Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Natural Aromatics and how they soothed some after 9/11: now in the book Precious Blood

It wasn't until months later, when I had a bit of a bad bout with the February mango pollen in Miami, that I realized I had damaged my liver a bit due to 9/11. After 9/11 traumatized the nation, it was noted some people turned to self-medication to deal with the terrorism. Some drank a lot, overate, or took drugs for depression. Some perhaps did all of the above. I turned to my beautiful aromatics, absolutes, essential oils, concretes and CO2 extracts, all from nature, all complex, heady, indulgent fragrances. They allowed me to escape into their fragrant magic, distract me, overwhelm me.

The year before, on my birthday, I had gone on a shopping spree, a gift to myself, of a lot of aromatics I was not familiar with, to fill in the gaps in my olfactory education. I had already been collecting and studying natural botanical essences since the early 1970's, but had let it lapse a bit in the late 1990's. In the early '90's, I had a very successful oil perfume line I sold in Miami, Anya's Tropical Essences. That led to private label work for hotels on South Beach, and numerous customers for custom (bespoke) perfumes. I guess I didn't feel challenged, for some reason, and there was no community of perfumers to really hook up with other than a chat group I had started on idma.com. There were only about 25 of us there, and there was no vision.

I really didn't know where to take the business to the next step. The impermanence of life, the horror of 9/11, kicked my complacent butt into gear. Night after night, even when vegging in front of the TV, I'd open one vial after another, do a "blind sniff" to train my nose to recognize all of the aromatics, the siam benzoin, the tagettes, rose centifolia from Morocco, vs. the rose centifolia from France, roman chamomile, german chamomile, tonka bean absolute, violet leaf absolute, davana, amyris, and dozens more. Once secure in my active role in recognizing them, I began the dilutions that allowed me to compare the aromatic families, then I began contrasting them to objectively note their synergy when blended. Very systematic, time-consuming, necessary.

Liver support herbs helped me recover from the February mango pollen onslaught, a previously minor problem when I annually got what sounded like a cold, but was really the sensitizing mango pollen irritating my respiratory system. This time, due to the overload of nightly aromatics work, I was sick for six weeks, including a brief bout of anosmia and loss of the sense of taste. Scary for a perfumer, to lose the sense of smell! Incredibly, although I only sporadically take liver support herbs now, and really watch my aromatics work to avoid overload, I have not even had the yearly pollen problem. Seems that was cleared up, and I'm very thankful for that!

What has all this to do with the subject of this blog? I shall tie all the threads together now, like a well-made perfume mist wafting up, the aromatics all singing together in unison.

In 2002, I started a Natural Perfumery group on Yahoo, expanding the resources that were limited on idma.com, and inviting a lot of aromatherapists and like-minded folk to join. Mandy Aftel had published Essence and Alchemy, and the book was stimulating a lot of people to take up natural perfumery. In 2004, a fellow named Jonathan Hayes joined the group, and posted occasionally. We corresponded behind the scenes, and I visited his website, and was impressed by his varied and well-documented accomplishments, from writing for major publications to expert photography, and his day job - forensic pathologist, a Senior Medical Examiner in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manhattan, and a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine. (job description from his website)

About two years ago Jonathan informed me that he was writing a novel that would include a bit about how the protagonist - a forensic pathologist - found solace in natural perfumery after 9/11. I had forgotten about it until I had to call him in July for a rather sad request, to confirm the death of perfume blogger Theresa Duncan, as I was in the middle of a lot of confusion about her passing. I had posted on the Perfume of Life forum when I discovered that she had committed suicide in NYC. Nobody could confirm it, since the press had not released a story on it. After two days of being dunned for proof, and not knowing how to provide it, I remembered Jonathan and called him. He did a bit of digging, and confirmed that a person by that name had died in NYC on the specific date.

Our phone call opened up talk about his book again, and I am very pleased that a major publisher, Harper Collins is publishing it. Jonathan has allowed me to share his passage, albeit brief, but oh-so-evocative - on natural aromatics and how their natural perfume can, as he put it, allow someone to - "get out of his head, and back into his body."

Jonathan wrote to me last night: Natural perfumery is not a plot arc in the book, but it is one of the keys to understanding the character; it's also largely autobiographical, relating to my experience with NP after 9/11, when things were getting to me. As far as NP goes, the most important part is the scene that ends the first day of the story, where the hero (a burned-out forensic pathologist) tries to calm himself by working on a tincture of saffron.

Here's the passage, from Jonathan: the first victim has been discovered, brutally murdered. Jenner, the protagonist, has been forced out of retirement to help. He's spent the last twenty hours at the crime scene and dealing with the murder victim's friends and family. He's home now, and cannot sleep:

He was wired; he needed to come down, to feel himself again. He got up and went to his desk. He opened up a mahogany case and took out a double-sealed bottle of tincturing alcohol, a glass laboratory flask and several dark vials of floral and herbal extracts.

After the whole 9/11 thing, when he finally admitted to himself that he was coping poorly, Annie bullied him into seeing one of the government-funded therapists. Dr. Rother had said it might help him to get the collection of essential oils. Jenner, amused, had bought the set, only to be amazed at how wonderful he found the small library of scents. He later explained slightly sheepishly to Rother that the oils hadn’t helped him in an aromatherapy way, but had helped him get out of his head and back into his body.

Working with the oils was a purely sensual pastime, with no goal beyond experiencing the scents. Learning to spot the different aromas, experimenting with blending extracts, observing how the scent changed as the perfume met the air provided Jenner with an almost Zen immersion in a natural, real thing: a fleeting moment of pure sensation that couldn’t be touched by burning fires or collapsing buildings, by radiation or by weaponized bacteria.

At first, he’d struggled to tell ylang ylang from jasmine, but soon he could easily separate the sweetness of jasmine grandiflorum from the heady, erotic perfume of night-blooming jasmine sambac, and before long he was discriminating between Bulgarian and Turkish extracts of the same rose species. His favorites were the grasses – hay, mellilot, flouve – the thick, coumarin scents, sweet as vanilla, made him feel as if he were lying in a field at sunset in late summer.

He decided to work on saffron. He’d once extracted a saffron essential oil, but beyond the absurd cost, the scent of the oil had been fleeting. He found a 400-year-old tincture recipe in the online archives of a society of French food historians in Beaulieu, and spent the rest of the evening experimenting at his desk. He began by gently heating diluted alcohol, then dropping three thick pinches of brick red saffron threads into the warm glass flask.

He swirled the flask, savoring the warm, buttery scent of the stamens as they swelled and turned crimson, watching the alcohol’s almost imperceptible change from gin clear to the palest of canary yellows. He dipped a test strip, clipped it to a stand, smelled it, and then methodically sniffed it and made notes during the first hour of the dry-down. After one last sniff, he closed his notebook at 1AM and put sheets on the couch.

When he turned out the light, Julie’s cat, invisible all day, slipped out from under the club chair, jumped up onto the couch to lie against him. Jenner was already asleep.


I suggest that readers also read his short story on the day *before* 9/11:
(Note to the Guild members reading this: a few months ago I wrote about Mandy Aftel co-hosting a scent/foodie event at the Napa Valley Culinary Institute of America with White House pastry chef Bill Yosses. Yes, it's the same Bill Yosses that is Jonathan's friend mentioned in this article. Such a small foodie/scent world!)

I wish Jonathan every success with this book, and my mother, who is a huge fan of this genre of writing, says the dust jacket recommendations (also on the website) come from two of the best writers in that field, so it looks like Jonathan has great cred. If you're a natural perfumer, check out his book tour schedule an perhaps drop by to say hi.


  1. Sounds fascinating!
    I will definitely check this one out.
    I am a fan of the genre, myself.
    Very intense back-story. I think it is true that you can give yourself olfactory fatigue that can last awhile. One of the reasons I hesitate to do more than one day of a Sniffa -- the last two times after the first day I was in deep migraine for hours...but this time I am more aware and will be more careful. Just that when you are in a place like Bergdorf's and there are maybe fifty perfumes being sprayed around you, and you have tried maybe 10 already even on a scent strip -- not even on skin, it is just too too much. The most difficult is, I find, the home fragrance reeds wafting scent into the air -- sometimes in a row of 5 or more. I love layering, but more something like scents laying beside each other or on different areas of the body, and not really on top of each other so much. I am working on a post on layering, in fact. But you are right to warn against the perils of over stimulation...

  2. Hi Lucy:
    Sniffing aromatics is the same as drinking hard alcohol, IMO. All has to be processed by the liver, the organ most people don't think about. If you have a stuffed head and runny nose, it's because the liver is congested and the phlegm can't move downward.

    I couldn't survive the scene in Bergdorf's you describe, just because I'm super-sensitive to scent - love it (you knew that!) but overload would overwhelm me.

    Layering is beautiful and sensual. I am working on some layering soliflores/soliresins/soliwoods ;-)



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