Long Lost Smell

Long Lost Smell

If you’ve been reading perfume forums, you’ll have seen the word ‘anosmia’ used casually (a little bit like a sad person might use ‘depressed’ or someone with a headache might use ‘migraine’). There are, of course, specific anosmias (many people can’t smell certain synthetic musks, for example). Total anosmia is a complete loss of smell. Being truly nose-blind.

The scary thing is that it can happen to anyone. A head injury, car accident, bad cold – and your nerves could get so damaged you lose your sense of smell permanently (or worse: get parosmia, where all smells are distorted so that food might taste of excrement and common smells like coffee might make you feel sick, so being in public places suddenly becomes pure torture). Smell and taste are part of the same system – when we eat, the majority of what we think of as taste is actually smell. Aromatic compounds are inhaled through our nose and throat. You can get a glimpse of what eating with no sense of smell feels like if you think back to a time when you had a very bad cold. The loss you experienced temporarily was not complete and that was bad enough to make all the food you ate taste bland.

Why don’t we see sniffer dogs like there are seeing-eye dogs? Why aren’t there TV ads for smell disorder charities? Smell has traditionally been treated by society as banal and unimportant. It has been thought of as ‘animal’ – ergo, not civilised. It has been ignored by governments because if a person loses their sense of smell, they can still work (whereas a blind or a deaf person might not be able to without special help).

Most of us are not really conscious of our sense of smell and even in the perfume communities where people have started thinking about smells more actively, we tend to focus on the hedonistic side of the sense – comparing our impressions and trying to work out what our favourite perfume is made of.

You know that smell they add to gas so humans can detect a leak? An anosmic person would not be made any safer by that. You know how you sniff milk before you pour it into a cup of tea? An anosmic person would not be able to tell if it’s off.

When I was a little girl (6 or 7 years old), I was playing in the second floor bedroom of my friend’s house while her mum was supposed to be watching us. For some inexplicable reason she decided to pop to the shops while we were in her care, and accidentally left a pot boiling on the gas stove.

I suspect that I’ve always been hypersensitive to certain sensory stimuli because there have been many times I’ve smelled or noticed something before anyone around me has. This was luckily one of those times. I smelled smoke and told my playmate about it. She didn’t smell anything and didn’t want to take a look. I insisted, and went downstairs. There was smoke billowing from under the kitchen door. I screamed for my friend and we ran out of the house, leaving the front door open. A neighbour called the fire brigade and took us in.

There are people who are anosmic from birth. Someone with this condition would have been trapped on the second floor of that burning house and may not have made it.

It is said that when we fall in love, we really fall for someone’s smell. Our sense of smell is very important in mate selection. When we kiss, we’re smelling each other. Imagine – what would it be like to never to be able to smell your partner? Your children?

Fifth Sense Logo

There have been charities and support for other sensory loss for decades. Fifth Sense, a charity for people with smell and taste disorders was founded in 2012 and is working to raise awareness of the impact that such conditions have on people’s quality of life and support further research in this area.

Obviously I think this is very important work – not just because of my profession, but because I think there needs to be more awareness of this issue, and much more help for those affected.

Fifth Sense is running an awareness campaign, and they have declared 27th of February as Anosmia Awareness Day. Basenotes will be participating on the day, The Perfume Society‘s Scented Letter has featured Louise Woollam who lost her sense of smell following a cold (and the Guardian will be interviewing her on the 28th of February).

Fifth Sense Founder Duncan Boak is delivering a talk at the ‘Body and the City’ symposium at Goldsmiths College on 27th February. His talk, entitled ‘Connecting Through Smell’, will focus on how the sense of smell forms a crucial emotive connection to the world around us.

Volunteers are also delivering Anosmia Awareness Day leaflets to doctors’ surgeries.

What can we do?

Please donate (even a small amount) on the Fifth Sense donation page.

Please tweet, InstaGram and Facebook about the Anosmia Awareness Day and what you would miss most if you lost your sense of smell, using the hashtag #LongLostSmell – some of your posts will appear on the Fifth Sense Storify page.

LongLostSmelltag

Let’s raise awareness of this important issue!

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If today smells of roses

…what do roses smell of?

Some roses smell honeyed, some smell green; some even smell like peaches and cream. Oops, I made a rhyme! I suppose I’m in the spirit of Valentine’s Day after I was treated to a lovely bouquet of velvety-red flower shop roses which smell strongly of… phenylethyl acetate. I did what anyone would upon receiving such a gift – buried my nose in and inhaled deeply.

Valentine's bouquet

At first I thought I still had some phenylethyl acetate stuck up my nose from work (I had been working on a hyacinth accord, which is built around other materials but to which I had added a bit of phenylethyl acetate for its honeyed-green ‘flower shop’ note).

Roses are incredibly varied, not just in appearance, but in scent, too. One of the Lush founders once brought in a peach-coloured rose bud from her garden which smelled very strongly of lemons, and asked me to replicate the scent for her. I made an accord she was so happy with she exclaimed: “It smells better than the real thing!” Needless to say I was delighted she was so pleased, and it made me curious about roses as a garden plant – I am not an expert gardener and hadn’t really explored the types of roses available. Since then I’ve pinned dozens of roses from David Austin Roses and other suppliers, and look forward to seeing which ones I might manage not to kill…

The rose used in perfumery is commonly Rosa damascena which I’ve been lucky enough to smell in the field as the rose pickers deftly pluck whole blooms before sunrise. The petals are gathered in large burlap sacks and taken to the distillery where they’re spread in a large room before processing.

Rosa damascena in burlap sacks
A good rose picker can gather fourty kilos of petals a day and it takes four tonnes of roses to produce just one kilo of rose oil, and one tonne to produce a kilo of rose absolute. These figures are direct quotes from the source, and I have seen the process in action – it’s mind-boggling to see what a sea of roses it takes to fill just one small container with rose oil.

Rosa damascena waiting to be processed

Rose oil is the distillation product, with water-soluble parts left in the distillation water (which is sold as rose water). After distilling twice, a white-yellowish, waxy liquid with a heady, honeyed scent is left; precious and potent, so luckily not much of it is needed in a blend for it to have an effect.

Rose absolute is produced by washing the petals with hexane – a complex process which demands several rounds of washing and rinsing. First, a rose concrete is made, which contains everything you can possibly extract from the petals, including the wax. Rose concrete is stored ‘as is’ sometimes, for later processing (it’s better preserved that way). Once the concrete is washed, you’re left with rose wax and rose absolute. Since the yield is so much better with rose absolute production, this material is several magnitudes less costly than rose oil (rose otto). Rose absolute captures the scent of the rose most accurately, though smelling the blooms on the field, the impression was different again; strong geraniol impression in the morning dew. Roses have to be picked as early in the morning as possible to stop the sun’s rays evaporating too much precious oil. The pickers have to work fast and choose the open blooms.

Rosa damascena in bloom Volatile Fiction

If garden roses are of interest, perhaps a visit to the David Austin gardens at Albrighton might be in order – they have 2 acre gardens with over 700 different rose varieties! I’m definitely going to go there before choosing which roses I’ll plant in my garden.

Rose chemistry is fascinating – there are over 300 chemicals in rose oil, some of which are still unknown to science. While it’s really easy to make a rose-like smell from a handful of basic constituents (phenylethyl alcohol, geraniol, citral, rose oxide…), the real oil and absolute add such complexity that nothing comes close. On the other hand, if one were to aim for an accord which replicates the scent of roses in bloom, first you’d have to pick which rose (the lemony ones? Ones which have a hint of banana? Perhaps the ones that smell like wine?) – and then add creative touches to the rose accord to achieve the desired effect.

Compound Interest publishes fun chemistry posters every week and this time they’ve been looking at flowers:

Compound Interest

I adore what they’re doing (I did write an article about how everything is made of chemicals, and how the whole division of ‘synthetic vs. natural’ is peculiar when looking at safety – aesthetics aside, the origin of a chemical has nothing to do with safety).

I hope your Valentine’s Day is fragrant and if any of you have rose gardening tips, do let me know…

Volatile Fiction shortlisted in the 2015 Jasmine Awards

Jasmine Awards 2015
This blog is a great way to write quite freely; to indulge in longer articles and anything I get excited about. I am grateful that you, the readers, keep coming back, even though you’ll never quite know what to expect.

It is fair to say that the likelihood of perfume featuring here is quite high, and this year I am delighted to be in the illustrious company of some of Britain’s best fragrance bloggers on the Jasmine Blogger Award shortlist! Congratulations to everyone who has earned a nomination this year – it is brilliant to see good fragrance writing celebrated in this way, and best of luck to all nominees.

The Fragrance Foundation is uploading the shortlisted articles here, bit by bit, so do check them out (it’s a good opportunity to read articles in the print categories as well).

The award ceremony will be held at the BAFTAs on the 18th of March. I’m looking forward to cheering my friends along again. It’s going to be a really fragrant day – I am going to a BSP lecture about the mechanism of olfaction by Charles Sell that same evening. Look out for a write-up about that here afterwards.