Festival of Scents: A History Through an Olfactory Lens

It has been a while since I last composed a reflection. But despite the hectic period with personal decisions and career transition, I have not forgotten to pen my thoughts here and there, and with this piece, I assemble them together to describe my fascination with scents from a recent visit to a festival dedicated to olfactory experience.

Festival der Düfte, literally for ‘Festival of Scents’, took place between 17th and 22nd October 2017 at Wildegg Castle. It aims to expose members of the public to the rich history of scents and perfumes. With the help of perfumers, some of the rooms and halls of the baroque-ised castle were equipped with scents inspired by their historical contexts.

schloss wildegg view

As I made my way through the rooms, I was greeted by olfactory exhibits that brought their histories to life. Suddenly, these chambers could narrate the lives of the Effingers, who had lived here from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century. Some of the scents indeed make for such a surreal experience. For example, the salon was infused with Le Salon created by perfumer Christophe Laudamiel; its notes of tobacco and herbal tea conjured the social gathering and leisure that must have taken place here a long time ago. For the banquet hall, he created Myrrhmetal whose notes of balsamic resins, myrrh, oud, and rose captured the Oriental history of the magnificent chainmail on display. And how apposite it is: This centrepiece was brought back by Bernhard Effinger after he had fought for Emperor Leopold to defend Vienna against the Ottoman invasion of 1683.

Schloss Wildegg

The salon. A place of social gathering in the seventeenth century.

Another interesting interpretation is of the corner room. Here, Albert Effinger once composed many letters and his sister Sophie von Erlach-Effinger kept a diary of her son, who was an Austrian officer. He had died at the age of twenty-five and lay in state here in this corner room. Therefore, perfumer Ralf Schwieger created Der Duft des Junggesellenzimmers or The Scent of The Bachelor’s Chamber. The warm ambery note paired with lavender indeed kept the memory of its gentlemen occupants alive.

Not only the noble family, but also the lives of those who worked for them are the inspirations behind the olfactory experiences. In the room of the maids, perfumer Laurence Fanuel composed ‘The Helper’s Life’ to tell the tale of drudgery, sweat, soap, and vinegar. The greasy-versus-floral note begged one to imagine the lives of those maid servants in 1820 and how they must have toiled away, washing and cooking, with barely any time for leisure.

Perhaps, my most favourite of all is in the library. Here, perfumer Ralf Schwieger gave us Der Duft der Bücher or The Scent of The Books, which embellished the sweet vanillic scent of old books with notes of glue, printing ink, and grease, suggesting that these books had passed through several hands over the years. It was incredibly intense that the line between reality and imagination became blurred.

the library

The library

I ended my visit to the idyllic castle with the talk Geheimnisse lüften or Uncovering Secrets, a moderated discussion between Christophe Laudamiel and Ralf Schwieger. I was most fascinated, of course, to meet my inspirations and learnt first-hand something of their insights. They shared their thoughts on raw materials, perfumery effects, and how they work.

At one point, Mr Schwieger described rose absolute from Grasse — the likes of which many of us could only imagine to be beautiful beyond measure — as ‘smelling like cheese’. He then talked about accords that are difficult but nonetheless interesting to create, such as an apricot. Unlike, say, a rose, which one can approximate, an apricot requires precise dosing of specific materials, otherwise the accord turns into a peach or another fruit. Likewise, a grapefruit demands a sweaty note and a jasmine would be insipid without its horsey note; some accords also need just a smidgen of that funky element to bring them to life. He likened such materials to salt, of which only a pinch is needed and without which the flavour is incomplete.

The discussion also included their approaches. There are perfumers who work like minimalists and those who work without limits to the number of ingredients. As for Mr Laudamiel, he views raw materials as piano keys and does not strictly distinguish between natural and synthetic ones but rather sees them as either existing in or derived from nature. He also loves to work with different bases, including, for example, candles, which demand that various challenges of formulation be met.

At one point, the discussion turned to the age-old question of market test and success of a composition. ‘Can you recall any fragrance in the last twenty years or so that went on to become successful without prior market test?’ asked the moderator. The perfumers promptly recalled the prototypical gourmand, Angel (Thierry Mugler, 1992). There was also the mention of Light Blue (Dolce & Gabbana, 2001). And, did you know that Aqua di Gio (Giorgio Armani, 1996) was considered at first to be too feminine just before its launch? All these later became great commercial successes.

And, when it comes to recommendations of fragrances, the articles of Bois des Jasmin by Victoria Frolova came first to perfumer Ralf Schwieger’s mind. And, I could not agree more.

ralf schwieger and I

A selfie with my favourite perfumer to end the visit.

All in all, it was a most insightful learning experience and excursion. I hope that more museums employ such installations to evoke olfactory experiences, as they prove to be even more engaging than mere sights and sounds. Indeed, history did come alive.

Sources: Museum Aargau.