Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beyond the Veil

Vintage Chanel Flacon

When one thinks of perfume, instinctively commercial brands come to mind.  However, the perfume world has changed dramatically the last few years facilitated by social media sites that have made it possible for enthusiasts to exchange ideas directly and create virtual communities.  It is here that one can gain exposure to other types of perfumes such as niche, natural, experimental, conceptual, vintage or art fragrances.  It is here that one can meet and converse not only with fellow perfumistas, but with bloggers, critics, writers, sellers, buyers, aromatic producers, manufacturers, historians, curators and even perfumers.  Because of this connectivity it is now possible to stay on top of things regardless of where one lives.  The fragrance world is no longer a centralized hegemony, but an individualized paradigm within the context of a raw democracy.
Image courtesy Sheila Eggenberger
It was through this venue that I was able to meet Sheila Eggenberger, read her Quantum Demonology novel and take part in the DevilScent project as a blogger.  It was this context where Sheila met Ellen Covey, a perfumer (owner of Olympic Orchards) and partner in crime.  Since Ellen started the DevilScent project with Sheila her Dev variations are not just interpretations of the Devil’s fragrance but four archetypal aspects of that entity.  Together they are the perfume equivalent of the character Sheila Eggenberger created.  Dark, bitter, rich, spicy, earthy, fiery and cognac smooth. They can be experienced as stand alone fragrances, form a transition from one state to another or be layered for a devilish rush. 
Papier Mache and Lacquer Bodhidharma
Dev 1 and 4, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end share a note that I can only describe as lacquer.  An opulent dark lacquer adding luster to the surface of rich wood and fine art.  From the moment I smelled these perfumes I had a flashback to when I would accompany my parents to the bazaar in Tehran where they would take their antique furniture to be refinished.  
"Bazaar" Image Courtesy Hamzeh Karbasi

The workshop was medieval at best, a dark, crepuscular space with furniture piled haphazardly, cans of lacquer and shellac, waxes, oils and stained rags strewn about.  There was a haze of wood dust and cigarette smoke that never seemed to settle down.  The walls were damp with patches of swelling plaster and yellowed paint.  A skylight punctuated the end of the space where a crouched figure worked, the odor of his sweat a reminder of the heat outside.  Mingled together was the smell of wood; fresh, aromatic and exotic.  
Giant Arborvitae Image Courtesy NW Aromatics
But Dev 1 and 4 also reminded me of something else which I finally identified when I recently pulled out samples of Nootka and Giant Arborvitae I purchased from a Canadian company that produces these oils sustainably from leftover sawdust.  It is rare to find an essential oil that has longevity, lift and sillage, but Giant Arborvitae is just such a gem.  True to its name though, it is a giant that can squelch practically everything in its path and is very difficult to tame.  The beauty of Dev 1 and 4 are that Ellen Covey has not tried to tame the giant, recognizing instead, the power of this aromatic and has paired it with other strong notes to create an untamed fragrance that unleashes memory and desire. 
Image Courtesy
Giant Arborvitae (Thuja plicata) is a wild and ancient tree, a cypress native to North America and intrinsic to the lives of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest.  All parts of the tree were used to create canoes, housing, clothing, baskets, fishing poles, utensils and totem poles.  Arborvitae means “tree of life” and specimens can live for hundreds of years.  Using the oil from this tree can certainly invoke its spirit (benevolent or mischievous) which comes to life on the skin.
Image Courtesy "lk"
Dev 2 and 3 are bridge fragrances that swing in different directions.  Dev 2 has a sweet sexiness in its depth.  But Dev 3 is crazy spicy and takes me down yet another memory lane to the same bazaar where my mother would buy her medicinal herbs and culinary spices.  This was a very different space, that of a peaceful and somewhat rotund Hajji who sat behind his counter surrounded by jars, amphorae and baskets of herbs.  He would dutifully mete out the contents of a vessel onto a scale using brass weights for balance and then pack everything in brown paper bags and calculate the cost with a well-worn abacus.  
I asked my mother to try Dev 3 and tell me what it brought to mind.  She immediately remembered the spice shop and its smells as well as the woody lacquer note.  How Ellen could have created fragrances that bring to mind the same distant memories for my mother and myself is amazing.  Such is the skill of a talented perfumer who can harness the mystery of fragrance.  
Prepared Piano
Ellen Covey’s Dev quartet are not easy fragrances with mass appeal like most commercial perfumes marketed today (witness Justin Bieber). The Dev series are conceptual explorations along the lines of a John Cage composition for the prepared piano.  Working with a difficult aromatic is analogous to rigging up an instrument so that the sounds produced are no longer familiar but new and evocative.  Once the ear grows accustomed to this new terrain, it’s hard to go back to the familiar, classically composed instrument.  Similarly, once the nose grows accustomed to unconventional scents, it’s hard to wear a classically composed fragrance the same way.  Conceptual explorations cause a shift to occur, a change of perspective, a door to open onto an unknown space.  
Marcel Duchamp "door"
Conceptual perfumery can hardly be considered a fragrance category (yet), let alone one intended for commercial success, there are so few perfumers who have gone out on that limb, but it is an exciting area of exploration that has the potential to push the boundaries of the medium.  Thanks to the online community, there also seems to be an interest in perfumes that buck convention.  Hopefully, the day will come when our collective perfume horizons will be expanded beyond the veil that stands between fragrance and art.
Elenore Abbott

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fragrance Appreciation

More than the casual spritz, I argue that fragrance appreciation is something we can all enjoy!  Read about it on Cafleurbon:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

les Maitresses Parfumeuses

Photo courtesy of

What makes the Faustian tale so compelling?  Is it the promise of worldliness?  Getting what we want?  The thrill of flirting with danger?  Perhaps the first tale of its kind was the Adam and Eve story, where they tasted of the tree of knowledge and their eyes were opened.  There’s always a price to pay when dealing with the devil and theirs was being cast out of Eden and thrust into the world.  

The memory of their original home and past innocence attained mythic proportions and as a result God, their creator, became the gatekeeper of their past.  Somebody else had to step up to the plate and provide the tools for their survival and success in the wilderness.  That was the Devil who offered ambition and drive (along with seven other deadly sins) so that future generations could enjoy the fruits of culture and sophistication.

Dev and Lil perfumes
photo courtesy of Sheila Eggenberger
Alexis Karl and Maria McElroy of Cherry Bomb Killer Perfume, have delved deep into the myth and mystique of the devil.  Inspired by the characters in Sheila Eggenberger’s Quantum Demonology novel and their own dark-themed work, these mistresses of the subconscious have collaborated on the creation of two fragrances for the Devilscent project: Dev and Lil.  Although named after the Devil and his wife Lilith, these perfumes also exemplify Adam and Eve after their expulsion from paradise. The ousted couple, residing now in New York City (like their mistress perfumers), prefer the shelter of the night to the shining light of day, and never leave their apartment without perfume.

Photo courtesy of
Smoldering caramel, burnt sugar, molasses and maple, Dev is the ultimate gourmand fragrance because it conveys the original meaning of the French term: that of gluttony.  Catching a whiff is not enough.  One needs draughts of the stuff, inhaling deeply and coming back for more.  It’s thick enough to eat and can cause Americans to spontaneously erupt in French “c’est si bon!” (thanks Yoplait).  It’s a decadent olfactory dessert and if worn on the right man could make a woman skip that course and head straight for the sheets.  This perfume would have made Adam’s first wife Lilith submit to his demands so that God wouldn’t have to fashion another mate from his rib (ouch!).  It is domination in a “Venus in Furs” kind of way, where pleasure and pain are exchanged freely.

Lil, on the other hand, is “Femme Fatale”, sung to perfection by Nico with her throaty voice recalling Edie Sedgewick, muse to Andy Warhol at the Factory.  One tragic superstar glamazon singing about another.  However, beneath her charming gamine exterior and celebutante background Edie, like Lil and even Nico is “from the street, She’s just a little tease (She’s a femme fatale), See the way she walks, Hear the way she talks, She’s gonna play you for a fool yes it’s true”.  Alexis and Maria’s creations are avant garde perfume covers of these two songs that live side-by-side on the Velvet Underground & Nico album.  They are rock perfumes that deal with the dark veins running beneath the surface of sweetness and beauty. 

Image courtesy of Alexis Karl
There is another musical connection through Alexis Karl who, in addition to being a talented perfumer, is a trained opera singer and visual artist.  She performs her musical compositions with her band “Ondyne’s Demise”, her voice capturing the gloaming dreamscape of the subconscious and transporting us through the gothic atmosphere of danger and mystery.  While the Velvet Underground lyrics conjure up archetypal anima/animus images of Dev and Lil, Adam and Eve, Andy and Edie, Lou and Nico . . . the smoky sounds of Ondine’s Demise provide the backdrop for all of these Faustian arrangements.  Is this particular melding of perfume and music inspired by the devil himself?  Perhaps, but I doubt these Maitresses Parfumeuses will ever divulge their secrets!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Amanda Feeley Devil #1, #2 and #3 Desk Crit:

(I am reviewing individual perfume modifications or sketches as "desk crits", based on my experience of how architectural projects are critiqued during the design phase.  When all of the perfumes are in, I will do a "final review", again modeled on the way architectural projects are reviewed as a whole.)
There is something “Puck-ish” about the *fragrances Amanda Feeley has created for the DevilScent project.  Puck is the mischievous trickster and nature sprite who appears when you speak of the Devil.  He’s also known as Robin Goodfellow or Hobgoblin (derived from Robin) and other variations.  As a literary character he makes his appearance in Faust’s “A Walpurgisnacht Traum” but is best known for his role in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
Puck seems close to Amanda’s heart, imbuing her work with knavish delight and whimsy.  After all, it was Ms. Feeley who organized, or should I say, orchestrated last summer’s “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream”, an ambitious project involving 16 perfumers and 11 bloggers that owed as much to Mendelssohn’s symphony as it did to the play.  Ms. Feeley created two perfumes for that event:  Pixie Dust and Bottom’s Dream, the former smelling of the forest, the latter of peach (“Do I dare eat a peach” The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock).  
Her perfume modifications for the Devilscent project are three interpretations of a Puck-like devil who inhabits the forest.  All three versions share the same labdanum bed to a varying degree. Devil #1 has a fir balsam note layered onto labdanum that’s paired with a vaguely minty top.  Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) comes to mind which wouldn’t surprise me since Ms. Feeley’s handle online is the "Absinthe Dragonfly".  All of the plants in the Artemisia family dwell in the wild and pay heed only to their hunter goddess, Artemis.  Devil #3, on the other hand digs underground and is noticeably earthier, muskier, possibly due to a liberal addition of angelica root, perhaps intended as a symbol for a fallen angel? 
While Devil #1 and #3 share similarities and arrived on my doorstep in the same bag, Devil #2 was alone in his own bag and when I smelled him, I could understand why.  It was clear this little guy was not willing to share the stage with the others.  He had also sneaked out of the vial and had smeared the label.  Ahhh, calamus root (Acorus calamus).  But why this botanical?  I went back and discovered that the rhizome of this grass (also known as sweet flag or sweet grass) was thought to be an aphrodisiac and was possibly one of the ingredients used to make absinthe (the green fairy again).  To further support the aphrodisiac claim given to calamus, it appears as though Walt Whitman added a section to the third edition of his “Leaves of Grass” calling it “Calamus” where references to the plant were symbols of love and lust, the Devil’s calling card.  
The etymology of calamus reveals that it comes from the Sanskrit word “kalama” which in Farsi (Indo-European language) has two meanings.  It can mean either word (kalameh) or pen (qalam) pronounced with the gutteral qu’ain and related to the reed pens used in calligraphy that were made from a special hollow grass (probably calamus).  Of course, the reed is also used for certain wind instruments, like the oboe or pan-flute that would have been played by our mischievous Puck as he would lead folks astray in his woodland domain. 
While Devil#1 and #3 are interesting compositions, #2 captures the trickster embodied by Sheila Eggenberger's Dev, but more importantly, it lies at the heart of Amanda’s quixotic work.  This is the scent I imagine Stanley Tucci’s wry and satirical Puck would have, a trickster after my own (naturally) perfumed heart! 

*Ms. Feeley works only with natural and botanical essences.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Neil Morris "Dev#2" Desk Crit: Semiology of Scent

(I am reviewing individual perfume modifications or sketches as "desk crits", based on my experience of how architectural projects are critiqued during the design phase.  When all of the perfumes are in, I will do a "final review", again modeled on the way architectural projects are reviewed as a whole.)
My initial reaction to Neil Morris’ Dev#2 was:  “Well, knock me down with a feather . . . preferably one that comes from a fallen angel . . . and reel me in with sexy cumin”.  Mind you, this is not Le Labo’s Rose 31 version of cumin, but a gorgeously bitter and fermented concoction with notes of wine soaked raisin/date/nut meat like the haroseth prepared for a Persian seder with smokey pepper thrown in.  
To my nose Neil’s creation has the same elements as *Kyphi, the sacred Egyptian incense made with wine, dates and raisins which most likely contained labdanum, another mainstay of the ancient world.  Like an artifact from antiquity, Neil’s Dev#2 has an abstract quality. It is, indeed, an incense type fragrance, but deconstructed.  One that can be reduced to the abstract interplay of its two main components, cumin and cistus, notes that have been structured in a way that defy a homogeneous cultural reading.  Cumin and cistus act as signifiers that identify a heterogeneous concept of the signified (incense).
Deconstruction in architecture, unlike Jacques Derrida’s practice of analyzing texts to reveal ambiguities of intention, became a means of overlaying a (sometimes arbitrary) system of generating form which would not be referable to any cultural or historical language.  It attempted to create an anti-symbolic method of designing buildings, but was ultimately flawed and contradictory because nothing can ever be reduced to a non-symbolic form so as to be read and understood by everyone.  There’s always a layer of cultural meaning that seeps in to muddy the waters.  And that muddiness and ambiguity is what becomes interesting anyway.  
Deconstruction in perfumery however, could be more fruitful and less polemic, both in terms of creation and analysis.  I sense that Neil Morris is already working within the parameters of ambiguity, especially through his “Vault” line (, if Dev#2 is any indication.  As an independent perfumer, he is free to explore concepts and fragrance combinations that commercial perfumers could never touch.  The fragrances he offers are part of an oeuvre, or life work that describe his trajectory of exploration.  I also sense that he is a minimalist, preferring to pare down his perfumes while allowing them some muddiness.  Dev#2 is wearable but certainly not conventional.  I would contend that Neil Morris has nailed it with this modification he sent me as his interpretation of the devil’s scent in Sheila Eggenberger’s novel Quantum Demonology.

*I have a theory that the haroseth prepared during Passover is a Jewish interpretation of kyphi and may have initially been an incense which was eventually transformed into one of the edible, symbolic elements of the seder table.

Image:  Red Bird of Paradise Feather from the Institute of Zoology and Zoological Museum, University of Hamburg

Monday, April 16, 2012

She Shoulda Said "NO"!

Sheila Eggenberger’s debut novel, Quantum Demonology is a raucous romp through the world of supernatural forces that have attempted to claim our measly planet since time immemorial. Woven through her tale are invisible strands of perfume and metal music, forming a unique backdrop of sensuality and divine darkness. Part personal theology, part dialectical critique, part mythological collage, part “anarcha feminist” commentary, part metaphor for mid life crisis along the lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the protagonist in this novel within a novel bares it all: her her body, her soul and her aspirations. No detail is spared and her language seeks to capture the essence of the unknowable.

The novel moves at a filmic pace with quickly changing events, characters and places presented through the lens of a deft cameraman/writer. Not only do we meet the Devil and his angry wife Lillith, but God and his wife, St. Peter, Leviathan, Asmodeus, the Angel of Death and some other world class deities. The human cast includes a best friend, past lovers, frenemies, a psychotic editor and a few select rock stars. Much of the action takes place in the author's home town of Copenhagen, in particular a club called Alcatraz where the protagonist has a cult following for her karaoke performances. Once she accepts the Devil’s Faustian offer, we’re off on whirlwind journeys to hell, heaven and back through the door of a house in Brooklyn. We also get to stay in Room 822 at the Chelsea Hotel, very different from the demonic Room 237 in the Shining . . .

So what do we learn about the Devil? He takes on the human form of a notorious rock star (minus the tats), wears black, hides behind aviator shades and announces his presence through a labdanum rich perfume. As the keeper of negativity he tends to have a bad temper and is prone to bad behavior as well. But there are other aspects to his character that are revealed as the novel progresses which provide insights into the pathos of his situation that only our heroine is able to rectify. The source of his malady is Lilith, his estranged wife and her scheming son Asmodeus. This is not the Midrashic Lilith, Adam’s first wife as presented by Theodore Gaster in his World of Myth class at Barnard College, nor Ashmedai who may have been the source of the Merlin character (the subject of my term paper), but a vengeful harpy surrounded by her Succubi who threaten to unleash hell and devour the world.

Our protagonist is seduced by the devil into saving the world and the instrument of her seduction is his fragrance. Having consciously married a man for his scent and quit a job because of chronic halitosis, this comes as no surprise. So why not save the world? The key ingredient in the Devil’s perfume is labdanum, a note that can be incensy, leathery, animalic, sweet, rich and ambery. It is an ancient aromatic that is still harvested using the traditional method of combing the Cistus creticus or ladaniferous resin from the beards of grazing goats, the symbol of the horny one himself. This method is so old that it was incorporated into Egyptian pharonic iconography. Descendants of Neolithic goat herders, Egyptian pharaohs built their wealth and subsequent power through the labdanum trade and were subsequently shown sporting the crook (symbol of goatherder), flail (actually a ladanesterion used to collect labdanum directly from the plant) and beard (made with goat hair and stuck to the chin using labdanum). The crook, flail and beard were also associated with Osiris, the god of the underworld and the dead, or the Egyptian equivalent of Eggenberger’s “Dev”.

Eggenberger is not only a creative novelist with an amazing command of the English language (like Nabokov), but is known amongst Perfumistas as “Tarleisio”, the author of a perfume blog called “The Alembicated Genie”. There she undertakes the supremely difficult task of writing engaging reviews of perfumes and has a dedicated following that includes yours truly. The origins of The Devilscent Project took place through this venue as a collaboration with the perfumer Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids. The project has now expanded to become the DevilScent Project where six perfumers have been invited to create perfume interpretations of the novel as their brief. A number of bloggers have also been invited to review these fragrances and The Architecture of Perfume is proud to be part of this interdisciplinary effort.

There have been a number of perfume themed novels recently that have launched dedicated fragrances, but this is different. It is a rare opportunity for dialogue to inform the collaboration between the artists and writers who are working at their own expense. Already perfume modifications are being sent back and forth for evaluation and the results are being recorded through various blog posts. In the coming months I look forward to helping define this interdisciplinary collaboration that is being democratically moderated by Sheila Eggenberger. I always dreamed something like this would happen when I was working as an architect, but now it seems it will unfold for me as a perfumer/critic, and you can be a part of it too. How exciting is that?!

Quantum Demonology, chapters 1-13:

Quantum Demonology on Facebook:

QD on Twitter:



Ellen Covey, Olympic Orchids (blog)

Kedra Hart, Opus Oils (blog)

Neil Morris, Neil Morris Fragrances

Amanda Feeley, Esscentual Alchemy

Alexis Karl, Scents by Alexis & Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes:

Maria McElroy, Aroma M:

Katlyn Breene, Mermade Magickal Arts:



The Alembicated Genie

Chaya Ruchama


Perfume Smellin' Things

The Perfume Pharmer

The Perfume Posse


This Blog Really Stinks

Beauty on the Outside

Redolent of Spices

Another Perfume Blog

The Muse In Wooden Shoes

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Language of Flowers

Aromatic flowers are practically synonymous with perfume. Aside from their beauty, their scent is what captivates our imagination. As such, flowers have long been viewed as symbols of love and their scent, the vehicle of this emotion. Perfumers have been keen to capture this aphrodisiac quality so that our bodies could readily be adorned with their aura. While flowers have long conveyed meaning (i.e. red rose=romantic love, narcissus=egoism, etc.) it was the Victorians who perfected a language of flowers, so they could convey a sentiment or message without words.

In his essay, “The Language of Flowers” George Bataille critiques this sentimental approach to flowers and proposes an alternative interpretation that is modern, complex and perplexing. While he acknowledges the aphrodisiac qualities of flowers, he proceeds to deconstruct their ideal beauty and reveal their sordid nature. Beneath the colorful corolla lies “dirty traces of pollen” and a “satanically elegant” stamen. The external beauty of flowers distracts us from recognizing their perverse “hairy sexual organs”, far from the human ideal as espoused by the great philosophers and their categorical imperative. For Bataille, flowers are oppositional in that they interpenetrate reason with bestial unreason. In his previous essay, “The Solar Anus”, Bataille states that the communist worker appears as ugly and dirty as “hairy sexual organs” to the bourgeois. So by undermining the western obsession with the ideal, there is a politicizing aspect to his critique as well.

Bataille’s language is obscure, almost poetic, yet some of his statements border on the hilarious: “flowers do not age honestly like leaves, which lose nothing of their beauty, even after they have died; flowers wither like old and overly made-up dowagers, and they die ridiculously on stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds”. He follows that thought with the tragicomic opposition of the “death-drama” carried out between the earth and sky where we learn the “banal truth” that “love smells like death”. By extension, since flowers embody love, they too, smell of death.

Bataille was trained as a medievalist librarian and worked at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris until 1942. He must have come in contact with seminal texts, in particular those of the alchemists. Much of his writing is infused with alchemical imagery and shrouded by enigma. Certainly his emphasis on the dissolution, death and putrefaction of the flower seems like a direct reference to alchemical transformation, or at least a part of it: “after a very short period of glory the marvelous corolla rots indecently in the sun, thus becoming, for the plant, a garish withering.” He describes the roots of the plant as “swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin”. The roots, he continues, “represent the perfect counterpart to the visible parts of a plant” and are base in the sense that they are connected to what is evil. He even conjures up the satanic image of the mandrake root, the mystical plant of alchemists. It is easy to recognize the roots of a plant as oppositional, but Bataille demonstrates that flowers inherently represent those qualities as well.

What is Bataille seeking to achieve by tearing down the image of the flower as noble and showing it to be putrid and base? There are so many layers to this essay: philosophical, political, psychological and religious. Bataille seems to be lashing out at all of these “establishmentarians”, but to what end? In the last sentence of the essay, Bataille references the Marquis de Sade who had the most beautiful roses delivered to him only to “pluck off their petals and toss them in to a ditch filled with liquid manure.” Like Sade, Bataille is “substituting natural forms for abstractions” because even elevated thoughts, like flowers, can end up getting dragged through the mud. Bataille was interested in this type of “heterogeneous matter”, subjects so repulsive as to defy all convention. In the manner of a true alchemist he brings together the oppositional realms of the very high to the very low.

It is interesting to note that “The Language of Flowers” was published in Documents (Documents 3, June 1929), an art review founded by Bataille and other surrealists like Andre Breton, who criticized Bataille publicly for this essay and his reference to Sade, labeling him an “excremental philosopher”. While this essay could be viewed within its surrealist context, it seems more fitting to position Bataille’s oeuvre in relation to its alchemical roots. Bataille was the first philosopher whose work was written using suggestive language, rich allegories and word play instead of abstract, analytic and discursive methods that filtered out the brute physicality of the world. This was the method of inquiry employed by alchemists before the advent of scientific methodology. At times Bataille’s texts read like a riddle, cryptic and coded and highly evocative of an alchemical image that encodes knowledge. Bataille seems to have deliberately chosen to write his philosophy through an alchemical lens that obscures the idiom and makes his work that much more layered and complex, offering alternate paths of interpretation.

For perfumers, “The Language of Flowers” confirms the notion that floral notes are not always pretty and limpid, but can hide a dark, fetid side that lends them complexity like the indole found in jasmine, the animalic musk in rose and the earthy-rootiness of orris. It works the other way too; where one senses a hint of floral sweetness in hyraceum, castoreum and ambergris. An undercurrent of this theme is the connection between the world of perfumery to that of alchemy through the transformation of plant matter into aromatics. The image of Sade tossing fresh rose petals into a manure ditch, this alembication of high with low, combining beauty with baseness is the essence of perfumery.

We remain captivated by the sillage of these thoughts.