Part 2: “Hyper-Natural” The Exhibition


Post by Ainslie Walker


Mist billowed atmospherically towards us from the garden of the NGV. Chandler Burr explained, “the NGV created it to make it more memorable.” The thing is Chandler Burr sees scent as a major artistic medium, and it seems to me, it is his quest to ensure everyone agrees.

Chandler Burr curates at the NGV

Part 2: “Hyper-Natural” The Exhibition

My walk in the Garden with Chandler Burr and some of his interesting stories


I was honored to have a personal tour of the exhibition by curater Chandler Burr, and I wanted to share with you some of his comments and stories made at each of the 7 numbered, scent stations. Each station contained 1 design material in alcohol, and 1 Guerlain fragrance containing the material:

1.A Design Material: coumarin – a molecule synthesized from Tonka bean in 1868. So “delicious, smelling like sweet dreamy vanilla hay and warmth,” Chandler described, whilst breathing deep.
1.B Jicky Aime Guerlain 1889 – 21 years after the coumarin was synthesized, came Jicky, “a smell with no clear image, like nothing you know in the real world” Chandler explained. He spoke about perfumers becoming impressionists once they started using synthetics such as coumarin. He cites Jicky as being one of the first great modern works of perfumery

2.A Design Material: Ethyl vanillin – synthesized in 1872, being almost twice as strong as vanilla, Chandler describes it as “hyper-natural-when you smell it you swear you know it, and at the same time you don’t”
2.B Shalimar Jacques Guerlain 1925 – “Shalimar has only 2% ethyl vanillin, yet the effect is immense and as precise as a laser” says Chandler, “It’s supernatural. The rumor is that when Jacques Guerlain received Ethyl Vanillin he mixed it with Jicky and Shalimar was the result. Thierry Wasser says, “I imagine Jacques did do something like that, but then he began the serious creation of Shalimar”. Ethyl vanillin has been described as more present than reality – crisper than the real, less balsamic, more resinous, less powdery and richer. It subtly disorientates you, which is what all art must do”

3.A Design Material: Sulfox was discovered in 1969, synthesized from Buchu plant and “smells like a nuclear powered exotic fruit salad: mango, grapefruit and guava fired with plutonium and with a strong sulphur angle like a pitch-black blackcurrant. It’s flashy-an olfactory version of diamond-laden heavy gangster bling-and hugely powerful, it jumps on your nose like an attacking jaguar. It was nothing like anyone had ever smelt before” he explains whilst simultaneously inhaling from a sniffing strip.
3.B Chamade Jean-Paul Guerlain 1969 –“When Thierry Wasser arrived at Guerlain, Jean Paul showed him the formula, ‘I said to him “you’re crazy”’. The punch in the nose this molecule gives you is tempered by other punches to the nose. There is a fistful of blackcurrant buds/cassis-1%, which is huge! And there’s a chunk of galbanum- a gigantic slug of it! And if you knew how much rose was in there, you’d faint! The formula is very green and fruity.” he says now smelling Chamade.


4.A Design Material: Polysantol “gives one of the aspects of sandalwood. It is not a cute molecule. It is not demure. Rather it speaks at an intense volume. Polysantol gives a spectacular abstracted sandalwood scent, not the natural material but a heightened, streamlined version of it. It is exactly what sandalwood is: the scent of wood with cream poured over it, but it precisely excludes the strong cedar-esque aspect of the natural. It skips the tar angle. It presents the scent designer with a tool that is the abstraction of sandalwood, and is extremely precise”
4.B Samsara Jean-Paul Guerlain 1989 “Jean Paul Guerlain told me he went to a dressage show and met a beautiful woman who was riding a horse. He talked to her. She wasn’t wearing a fragrance. He asked her why, and she replied that she wasn’t happy with what was around. He asked her what she liked, and she said Jasmine and Sandalwood. So he created something for her. He gave Polysantol a key role. She began wearing the perfume. Guerlain and the woman lived together for 19 years. It’s Jean Paul’s favorite fragrance”

5.A Design Material: Cis 3 Hexanol “is astonishing green, gloriously strange and instantly identifiable the instant you smell it. The moment you smell it you recognize, a first green of freshly cut grass clippings, and a second green of an unripe green banana. A green grass and a green fruit: at once delicious and inedible.” He takes a whiff, continuing, “In alcohol solution it is filled like a sail with a fresh air scent and chlorophyll angle. This molecule allows the scent designer to paint scent portraits that are ultra lifelike. Hyperrealism”
5.B Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca – Jean Paul Guerlain 1999 “A work of hyperrealism whose presentation of a naturalist motif and obvious desire to strike all the brains sensory pleasure points combines with an equally clear, artificially heightened reality. The artificiality of the design is delightful, fascinating and utterly lovely.” He explains Jean-Paul Guerlain’s skills “ are demonstrated here in landscape portraiture of the imaginary, the scent of a perfect field cradled in a space station, green grass and succulent plants grown under the sun’s rays and the blackness of space. There is the smell of the sun, reflected through thick walls of glass, of green spring sap in an eternal spring, and all of it cool to the touch”



6.A Design Material: Methyl cyclopentenolone – “the smell of chewy chocolate and black liquorice, yummy and dry and dark, dark, dark. Is nicknamed maple lactone due to its sweet caramel maple-syrup smell, like sugary, burnt coffee with bready, nutty nuances. This synthetic generates sugary caramel notes without association of fairy floss. It is similar to ethyl maltol, but much less sweet. One is caramel, the other liquorice, with no sugar, sticky and black”
6.B La petite robe noire – Thierry Wasser 2009 “Wasser said his first sketch should find the colour black. He found this with Methyl cyclopentenolone. He realized he had the olfactory colour, but not the texture. So he added benzyl aldehyde (bitter almond smell), raspberry ketone, ionone beta (sunlight on violets) and birch tar (very dark and smoky), bergamot, iris root, rose, jasmine, ethyl vanillin and coumarin” He went on further, relating to giving scents texture “synthetics allow you to smooth, to abrade and manipulate scent’s three dimensions. Synthetics allow you to create dreams”

7.A Design Material: benzaldehyde “First synthesized in 1832, is one of the oldest molecules in the scent designer’s palette, and one of the most difficult to use. The material is so powerful it must be wrestled into submission, however used correctly it creates a fascinating vibration. It is the smell of bitter almonds, not actually, but a perfected idea of bitter almonds – a great knife-like gourmand/toxic, delicious/inedible nutty/bitter scent”
7.B L’homme Ideal Thierry Wasser 2014 “Wasser was mixing up 100 kg of Jicky, when pouring in the benzaldehyde he became intoxicated. An amazing river of bitter-almond scent, hitting the lavender, jasmine and bergamot of Jicky. He realized it was a molecule he wanted to work with” Chandler mentions, “although the L’homme Ideal was marketed to men, there is no gender in smells. Benzaldehyde is the central structure, with pillars of coumarin, of Jicky, and ethyl vanillin, of Shalimar. These 3 synthetics reference real things, and yet are not real, they are themselves. L’homme Ideal works, in scent, in the way a Marc Chargill’s paintings work – there’s a person, a cow, a goat, but one quickly realizes that people do not really fly and goats and cows are not hot pink and blue. There is a constant tension between the real and the surreal”

WOW! What an incredible experience! One I will remember for a long time – have you made it to the exhibition yet? What did you think?

Ainslie Walker x

21 thoughts on “Part 2: “Hyper-Natural” The Exhibition

  1. Wow this is such a cool idea and so well presented, too! I won’t make it to the exhibition (finding myself, unfortunately, on the other side of the world), but reading your description of the experience is a joy, too. It has put me in the mood for Shalimar (which isn’t hard, admittedly). Thank you for sharing!


    • Great choice for a Sunday! Was really good – I tried to add as much as possible for those folks, like yourself who won’t get there this time. Thanks for your comments! x


  2. Thank you. This is fascinating. I already know that creating perfume is an art, therefore perfumes are works of art, but this post has actually shifted my perception of perfume somewhat. I’m going to play with this and see what type of “paintings” my favorite scents are. I have no problem with synthetics – it’s what makes some perfumes great, but too much and you end up with a flat, boring, cheap print.


    • I look forwards to hearing which ones you pair up with what. Interestingly Chandler has a fun thing going with Lucky Scent where you can buy unnamed decants and I think the idea is to see them as art and not a label etc…I am yet to look into it further.
      The event and Chandler’s work seems to be the start of a big wave that I look forwards to seeing unfold. Very thought provoking, and I am glad you’ve been drawn in! 😉


  3. Thank you for this great report, Ainslie!
    I am here in the PNW of the USA and did not make it to this exhibition…but what an effective and fun way to learn about how aroma chemicals work in perfume compositions. You look like you were having a wonderful time.


  4. This is pretty much the same idea as the talk John Lambeth gave to the Sydney Perfume Lovers earlier this year but in this case the focus was on Guerlain only. Fascinating and makes even more of a mockery of the insistence by the perfume houses of only references naturals in their marketing material. Do I like Chamade less now I know about Sulfox? Of course would be interesting if the houses could weave a different marketing narrative incorporating the innovations involved in using new ‘synthetics’ (evil word!) or making an unusual use of existing ones. In his What men should smell like posts, Clayton often gives information about the raw materials and it always adds to my understanding of the perfume he us describing.


    • Yes Catherine, I am sure we will see much more emphasis on all materials making up fragrances getting a mention as time goes by. Perhaps the mystery/mysterious side behind the fragrance industry is about to implode and all secrets will be exposed to the consumer..?! Theres definately an audience for it.
      It is interesting to note the art and scent world colliding – I look forwards to seeing what eventuates there.
      I’m also seeing a surge of interest on the medical side of things – how we smell/ can reduced sense of smell indicate poor health – as in when we go to the Dr they check sight/hearing but not smell…until recently, anosmia etc etc

      We live in exciting times!! xx


  5. Thanks for the brilliant summary. When I was there I went straight in for the sniffing, rather than reading the info provided at each scent station. I hope to visit a few more times before the exhibit ends.


    • Yes it’s hard to focus on reading when there’s so much sniffing to do!! I took photos of each station and I’m still yet to read them! And yet my blotters still are in my diary so I smell them the time! 🙂 I’m heading back first week November to also catch the JPG exhibition xx


  6. Thanks so much for Part 2, Ainslie. It really was fascinating stuff. Really appreciate you getting all those quotes down for us.

    I agree with Catherine that it’s a shame people – even some perfume people – are so put off by the mere mention of synthetics. They must be responsible for the vast majority of what we smell in fragrance today.

    I’m still on the fence when it comes to perufme as art. I rather liked Frederic Malle’s idea that it’s more like design but it’s an interesting topic for discussion.

    Now why have I not clicked with Chamade yet? Must try harder!


  7. Another great review! Thanks for sharing with us. I’m always fascinated with the creative process no matter what form it takes. Although since I love perfume and aromatherapy this was particularly interesting. And you’ve inspired me to seek out a sample of Samsara sooner rather than later. I love sandalwood but didn’t realize it contains jasmine as well. Thanks again for the great review!


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