Saturday, June 17, 2017

Parlux Prez: Jay Z Won’t Give Back Our 18-carat, $20,000 Gold Prototype Bottle

Parlux President Donald Loftus

Parlux Fragrances is suing Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and his company Shawn Carter Enterprises for $18 million for allegedly failing to promote the Gold Jay Z fragrance, and for failing to cooperate in the development and launch of subsequent flanker products in the line. Carter denies the charges and claims that Parlux, in fact, owes him $2.7 million.

New York Commercial Division Judge Charles E. Ramos agreed to let the two sides in this dispute redact whatever they like from documents they file publicly with the court. While keeping proprietary information and certain contract terms under seal is routine in commercial litigation, my understanding is that New York state courts usually require justification for each item placed under seal; they don’t simply grant the parties carte blanche to hide whatever they like. But, hey, Jay Z is super-famous and rules are for the little people.

The upshot is that some documents filed with the court have been redacted in their entirety. Others have certain items blacked out, such as an internet URL. [You mean, like “”?—Ed.] [Yeah, exactly like that.]

Well, a few tasty tidbits do make it past the litigants’ cone of silence. One is the affidavit of Don Loftus filed by the Parlux attorneys on June 9, 2017. Loftus, the former head of Procter & Gamble’s prestige fragrance division, joined Parlux as its president in 2013, the year after the company made its ill-starred and mind-numbingly complex licensing deal with Jay Z and his various entities.

In his affidavit, Loftus recites the particulars of Jay Z’s alleged non-compliance with the terms of the deal. It’s all good, but our favorite part is item 12 (redaction courtesy of Parlux and/or Jay Z legal team):

Item 12 reads: “In addition, Parlux designed and created a prototype GOLD JAY-Z bottle with an 18-carat gold cap and poured gold exterior at a cost in excess of $20,000 to be used in a promotion. Not only did Jay-Z reject the design, but he kept the bottle and refuses to return it.”

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They
are different from you and me.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Rich Boy, 1926

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Something in the Air

Via Gizmodo

My recent inquiries from online journalists are beginning to form a pattern and it’s not good.

First came an email from Eric Spitznagel at Vice Tonic asking about the science behind the age-old saying “he who smelt it dealt it.” His starting point was the idea that laws of gas diffusion and the concentration gradient of odor dispersion would invariably indict the smeller as the dealer. (From the published piece it appears he got this working hypothesis from an engineering professor at the University of Colorado.) My response was to distinguish between models that describe the behavior of ideal gases, and the more complicated turbulent currents and plumes found in real life. The non-ideal distribution of scented air streams is the basis for the “casting” behavior which many animals species use to localize the source of a smell (they zig-zag back and forth through the odor plume in ever-shorter tacks until they reach it). Given these atmospheric vagaries it is entirely possible that an emission from the guilty party might curl up an innocent person’s nostrils first.

Next heard from was Daniel Kolitz at Gizmodo who was putting together a “GIZ Asks” installment on the legitimate if somewhat feculent question “Why does dog poop smell bad to us but good to dogs?” Kolitz collates answers from a crack team of dog specialists and smell researchers including, beside yours truly, Alexandra Horowitz, Don Wilson, Peter Hepper, Cat Warren, and Charles “I’m publishing as fast as I can” Spence (I kid, I kid). What’s interesting is that several of the experts blithely assume that all human odor responses are cultural, while other take the (correct) view that certain smells or categories of smell are inherently (biologically) offensive. Click over to read the whole thing, but here here’s the pungent part of my answer:
Dogs don’t approach shit as an aesthetic experience—they treat it as a source of social information, like an olfactory Instagram. It answers a lot of questions: Who left it? How recently? Is the pooper healthy? We are able to extract similar information. The lingering cloud in the office restroom tells you who had lunch at P.F. Chang’s. Plumbing and ventilation rob us of the social signals in feces and leave us with mere disgust.
So where is this latest journo-trend heading? What follows farts and dog poop? I could make an educated guess, but I’ll take the lazy way out and just wait for the next email from an inquiring mind.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cannabis Terpenes: Getting into the Weeds

Fig. 3 from Booth, et al., 2017

The volatile chemical components in cannabis are well known: they consist mainly of terpenes. The aroma profile of cannabis, in contrast, has yet to be nailed down with standard sensory methods. As a result, we have no data-based description of how the various strains smell. Between the chemical cornucopia and the sensory desert lies a largely unexplored zone: the biochemical. It consists of the metabolic means by which the plant produces its characteristic (yet highly variable) smell.

Thanks to three researchers at the University of British Columbia, we finally have some insight into the biochemistry of terpene production in cannabis. Their study, published two months ago in PLoS ONE, is fascinating but it’s not an easy read. In addition to chemical analysis, it involves cDNA cloning, plasmid-transformed E. coli cells, expression vectors, and gene sequence analysis. It’s a dense paper but one that is worth unpacking given the many possibilities it holds for the breeding, cultivation, and commercialization of cannabis.

Let’s start with the basics. The plant, and especially the resin produced in the glandular trichomes of the female flowers, contains a highly variable mix of terpenes. Terpenes are a class of organic molecular structures built from isoprene units (C5H8). Monoterpenes contain two isoprene units (C10H16), sesquiterpenes contain three (C15H24). Among the monoterpenes frequently found in cannabis are α-pinene, β-pinene, limonene, myrcene, β-ocimene, and terpinolene. Cannabis sesquiterpenes include alloaromadendrene, β-caryophyllene, α-humulene, farnesol, and valencene. These are all familiar molecules to fragrance chemists—they show up in all sorts of floral and citrus notes.

This array of cannabis terpenes is produced via two well-known biosynthetic pathways known as MEP and MEV. Each step in these pathways is enabled by one or more enzymes, known as terpene synthases (TPS). These enzymes are coded for by a large gene family found in plants generally; enzymes in the TPS-b gene subfamily produce monoterpenes, while TPS-a enzymes mostly make sesquiterpenes.

What the UBC team has done is identify the enzyme genes active at each step of terpene creation in cannabis. This is a significant achievement. Because terpenes “are responsible for much of the scent of cannabis flowers and contribute characteristically to the unique flavor qualities of cannabis products” we can now begin to understand how and why a particular strain of cannabis smells the way it does.

What the UBC study makes clear is that strain-specific terpene production is complicated. For example, two strains rich in α-pinene may create it using different enzymes. Conversely, the same enzyme may yield different terpenes in different strains. There are probably additional factors in the mix, as “terpene profiles showed considerable variations between individual plants.”

Nevertheless, the pieces are now in place for breeders to select for and genetically manipulate the terpene profiles of a given strain. The authors note:
“Knowledge of the genomics and gene functions of terpene biosynthesis may facilitate genetic improvement of cannabis for desirable terpene profiles.”
Toward the end of the paper the UBC team throws in another fascinating phrase:
The present study highlights the large number of CsTPS genes and the diverse products of the encoded TPS enzyme activities, which contribute to the complex terpene profiles of cannabis. The knowledge of multigene nature of the CsTPS family and the often multiple products of the encoded enzymes will be critical when selecting or breeding, or improving plants by genome editing, for particular terpene profiles for standardized cannabis varieties.
“Standardized cannabis varieties” is an interesting concept. Right now, cannabis cultivation is a farrago of strains and hybrids, raised under an varying greenhouse practices and post-harvest treatments (drying and trimming). Although impressively technological in some respects, the industry presents as a hippie-dippie craft aesthetic with cute varietal names and limited (possibly unrepeatable) production runs. In order for the industry to scale up, it will have to produce enormous volumes of cannabis using strains that respond consistently to uniform growing conditions and handling, a possibility UBC co-author Jonathan Page (who is also CEO of Anandia Labs in Vancouver, B.C.) raises in a new interview.

To me, “standardized cannabis varieties” conjures up more intriguing possibilities, such as branded fragrance and flavor profiles aimed at different segments of the recreational market. Large-scale production will require strains that have consistent aroma, flavor, and potency. Some will no doubt view this as sell-out to corporate agribusiness, a betrayal of traditional cannabis folkways. But it will also bring economies of scale and the high level of safety and quality that consumers expect in branded products. Dedicated hemp-heads will always appreciate the boutique hybrid strain, but a national market will also need to appeal to the casual user who wants a reliable product.

UPDATE June 5, 2017
Beer guru Stan Hieronymus quotes this post, noting that terpenes link hops and cannabis.

The study discussed here is “Terpene synthases from Cannabis sativa,” by Judith K. Booth, Jonathan E. Page, & Jörg Bohlmann, published in PLoS ONE 12(3): e0173911, 2017.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How Nick Zollicker Came to Be

I join Luke Clancy on his Culture File podcast to talk about Nick Zollicker, the protagonist of my new “smell stories.”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Going Fictional: Introducing the Nick Zollicker Stories

I’ve always been fascinated by the portrayal of smell in fiction. I made a brief study of it in What the Nose Knows, and here on FN I’ve taken a close look at various authors and how they weave scent into their novels. Among the writers I’ve discussed or quoted are E.L. James, Tom Robbins, Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, and P.G. Wodehouse. (You can find these posts via the FN Review, FN Retrospective, and Olfactory Art tags.)

In most of these works scent is mentioned in passing. It functions to characterize a person or place or, especially in the case of Nabokov, to provide a sepia-toned sense of nostalgia. Smell is rarely a central theme in fiction. There are exceptions, like M.J. Rose’s The book of lost fragrances, Süskind’s Perfume: They story of a murderer, and Roald Dahl’s brilliant short story Bitch.

One would think the world of contemporary commercial perfumery is an ideal setting for fiction. The business is an unstable blend of creative fashion and technical chemistry. It straddles the magical and the mundane. It simultaneously touts its innovation and its longstanding traditions. It is filled with characters of Dickensian dimensions.

Another setting ripe for fiction is the world of academic smell research. University labs are stocked with weirdos and drones as well as the rare brilliant scientist. Scientists share a lifestyle—monk-like yet dissipated—that is remote from the experience of most readers. Their scientific obsessions are remarkable if not often bizarre. It’s all fertile ground for fiction.

Well, somebody needed to step up to the plate, and it appears that the someone is me. I have created a contemporary smell expert named Nick Zollicker. He lives in Berkeley, California where he runs a secretive private olfactory research institute. He has wide experience in the hard-edged world of commercial perfumery yet thrills to pushing the boundaries of olfactory science.

My first two Nick Zollicker stores An Imperfect Mimic and Smothering the Savage. They are now available digitally on Amazon. (You can read them on your Kindle or download the Kindle app onto whatever device you prefer.) I hope you enjoy them.