Olfactory Report 7: Rhinoferocious * Catherine Haley Epstein

Rhinoferocious – a word to describe those who defend perfumery as an art
Rhino-art – art for your nose
Rhinographies – the study of the tendencies of a unique nose.
–Words coined and inspired by scent artist, Christophe Laudamiel, included in the Odorbet.

I’ve just returned from my first trip to New York City post-covid pingdemic times.  A key theme for me during the week is that the handmade is extremely important right now. Human touch is lost in many ways as we are re-wiring our rules of intimacy. Pay careful attention to the beauty of those things handmade, and the spirit of something made by hand in all its imperfections versus the digital/machine-made. This is especially true with fragrance where a handspun scent creates a more beautiful volume than a mass-produced mega scent.

The purpose of the trip was to spend a week in the lab of Christophe Laudamiel, an unprecedented opportunity I could not refuse. I realize he is known as a master perfumer, but more precisely he is an artist and innovative scent engineer. And yes, his lab was like Candyland to me – every note and captive hanging out casually to engage with.

Given our similar proclivities to disrupt tired systems that are blocking us from experiencing things more fully and with depth, Christophe’s and my work intersect on many levels. Christophe is keen on battling the fragrance industry and pushing fragrance as art, while I continue to battle our perceptions of what art is. He has endorsed my book Nose Dive, and sees it as a strong tool for beginning perfumers and all those interested in re-visiting their assumptions around scent. And now after learning more about his process, and work projects I see he is just as genius and strong as the manifesto he created five years ago.

Christophe is in the process of moving into a new lab, which is exciting and overwhelming at once. I was able to shadow him as he worked through a particular piece coming up at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. The piece is a set of diverse scents meant to conjure up corresponding visuals. I helped to weigh revisions of the formulas, test and review the scents with him. Just as in drawing or painting we see the “master works” in the museums without a clue to the repeated attempts, underpaintings, studies, trials, and errors that brought the artist to the final piece. This can’t be understated as to how deceiving and unhelpful this is for the consumer of art. Most people immediately say, “I could never (insert art form) like that – it’s magnificent!”. The reality is you could, it just requires an enormous amount of commitment, time, mindset shift and faith in the process. Revisions in scent works are the same, where small vial after small vial gets tweaked, twisted, tossed, and tuned.

Christophe’s process is fast, furious and on no uncertain terms precise. When I say fast though I do not mean he necessarily gets the formula right on the first try, he just makes choices on how to edit the formula quickly. That said, I’m sure he has gotten the formula right away at some point, knowing that experience sometimes allows for those moments of creative alignment. I enjoyed watching this process in real time and realizing that while it looks “easy” this may only be done with years of study on the interactivity of the molecules.

As all true artists, Christophe’s life and practice connects dots from disparate things to create a mad, beautiful mix. He is as passionate about political and social issues as he is about lifting the blinds off the public’s understanding of what perfume is and ripping the industry’s cozy blankets off their business models. His synonymous scent compositions are bold and unrelenting. I’ve collected several of the members of his Zoo and find that while each have their own character, they have a strong edge with a nuanced and intelligent soul just like their maker. And yes, scent artists make self-portraits accidently just like visual artists.

Christophe is leading the charge to share with the public that the multibillion-dollar fragrance industry is a handful of companies that collects deals with brands to create perfumes on a massive scale. The public does not realize that the same “creative” teams often create everything from dish soap scent profiles to Alexander McQueen’s eau du parfum. Each team is required to work within a budget and known parameters for meeting the public where they are at. IF the public were educated on scent – we are getting there – they would realize that the fragrance industry has been singing “Mary had a little lamb” to them for years. Out of the 2,000 molecules plus available for creation, we probably get the equivalent of a box of crayons in the popular landscape of perfume.

If you’ve read my book, you know I am not a fan of the duty-free smell, well that duty free is the small box of crayons, and it dupes the public into thinking it’s an oil painting by the branding and visuals surrounding it. It must be shared too that the “secret” to their success is that they do not charge clients for any of the creative work that is done on the projects. That means that no part of the creative process is valued, which speaks to why perfumery has not been easily linked to and understood as an art form. And while the companies buy and sell prestigious fragrance brand licenses to the tune of 43 brands for $12.5 billion dollars (Procter & Gamble to Coty, 2016), the creative process is not innovative. As consumers we can’t see or feel the product, so we don’t realize that what we think is a celadon-colored cashmere sweater (“prestige” or luxury fragrance) is really a starchy rose-colored polyester blend sweater with some pilling on the sleeves and chest area.

Christophe has started a movement with his manifesto in 2016 and is supporting this by presenting a Perfumery Code of Ethics. The code of ethics for perfumery is essentially a pledge to not copy any fragrance, to give attribution, and to not write about fragrance in an obtuse and vague manner. If you are a writer or creative, you may sign the pledge too. I, among many other independent artists and perfumers, are indebted to him for leading the charge for independent perfumers. He also supports his manifesto by educating the public via his Instagram and soon to be other channels.

As much as we makers can sign pledges and share information with the public, it’s also up to the consumer to take a stand and make better choices. As much as you may love Dolly Parton, she signed with EDGE Beauty to have her perfume created and distributed. EDGE Beauty is run by a 15-year veteran of Coty which is one of the largest perpetrators of brand collecting and churning out uninspired scents. What should have happened is Dolly Parton met with an actual perfumer/artist who is aligned with a distribution house and worked with them to create her signature scent collection. Large fragrance houses do not charge for creative work, only once the formula is approved. Artists – you heard that correctly – your services are not valued in the realm of commercial perfumery. And consumers, none of the duty-free fragrances are works of art, only commerce.

If you would like to pass on the Dolly fragrance and instead expand your scent vocabulary and perfume collection, go indie! Look for “niche” perfumery, stores that sell independent lines, or go to the artists directly. Christophe sells online directly to consumers, you can check out American Perfumer, Fumerie online, or you can go to the IAO website where they have a list of past winners and finalists of their annual awards with links to their websites. And don’t be afraid to buy without smelling – unless money is tight, then seek it out in person first. You are training your nose if you do this. How fun is that? And supporting artists at the same time.

—About the Author—

Olfactory report 7 logo with red sign, background is picture of Christophe’s new lab in the West Village. By the author for Rhinoferocious.CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at catherine@mindmarrow.com with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!

Read Catherine’s previous Olfactory Report, “Scent as Medicine,” which examines scents connection to health and healing.