Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Vertical Chord: Nabokov's Multisensory Evocation of Scent

Vladimir Nabokov is one of those writers I return to again and again. I love his taste, his elegance, and his wry humor. His style, especially in his early stories, uses sights, sounds, and yes, even smells, to give a spontaneous immediacy to scenes from the past that are full of soft sadness, even nostalgia. One could make the case that he is a synesthetic writer; there is no doubt that he is one of the best olfactory writers of all time.

The story Sounds, written in Russian in 1923, was translated into English and published in The New Yorker in 1995 by his son, Dimitri Nabokov, who noted that “the story is, among other things, a transmuted evocation of a youthful love affair” that his father had with a married cousin.

This is one of many olfactory passages in the story. It is a perfect literary example of how to set up and deliver an olfactory image.
I was watching your back, the silk checks of your blouse. From somewhere downstairs, probably the courtyard, came a resonant peasant-woman voice, “Gerosim! Hey, Gerosim!” And suddenly it was supremely clear to me that, for centuries, the world had been blooming, withering, spinning, changing solely in order that now, at this instant, it might combine and fuse into a vertical chord the voice that had resounded downstairs, the motion of your silken shoulder blades, and the scent of pine boards.
in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jay Z Gets Served

The wheels of justice turn slowly.

According to a new filing in the Parlux Fragrances case against Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, plaintiffs attorneys have finally managed to serve their summons and complaint on a lawyer representing Mr. Carter and his company S. Carter Enterprises, LLC. The firm of Cummings & Lockwood in Stamford, Connecticut will represent Mr. Carter and agreed to accept delivery of the complaint via FedEx on March 21st.

The original complaint was filed in New York Supreme Court on January 25th.


Legal eagles tell FirstNerve that there may well have been extensive contact between the two sides before this formal action. The early take is that Parlux may have a good chance at recovering payments and stock given to Mr. Carter, but that claims of commercial loss due to his alleged non-participation in promoting the Gold (Jay Z) fragrance remain a long-shot.

The lawsuit discussed here is Parlux Fragrances, LLC et al. - v. - S. Carter Enterprises, LLC et al., Case 650403/2016 - New York County Supreme Court.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Going for the Gold (Jay Z)

However, in the fragrance industry, it is virtually impossible to sustain the success of a celebrity fragrance brand without: (i) promotional support from the celebrity in the form of public appearances; and (ii) regularly updating and refreshing the brand with “flanker” launches and new line extensions, which are fragrance launches using new packaging, often new fragrance scents and some variation on the name of the originally launched brand.
[Claim #22 in the complaint filed by Parlux Fragrances, LLC and Perfumania Holdings, Inc. against S. Carter Enterprises, LLC and Shawn Carter, filed January 25, 2016, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.]
Good morning, class. Let’s review the players:

Jay Z is actually Shawn Carter.

S. Carter Enterprises, LLC belongs 100% to Jay Z. It “owns and controls the rights to market the name and any related trademarks of Jay Z.”

Artistic Brands Development, LLC is a Delaware corporation with offices in Miami.

Marcy Fragrance Trading Co. LLC is a Delaware corporation with offices in New York City.

Shawn Carter is “the Manager and 100% member” of Marcy Fragrance.

Marcy Fragrance “owns a 40% membership interest in Artistic Brands.”

Okay. Now let’s review the relationships:

In April, 2012, Carter Enterprises and Shawn “Jay Z” Carter himself granted Artistic Brands the rights to use Jay Z’s likeness “in the manufacture, distribution, promotion, and sale of fragrances and certain related beauty products.”

Around the same time Parlux Fragrances obtained an exclusive sub-license from Artistic Brands for “the sole and exclusive, worldwide right to manufacture, promote, and distribute Jay Z branded fragrances.”

So, Jay Z and a company fully owned by Jay Z grant perfume licensing rights to a company that is 40% owned by Jay Z through yet another company which is fully owned by Jay Z. Everybody clear?

The Jay Z perfume rights are then sub-licensed to another company in which Jay Z has substantial stock and/or warrants.

If you think sounds complicated, take a look at the dense web of relationships between Parlux Fragrances and Perfumania Holdings, Inc. I wrote about them here.

Parlux has done a lot of celebrity fragrances. They thought, not unreasonably, that a Jay Z line would do big business. In fact, they were counting on projected sales of $15 million in year one, and $35 million in year two. As part of the inducements to Jay Z, they agreed to minimum guaranteed royalties, i.e., they would pay him a pile of money whether or not they sold any Jay Z perfume. This is typical of celebrity name deals and is intended as an incentive to make sure the licensee doesn’t sit on the rights but instead gets a product promptly to market.

Parlux did indeed launch Gold Jay Z in October of 2013 and it sold well initially.

Another part of the deal was that Jay Z would provide promotional support to the brand. This is also a standard part of celebrity licensing deals (for obvious reasons) and the Parlux contract was quite specific about Jay Z’s obligations.

And yet, for reasons known only to himself, Shawn Carter apparently refused to do any of the promotional events arranged for him by Parlux. These included any of the required three public appearances per year (at least one in New York City), as well as an appearance on Good Morning America and in the Sephora store in the same building as the TV studio. He also declined to take part in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily editor Pete Born. He declined to appear at Macy’s, to participate in social media promotions, or to provide a quote for Parlux’s press release about the Gold Jay Z launch. (These are all claims made in the Parlux complaint; we haven’t yet heard Jay Z’s response as to their validity.)

If we take the Parlux account at face value, Shawn Carter has done an impressive job of stiff-arming the company behind his fragrance brand. His actions would appear to work against his own financial self-interest. What on earth could be his motivation?

Jay Z would not be the first celebrity to get cold feet after agreeing to a perfume deal. I covered the bizarre saga of the Prince fragrance a few years back. The Purple One had signed a deal with the rather infamous guy behind the Designer Imposters® line of knockoff fragrances. He then didn’t lift a finger to promote the scent. He also failed to offer a defense when sued for losses by the fragrance company, which led to a $3.9 million judgement against him. Prince finally got his legal act together, appealed the verdict, and eventually settled out of court.

Prince being Prince, we can chalk up his non-compliance to his being a talented musician but a temperamental diva. I can’t speak to Jay Z’s merits as an artist, but he is well known as a mogul with vast business interests. It would seem doubtful that he entered into these highly detailed contracts on impulse, or without benefit of beady-eyed legal advice. So what happened? Did he not like the final product? Did he take a dislike to the people at Parlux? Was there something about the incentives of the deal that gave him a bad feeling? Did he change his mind and figure that perfume promotion was not compatible with his desired media persona? Did he simply lose interest? Or is he just an asshole?

Right now we know nothing and can only wait for his attorneys to response in their own filings with the court. Stay tuned. This should be good.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Sensory Analysis of Marijuana Volatiles: Not Such Great S***

The chemistry behind the scent of marijuana is a compelling topic for a number of reasons. First off, it’s a big technical challenge. Pot consists of an extraordinarily complex mixture of volatile compounds and sorting them out is a big job. (Paradoxically, the main psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol is odorless.) Secondly, it is of forensic interest: law enforcement seeks to detect the scent while smugglers try to cover it up. Finally, legalization has spurred increased interest in the aromatic qualities of pot as a consumer product. Here in Colorado, it has been fascinating to observe the industry grapple with branding and struggle to formulate edibles that consumers find acceptable.

So I was psyched to find a new paper in PLoS ONE titled “Characterizing the smell of marijuana by odor impact of volatile compounds: an application of simultaneous chemical and sensory analysis.” It is written by a pair of researchers at Iowa State, who use the latest methods of sampling (solid phase micro-extraction) and chemical analysis (multidimensional GC-MS) to characterize the concentration of various volatile molecules in samples of fresh marijuana. They also bring a sensory element to their analysis: they compare chemical concentrations to odor threshold data available in the literature, and have someone sniff and evaluate the various molecules as they emerge from the gas chromatograph. So far, so good.

Based on their results, authors Somchai Rice and Jacek Koziel conclude that when it comes to characterizing the smell of marijuana, “more attention should be focused on highly odorous compounds typically present in low concentrations.” (They mention nonanal, decanol, o-cymene, and benzaldehyde.) This, in principle, is a reasonable and potentially useful conclusion. Unfortunately, it is limited by the paper’s shortcomings in exposition and experimental design.

Rice and Koziel claim to add 200 new molecules to the list of previously known marijuana volatiles. But take a closer look at how they phrase their claim:
Over 200 compounds are being added to the list of what is currently known to be emitted from illicitly packaged marijuana.
They refer to “illicitly packaged marijuana” because they based their analysis on three samples of pot (of unidentified strain), all obtained from the evidence room of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. One of the samples was a gram of pot analyzed along with the plastic baggie it was zipped up in. Another consisted of approximately 50 kilos of pot stuffed into a “US military-style duffel bag.” Thus the chemicals analyzed by Rice and Koziel are not exclusively marijuana-based—they include molecules off-gassing from the packaging.
In this research, the authors are not differentiating between VOC emitted from marijuana samples and VOC emitted from packaging.
Indeed. So Rice and Koziel have now muddied the scientific literature on pot volatiles with who knows how many irrelevant chemicals. It will be up to future researchers to sort through the mess they have created.

What about Rice and Koziel’s conclusion that certain chemicals found in low concentration may have a major impact on the smell of pot? It’s a reasonable idea. Perfume chemists have long known that the most common molecule in a mixture is not necessarily the smelliest. A highly potent odor molecule can impact the overall scent if present even in trace quantities. Despite Rice and Koziel repeatedly patting themselves on the back for being the first to apply the concept to marijuana, one might say that it is the first rule of chemosensory analysis.

The authors use the concept of Odor Activity Value (OAV) to make their point. OAV is an attempt to relate a chemical’s concentration to its sensory impact. One calculates OAV by dividing the chemical’s concentration in the sample by its olfactory threshold concentration (i.e., the lowest limit of detectability to the human nose). If a chemical is present at less than its threshold concentration (OAV < 1.00) it is unlikely to contribute to a mixture’s smell. Rice and Koziel use OAVs to identify potentially important odor components of pot. This is fine as a first pass through the data, but when the authors use OAVs in statistical analyses, they stretch the concept almost beyond its limits.

Why? Because every smell molecule has its own concentration-intensity curve. For every step increase in concentration of molecule A, for example, its odor intensity might increase dramatically. For molecule B, in contrast, it might take many step increases in concentration before its odor intensity is noticeably stronger. Therefore, samples of A and B, set at the same OAV, could have very different odor intensities. This makes OAVs useful as a first pass to identify the smelly ingredients in a mixture, but it is perilous to use OAVs as a measure of comparative odor impact.

Finally, this paper is poorly written and would have benefited from closer editorial attention (yes, I’m talking to you, John Glendinning). The introduction wanders all over the map. It begins by mentioning odor as probable cause for search and seizure, but the ridiculous S1-Table is a random grab-bag of U.S. legal cases which completely omits the fact that at least nineteen states have search and seizure rules for marijuana based on the “in plain smell” doctrine. The intro then discusses analytical techniques, veers into a consideration of drug dogs and scent training, and then into the subject of human olfactory abilities. Like wow, man, everything is connected to everything else, you know?

The chemical and sensory analysis of marijuana scent is an increasingly important topic, and while Rice and Koziel have made a preliminary effort I expect that much better work will be done in the near future.

The study discussed here is “Characterizing the smell of marijuana by odor impact of volatile compounds: an application of simultaneous chemical and sensory analysis,” by Somchai Rice & Jacek A. Koziel, published in PLoS ONE 10(12):e0144160, 2015.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

ISDP: It’s a Wrap and On to New Projects

Today’s earlier ISDP post was dedicated entirely to the 6th Annual Norman Bates Award™. That doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten our “normal” ISDP report. Our enthusiastic fans know that December/January is a slow time for bacterial decomposition in general, and for the olfactory-based discovery of human remains in particular. Nevertheless, we did dredge up one item and it turns out to have great symbolic significance for us. Here it is:

Police were called after reports of a foul odor coming from an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Inside they found the body of a 36-year-old woman who had been stabbed to death.

This item resonates because it takes us back to the starting point of our insanely popular I Smell Dead People feature. In a section of that name in What the Nose Knows, we quoted Billy Crystal’s line in When Harry Met Sally:
Suppose nothing happens to you. Suppose you live there your whole life and nothing happens. You never meet anybody, you never become anything, and finally you die one of those New York deaths where nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts into the hallway.
We did some research and found that the “New York death” is, in fact, remarkably common. So December’s incident at 69 West 225th Street in New York is a closing-of-the-circle moment for us. We’ve been doing ISDP on a monthly basis since February, 2009. We’ve documented scores (if not hundreds) of incidents, and established entirely new genres of the phenomenon: the body in the chimney, the body in the car (with special subcategory: Walmart parking lot). And of course, we’ve given unprecedented attention to people who, out of anosmia, psychopathology, or criminality (or a combo) have lived in close quarters with the stench of decaying human remains. The annual Norman Bates Awards will continue, but this is the last of the monthly ISDP installments.

Having established a body of work [Phrasing!—Ed.] we feel it is now time to move along. The monthly compilations are time-consuming and we’d rather devote those hours to a new project that we’ve been incubating for a while now. It is a fictional olfacto-literary endeavor unlike any the world has seen. Is it the long-rumored AChemS novel? The steamy page-turner that pulls back the curtain on the annual orgy of smell and taste science in Florida? It might be. But as G.R.R. Martin says, “Sod off, you’ll just have to wait for it.”

Thanks, ISDP fans, and see you soon.