February 10, 2011

What’s in a Smell?

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Pop quiz! What does your nose have in common with the opera? If you are waiting for a pun, then you are about to be disappointed. The answer is Christophe Laudamiel, a world-renowned fragrance designer who visited Cornell on Tuesday to lecture at the A.D. White House. The French perfumer was invited to speak about his work and share information about his highly specialized and unique occupation.Unless you are anomic, your nose has encountered a vast array of scents throughout your life. Although you may have noticed and enjoyed many of these smells, few people can appreciate them at the same level as Mr. Laudamiel, who based his entire career on his ability to smell. This man has probably heard every nose-related pun in the book. Laudamiel has made a living creating exquisite fragrances for many famous clients, including Ralph Lauren, Estee Lauder and Abercrombie & Fitch. In addition to his commercial success, Mr. Laudamiel has employed his talents to a more artistic endeavor, the “scent opera.” He collaborated on “Green Aria: a ScentOpera” which was performed in 2009 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This experimental event united music and scent. Laudamiel labored over numerous fragrances that accompanied a musical score through specially designed hoses throughout the performance.Mr. Laudamiel seemed to have much experience in describing the language of scent.  Using metaphors to music, architecture and visual art, he attempted to explain smells as just another means of expression. Olfaction is not among the top senses in terms of cultural experience, perhaps because it is our most complex and least understood sense. As Laudamiel so aptly explained, one could describe a scent ad nauseam, but you would not understand it until you smelled it. This point became clear as “olfactory aids” were passed around. Once we were able to smell them, the difference between rose essence and rose oil became wholly apparent and the subtle intricacies of smell became a more tangible concept.Although he is trained as a chemist, Laudamiel is something of an artist. Typically perfumes have anywhere from 5–100 separate ingredients. Individual “notes” of smell come together to create complex and highly specific odors. To demonstrate the illusory power of smell, he passed around one scent that could be interpreted as either body odor or grapefruit. As promised, it was possible to be simultaneously repulsed and enamored with this one individual scent. He explained how even the most common-seeming aromas are actually composed of several unexpected scents, citing chocolate as one such example.Mr. Laudamiel’s lecture will remain one of many memorable experiences at Cornell. It was fascinating in a way that seemed capable of engaging the interest of people from many different disciplines. His deep understanding of fragrance and unbounded enthusiasm for his work were admirable and inspiring. Our over-stimulated generation seldom has time to “stop and smell the roses.” The subtle art of fragrance design therefore encouraged a new appreciation for a familiar sense.

Original Author: Jackie Zdrojeski