Making Scents of Summer Reading

Posted by Patricia Kuhn - 15 September, 2016

the diary of a noseBy Patricia Kuhn, Dean of Student Research and Library Resources

What do summer reading and perfume have in common? Hint: the scent of sunscreen on your paperback, a combination that evokes fond memories of carefree summer days.

The written word and the mixture of fragrance are both about creating a unique experience. Perhaps it’s an experience evocative of a bygone era. Or maybe it’s an impression of happiness and peace. A scent can be a chemical description of dewfall in a meadow – one as complete as Thoreau has ever written.

2X0A8102In mid-August, Upper School teachers Elizabeth Abrams and Andrea Wimberly hosted a summer reading book group centered around the musings of parfumeur Jean-Claude Ellena. Mrs. Abrams describes why she chose this book for summer reading in the following way: “The Diary of a Nose provides a lovely blend of the daily with the exceptional and the technical with the philosophical. Jean-Claude Ellena presents an accessible piece of balanced non-fiction. He delves into this scientific craft while not losing readership engagement in a sea of scientific jargon or obtuse musings. The episodic structure was a delight to read, for Ellena’s voice bespeaks one that is genuine, reflective, and at points, inspiring. Afterwards, readers want to dabble in their own concoctions, and we did! Ellena prompts this enthusiastic response because he conveys the patient process of creating perfume with élan. He makes research and hard work intriguing – quite simply, fun. This compelling take-away is what I wish for my students in their own learning.”

A collection of diary entries, The Diary of a Nose : A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur, allows the reader a peek into Ellena’s inspirations for hundreds of Hermès scents. After listening to a night of exquisite jazz, Ellena writes,  “I would like to transpose those ‘sound colors’ into ‘olfactory color.’” In tribute to this sentiment, the group did just that.

2X0A8108After reading the book, students retreated to the science lab to create scents that spoke to them in the same way a book might.

“It was such a pretty book – it was relaxing to read and the lab was really fun,” reported senior Charlotte.

Not everyone agreed with Charlotte’s assessment of the book. Freshman Christopher L. thought the book was boring, “but the lab was a lot of fun.”

Students emailed the proprietor of scent-as-storytelling online shop Imaginary Authors, parfumeur Josh Meyers, to ask him about his career choice. Based on his response, Meyers might have initially concurred with Christopher’s opinion. Meyers admitted “I always hated perfume growing up. . . It wasn’t until I was working a job I didn’t really love that I realized there was perfume out there in the world that smelled nothing like what I’d imagined perfume to smell like.”

Just as some books are not for everyone, some perfumes are not for everyone. But a scent that “makes you feel something. Or gives you a spring in your step” is really special according to Meyers. Just like a well-written book is more than just words, the ingredients in a scent can be, as Meyers notes, “more than the sum of their parts”.

2X0A8110Under Mrs. Wimberly's direction, students were asked to create a scent that was more than the sum of its parts. Student used base “notes” such as leather, chocolate and amber to create the lasting undertones of a fragrance. Then they added multiple “heart” and “top” notes (all terms they learned about in their reading) such as citrus, florals, and fruits to their mixture. The results cured for a week before yielding their results – to some mixed reviews.

Results aside, the combination of reading and hands-on fragrance creation, mixing the experience of the chemistry and physical science aspects of bringing a scent to life, was a winning combination.

Senior Fiona was surprised to find she loved the book. “He writes about life lived as a scent! The book was interesting, eloquent and poetic.” So poetic in fact, that students were asked to write a haiku inspired by a scent. Fiona wrote about lightning.

Lightning/ The smell of ozone/ Sparks lying deep in the earth/
Metallic feeling

2X0A8113Sophomore Nisha was equally surprised to find she liked the book. Initially, she found it strange that the author was so obsessed with smells – to the point of personifying them. In the end, she slowed down and put herself in the role of parfumeur to appreciate his process. Like finding the right ratio of scent in the lab, bass note to top and heart notes, she spoke of finding the right frame of mind needed to understand the author’s motivation and exquisite compositions. Like the hint of a fragrance as it wafts by, the book conveys the narrow scope a parfumeur’s art comprises.

A good summer reading book engages students, transports and maybe transforms them – even just a little. Rare is that book that opens up a world previously unknown and connects it firmly to the everyday. Never again will this group of students experience the scent of amber or sage or chocolate without recalling the maestro of scent and his diary.


Topics: chemistry, English, interdisciplinary, poetry, science, summer reading, The Diary of a Nose, Upper School

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