Saturday, July 14, 2007

Greedy Ducks

Ducks are greedy.

They just are.

Remember feeding them stale bread at the park or pond when you were a kid and watching them squabble over every morsel? Yes, greedy.

Since my Blogger name is "Ducks" I can admit to being just that-- a greedy duck.

I troll every once in a while through perfumery blogs. It started with an interest in the fragrances themselves but, as with everything I look at, the interest transformed itself into something more social. The language people use when they describe scents (which are themselves metaphors... more in a moment on this), when they describe the luxuries they crave and marry their self-concepts to, when they converse in a flashy, online fashionista civility that many of them may not inhabit in their day-to-day lives.

Moreover, the culture of "I want this! It will transform me!" that exists in fashion reviews. And there is something richer to the perfume fashionistas' dialogue (in my opinion) than in that of other fashion addicts (handbags, shoes, etc.) because of two factors:

1) Socially, a perfume is thought to be a part of oneself, expressive of the very essence of a person, rather than a trapping for the exterior. It is a cosmetic for the soul.

2) There is a depth of knowledge and a premium on the sensorium that is only matched in the evaluation of other luxury consumables, such as wine or caviar. The perfumers are "noses," and we develop a "taste" for certain fragrance notes.

Still, as in other fashion movements, if someone likes a given element in composition (or in some shallower cases, a fashion house), they will collect that item greedily. "This oudh," or "the newest amber fragrance," will call to them and they "must" have it.

I think most people have one or two bottles of fragrance, which they replace when it runs out or becomes intolerably rancid. These people have twenty, fifty, seventy, more. And they do not toss it out-- because they store it out of dangerous light and warmth, and they conserve it so that they have the "old version" when it is revised. This is not just snob appeal; it is also connossieurship. And they budget for it... they will live on ramen to buy a full bottle of something that they adore the sample of.

I have to confess, I am not one of these folks. I'm an intermediate creature, with three or four fragrances... and LOTS of samples (although I am aware this might be how it starts). I love to smell things, to change my scent "outfit" with my moods, to see what the twitter is all about.

Anyhoo. I happened upon an offer to celebrate Andy Tauer's two years as a blogger, in which he is giving away samples of his latest unreleased creation. He is a very renowned independent Swiss perfumer with a taste for scent notes I love, although I have not smelled any of his perfumes (they sound too floral and romantic for me, but as I am learning to like florals on my skin, we shall see) and seems to be a buoyant soul in the online world.

I jumped on it. I shall have one of 70 samples he is giving away.

I feel a bit like an intruder -- half excited, half guilty. Greedy Ducks.

This isn't even fully my world, and I loathe shopping and (traditionally) all things fashionable. But it sounds delicious and I am very curious, and pretty delighted to have the opportunity to smell this avant-garde secret before the official release.

I will tell you how it is when it arrives.

About fragrances being metaphors... perfumes are crafted to capture different scents. The smell of jasmine is composed of several chemical elements (including the infamous indole, which smells fecal as all get out on its own, but when combined with others... gorgeous jasmine.) The smell of gardenia is an artificially composed approximate, because it does not extract well through any traditional means. The smell of musk is a fake -- because moral outrage and dwindling animal populations have made the real stuff prohibitive.

So we trick our noses with many dissimilar and partial chemical fragrances, added up to become something resemblent of something that evokes our memories, our emotions, our pleasure. (Think about your senses for a minute: what you smell --like the smell of gardenia-- is something your brain is composing of chemical signals in combination --or olfactory phantoms as in the case of the smell of burning cigarettes that still haunts me for most of the day. What you see is a series of still images processed in such a way that you think you can see movement. And things like color, which we traditionally think of as empirical, are culturally determined: one man's blue may be another man's black. Or even more radically, in the case of the colorblind, the brain itself can choose some categories: one man's red may be another man's gray.)

Then, the resultant odor of "raspberries" or "gardenia" or "musk" is mingled with one or two other scents to become an accord. An accord is a mixture in which the notes are present but intermingled together to transform into (supposedly) a single harmonious note.

Fragrance notes and accords are mixed to form perfumes. In these perfumes, there are top notes (the bright ephemeral aromas that catch your attention at first, then fade as your nose stuns or they evaporate), heart or middle notes (which you smell during the first half hour to two hours or so in which you are wearing the fragrance), and base notes (or dry down) -- the deep ones that linger in your skin hours and hours later.

So there are several features to a perfume: the "single" notes themselves may be composed; the accords are certainly blended compositions; the evolution of a perfume over time on the skin is also composed of the foregoing.

And all of it is a trick of how your neural cells interpret a whiff of chemical. Metaphor. Alchemy. Wizardry.

No comments: