets along the way. While I couldn’t possibly recommend the book more in its entirety, I thought it would be useful to extract some of the facts in the book and compare them to the prevailing myths on the subject. The truth is often more magical than the legend!

                  MYTH: Ambergris is a waxy lump that is vomited up by whales.
                  FACT: Sperm whales, a specific whale species, produce ambergris as a biliary secretion when they have a bowel obstruction – typically a large volume of indigestible squid beaks.
Although a sperm whale has never been observed passing ambergris out of its body, one thing is certain: it doesn’t come out of a whale’s mouth. It is possible that these sick whales may be able to pass the mass through the usual digestive path, but it is far more likely that the ambergris never leaves the whale’s body at all. When large whales die, the gases inside their large, thick-blubbered bodies make them extremely buoyant; it also gives them the tendency to explode! It’s extremely likely that this is the primary way that ambergris becomes introduced to the ocean.

                 
                  MYTH: Whales are killed to obtain valuable ambergris.
                  FACT: Ambergris comes from whales that died natural deaths. 
Ambergris comes in a variety of qualities. The oldest ambergris is light, small in size, pleasantly aromatic, silver in color, rare, and extremely valuable. This ambergris has to float freely in the ocean for over a decade before it becomes this grade. This is the stuff that the big companies like Chanel and Guerlain purchase. The next lowest quality is grey amber. This is larger, grey in color, and possesses a mixture of pleasant ambergris aroma and an oceanic, barnyard-like fecal scent. This is also used in perfumery, where its subtle fecal quality can be blended with and disguised by other aromas. It is also used in magic and traditional medicine. This is still valuable, but is worth significantly less. At the other end of the age spectrum is fresh ambergris. This is the stuff that comes directly from whale corpses and is often found scattered along the beach when a dead whale washes up. It is large, black, soft, and has an overwhelming fecal aroma. Although I have seen tinctures of this for sale, it is only sold as a curiosity; it is not used in perfume. It has some value (again, as a curiosity), but not much; most of the ambergris dealers won’t purchase this quality of ambergris. The reality is that ambergris has to oxidize in the ocean for a very long time before it becomes valuable. This means that it is impossible to get valuable ambergris from a live (or even recently deceased) whale. While whaling and poaching are a serious problem, it is not for the ambergris that these poachers kill whales.

                  MYTH: Ambergris washes up randomly on beaches, where lucky people find big lumps and sell them to perfume companies.
                  FACT: This one is only partially true. The ambergris industry is largely controlled by a few dealers who purchase ambergris from around the world. However, they don’t rely entirely on lucky
people that end up in newspapers for finding big chunks of ambergris at the beach; there are a handful of professional ambergris collectors in the world who have learned exactly where, when, and how to look for ambergris. People who live near remote beaches in countries like New Zealand have learned that the same ocean currents that carry around ambergris for decades have a tendency to deposit ambergris (along with everything else that floats in the ocean) along certain beaches at certain times of the year and after large storms. They hop on their dune-buggies at high tide and scour the tideline for ambergris. This would be almost impossible if it wasn’t for one incredible tool: trained ambergris-sniffing dogs. With their dogs, ambergris collectors can find their treasure even if it is inconspicuous or buried under the sand. This is one of the most closely-guarded secrets of ambergris collectors. In fact, the producer who interviewed me said that one of the ambergris collectors in New Zealand with whom she spoke told her that she “can’t reveal on T.V. that we use dogs.” This isn’t out of greed, although it may seem that way. In fact, the secretive nature of these collectors is one of the few things that keeps prices low and availability high!

The nature of ambergris hunting is fickle. Even under perfect conditions, ambergris can only be found if it is there to be found in the first place. Estimates are that only up to one percent of sperm whales produce ambergris. Although there is no good estimate of the worldwide sperm whale population, the upper limit of those estimates is around 1,500,000 (the low estimate is 200,000). At the maximum, that means that 15,000 whales currently produce ambergris worldwide. Sperm whales live for about 70 years. Considering they only release ambergris when they die, this means that the likelihood of actually finding ambergris is very low, even at the upper end of estimates – and that isn’t considering that their population isn’t evenly distributed across the globe. If there was a “grey amber rush,” the competition on beaches would reduce the incentive for professional ambergris hunters. If they were no longer able to make a living, they might give up professional ambergris hunting entirely. The market would be shaken up, and the rush would eventually fizzle out. However, there is no guarantee that the professional hunters would go back to searching for ambergris. The availability of ambergris would plummet, prices would rise, and the industry would be forced to adapt. It’s no secret that the perfume industry as a whole isn’t interested in increasing the cost of their concentrates, so a rise in price could prompt the industry to turn their back on natural ambergris in favor of synthetics forever. Without a buyer, the value of ambergris would plummet and the entire industry would collapse.

Although there are many myths and misconceptions about ambergris, the reality is still enthralling. As a commodity, it is the last surviving member of the orientalist spice trade. Although its physical properties are what keeps it in demand, it is the mystery and mystique that keeps it available. Like all magic, the reality behind the curtain is quite different from what happens on stage. In the case of ambergris, however, the truth is still fascinating. The people behind the curtain are proud, dedicated, and clever. They preserve a tradition with ancient history, which is no small feat. To equate them to junk collectors removes the marketing aspect of their tiny, secretive industry, which is undeniably pretty incredible. After all, they manage to sell a substance that comes from exploding whale corpses like gold bullion. If that isn’t magic, reader, I don’t know what is.

[Burning ambergris as incense painting is by John Singer Sargent; lumps of ambergris photo is mine; all other images are from Wikimedia]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

OPTIMIST FOR A DAY


Even as the world careens toward an unknown future shaped by anthropogenic climate change, with horrible blizzards and hurricanes on the US East Coast and spring in January on the West Coast, there are still things that give me hope and make me happy. For some reason, I was acutely aware of these things yesterday on my way home from the university.

I experienced a profound sense of relief when I finished my last class of the day, walked outside after five o’clock in the afternoon, and saw the sun still shining. Just a month ago at that time it would already have been pitch-black night. It was strangely reassuring to know that no matter how much we screw up the environment on earth, the larger universe will be unaffected, the earth will still rotate on its axis, the sun will still go through its usual seasonal variations, and everything will continue to hurtle through space in a pattern that humans cannot meddle with. Life elsewhere, whatever it is, will go on as before. I understood at that moment why many cultures have worshipped the sun, because it is one obvious predictable element in a in a world full of micro-scale unpredictability.

One neighborhood on my way home has an unusual number of flowering plants and trees. I was particularly moved by the sight of a huge star magnolia tree in full bloom, abundantly offering up its genetic material to the process of evolution. Even if the human race reproduces and consumes itself into extinction, whatever flora or fauna remain in tune with the prevailing conditions of the natural world will conquer and survive. Life will go on.

In that same neighborhood I noticed, for the first time, a set of steps leading up to the entrance of a house, each vertical surface decorated with a beautiful pattern of tile mosaic, mostly in gray, beige, and silver tones, incorporating many pieces with a mirror surface. Someone had taken the trouble to decorate the outside of their house with a unique art installation, probably crafted from broken bits of tiles and mirrors that would otherwise have been thrown away. It was all the more beautiful with the evening sun shining on it. Human creativity still exists in unexpected places.

On our property I see rafts of purple crocuses that have spread from an initial planting, purple, yellow, and white crocuses coming up in places where we never planted them, hellebores, cyclamens, primroses, and all kinds of tender succulents spreading in wild exuberance among the native plants, and fruit trees with buds ready to burst open any day now. The ornamental “fruit” trees are already blooming. It’s tempting to think that humans’ perverse attempts to grow plants outside their native habitats will eventually lead to fast evolution of vegetation throughout a changing world, even when natural dispersion and selection can no longer keep up with the rate of change.

That night, sitting at my desk and looking out the window, the sunset was spectacular. The entire sky glowed red as some benign clouds moved in from the west. There will always be beauty in nature and the universe, whatever form it takes. I’m optimistic enough to think that from time to time at least a few people will shift their attention away from the shadow world delivered to them through their electronic gargets for long enough to see all of the marvelous things that exist in the real world that surrounds them. 

[Animals walking off into the sunset by M.K. Curlionis, 1909; sun graphic and star magnolia from Wikimedia; other photos are mine]  

Monday, February 2, 2015

WHO NEEDS A GROUNDHOG WHEN YOU HAVE CROCUSES?


I’m sure everyone in the US is familiar with the superstition that if the groundhog can see his shadow on the second day of February, there will be 6 more weeks of winter. In fact, one of the rituals in this country is to celebrate “Groundhog Day” by hauling out an official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, and holding him up for inspection and a photo opportunity. If the sun shines during this exercise, it is assumed that winter will not be over for a while.

This predictive strategy may work for the northeastern US, but it doesn’t apply on the West Coast where the closest thing to a groundhog is the mountain beaver, Aplodontia rufa.  This mole-like creature only comes out at night, so the probability of it ever seeing its shadow is practically zero.


Our reliable predictor of spring is the crocuses, which under average conditions always bloom by Valentine’s Day. This year I saw the first blooms the third week of January, a little earlier than usual. They seem to know when it’s time to come up and when it’s time to bloom, because the frogs have been croaking and the birds singing ever since the crocuses started to bud. Primroses and cyclamens don’t count because they bloom all winter long.


As much of the rest of the US freezes in a snowdrift, the tomato, pepper and okra seed starts are growing in the greenhouse, the lettuce is coming up in the outdoor garden and I’m looking forward to spring!


[Punxsutawney Phil photo from the Washington Post. Mountain beaver photo from Wikimedia. Crocus and primrose photos are mine, taken a couple of weeks ago.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

LANGUAGE AND OLFACTION


It is a great pleasure to introduce a new contributor to this blog! Jesse Hardy joins Azar and me on the Perfume Project Northwest team as we continue to bring you a benignly eccentric mix of our free-ranging thoughts, mostly about perfume. Jesse has written articles for Basenotes and contributed many expert reviews to a number of other perfume websites where he goes by the name LovingTheAlien. His first post here is a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which language can express olfactory perceptions.

LANGUAGE AND OLFACTION
There is a pervasive belief in Western culture that smell is of little importance. At worst, it is dismissed as a rudimentary relic of our quadrupedal past; at best it is considered a subjective, indefinable sense. From Plato to Kant, Western philosophy and literature have ranked olfaction dead last in the list of important human senses. Aristotle believed that individual scent elements could not be discretely identified, but merely identified by association with corresponding emotions. More recent studies of olfaction have revealed that scent, more than the other senses, is processed in the limbic system – the “lower” region of the brain, responsible for much of what constitutes our “id” – as well as the “higher” cortex. This finding has only reinforced the idea that scent is an ancient, rudimentary sense, inextricably tied to our past, when we (presumably) sniffed each others butts and identified possible mates by smell.

Despite its primitive origins, or maybe because of them, our olfactory capacity is laughable compared to that of our other mammalian friends. Dogs have roughly 220 million olfactory receptor cells and well over 1000 olfactory receptor genes, while humans have only about 5 million receptor cells and about 350 olfactory receptor genes. Nothing is more demonstrative of our pitiful, devolved sense of smell than the common belief that we lack even common language to describe our sense of smell – only that isn’t true.

Recent research into non-Western perceptual language has demonstrated that several Southeast Asian languages have a repertoire of abstract, non-referential words to describe odors. In these languages, scents are identified as freely and with as much consensus as we can describe colors – and this applies even to smells that have never been encountered before. The Jahai dialect, for example, includes many basic, non-derivative terms for odors. The direct ramifications are incredible: language can communicate odors after all!

This should hardly come as a surprise to the particular crowd that reads this blog. Many of us have spent years developing our ability to identify and name specific odors in fragrance and, more importantly, have participated in discussions of these characteristics. If there were no language to communicate scent, how could one explain the existence of increasingly numerous perfume forums and blogs where communication relies on words? Scent can easily be communicated to people familiar with it, even to the extent of the receiver being able to translate, more or less accurately, encoded scent vocabulary into a mental “image” of the information. For instance, can you imagine the scent of Fracas with vetiver? How about orange blossom and rubber?

The broader implications of specialized vocabulary dedicated to describing odors are significant, particularly to the olfactorily inclined. If our sociological understanding of olfaction is wrong in assuming that smells cannot be named and communicated in the same way colors can, then how sturdy are our physiological and philosophical understandings of scent? Is our established understanding of olfaction a result of the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) phenomenon?

The reality is that statistical and empirical data on olfaction are not overly-WEIRD, but are often construed in a frankly unscientific manner to validate established beliefs. Olfaction is delegated to the marginalia of scientific research and treated as a curiosity in the same way that research on sexual behavior was in the 1940s. The Kinsey Report challenged traditional beliefs about sexual behavior, but was old news for the sexually liberated, and one can sense a strong resemblance in modern research on olfaction. Perfumers and aroma chemical manufacturers have been using the science of olfaction to develop products that are widely considered to be novel, but our sense of smell and the research behind it are far from novel. With any luck, the “discovery” of abstract olfactory language will pique the interest of the scientific community and lend legitimacy to those researchers willing to challenge traditional beliefs on olfaction, Until then, readers, stay olfactorily liberated, and encourage others to do the same!

[Photo of Jesse (channeling Harry Potter?) courtesy of Jesse himself; olfactory receptor diagram from an educational website; other photos adapted from Wikimedia]