Words are no substitute for actual experience. I’ve tried to give you a small glimpse into the wide range of topics and olfactory experiences involved in AbdesSalaam Attar’s Italian perfume seminar but they are, ultimately, mere words and abstractions. It’s not even the whole picture. I’ve omitted several subjects, partially by request in order to maintain the impact for anyone who decides to take the course for themselves, and partially out of my own concern of boring those who are not interested.
There are two topics, however, that I’d like to briefly cover before concluding with some thoughts on the class as a whole and information on the upcoming sessions: 1) psycho-aromatherapy and the neurological impact of scent; and 2) distillation.
In the pre-course materials provided to us and discussed in Part I of this series, AbdesSalaam introduced us to the idea of olfactory therapy. “Healing emotions,” he called it in his blog posts on his perfume philosophy. There, and throughout the course, he said, “Your nose is your doctor.” He believes that we are drawn to those fragrant materials whose properties relieve, counter, or soothe the physical or mental ailments from which we suffer, even if we don’t realise that is the reason for our attraction. In the class, he referenced the behaviour of wild animals that are drawn to things in nature, whether plants or some other organic matter, to supplement their biological needs. He also pointed to the work of a leading expert in aromatherapy, Robert Tisserand, who has explored the issue of olfactory therapy in his works. You can read more about AbdesSalaam’s philosophy or Tisserand at the various links provided above.
I have to admit, I was initially skeptical. My mind simply didn’t understand the point on a concrete level, and I struggled to reconcile theory with practical reality. I have an innate tendency to shy away from things that seem a little “Woo Woo” or airy-fairy New Age to me, and psycho-aromatherapy definitely seemed to fall into that category at first glance. Things changed, though. Perhaps you simply have to go through the process and fully immerse yourself into AbdesSalaam’s world with an open mind. Or, perhaps, it was the combination of that in conjunction with further exploration of Tisserand’s chart, Julia Lawless’ Encyclopedia, (see, Part I for more information on that), and the realisation that real science was involved.
It is not “Woo Woo” hocus-pocus gobbledygook to say that scent receptors trigger a neural, endocrinological, or hormonal change in people. For example, a 2013 study into the neurological benefits of rosemary showed that sniffing the herb or its oil can increase memory by 60-75% because it contains a compound that acts on the biochemical system underpinning memory. While the study was too statistically small to be conclusive proof on the effects of rosemary, there have been a plethora of large clinical trials showing that odor molecules stimulate the olfactory nerve in the nose which, in turns, triggers certain neural pathways in the brain to release positive neurochemicals. (See, e.g., “The Neurology of Olfaction,” Cambridge University Free Press. See also, Suzanne Bovenizer for a less academic discussion on the limbic region.) In fact, some of the IFRA/EU restrictions on natural essences is predicated on the science that volatile molecules from essential oils or fragrances enter into the bloodstream through the skin, though they always insist that it is a harmful thing.
For AbdesSalaam, Tisserand, and others, however, there is an enormous therapeutic benefit to both mind and body in the proper application of essential oils. Tisserand has a chart on psycho-aromatherapy that AbdesSalaam brought with him to our classroom and which I began to study with increased interest as the course progressed.
Take, for example, jasmine. It is classified as an “Aphrodisiac” along with ylang-ylang, clary sage, and patchouli. (I knew there was a reason why I’m such a Patch Head!) Tisserand then goes on to say in small text at the bottom of the chart that their molecules stimulate the pituitary gland which
may then secrete endorphins. These are also pain-killers, and can induce both euphoria and sexual feelings. The pituitary gland also governs the other endocrine glands in the body, including the thyroid, the adrenals, and the sexual glands.
In short, if you smell patchouli or jasmine and start to feel happier, it may be because their scent triggered an increase in endorphins. (As most of you know, endorphins are also released by sexual orgasm, so… *ahem*.)
In contrast, the amygdala and hippocampus are the regions affected by the “Memory/Mental Stimulant” group. That is made up of things like black pepper, rosemary, peppermint, and lemon, which help to combat poor memory, mental fatigue, and difficulty in concentrating. The “Sedative” group consists of orange blossom, chamomile, lavender, and marjoram, and triggers the Raphe Nucleus to release serotonin, a calming neurochemical that also helps with depression, sleep, appetite and digestion, social behaviour, and sexual desire. It’s all very far from the “Woo Woo” that I had initially thought upon hearing the words “psycho-aromatherapy,” and it really makes a lot of sense.
With all of this in mind, AbdesSalaam asked each of us to look in the Lawless book for the notes to which we gravitated the most, then to assess whether we suffered from any of the issues that the oils treated. I looked up Peru Balsam, categorized as “Balsam, Peru,” and was astonished to see that it heals low blood pressure which is one of my problems, along with nervous tension and stress, two other things that plague me. So, then I looked up Ylang-Ylang. It is a flower that I’ve always liked but, during the course, I was surprised to find that I responded to it far more than the essential oil of my beloved tuberose, my favorite flower in nature and perfume. It turns out that Ylang-Ylang not only helps substantially with insomnia, one of my greatest issues, but also stress-related disorders. Take another note I love in perfumery, sweet or bitter oranges, and guess what they help? You guessed it, “nervous tension and stress-related conditions.” Styrax was similar, this time adding anxiety to the mix, which is something that occasionally plagues me. I was really taken aback. Who knew, my body has been going after certain things all this time! As a side note, my beloved Tuberose seems to have no aromatherapy uses whatsoever, but its “Actions” are classified as “narcotic,” something with which I wholly agree.
It’s not a perfect system, though. I don’t particularly like galbanum, and I loathe lavender, both of which are also good for stress. (No, not everything in the book relates to stress. Guaiac is limited to gout and arthritic joint issues.) Fenugreek is another iffy perfume note for me, and it deals with insomnia among the many, many ailments it treats. But no amount of insomnia is ever going to make me want to smear myself with fenugreek oil at bedtime! Still, more often than not, the vast majority of notes I love have a major impact on the mind or stress, which explains why perfumes with those notes (in natural, non-synthetic form) frequently put me in a good mood.
In contrast, few things turn my mood black and irate more quickly than a shriekingly abrasive aromachemical fragrance bomb. I would love to see a scientific study on the neurological or biochemical effects of synthetics as compared to natural oils, and whether the synthetic version has the same impact or even degree of impact, but I doubt that such a study exists at this point in time. Who would fund it? Certainly not Givaudan or the other big aromachemical companies that are pushing, funding, or benefitting from the IFRA/EU restrictions on natural materials. If there is such a study and you’ve seen it, please do let me know.
Throughout the course, we smelt various essential oils that AbdesSalaam had distilled himself in order to train our nose to spot differences, to learn about quality, and to explore the material’s natural layers. (See, Part III for more on that.) On the last day of class, AbdesSalaam showed us how the process works on a small scale with a portable distiller that he brought and put together on-site.
First, as a reminder of what was discussed in Part III, “distillation” is basically a way of extracting a small quantity of essential oil from a large quantity of natural material. It’s usually done by steam, though there are other methods as well, all of which you can read about on Wikipedia. The site also has an explanation of the mechanics of the process for those who are interested since, in all honesty, the technical details went completely over my head as I was observing all the various tubes, containers, and parts of the contraption. Mechanics are not my forte in life. (In fact, my brain shuts down in response to anything remotely technical or related to engineering.)
The basic structure and process, however, seem to go like this:
What amazed me about the distillation I witnessed in class was the issue of quantity. It doesn’t really sink in how much material you need and how very little is produced until you go through it yourself. (Not to mention how labor-intensive the preparatory process is to get the materials in the right state or shape to begin with!)
AbdesSalaam drove up with the entire trunk and back seat of his mini-van filled with freshly cut Italian cypress, and we used the vast majority of it. There were small to medium-sized branches with needles, twigs, and clusters of the “fruit” (the tree’s cones). Almost all of it went into a large electrical shredder that AbdesSalaam had also brought, the only exception being the widest, thickest branches. In those cases, everything around it was individually clipped off by my various classmates, and then manually fed into the machine.
In total, we filled a 150 liter or 39 gallon steel vat containing approximately 30 kilos of shredded cypress. All of this went onto a table where it was hooked up to a water-steam-heat thingy. (See, I told you I don’t understand mechanics!) The vat was insulated with several blankets, and then, the fire thingamajig was turned on. (I know, I know, I’m hopeless.) The whole contraption led into to one tube where the oil (“condensate”) was gathered, while another tube dripped out a water by-product. That’s called “hydrosol,” and it also bears a faint aroma because it contains some residual leftover oil and compounds.
And the outcome for all that work? A mere two bottles amounting to perhaps 100 ml of oil!! One continuously hears about the massive quantities of rose petals necessary to produce a small amount of perfume oil and the attendant costs that come with it, but I think it’s difficult to comprehend the actual reality of the numbers until you’ve chopped, shredded, steamed, and seen the process for yourself.
The cypress oil we distilled was interesting. At least, after the fact. I’ll be blunt and say that the scent released during the actual process not only made me nauseous, but I think it was partially responsible for making my blood pressure crash. It smelt just like that horrible green odor of badly overcooked, boiled asparagus, mixed with some gassy odor that I can’t properly describe or pinpoint. All I know is that, after a solid hour or two of the distillation scent, I thought I was going to be sick. The actual oil was different, albeit I only gave it a passing sniff at the time out of wariness. While it, too, was endlessly green, it smelt fruity from the cypress cones and delicately aromatic. That said, I confess I thought its aroma was very wishy-washy and weak that first day.
AbdesSalaam gave each of us a small vial of it and, interestingly, the scent has really changed for the better in the last month. It opens with a surprising whiff of what I can only describe as a floral note, immediately followed by a very soft, smooth, creamy, white, somewhat oily woodiness. There is a subtle sweetness about it, a suggestion of leafy greenness, and even a faint whiff of something vaguely lemony underneath it all. AbdesSalaam says wood essences only really become good after a long period of time, improving and deepening as they age, just like wine. So, I’m looking forward to seeing how the oil develops.
As I noted at the start, any attempt to describe a detailed, concentrated, sensory, and often emotional process ultimately comes down to mere words. It requires personal experience to add concrete meaning and weight, to turn description into something “tri-dimensional” (to use AbdesSalaam’s terminology) through actual scent, sensations, taste, and atmosphere. It’s like reading the description of a marathon: you know there is a lot of running involved, but that’s about it because the real sensations or impact are only abstractions that are being recounted through someone else’s lens.
In this case, it is my lens, with all that is attendant to it. My olfactory impressions, mental associations, likes and dislikes — they all shape how I saw and interpreted the seminar. As AbdesSalaam often says, “we smell with our mind.” Only you can bring your own “lens” to the process, and your experiences or responses may well be different. That is one reason why I believe the course will feel fresh and new to any of you who decide to take it, even if you’ve read my detailed descriptions.
Another reason is that AbdesSalaam tailors some of the specifics of the course to the particular group in question. What we did in the July seminar differed slightly from what the June group, and undoubtedly will differ from what the next one does as well. That said, the conceptual and theoretical framework will always remain the same, because those are AbdesSalaam’s deeply held beliefs. Another constant will be the process by which he educates your nose, how to make perfumes (see Part IV), distillation, and the various matters that I have not covered by request in order to save it as an impactful surprise for future students. You will go through all of that, but the finer details of the process may vary because AbdesSalaam believes in letting each class flow naturally and fluidly from individual and group interests, as well as group dynamics, “to let the events of the world direct the course, taking every occasion as an opportunity to teach real perfumery. Trusting fully that everything will come in its right time at the right place.”
As a corollary to that, group dynamics will also play an important role in creating a very different individual experience and atmosphere. Perhaps your group will not consist of “compulsive perfumers” like ours, but be more intrigued by the theoretical and spiritual ideas behind scent. Or, perhaps, your classmates will have a intense curiosity about olfactory psychology, marketing, or some other subject. If so, those issues may receive a bit more attention than they did for a prior group, because AbdesSalaam takes an interactive approach to teaching and really responds to people’s particular interests.
He is, perhaps above all else, a natural teacher, one knows how to keep his students engaged through humour and understanding. He has the ability to quickly sum up what will work best for each individual in order for them to learn or to achieve their goals. He also has the gift of being able to boil down theoretical concepts based on complicated scientific, historical, sociological or cultural studies into easily relatable phrases and nutshell ideas. On the surface, his teachings appear to be so simple but, as “Your nose is your doctor” demonstrates, they are actually derived from decades of established research. He has simply drawn his conclusions in a way that others previously have not, at least not in the perfume world. He will provide you with the sources to dig further should you wish, but his goal is to present ideas in the simplest way possible so that they are accessible and so you can learn without feeling intimidated or overwhelmed.
What I have tried to do here is to give you a small taste of what is on the menu, but I keep emphasizing how it is no substitute for personal experience because I really want people to take the course for themselves if they are interested in learning about the power, role, and impact of scent in their lives. Don’t think my seven posts are the sum total. Like a restaurant review that describes a handful of dishes, they tell you the taste, ingredients, and cooking methods as I see them — but it is still as I see them. In the same way, even though I’d read a lot about the course on Facebook from the students who attended it in June, it still felt completely different and new when I went through it myself. No matter how much is written, the course will ultimately be a subjective journey and experience rather than a technical, step-by-step guide on how to make perfume.
All of that is why I think the course is worth it in financial terms. Putting it crassly, you get your money’s worth in light of all that is covered and experienced. Consider, for example, the animalics. I doubt any perfume course in Grasse or in one of Givaudan’s big steel towers will offer you the chance to hold musk glands from the nearly extinct Tonkin deer, never mind all the rest that I recounted in Part VI. Similarly, I doubt the typical perfume course permits you to explore such a wide variety of raw materials, and at such a high quality level, too. No seminar that I’ve read about in New York or L.A. presents you with the most expensive Omani incense, varieties of sandalwood or oud, unusual bee propolis, and funky African rarities like Karo Karunde and Buchu. Nor do they give you expensive kits of materials as part of your registration and for you to keep. AbdesSalaam’s Animalic and extended Aromatherapy sets are valued at around €500, which is quite a figure, indeed.
For me, the real value lay in how we were given carte blanche to make as many perfumes as we wanted, regardless of the cost of the materials involved. There was never the faintest word about how much we were going through, only a smile and encouragement to go ahead and to do whatever was needed to make our creations the best we could. At our table, Manuel and I emptied the Rose Absolute and Sandalwood bottles; Salman and Jackie also finished their sandalwood; and I was utterly thrilled at being able to go to town with as much ambergris as I wanted for my Fantasy scent. (See Part IV on how to make perfumes.) There is a huge generosity involved in giving students free rein to play with any expensive material they want for days on end, but that is simply who AbdesSalaam is as a person.
While the course has practical application for those who are considering starting their own fragrance line, I don’t think you need to have such a goal to attend. Half of my classmates (or more than half if you count me) had no such desire. They were there for the knowledge, the experience, and the journey. A few had extremely limited prior knowledge of fragrances, and one said bluntly at our first meeting that he had no nose or ability to pick out specific notes whatsoever. So, you’re not expected to be an expert; you’re not even required to be a hardcore perfumista. You’re simply asked to approach things with an open mind, and to be willing to understand the many ways in which scent can play a role in your life, ways that go far beyond the fragrance bottle on a store shelf. The rest is just fun. Simple fun, filled with sensory exploration, creative self-expression, and perhaps an archery arrow or two.
The reason why I’ve gone on at length about the value of the course and why it’s the experience of a lifetime is because AbdesSalaam has just put up the details for the next one, and it’s only three months away! December 2015! I always knew there would be 2 sessions in 2016, but I didn’t think the December one was a sure thing until yesterday when he told me about the new location. The winter session won’t be at the Germano Reale in Coriano, but at the Villa di Carlo hotel and spa resort in Montegrimano. (That is near Rimini, too, so much of the travel stuff I discussed in Part II will apply.) The Villa di Carlo sounds absolutely fantastic with its thermal waters, Turkish bath, sauna, gym, and room massages. (How I wish I could have had a massage after some of those classes!) You will find links to AbdesSalaam’s site providing information on all three future seminars at the end of this post.
In short, I hope more than anything that you will consider taking the class if you are interested in expanding your knowledge about both olfaction and perfume, and if you have the time, means, and opportunity. I really can’t recommend it enough. It is like nothing else that I’ve experienced, and it blew my mind!