Sunday Times

THE BIG READ

Af­ter study­ing in an ate­lier in Italy, a Joburg per­fumier’s life is mak­ing scents. By An­drea Nagel

- Charles Darwin · New York City · Italy · Hyde Park · Helen Keller · Rimini

Marie Aoun’s life is mak­ing scents

When Marie Aoun de­cided to leave her ca­reer in the fash­ion in­dus­try to be­come a per­fumier, she didn’t know that the first step she’d take in that di­rec­tion would be to im­merse her­self in the smells of pee, vomit, ball sack and anus. “Whether we’re aware of it or not, hu­man be­ings love the smell of sweat, ex­cre­tion, sex­ual or­gans and re­gur­gi­ta­tion,” she says with a mis­chievous smile. “A lot of what we get out of smell is sub­con­scious. We’re re­ally just an­i­mals in that way and we love the smell of pheromones.” Though it’s gen­er­ally as­sumed that hu­mans are not as good as an­i­mals such as dogs at per­ceiv­ing odours, in a study con­ducted a few years ago it was found that hu­mans can dis­tin­guish among a tril­lion dif­fer­ent smells.

The ol­fac­tory sense has, for a long time, been un­der­es­ti­mated. “Man smells poorly,” Aris­to­tle wrote, and Charles Dar­win thought that a sense of smell was of “ex­tremely slight ser­vice” to the civilised hu­man.

In fact, our sense of smell has far more of an ef­fect on us than we’re aware.

In a fa­mous ex­per­i­ment con­ducted in the 1990s, the “sweaty T-shirt study”, a group of men were in­structed to wear the same T-shirt for two days. The shirts were then put into iden­ti­cal boxes and women were asked to smell them, and to in­di­cate which smells they were most sex­u­ally at­tracted to. The re­sults showed that women were most at­tracted to men whose ge­netic makeup was dif­fer­ent from their own.

But, despite the fact that smells play a such a vi­tally im­por­tant role in our lives, we tend to pay the ol­fac­tory sense less at­ten­tion than the other senses — though it can save our lives.

Smell is the sense that most con­nects us with our in­stincts. A loud noise may cause us to jump, but a smell tells us what to eat and what to avoid, who to love, what to pro­tect and, in a mys­te­ri­ous way, has the power to re­call mem­o­ries most vividly. Hellen Keller called smell, “a po­tent wiz­ard that trans­ports you across thou­sands of miles and all the years you have lived”.

“Smell is so un­der-utilised,” says Aoun, whose jour­ney into the world of per­fumery be­gan with a love of gar­den­ing. “We’re led by our noses. We can even take a sud­den dis­like to some­one based on the way they smell.” It’s no won­der, then, that peo­ple have for cen­turies re­lied on per­fumes to at­tract lovers.

Aoun started re­search­ing per­fumemak­ing on the in­ter­net and found that most sites sug­gest the use of syn­thetic aro­mas as they’re cheaper, more pre­dictable, bet­ter priced and more tena­cious.

“Then I came across an ar­ti­cle in the

Scent is ‘a po­tent wiz­ard, [it] trans­ports you across the years’

‘Nat­u­ral per­fumery is like an an­cient alchemy’

New York Times on Ab­desSalaam At­tar of La Via del Pro­fumo in Italy. He’s a Dervish and a Sufi and when I read his phi­los­o­phy on per­fumes I thought this is 100% the guy I want to learn from,” she says.

Aoun spent weeks in a tiny vil­lage in the cool, green hills above the Adri­atic just out­side Ri­mini in north­ern Italy, learn­ing from At­tar about the soul of scent.

“The way you build per­fumes nat­u­rally is very dif­fer­ent to the syn­thetic process,” she says.

“Most per­fumes these days are syn­thetic, made from up to 300 in­gre­di­ents be­cause of the pos­si­bil­ity of iso­lat­ing dif­fer­ent el­e­ments of scent into sin­gle mol­e­cules. Nat­u­ral per­fumery is like an an­cient alchemy, there’s a de­fin­i­tive art to the blend­ing be­cause each scent has in the re­gion of 200 to 300 mol­e­cules. It’s a much more rounded scent.”

It’s like com­par­ing ana­logue sounds to dig­i­tal ones — ex­pert ears can hear the dif­fer­ence. Ol­fac­tory spe­cial­ists, like per­fumers or an­i­mal track­ers, can de­tect far more scents than the av­er­age hu­man, which in­di­cates that with at­ten­tion, we can get bet­ter at distinguis­hing a huge range of aro­mas.

“The process with nat­u­ral per­fumes is much more alchemy than chem­istry,” says Aoun.

The use of syn­thetic scents to re­place nat­u­rals in the art of per­fumery be­gan in the 19th cen­tury. ‘‘Since then they’ve be­come more and more generic,” says Aoun. “The mar­ket­ing takes over the artistry and you end up re­mov­ing the in­spi­ra­tion. My be­lief is that the cus­tomer wants to be sur­prised and de­lighted. The longer I work with nat­u­ral scents the more I be­lieve the com­mer­cial per­fumes smell like crap (in a bad way) … or chem­i­cals. Most per­fumery is very in­dus­trial. It’s noth­ing like what you think when you see the mar­ket­ing.”

In the ate­lier in Italy, Aoun was in­tro­duced to the essences, ex­tracts, tinc­tures and oils of pure scents: fa­mil­iar flo­rals like rose, jas­mine and laven­der, ar­cane botan­i­cals like lab­danum, Ga­iac wood and agar­wood, and un­ex­pected notes like hay and seaweed.

Most un­ex­pect­edly she learnt about the strange and coun­ter­in­tu­itive an­i­mal ex­tracts that are part of most of the per­fumes we love: hyraceum, “which is ac­tu­ally fos­silised dassie pee”, ex­plains Aoun; am­ber­gris, “it’s whale vomit that floats around in the sea, goes hard and washes onto the shore” — it’s very ex­pen­sive and smells cold, fresh and cu­ri­ously sweet; ca­s­toreum, “which is made from the beaver’s ball sacks and smells like crotch sweat” (I thought it smelt of olives in brine); musk, not avail­able any­more — it comes from the glands of the now-ex­tinct musk deer; and civet, which comes from a cat-like an­i­mal’s anus (ac­tu­ally its per­ineal glands) and smells, in large amounts, a bit like a dirty nappy, but is bizarrely flo­ral in small doses.

Aoun keeps small am­ber-tinted bot­tles of these scents in her bot­tle-filled fridge. She takes them out for me to smell while we talk in her lab-like stu­dio. She uses them as ref­er­ence ma­te­rial, though she won’t use them in her per­fumes. “It would be un­eth­i­cal … and ex­pen­sive,” she says.

“Civet is a par­tic­u­larly com­mon in­gre­di­ent in com­mer­cial per­fumes, though,” she tells me while I try not to think of the ex­trac­tion process. ‘‘I don’t use the an­i­mal ex­tracts. You can get the same ef­fect from plant-based sources.”

She uses nat­u­ral tinc­tures like Hi­malayan cedar, ve­tiver (which smells of wet soil) and buchu. “Buchu is very strong, both beau­ti­ful and sick­en­ing,” she says, ap­ply­ing a drop to my hand. “It’s one of the first per­fumes the San mixed with an­i­mal fat and rubbed on their skin — so prob­a­bly one of the first per­fumes that was ever cre­ated.”

The Saint D’Ici per­fumes Aoun makes are pro­duced in small, lim­ited-edi­tion batches of be­tween 50 and 500, never more. She sources di­rectly from farm­ers, mostly in SA and Africa and she’s just launched a lay­er­ing range, com­posed of scent ac­cords, which al­lows peo­ple to build their own scent.

But ac­cord­ing to this ex­pe­ri­enced Nose, is there any­thing that can beat the smell of the hu­man you adore?

“As cliched as it is, my favourite smell is the scent of my baby’s head. It’s pure love,” she says. “I could never com­pete with that.”

Aoun will be ex­hibit­ing her per­fume range, Saint D’Ici, at the San­lam Hand­made Con­tem­po­rary Fair next week on the rooftop of Hyde Park Cor­ner, Jo­han­nes­burg, Fri­day to Sun­day, san­lamhmc.co.za

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 ?? Pic­tures: Alaister Rus­sell ?? Founder of Jo­han­nes­burg ar­ti­sanal per­fumery Saint D’Ici Marie Aoun cre­ates a range of nat­u­ral per­fumes with­out the use of syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als.
Pic­tures: Alaister Rus­sell Founder of Jo­han­nes­burg ar­ti­sanal per­fumery Saint D’Ici Marie Aoun cre­ates a range of nat­u­ral per­fumes with­out the use of syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als.
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