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Kira Bindrim: Whenever I see my family for the holidays, or visit friends I haven’t seen in years, everyone says the same thing: “God, Kira, you smell exactly the same.”

Like most people, my physical appearance has changed over time—my clothes, my hair, the style of my glasses. But for more than two decades, I have been wearing the same white musk body spray. I kind of like the idea that while everything else changes, my scent never does.

Of course, that means I’m missing out—on the fascinating world of perfume. For centuries, humans have been enhancing their scents with unique combinations of ingredients. And during the pandemic, some argue perfume became the lipstick of the masked world, a small, affordable way to treat yourself.

But the simple joy of a good perfume masks the utter complexity of making one. Scents come from all over the world, and I mean all over: flowers, forests, deer glands, whale guts. Perfumers are actually chemists and artists, dreaming up formulas and then navigating the complicated sourcing needed to make them a reality. That means, as the world evolves, so too will the lengths we go to smell great in it.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: perfume, human history in a bottle.

I’m joined now by Aurora Almendral who is a senior reporter with Quartz based in Bangkok, Aurora since we are not in the same place, I would love for you to start by telling me the scent that you are wearing today.

Aurora Almendral: Right, so right now I’m wearing a couple of things. One of them is a scent called Iris Poudre, which is by a perfumer named Frédéric Malle, and it’s kind of a flowery powdery scent that I love. And then on the other arm, I went on a little adventure for the purposes of this podcast to try to get some real oud, which is one of the cornerstone scents of perfumery. And so I have a little bit of that on the other arm just to remind myself what the experience of having this purely natural rare scent is. So part of my research involved having two clashing perfumes on right now.

Kira Bindrim: I was gonna say, do you usually, are there other times when you wear two?

Aurora Almendral: Not really. I usually stick to just one but I felt the need to sort of be reminded what the oud one was like. And hopefully it’s not too cacophonous to anybody who is walking by.

Kira Bindrim: I love it. So tell me, how did you get interested in this topic in the first place?

Aurora Almendral: I was surprised by how gross some of the provenances of these really beautiful scents are. And often each ingredient is its own kind of micro industry. And they come with really complex and surprising supply chains that to me, they hinted to the wonders of the world, which is part of why I follow the supply chains of perfume. It’s just seems kind of whimsical and strange. And sometimes they’re tied up with history and certainly the quirks of geography and the biological world.

Kira Bindrim: So I think a lot of people would assume, myself included, that most ingredients in perfume are things that themselves sort of naturally smell good. I’d love to have you drill down in a couple of different ingredients and paint me a picture of the origin story and the supply chain behind them.

What are the ingredients in perfume?

Aurora Almendral: Okay, so a supply chain, you know, for a purse or something—you have a cow, the cow is skinned, you tan the hide, and it’s pretty straightforward. And you can control it right? Like you control the amount of cows that you raise and how many of the skins you tan. But ambergris, for centuries, it was something that people were finding on the beach, but they didn’t know where it came from.

And then eventually people come to find out that it’s related to whales, I guess there was a serious period of whale-hunting, sort of Moby Dick era. And they managed to connect that ambergris came from inside whales, but to this day, people often describe it as whale vomit. As whales eat squid, there are certain parts of the squid that don’t get digested—specifically the beaks and these things that they call the pins. And so they get impacted somewhere in the lower end of their intestinal tract. And the whales producing a kind of oil to help cope with this ever-growing bundle of squid beaks.

And either the whale passes this thing that can weigh 60 to 200 pounds, through its anus, or the whale dies because it can’t poop anymore. And so then the various little sea animals come and eat the whale as it’s dying or it starts to decompose. And eventually this hunk of ambergris is going to be released. And its density is lower than the sea, and so it floats to the top and then it just bobs around in the ocean for untold number of years or decades.

And at some point, just by pure chance, it might end up on a beach. And someone who is paying attention to the way that some sepia- colored rock smells might find it, and then they can start to sell it in the open market. And some recent sales of ambergris have netted over $1 million. There was one, I think in 2014, that was sold for $3 million.

Kira Bindrim: What a pleasant story.

Aurora Almendral: Do you love it?

Kira Bindrim: I love it. There are people just out there searching for 100-year-old wads of undigested squid beaks.

Aurora Almendral: Hunters, they’re called ambergris hunters. And so I talked to this perfumer, her name is Elizabeth Gaines, and she has a perfume that uses real ambergris. Her company is called Strange Love, it’s based out of New York, and I asked her if she had any trouble during the pandemic about getting stuff, any of her ingredients. And she said, yes, of course, we’ve been sold out of our ambergris perfume for several months because we couldn’t find any, we couldn’t source it, we couldn’t source the ambergris because, for several months, because of the pandemic lockdowns, people weren’t combing the beaches. Her ambergris hunter, which is this man who splits his time between Somalia and England apparently, wasn’t able to, people weren’t out there on the beaches trying to find ambergris, whatever is washed up there. So for several months out of the pandemic years, she couldn’t get even, you know, the tiny quantity that she needed in order to make this perfume. So they sold out for quite some time.

Kira Bindrim: One of the least covered supply chain crises of the pandemic.

Aurora Almendral: But it’s a crisis.

Kira Bindrim: I would never have thought that the beaches being locked down would have that impact. Okay, ambergris—this is going to be hard to top, Aurora, I don’t know how you’re going to tell me better ingredients from here. What is your next ingredient that you find super fascinating?

Aurora Almendral: Okay, so the next one is oud, which is a very woody kind of scent. And it’s it’s having a moment right now, it’s in that it’s in a lot of perfumes made by luxury perfume houses and it’s like a beautiful, warm, there’s a bit of pungency in it so it’s very interesting. But oud happens to only grow in Southeast Asia, where I am, even though it’s a very, very central to sort of Middle Eastern culture. And oud comes from aquilaria, a type of tree that grows here, but the actual resin that oud comes from is only from when this tree is wounded in some way infected by some kind of mold. And then in order to sort of preserve itself and fight off this kind of attack on its life, it produces something called agarwood. And it’s a resin that they eventually extract and then that turns into oud. And I read that some of the forests that have the most oud are the ones in Laos and Cambodia that were sort of part of this covert war in which 2 million cluster bombs were dropped in this border with Vietnam during the Vietnam War. And they wounded so many trees that these trees started producing agarwood in order to cope with being bombed, essentially. And so this horrible sort of—can we say it’s a war crime? I think it is—produced large quantities of this resin, which I thought was quite fascinating.

And you know, as luck would have it, here I am in Southeast Asia, so I thought I’d go and try to find what real oud smelled like. And I found a couple of open shops. The first one, it smelled it and it just like, as soon as I smelled it, it was a Cambodian oud, it reminded me of being in the proximity of caterpillars—it’s just this instant sort of recollection, which for me meant being in foresty places where my family had like a house when I was growing up. And then I smelled a few others, I tried on a few more. That very first one was suspiciously cheap. And after about 20 minutes, the more expensive ones sort of softened into something sweet, less pungent, less aggressive to your sense of smell, and then the cheap one started to smell like feces. That was my little adventure.

Kira Bindrim: I did not anticipate how many, that this would be the podcast episode with the most instances of the word feces was not something that I had anticipated.

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, that’s shocking.

Kira Bindrim: One of the things I’m hearing is, at least with those two ingredients and probably others, there’s almost this unique combination of events or circumstances that has to exist for this thing to come into being—like the sunlight hits this hole once a year, and the rabbit walks across it, you know. That seems difficult, which is part of what we’re talking about. Are there unnatural, or I guess synthetic ways to come at some of those same ingredients to eliminate some of the need for these magical circumstances to occur?

Natural vs. synthetic fragrances

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, synthetic fragrances started being invented or made or put together in 1882, I think was the very first one. And then from then on, synthetics created a revolution in perfume. The start of the synthetic revolution was with a perfume by Guerlain that was made I believe in 1888 or 1889. And from then on, synthetics became a bigger and bigger part of what makes perfumes today. There are many synthetic musks and you can find that in many, many perfumes, it’s a very common ingredient. They also use it very widely in Tide detergent. And perfumes have their own secret formula. They keep this very secret, even though it’s actually very easy to tell what’s in them. But they average about 80% synthetic and about 20% natural now.

Kira Bindrim: And there’s no downside really to using a synthetic? Or does that depend on whether you’re a purist?

Aurora Almendral: I mean, I see it as a bit of an upside, because synthetics is how you get perfumes that smell of cold, or like a gray cloud hanging over like a bustling city. This is how you get scents that don’t necessarily have, that can’t be extracted. We’ve talked about two strange ingredients for their strange provenances, but there’s also rose, there’s also jasmine. And those are extracted with solvents or water, and you pull out the oil, and you get this thing that smells pretty much just like a rose. But with synthetics, then you can have a whole other world of scents that can’t be extracted, right? We can extract the feeling or the scent of luminescence—there’s no oil in luminescence. But with synthetics, you can sort of create that feeling that we weren’t able to do in the 1800s. But now we have this whole world of crazy scents. And then the other thing is that you can sort of make synthetic molecules of sense that that would otherwise require you to cut down and chip a whole entire tree or a whole entire forest or drive an entire Himalayan deer musk to near extinction. So it has that benefit of not having to extract violently from the natural world, you can just make it in the lab and it still smells good.

Kira Bindrim: After the break, what’s the future of perfume?

[ad break]

Kira Bindrim: So maybe we can talk through one specific perfume as a way of sort of understanding that soup-to-nuts process. And I am hard pressed to think of a more popular or top-of-mind perfume if you say ‘perfume’ to me then Chanel No. 5. So maybe that is a good one. What is the story, or path, or trajectory, origin story, of Chanel No. 5?

When was Chanel No. 5 created?

Aurora Almendral: So Chanel No. 5 was made in 1921, so it is just over 100 years old. And it’s one of the first perfumes that really leaned in hard on a synthetic called an aldehyde. In 1921, it was this very modern thing. Coco Chanel wanted something that was abstract, that wasn’t just like this rose bouquet thrown in your face. Working with a perfumer, she had this vision. The perfumer made this mix of woody scents, the aldehyde like synthetic and like various other flowers and put it together, and then Chanel marketed it as this modern woman’s perfume, and it was a hit. The French call it ‘the monster’ because it was such an unmitigated hit. It sells huge amounts. And the French government claims that somewhere in the world, every 30 seconds, somebody buys a bottle of Chanel No. 5.

Obviously in 100 years things changed and somebody had given me a bottle of Chanel No. 5. I was very excited to smell it because it was iconic, I felt so fancy—I was very young at the time. And I smelled it, and I was just like, ‘This smells like an old lady.’ So the conceptions of what a scent is obviously changes as the decades kind of pass by. But I believe Chanel still remains one of the most popular perfumes out there.

Kira Bindrim: Are there any complications that come from being like a timeless 100-year perfume? Like you know, supply chain might change over time, or, kind of what you’re saying, expectations or what’s considered normal around scent might change over time? Do we know anything about how Chanel has adjusted over the years?

Aurora Almendral: I mean, the formula is kept secret and they certainly don’t want to be broadcasting an in the ability to continue to create the exact same scent. Scents have to be exactly what they are, they shouldn’t really change because a lot of this sort of alchemy and importance and how it relates your memory won’t happen if the scent itself changes. But over the years, the perfume association, The International Fragrance Association, there are certain chemicals, certain molecules that get banned because they cause allergens, they are carcinogenic in huge numbers. And so a lot of perfumes have to change their formulas in that way. And sometimes it’s enough that the perfume itself no longer exists in its core self. Chanel No. 5 has retained enough continuity in the last century that it’s been so widely smelled that it still continues to be itself today, and also Chanel does these things where they have a field of roses in southern France that’s only for Chanel No. 5, it’s only for them. So they have to take quite a tight sort of control in what they can control in the supply chain.

Kira Bindrim: It’s not like snacks or something where they can be like, ‘New formula, we freshened it up.’ People want that continuity.

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, it’s not like the Oreo where you have like endless combinations, all the variations, increasingly insane. But they do spin out a lot of other perfumes, but I think like in order to remain Chanel No. 5, the smell has to be exactly the same. People will know immediately. Like my mom’s perfume that she wore when I was a kid, they changed the formula at some point. And we both hated it. And she stopped wearing it. It was really very sad for me.

Kira Bindrim: So I was saying earlier, I think I have that relationship. For me, I have been wearing the same scent for many years because it’s sort of like one long memory of who I am that I associate with this smell and that people around me do, too. I’m curious how that connection between scent and emotion and memory plays into how you think about scent and what you choose to wear in terms of perfume.

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, I think there are two sort of main kinds of perfume-wearers. One is like you, that has that signature scent and you’re always wearing it. And as somebody who’s experiencing someone else’s scent, I love it. Like my mother’s perfume when I was a child—I spent hours during the pandemic, when we all had dead time, trying to track down a vintage bottle of her perfume and I finally found one an eBay, like a miniature in Italy, because it was so important for me to smell that scent again. So there are those who have the sort of continuity of a signature scent that they’re wearing all the time and then probably everybody in your life associates that with you.

But for me I’m very sort of maximalist with the amount of scents that I like to have around. And over time, certain perfumes are connected to certain memories or activities or certain time periods in my life. And so I kind of retire that perfume. If a certain perfume, it’s like too connected and I want to preserve the memory of that time period with that perfume, I sort of retire the perfume and then move on to another one because I want to be able to spray that on again and be reminded of this memory, of this time period, of this activity. That’s kind of my perfume philosophy for myself.

Kira Bindrim: Like your perfume is your diary.

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, exactly.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, I want to sort of pull it all together and spin it all forward, which is: I am curious about now the future of perfume and sort of what the headwinds are for the industry. One of the things that comes to mind for me is the shift to how much we are buying stuff online and that perfume probably is not the best thing to be buying online. What do we know about how the industry is making that transition or adjusting for it?

How is the perfume industry changing?

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, so I, again, talked to the perfumer Elizabeth games of Strange Love in New York. And she said that their online sales quadrupled from 2020 to 2021, and then quadrupled again to 2022. But it did not make up for the loss of people not going into Harrods to smell their perfume and buy it. And, you know, it’s a bit difficult to talk about scents in a podcast, it’s also very difficult to really imagine how something smells online. But you can buy small quantities of samples and try it out and see how it goes. But it’s not the same as being able to walk into Bergdorf’s or whatever and smell some perfume that you were curious about only to find that you hated it, and then you smell the thing next to it that you hadn’t thought about at all and loved it and then go on to buy that. And so the experience of buying perfume is very much undermined by the move online. And so we saw that in the numbers for perfume sales. A lot of these sort of numbers are difficult to come by, but I had somebody was kind enough from a company called Research and Markets that look into the fragrance industry gave me some numbers. There was a 15% drop in sales between 2019 and 2020. Then a V-shaped recovery where it’s just about catching up to where it was in 2019 now. So it was about $41 billion in global sales in 2019 and it’s about $40 billion.

Kira Bindrim: Stepping away a little bit from the industry dynamics and more into I guess, personal use case. If you look ahead in 50 years, and we assume that our lives will become more online, that maybe the experience of the pandemic was actually not so different than what we’ll be doing. Do you see any world where we just don’t care about perfume as much? I’m thinking of the metaverse, I’m thinking of all of these places where how you smell is not necessarily relevant to your day-to-day life. Do you see any potential threat there?

Aurora Almendral: Well, I mean, it’s really hard to recreate scents in an online environment, but it’s not for lack of trying. There are a couple of companies that are trying to do this, and they’ve been trying to do this since the 1950s with like movies and smell-o-vision. And there are companies now who are trying to sort of make scent, because it’s so immersive, it’s so evocative, it’s part of a full experience of the world. So they’re trying to make scents work for the metaverse, essentially. And so there’s one company that has an attachment for VR headsets that releases bits of scent. If you’re in the metaverse and you decide to pick a flower and smell it, it releases a little bit of a rose, it releases a touch of dirt smell if you’ve pulled it up by the roots. So there are definitely companies that are trying to attempt this. But I think that there are definitely challenges. But I think that there’s a lot of opportunity to make scents part of the metaverse, and it would certainly make it a much more immersive experience. I would be interested in seeing where that goes, for sure.

Kira Bindrim: It’s so interesting hearing you talk about it because it’s almost like scent is its own metaverse. The sum of everything you said is, it’s this immersive experience, it is something that can bring all these aspects of the world right to you in an immediate sense, it kind of celebrates the most precious aspects of the world, or just these unique circumstances that create this scent, and you get all of that just on your person, so it becomes quite, I don’t know, it’s sort of like a macro-micro thing. And that is how I think about the metaverse when I’m trying to think about it optimistically, which is it sort of democratizing access to the entire world or, you know, reframing your access to the world. And so the combination of those two things, I’d be supportive of.

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, I like that thought. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it does have this sort of, you know—like, the fun thing about it is it creates this extra layer of the world as you experience it.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, exactly. Now, I don’t need to walk down the street in the metaverse and smell like garbage and fish and all this stuff. That’s fine.

Aurora Almendral: There are certain streets in New York that definitely don’t need to exist in the metaverse.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, no scent cartridge, please. Okay, I have one more question for you. And it’s just: What is your favorite fun fact about perfume? You know, there’s all of these interesting tidbits and details in this in this space—what is something that you just cannot get out of your head?

Aurora Almendral: I mean, so much of it was so strange, I had so much fun researching it. But there was this newspaper clipping from 1891 about a fisherman who was desperately trying to find ambergris because it cost so much money. But at that point, people knew that it came from whales, and apparently he found the carcass of a whale that had been sort of stripped of its blubber by the whalers, hedragged it onto a beach in Tasmania, and then cut open the whale at the throat and then just kind of squeezed himself in there and poked around until he was in the intestinal tract to try to find ambergris. And he finds it—apparently 200 pounds of ambergris, which he was very happy to have found. But then also weirdly said that he he’d been looking for a really long time. So just kind of imagining this fisherman who’s just tracking down whale carcasses wherever he can in order to crawl into it like Jonah. And just how disgusting the whole experience must be.

Kira Bindrim: Just like spending an afternoon inside a whale?

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, I mean, just like, oh, gross. And not just any—I mean, a decomposing whale. Just to find this thing that is so precious that I guess at the time was the equivalent of winning the lottery.

Kira Bindrim: Right, I mean, if you said ‘I’ll give you $3 million, you just have to spend an hour inside a whale?’ I think I’d do it.

Aurora Almendral: I think I might, too.

Kira Bindrim: Should we be ambergris hunters? I think we found a growth career path. Thank you so much, Aurora, I have learned so much. I will never look at a whale the same way again. And this was fascinating.

Aurora Almendral: Yeah, thanks for thanks for chatting perfume.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Aurora Almendral in Bangkok.

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