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Question: When you smell a perfume, what are you actually smelling?  

Christophe Laudamiel: So when you smell a scent, whether it's your coffee smell... I mean, your coffee in the morning, yeah? Or a strawberry to a perfume from... that you would apply on your skin, a fine fragrance, you smell many, many, many molecules. So we're talking a hundred, two hundred, hundreds of molecules. And now it does not mean that the brain registers all these different molecules and it does not mean even that the best nose in the world sees hundreds of molecules and can write them on a piece of paper in one go.

The way it's processed, it's processed like patches, like facets. And even the best experts can smell only five to eight facets at a given time. But for the brain to register a facet, you have to have at least several components for each facet which together are going to give this signature that then you will recognize as coffee. But you won't be able to recognize the different things that you would see in coffee. Some of them, if you take them one-by-one, those facets... one is going to smell like a raw potato another one is going to smell like smoke, another one like toasted bread, another one like earth, and et cetera. But you don't really see all that. You will register it as coffee.

And in a complex perfume it's the same. You will register it as floral and you won't see the 20 molecules that were needed to recreate that floral boost in the fragrance. So it's true that when we create we can be playing with a lot of different ingredients but as I say it doesn't mean that when you smell, you analyze and see every single ingredient one-by-one. Maybe there is one, two, or three ingredients that are very important for the signature of the fragrance by themselves and you might recognize all of a sudden patchouli or mandarin
So, when we create a perfume whether it's a simple order or a complex perfume, it is true that we use many different molecules and many different naturals. Naturals are simply a complex mixture of different molecules that you find directly in nature. And a fragrance formula could have between 10, 20, to 80, 100 different of those ingredients. Now, when you smell that fragrance you are not going to see, even as the best expert, these 100 ingredients.

So it is like a Dalmatian dog, you don’t look at it as being a listing of 100 dots; you see it at the end just as a dog. And you can see how if you have this dog, on the black and white picture, you can remove a few dots from the dog, you will still see the dog and then at one point when you remove two or three dots, the dog is going to disappear in the whole picture. So that’s what we do in perfumery. We put enough of those dots to recognize a certain facet, a floral facet, a woody facet, and the brain then is going to register that as a floral note and is going to remind you of your grandmother and you’re going to say, “Oh, this is like my grandmother.” But to recreate the smell of grandmother, you have to have different molecules in there, some of them would have never... would never, by themselves, have reminded you of your grandmother, but altogether, then you register "grandmother," not the 20 molecules that are needed to do that.

What kinds of language do perfumers use to describe scents?

Christophe Laudamiel: So the interesting thing in perfumery is that we have very, very few words that are just applicable to perfumery, believe it or not. And our vocabulary is, for the most part, borrowed from other disciplines. So we talk about, let’s say, the obvious terms are borrowed from the botanical world, such as a floral, such as basil, lavender, herbal, like the herbaceous family, floral family, the fruity family.

Our vocabulary is borrowed from the music world. We talk about notes and chords. We borrow words from the architecture world, such as we built a fragrance, we add a top on the fragrance, the fragrance needs a base. And why is it like that? Because we still have not discovered the fundamental units and the fundamental working relationships of the smell receptors.

And if you take music, we know very well, I’m sure they still have to discover a lot of things, but we know very well how a note is composed in terms of electric or a signal, you could say, or in terms of auditory signal, in terms of vibration, in terms of harmonics. Let’s say the mathematical side of things. And the small units are quite defined. In terms of the visual world, we know how to decompose in primary colors and then in a mix of color you can computerize all that, it all comes as an electronic signal and, or as a light signal, same photons are very known, although I am sure there are plenty of things to discover, but just... we have access to those units.

And then we give a special name to those units. So in music, they give a name like, do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do, that you apply only to music. And for colors it’s the same. You talk about red, orange and yellow. So red, yellow, it’s only about colors. It’s not a term that you took from the architectural world or the botanic world. And how do you define red? It is quite almost difficult to give the definition of the color red unless you give a physical, or it’s not
electronic, but a wavelength to finish to red, in fact.

Now in fact, in perfumery we don’t have that. We don’t know the small units. So the vocabulary cannot go back to the basics or the smaller units of perfumery and we don’t have words for them. So we borrow the best we can from other disciplines.

But then we have to know what it means. So when I say something is very "sweet," something is very "musky," something is very "floral or green," something is aldehydic, that we borrow from the chemical world, something is... and a natural odor can be aldehydic, so it’s not because we use molecules, it’s just we know aldehydes from the chemical world and some things in nature are aldehydes and they have a certain smell. Or we say it’s "marine sea-like," but this is how we describe things.

Now, among perfumers, those descriptors are quite rigorous and very objective. If you take 10 perfumers in a room, the description of a perfume will be very consistent among all perfumers and then we all agree about what they smell. Where people start debating, but just like any other discipline, it's whether they like it or not, whether it fits a project or not, a client or an atmosphere or not. But the description—because as perfumers, we are taught to associate those words coming from other disciplines to some very specific ingredients and we have the same references. So for "green" usually we use some molecules that we have, that you find in nature or that you don’t find in nature, but every perfumer in his or her training smells those same molecules, and we know what it means to say it is "green leafy," "green violet," "green galbanum."

You know what "musky" means because you smell different musk and you see the common point between those musks. And so we know what it means as a perfumer. Now, if someone from the public tells me, "this is very musky," most likely it means, it smells like the musk shampoo they’ve bought and then I need to smell that shampoo because that shampoo will have some musk with other things. And so musky in the head of that person means, most
likely musky vanilla, or musky patchouli. Whereas a perfumer would describe it to me as "musky, woody, patchouli" and then I would know right away what it is.

Each time we have check when we hear from a person that is not in the profession, we have to check and ask what it is either that they mean or we have to check and ask to smell actually the same thing to see what they mean. So the vocabulary is a very complex, problematic in perfumery. That’s also why smelling on the phone with people is very difficult because people have words, but if I cannot smell at the same time, I don’t know where they are in what they smell. If I talk to a perfumer, the details would be enough to tell me, okay,
this is probably what that person means, but if it’s someone from the street; it’s going to be very difficult for me to understand and to know what they are actually smelling.

But so this is still something to invent and I would say, once the academia has discovered more details and more primary functions of the sense of smell.

How do you recreate the scent of fear or the scent of a virgin?

Christophe Laudamiel: So, the way that you recreate smell of something which is not about smell, here the inspiration is not about sandalwood or patchouli; the inspiration is about an emotion or sensation. So you have to use elements which have a similar smell in those similar situations.

For instance, for I was asked to recreate the smell of "fear." So how do we do that? It’s not an ingredient by definition represents fear. But there are smells associated with uncomfortable, fearful environments. For instance, coldness; and we have ingredients that smell cold. The smell of other things, but for instance, if I say, anise, if I say the sea, if I say fresh... shoot, you have to cut. How do I explain that? If I say mint. You can see how there is the anise or the mint or the ocean breeze effect, but also beside there is also a cold feeling. And so in that fragrance, or in that scent, I will have to hide the herbal aspect of the mint or the anise and I will make sure with other ingredients and I will make sure that only the cold feeling of it remains.

Then the aspect of mustiness. Musty environment like a cave. Something also that smells gassy. That’s also make people doubt or make people fearful. Something quite metallic, with the cold metallic, like a fence, like a gate. Like... so we have ingredients that are metallic, for instance it can be metallic green. You can find this in certain plants or in certain molecules. You have... so you create a fragrance here where it’s not about being pretty, it’s about having all of these elements that are fearful to show in a fragrance and hide inside the fragrance the elements that you don’t want to see. It’s almost the reverse of creating something that you do usually for a nice perfume.

For instance, the smell of the "virgin" here, was to create something very white. So where do you find whiteness? You can find whiteness in some milky elements, in some rice-y element. You want something very soft like you find in a water lily or in an apricot skin without being overtly fully. The fullness you would put on the side, but you want a little velvety, soft effect.

You want... and then there’s something a little bit human, so it’s dosing some notes that our skin emits regularly, some of them aldehydes, that comes from the composition of the skin. It doesn’t mean they smell bad, it’s just naturally... you know how the skin of a baby, the skin of an adult, the skin of an elderly person, they all have a different smell, it’s because that they compose of different ingredients and we can recreate that effect and just a little bit we give the "Je ne sais quoi," the human "Je ne sais quoi" to the piece. And so you recreate all of that with these ingredients.

And the point at the end is not to say that, in the fear, you have anise, patchouli, violet leaf because that has nothing to do with the story of fear. It is just that in patchouli, there is the mustiness that was interesting and then I had to hide it maybe with the coldness with anise, and the anise effect had to be hidden with the metallic effect of violet leaf note. So it’s not about knowing what ingredient is in there, it is knowing about what facet I wanted to recreate. And for fear, for instance, these were the facets. As I say, we also... gassy notes which comes from sulfuric... sulfidy, notes that we have.

So this is how you create this kind of fragrances or scents.

Question: Why and how did you make a smell opera?

Christophe Laudamiel: So the... it’s been a dream in the minds of many people to associate the excitement of sense and olfaction and perfumes with other elements from the entertaining world. And of course as a perfumer, this is something also very exciting and I hope to be able to bring much more of that with other operatic pieces or in the movie industry or any kind of entertainment; the ballet, the museum, et cetera, because there is much, much to do. As much as what has been done so far with music, for instance, in those arenas.

The... for the Scent Opera, there were two challenges. The creative challenge, you had to make fragrances that would be played in a very short period of time, the fragrances have to be compatible with each other, one difference with visual clues, for instance, is that the molecules from the sense of smell are natural, it doesn’t matter, but what you smell lingers in the nose longer than something lingers on your retina.

So when you smell something, the impression that you get depends on what you smelled just before. So in the Scent Opera, where people are smelling things as fast as every six seconds, you had to create smell number two, for instance, depending on what smell number one was, and depending also on what smell number three would be. And then smell number two would be played against later in the opera after smell number 16, so smell number two had to take into account also 16 to be perceived still as smell number two, et cetera So there was this whole gymnastic of things.

Also, people for the Scent Opera, people have smelled around 30 scents within 30 minutes creating 30 scents, it’s a very different task from creating... usually you create one scent to put in one bottle, or one scent to put in one shampoo. Like here it’s like a zoo, if you wish, of 30 animals all of a sudden that you have to manage, that you have to, number one, create and tame and then it’s quite something creatively wise.

The other challenge was the technology, which was blocking the scent clues from the entertaining world until now because you... contamination is number one enemy. You don’t want the cinema to smell like a soup after awhile; you don’t want that after the first performance, you don’t want that everything is contaminated, so we had to have some very special equipment made. And so we went with a biggest ventilation company in the world for that and they custom made something, a scent organ, for us. In fact, I had to work in very close collaboration with them to almost invent every step along the way so that we could play all these scents and recognize them and keep them in a pure form and have several performances, one after the other without problem.

So it was... well it was quite something, but it worked and hopefully now we are going to make many more.

Can you explain how people experienced the opera?

Christophe Laudamiel: So we played it at the theater, at the Guggenheim Museum here in New York, and every seat was equipped with, what we called a “scent microphone,” that was actually the arrival of an individual tube so the seats were not wired, they were tubed individually for every viewer, or sniffer to be able to enjoy the scent opera. And the scent organ we built with Flat Woods and the company, it’s like... how should I say, like Yamaha would build a very good piano, I guess. And then you have Flat Woods building some
very special air managing equipment, very, very precise to handle those scents so that they don’t mix with each other, et cetera.

But the viewers would just sit in their seats and then enjoy the music and the scent coming at them, if you wish. And the challenge was to make sure that people would recognize the scent. It's very unusual right now when you watch a movie, the musical clues, you know them because you've been educated with them. Why when you hear the strings on the violin you know that something bad is going to happen? It's not because you were born with this perception of the music, it's because you've learned it by watching over and over in movies and you associate now that violin kind of clang music with a bad moment.

And now even if you don't see the monster you know the monster is in the room because those violins are starting playing that kind of music. Now people don't have those clues yet in their memory about scents or we had to play the prelude where we describe the scent with the music and with some words, so that they started to make this association quite quickly and thank God the brain is very used at associating an event with a scent.

The brain is even better at doing that than at associating a visual clue with an event. You don't have to repeat as much and so within 15 minutes we gave already a few tips I would say and then we... people attended the opera in the dark and... could really make the association between the scents coming and going and musical clues. The music playing at the same time.

So it was quite an exercise, but we could see because the audience would laugh at the right moment and then they would tell us after, "Oh, yeah. I could really see what was happening, the battle between technology and nature and metal coming in and all that kind of stuff. And then the weirdo passing by and making a chaos and all that."

So people could really make a parallel with what they would have enjoyed in another arena.

Recorded September 9, 2010

Interviewed by Andrew Dermont


Big Think Interview with Ch...

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