Monday, July 13, 2009

Another Clown Prince of Perfumery?

Commenter “Eliza” recently added this note to my post about Roja Dove, the buffoonish ‘Professeur de Parfums.’ I found it interesting enough to reprint here in full:

I’m so glad you post pieces like this one. I studied perfumery in Grasse and am constantly amazed at the amount of baloney out there. 

I’ve often wondered where Roja Dove received his professorship . . . 

There’s a ‘perfumer’ in Portland who writes that he is ‘recognized as one of 26 by the Council of Six. To qualify as a Nose, the prospective candidate must be able to recant all of the elements that comprises the essential elements within a fragrance before the sprayed droplets reach the floor.’

I LOVE that last bit. (Image in my mind of shrieking out “Hexyl cinnamic aldehyde, Hedione, Benzyl Salicylate!” as they ‘fall’ to the floor.) I double-checked with Max Gavarry just to make sure this wasn’t a top secret society I’d missed out on and he snorted in response. 

In a nutshell, it seems that because a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to learn about smell and at the same time are fed a huge amount of misinformation, ‘Noses’ like these can say what they like.

What an excellent comment—a mini-essay, really!

On the matter of baloney and misinformation, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve given talks all over the country and it astounds me that, thanks to Chandler Burr’s lick-job of Luca Turin, people think the vibration theory of olfaction is taken seriously by scientists. (It’s not. Most scientists find it as snort-worthy as the name-it-before-it-hits-the-floor test of the Portland Nose.)

It was in part to counter the sheer volume of olfactory nonsense that I wrote my book. At times I felt I was beating the dead horse of Proustian odor memory into a pulp. But every time I give a lecture someone in the audience brings up the old canard, so I get out the horsewhip and have at it again.

Eliza’s reference to the Nose of Portland got my attention. Here is a character as potentially ridiculous as Roja Dove. The Oregonian’s name is Chris Tsefalas and he’s the elderly proprietor of a quirky but high-end perfume shop run out of his oddly-appointed home. He’s been in business over twenty years, along with his wife. By all accounts—and there are a lot of accounts available on the web—he’s charming, knowledgeable, and quite the raconteur (that’s French for “elegant bullshitter”). He’s made a business filling a niche in the ecosystem of West Coast retail fragrance, and for that he deserves applause.

As to his being anointed a “Nose” by the quasi-mystical “Council of Six”: well, let an old fellow have his delusions—or let a sly old fox bamboozle the newbies. The only web reference I can find to the Council of Six has something to do with World of Warcraft. (Hey, can any of you teen gamers out there stop reading the fart posts long enough to help us out?)

Mr. Tsefalas’s loopy claim of being a Nose (along with his tutelage by the mysterious Dr. Walter Lauchner of Cologne) is even more unnecessary than it is silly. The proprietor of a parfumerie needn’t be a Nose. The owner should be a person of taste and a judge of character—how else match fragrance and customer reliably enough to stay in business?

Finally, can we dispense with the term “nose”? If you apply that term to any of the real perfumers I know, odds are your nose will soon be meeting their fist.


Eliza said...

I'm excited you commented on my post!

One of the reasons I like your writing so much is because you debunk all the myths in the industry.

I think the fragrance industry has an unhealthy attachment to obfuscation. For example, perfume triangles that don't accurately reflect the contents, or shampoos that purport to smell of 'White Lotus' but often just smell of apples.

The smoke and mirrors aids the aforementioned delusional / wily qualities of some characters, but in the bigger industry I wonder if it's there to hide the fact that there is a man behind the curtain, but he's a bean counter who doesn't like risk (especially given the huge amount of money dedicated to each product launch). And is therefore inclined to copy other successful products on the market rather than develop something truly new. As in many creative industries artistry often bows to commerce:

Nathan Branch said...

Mr. Gilbert, I love dropping by and reading your blog because I get tidbits like this: "thanks to Chandler Burr’s lick-job of Luca Turin, people think the vibration theory of olfaction is taken seriously by scientists."

The lick-job was entertaining, and it made for a page-turning story of scientific intrigue. I didn't realize that it was considered so totally bunk-worthy as you imply.

Is there nothing about vibrational theory that's worth continuing to explore? I ran across a notice that a Fellowship grant was offered to a post-graduate student researching vibrational theory:

Avery Gilbert said...


Here's the deal--if you're going to promote a theory in neuroscience you need to make specific predictions and back them up with experimental data, like electrophysiological recordings from a rat nose, or sniff tests with humans. Turin can't be bothered to gather such data; and the people who have gathered it find scant evidence, if any, to support vibration theory. In graduate school after the third pitcher of beer on a Friday evening we've all come up with an amazing theory that is fucking brilliant and explains everything. The next morning we take an aspirin and head back to the lab to work on a reality-based project. Well, most of us do.

As for the Wellcome fellow, Dr. Jennifer Brookes, she appears to be a serial apologist for Turin--having co-authored two physics papers that basically say, "No, wait! Vibration theory is theoretically possible." Great--more theory to prove a theory. How about demonstrating the location and physical operation of this amazing vibration detector? If it's real, an experimentalist should be able to play it like a fiddle--make you smell different things by modulating a tuning fork. Alas, Brookes intends to explore Turin's theory using an artificial MIT biosensor instead of an actual biological nose.

I think it's time for vibrationists to pick a real nose.

Nathan Branch said...

Okay, good -- that helps clear things up for me. Burr's book made it sound as if the lack of experimental data was trivial compared to the scientific stonewalling on the part of Turin's detractors and critics. I should have known better.

A vibrational theory of smell is fascinating, and you're right, it's the kind of thing that makes for fantastic drinking conversation, but I've been wondering lately why, if it seems so perfect, that there haven't been more (any?) advances in the field.

I think that even the scent development company (Flexitral) that Turin signed onto (with much fanfare) is pretty much spinning its wheels. The latest "news" on their website is from 2006 (beyond a 2007 announcement that they switched web and email hosting).

Thanks for taking the time to respond. It's always helpful to get more sides to the story.

Divina said...

Thank you - thank you - thank you - for confirming this. I am a psychology student and found the theory laughable from the first moment I read it. You know what else rubs me the wrong way? Turin's going on about synaesthesia, which has positively promoted a fashion among perfume lovers, writers and critics to fancy themselves as... synaesthetes. I'm like really! It's a condition people! One you cannot turn on and off at will!

Well, saying this won't make me many friends maybe. But it's late at night so my inhibitions are lowered significantly enough to just rant... :P

Anonymous said...

Lucha Turalura is a joke but this Oregon guy's "perfume house" has the best price on any Comme des Garcons anywhere, for that alone he deserves our credulity.