If you have been here for a while, you’ll know that I like to tell stories through scent. Even if those stories make us feel uneasy.
The blog today will stray into the territory of the uneasy, so please be aware. Topics of death, grief, loss and degenerative diseases will be ahead.
This fragrance was designed in response to a call for creatives for the IFRA UK 2023 Annual Conference. I was fortunate enough to be selected to develop and then present the fragrance at the conference on the 19th October, alongside 3 other perfumers. (One of whom was the incredible Mabelle Abi Ramia from Mabelle O’Rama Olfactive Studio, who presented her scented artwork, “Would you stay”, and ode to visiting her grandparents’ garden in springtime in Lebanon - and who has been interviewed as part of "In Conversation With An Artist")
The conference was centred around the power of scent and memory. There were brilliant guest speakers; Dr Stuart Firestein, Dr Thomas Hummel, and Professor Maria Larsson who presented research covering topics from how our sense of smell functions, through to how changes in the sense of smell can be a precursor to a number of diseases. Did you know that around 1/3 of people over the age of 75 are functionally anosmic?!
Representatives from Alzheimers Research UK were also in attendance to talk about their partnership with The Perfume Shop, and their work towards finding a cure for Alzheimers.
The IFRA Fragrance Forum 2023
Our story starts with my grandfather, David. A man who worked hard throughout his life, and was always well presented in a suit. He was strict but fair with his children (one of whom is my mum), and raised them with good values. And, towards the end of his life, he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s. The disease took a lot away from him, except his working spirit, sense of timekeeping, and routine. It was known, and joked about, within the family that he would close the door in your face if you turned up to see him at the wrong time.
David lived with his wife Francis, who, in her later years, was frequently ill in hospital.
On one occasion, David was asked to bring a clean nightdress for Francis, who was staying longer than expected in hospital. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the hospital, David proudly presented a bag of fresh oranges instead; a story which we recall with humour now.
Some time later, David was called and informed that he should make his way to the hospital as Francis wasn’t expected to survive the night.
David’s question to the doctor at the time was simply:
“What time will my wife die, because I have to go to work?”
The presentation slide
Years of marriage, love, and shared memories seemingly coldly un-represented.
Of course, this isn’t how David ‘felt’ about Francis, it was the disease talking, but it is a statement which I found striking.
This question, for me, holds much weight and says so much about what it means to watch someone you love change, and how it is often so difficult as the healthy onlooker to support those you love, while managing your own grief.
People feel guilty for struggling to cope, or for feeling resentment towards the situation (or person), but it is hard. People clam up around the topic of grief, and it is difficult to know what to say to someone who is grieving, or even reach out for help if you yourself are experiencing grief.
It also raises the question; if you knew the answer to that question, what would you do differently? Because, I think, deep down, despite the pain it would cause, if we knew the answer, we probably would do things differently.
That’s why I thought it was important to use this story as the starting point for the fragrance. To create something not necessarily to be worn, but as a starting point for dialogue and emotional connection. To create a matter-of-fact space to recognise this feeling and start a conversation. Something to break the silence, and be a catalyst to the conversation which follows.
Francis survived that night, and many others, eventually outliving David.
Speaking at the event
So, what does it smell like?
In constructing the fragrance, I built around a few core pillars:
The bag of fresh oranges atop unwashed clothes
And Vanilla with a dark side, referencing Joy Milne who is reported to be able to smell degenerative diseases, and has described Alzheimer’s as smelling of such.
For the ageing aspect, I used Trans-2-nonenal, as it has been identified as being secreted from the skin of older people, reportedly being the ‘old person smell’. It is a tiny tiny dose in the finished fragrance, but it has a big impact. I found that dosing it any higher it started to impart a cucumber facet instead.
The unwashed clothes used Habanolide as a musk, paired with more animalic ingredients; civet, animalis. Almost as though the dirty clothes are being re-pressed to try and seem fresh again. Natural orange oil provides the orange aspect (and is actually 1/3 of the entire composition), but it sits very much in the background, weaving in and out of the aging musk smell.
Finally, the “vanilla with a dark side”. Vanilla rounds out the fragrance and softens the entire composition, making it more approachable, and brings it back within the realm of conversation, and not just an off-putting ‘shout’. For the ‘dark side’, I wanted something that walked a line of discomfort, and gave a medicinal edge to the fragrance. I used a relatively high dose of M-cresol, safraleine, camphor, and thyme (for its Thymol content) to achieve this.
The reaction in the room during the conference was positive. People were able to smell the fragrance ‘blind’ without even knowing the name. People shared words like “hospital”, “medicinal”, “old people”, and “powdery”. One kind participant approached me at the end and said that smelling the fragrance made her tear up as it reminded her of her own dad.
When I smell the fragrance, the orange and vanilla seem to appear and disappear behind the medicinal and ageing notes, like memories falling in and out of perception. I find the more I try to hold on to them, the more elusive they become.
There is something quite comforting about the fragrance overall for me. It definitely has an ‘ageing’ aspect, but in a soft, gentle kind of way. Someone described it as like opening their grandma’s wardrobe, and I can definitely see that.
My view from the presentation podium
While there was a lot of effort put in to add the medicinal aspect, it takes a backseat. There is definitely something a little uneasy about the fragrance, but it isn’t what grabs you straight away. But the longer you sit with the fragrance, the more the story reveals itself.
“What time will my wife die” was an interesting exercise in designing a fragrance that doesn’t try to be commercial. It allowed me to reach for, and learn from, materials that I seldom use otherwise. It also provided a gateway to conversation with my own family, and gave a chance to explore their memories of both David and Francis, my grandad and grandma.
I very much doubt that this will become a fragrance which is part of the regular commercial range, but the formula exists now, so I’m looking into what I can do with it to do some good in the world. So, watch this space!