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.


An Infusion of Jasmine and Climbing Ylang Ylang

Our garden always mesmerises me with an array of flowers and herbs. One of the most familiar smells is the narcotic sweet scent of jasmine sambac (Jasminum sambac) at dusk. But as the evening breeze blows, it brings also the fruity, ylang-ylang-like aroma of karawek or climbing ylang ylang (Artabotrys siamensis)* from the neighbour’s. These two fragrant floras have long been used in Thai perfumery and cuisine. My mother, as I recall, would extract their essences for the traditional desserts. So, when I chanced upon these blooms, I felt inspired to share a simple infusion that she would often make.

The recipe is fairly straightforward, but there are some tricks to getting it right. Knowing when to pick requires careful observation. The flowers should be collected when they are most fragrant, which is at dusk. The jasmine sambacs can be picked even when they have not opened; these unopened flowers will eventually bloom and release their scent overnight. But only the ripe yellow karaweks, which are fragrant, should be picked. And each of the six petals should be separated from the calyx.

The flowers are quickly rinsed before being gently placed in a bowl of water. The water is allowed to absorb the scents overnight. Care should be taken not to cause disturbance because the flowers would otherwise become ‘bruised’ and the infusion would acquire a sharp vegetal note of crushed leaves. The spent flowers are removed and the process is repeated once more with a new set of flowers to saturate the infusion with their perfume.

One can use this infusion for a number of purposes. My mother often uses it to make a syrup, and the aroma still lingers on even after the infusion is boiled with sugar. One can also include other fragrant flowers for a complete water-based eau de cologne. I, on the other hand, simply use it to spike a glass of chilled water. It makes for a refreshing beverage with a pleasant lingering after-taste. But be warned: it is potent, and a tablespoon suffices to perfume a whole jug of water.

A note on classification*: The family Annonaceae includes the classical ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) used in perfumery and other plants with similarly strongly fragrant flowers. Karawek (Artabotrys siamensis) belongs to the Artabotrys genus of this family, which explains why it shares some olfactory characteristics with ylang ylang.

Photograph of the Day: Nostalgia

In Bangkok, I came across these nostalgic Tiffin carriers also known as pinto in Thai. It is a series of stacked stainless steel or cream-coloured tin containers. They are the forerunners of modern plastic containers. They can be used to carry a few side dishes to go with a staple, which is rice or noodle, separately. By the time one is ready for lunch, the rice will not be soggy.


It was an invention for a time when people did not have the purchasing ability for outside food, and often brought their own homecooked meals to work. But nowadays they come in all sorts of colour and with more advanced materials like microwavable plastics or enamels. Still, there is no denying its inherent vintage vibe, and many restaurants employ these to serve their dishes.


The weather warms, so my gardenia buds open, seeking attention and permeating the night air with their perfume. As I made a study of the fragrance, I decided to write on this nature’s wonder. The common gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) has highly fragrant white flowers. In the evening, the opening buds smell slightly green and piquant because of the salicylate aspect. The flowers also smell creamy, recalling coconut and peach skin. There is an unmistakably heady indolic element of jasmine. In ripe blooms, they have a sharp green ‘mushroom’ overtones. Gardenias also share some aspects with lily, lily of the valley, ylang ylang, and a bit of rose.

In terms of composition, (E)-ocimene, linalool, methyl benzoate and a number of tiglates compose the gardenia flower headspace. However, there are likely olfactory variations amongst species. For example, the critically endangered native of Hawaii Gardenia brighamii, as demonstrated by headspace analysis of its gas-phase components, contains 41% methyl benzoate, 13% (3Z)-hex-3-enyl benzoate, 7% indole that recalls ‘white-flower smell’, 7% jasmine lactone that lends the jasminic and coconut touch, and 3.7% (3Z)-hex-3-enyl tiglate that gives the tang of soil fungi and mushrooms to the flower. It is possible to extract the desired fragrance from their flowers by enfleurage as the villagers of Fusagasugà in Colombia have continued to produce gardenia absolute since 1945. However, such enfleurage-derived absolutes are rarely ever produced in industrial scale due to the exorbitant costs involved. And, yet, I have stumbled upon a solvent-extracted absolute of the Tahitian gardenia or Tiaré (Gardenia tahitensis) which can be used in fine fragrances up to 1% of a composition to impart the exotic white-floral quality.

Gardenia in Perfumery

Like many flowers that do not yield the desired quality of their scents or do so at a prohibitive cost of extraction, the smell of gardenia is also the object of fascination in perfumery. Early reconstitutions of gardenia often revolve around a tuberose note and aldehyde C-18 and may eschew styrallyl acetate altogether. Still, most gardenia bases almost always call for it. Such bases rely on its powerful rhubarb-like green note in combination with jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, lilac, and a small amount of orange blossom to render gardenia odour characteristics. But styrallyl acetate is rather harsh, so salicylates may be used to soften it along with aldehyde C-14 and C-18 as modifiers. The top note of such bases may call for aldehyde C-8 to C-12 and citrus oils such as lemon, mandarin, orange, or bergamot. To fix the components, heliotropin, coumarin, musk, labdanum, myrrh, tolu balsam, cinnamic alcohol, and synthetic ambergris may be used.  Other aroma chemicals such as the mildly floral ‘gardenia oxide’ (isoamyl benzyl ether) and the citrusy fruity linalyl isovalearate are sometimes incorporated into gardenia compounds. Meanwhile, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, who professes his love of simplicity, draws a more-or-less complete gardenia note with just three ingredients: the fruity sweetness and coconut of aldehyde C-18 (γ-nonalactone), the fresh green of styrallyl acetate (Gardenol), and the Concord-grape sweetness of methyl anthranilate. Indeed, the reconstitution of gardenia is subject to the creative interpretation of the perfumer.

Gardenia in Perfumes

In fine fragrances, gardenia was initially a secondary floral. It formed part of the composition, but was itself not featured. For instance, gardenia found its way into the floral aldehydic L’Aimant (Coty, 1927) via the styrallyl acetate contained in infusions of jasmine, cassie, and tuberose used in the original formula. The green freshness of gardenia pairs well with chypre accords in perfumes such as Bandit (Robert Piguet, 1944), Ma Griffe (Carven, 1947), Miss Dior (1947), Cabochard (Grès, 1959), Coriandre (Jean Couturier, 1973), Michelle (Balenciaga, 1979), and the excellent fruity chypre La Panthère (Cartier, 2014).

Gardenia as main floral theme can be seen starting from soliflores like Gardénia (Chanel, 1925) and Jungle Gardenia (Tuvaché, 1933). If you like your gardenia creamy, Lou Lou (Cacharel, 1987) offers an interesting interpretation of the creamy Tahitian gardenia or Tiaré based on an oriental accord and tuberose. Another very creamy, coconut-like gardenia is Crystal Noir (Versace, 2004). But if you like the company of magnolia and jasmine, the bright gardenia of Un Matin d’Orage (Annick Goutal, 2009) may suit you better. A recent resurgence of the note seems to have produced a slew of gardenias for everyone, ranging from the sombre gardenia of Une Voix Noire (Serge Lutens, 2012), the fruity frangipani and gardenia of Gorgeous Gardenia (Gucci, Flora, 2012), to a full-fledged gardenia offered in the masculine context of Boutonnière No.7 (Arquiste, 2012). But for those who crave a more realistic impression, Gardénia (Robert Piguet, 2014) offers a no-frills flower with minimal contrasts.

mom gardenia

As for me, I cannot quite pick a favourite gardenia perfume at the moment. My pot of gardenia has had all the attention from me — perhaps, the only other rivals are the gardenias in my mother’s garden.

Sources: enfleurage.com, firmenich.com, P&F Vol.8 October/November 1983 by Danute Pajaujis Anonis, Perfumery: Practice and Principles; Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, Scents of the Vanishing Flora

  1. Müller PM, Lamparsky D. Perfumes: Art, Science & Technology. Amsterdam, New York: Elsevier, 1991
  2. Tamogami S et al. Analysis of enantiomeric ratios of aroma components in several flowers using a Chiramix column. Flavour Fragr J 2004;19:1-5.

When The Post Office Smells of Corsica…

I fell in love with the everlasting flower since my first contact with it in the now discontinued Immortelle de Corse (L’Occitane, 2011) by perfumer Claire Chambert. I have always sought its warm, comforting sweetness. But, I have just fallen in love with these golden bunches again because of Sables (Annick Goutal, 1985). Precisely, because of a broken bottle of Sables.

If you have an idea of Sables, you will understand why I have been inspired to write this upon receiving my package at the post office. The 100 ml of juice that soaked the package and trickled down on my table as I opened the parcel has left an indelible scent of immortelle.


The everlasting flowers or immortelles are so named possibly because they retain the bright canary even after drying. They seem immortal. These aromatic shrubs thrive in low-nutrient coastlines, rocky cliffs, slopes, and ditches in the Mediterranean. The immortelle belongs to the genus Helichrysum, of which the species H. italicum is most important to perfumery. It can be divided further into three subspecies. H. italicum subspecies microphyllum is found mainly in Corsica in France, Sardinia in Italy, and the Balearic Islands of Spain. H. italicum subspecies italicum thrives in areas around the Mediterranean, including the Balkans. H. italicum subspecies serontinum populates areas of Spain and Portugal. Amongst the three subspecies, the first two provide most of the commercial extracts. The three main producers are Corsica, the Balkans, and Spain.



Not only the flowers, but the entire plant, which is charged with volatiles, is harvested in summer. In Corsica, harvest takes place in June, around summer solstice. The aromatic top bush is skilfully harvested with a sickle, and only part of the plant is left above ground to survive — a haphazard swing could thus kill the plant in one season. Thereafter, the harvest is quickly taken to a nearby processing plant, where the extraction of essential oil by steam distillation takes place immediately. The copper or steel kettles are filled with the flowers in such a way that creates most resistance to the steam, hence maximising the yield. As for the absolute, the flowers will be sun-dried in a greenhouse for one month prior to solvent extraction.

Generally, the essential oil is fresher, greener, and fruitier, whereas the absolute possesses a more tobacco-like character with celery, curry, nutty, and dry-fruit facets. The absolute is also reminiscent of labdanum and spirits such as cognac and Armagnac.

Moreover, origin also influences the olfactory profile of immortelle extracts. The Corsican oil is much fruitier, spicier, more ambery, and warmer, but the Balkan oil is almost aldehydic and possesses tobacco, hay, amber, and leather notes. For absolutes, the Corsican origin is also the most prized for its richness, density, and diffusion; it is the most powerful with honeyed, aromatic notes, and a floral facet that rounds up the character. The Balkan absolute recalls liqueur and dried fruits, and is nutty, spicy, aromatic and ambery. Interestingly, the Spanish variety maintains the hallmarks of herbal hay and tobacco, and is more animalic.

In terms of composition, the essential oil generally consists mostly of nerol and its ester neryl acetate. However, provenance also affects the composition. For example, the Corsican oil has relatively significant levels of neryl acetate along with elevated levels of nerol compared to the Balkan oil that is much lower in neryl acetate, but possesses ten times as much α-pinene.

But above all, immortelle has such an alluring warmth that is so singular so that even Napoléon Bonaparte often said that he could smell his hometown — Corsica — before he would set foot on it.

dry immortelle

Sun-dried immortelle: I cut the bunches in bloom and left them to dry in the sun. The result looks like those dry puffy bunches in L’Occitane stores, but with intense aromatic, curry, tobacco note.


Immortelle in Perfumery

In perfumery, immortelle has traditionally been a complement to chypre, floral, and amber compositions. It is also sometimes considered an aromatic subset of the gourmand family. Immortelle usually takes a subsidiary role in both formulation and consumer marketing. But thanks to the surge of woody or spicy fragrances with darker notes, perfumers are driven to employ lesser known naturals with warm, tobacco, tea, liqueur, and wood notes like those of immortelle.

Perfumer Dorothée Piot, for instance, often incorporates immortelle absolute in men’s fragrance. Its tobacco character blends well with woody, oriental, fougère, or leathery accords. The challenge of using immortelle lies in the dose. Its warmth can be used to illuminate the composition, but too much of it, and one has mouth-watering pancake topped with maple syrup. The softness of the absolute also pairs well with magnolia or tagete in floral and fruity accords. As for me, immortelle is akin to the assoluta voice with the rich darkness of a contralto and the ringing bells of a soprano — it simply pierces through the thickest of compositions.

Immortelle in Perfumes

My first and most favourite immortelle composition is Immortelle de Corse from the Voyage en Méditeranée Collection of L’Occitane. It features a floral immortelle whose honeyed accent blends with the rich balsamic benzoin, extending the character. The tea accord therein accentuates the tea nuance of immortelle, keeping the composition fresh. The sweet maple syrup aspect of immortelle, in the meantime, provides a glaze to the delicious ginger pumpkin pie of Like This (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2010). Going into the sweet territory, Blanche Immortelle (Atelier Cologne, 2014) is anything but blanche: imagine barrels of maple syrup and bitter roasted coffee to reinforce your favourite immortelle — surely not for everyone. For a similar, but less sweet immortelle note, one can explore the herbs, burnt caramel, and woods of Eau Noire (Christian Dior, 2005).

In the terrain of woods and chypre, The Afternoon of A Faun (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2012) buries its immortelle note amongst the heft of spicy woods, earthy myrrh, leather, and mosses. Yet, the rich immortelle cuts through the chypre elements with surprising limpidity like a huge sfogato voice soaring above the chorus. In 1740 Marquis de Sade (Histoires de Parfums, 2000), immortelle creates a beautiful resonance with the dense chypre composition as its dark sweetness and tobacco nestle perfectly amongst the patchouli, amber, leather, and labdanum, whilst its luminous accent lights the background. It is a good bridge between the sweetness of a honey note and the warmth of amber.

As for the gold standard, I pick Sables. The emphasis falls on the blazing intensity of a whole field of immortelle distilled. It parallels the heat of curry, and is only contrasted by the milky, creamy cushion of sandalwood and vanilla. I reach for Sables most often for winter comfort and summer reminiscence. Its warm signature that goes on slowly like undying embers is perfect for the coldest of days. Yet, in the searing 34-degree Celsius heat of tropical Hong Kong, it transports me to the hot sands of a summer holiday.

And, I am sure that no post office since has ever smelled as good as the one that received my Sables.


Sources: P&F Vol. 34 May 2009 by Pierre-Jean Hellivan, The Federazione Italiania Produttori Piante Officinali (FIPPO)

  1. Leonardi, M., Ambryszewska, K. E., Melai, B., Flamini, G., Cioni, P. L., Parri, F. and Pistelli, L. (2013), Essential-Oil Composition of Helichrysum italicum (Roth) G.Don ssp. italicum from Elba Island (Tuscany, Italy). Chemistry & Biodiversity, 10: 343–355

The Humanistic Buildings of Rafael Moneo


They say nature is the best teacher. This could not be more true for the works of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo. His iconic Kursaal Congress Centre in the city of San Sebastián is one of the reasons why I love the Basque Country. I admire his creative works that resonate beautifully with their contexts. They are marked by simplicity and offer a sense of emotion through the plans or manipulations of natural light or of textures.

For this reason, I can only count myself fortunate that I would see Señor Moneo in person merely two months after my visit to Donostia. There happened to be an exhibition in Hong Kong in which his works from 1961 to 2013 were showcased, and Moneo himself discussed selected works: the National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida, the Kursaal Congress Centre in Donostia, the City Hall of Murcia, and the Northwest Corner Building of Columbia University. It was most insightful to listen to his ideas and sensibilities.


The arcade of relieving arches in the National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida, Spain

Already with the National Museum of Roman Art completed in 1986 in Mérida, Moneo ‘did not want it to be a container, a conventional museum’. He believed that ‘the new building should convey at once what the old one was’ in referring to the rich heritage of the Roman city. By employing Roman discharging arches and Roman-style flat bricks, he erected an arcade that blends seamlessly with the ancient identity of Mérida. The buttresses, arches, and windows all conspire to create a natural extension. Rafael Moneo indeed stood on the shoulders of past giants whilst conceiving the utmost expression of Meridian pride. ‘The city deserves to have the pictures of both cities, [the old and the new], together, making the true Mérida’. Moneo believed that the way the Romans built should be a pride here.

kuursaal eus.jpg

Lit like beacons of celebration at dusk, the iconic boulders form the complex of the Kursaal Congress Centre in San Sebastián, Spain

The Kursaal Congress Centre, my favourite piece, was built in 1999 relation to what Moneo called ‘geographical accidents’. The city of San Sebastián in Northern Spain is filled with a collection of geographical accidents: island, boulders, and beaches that give a sense of natural frames. And, Moneo wanted to ‘recover those sunken rocks’. To do that, he proposed two ‘rocks’ as the core of the design, precipitated perhaps by some sense of minimalism. They are essentially two boxes, each enclosed in an external layer of ribbed and textured glasses. This creates an open walkway lit by natural light that allows freedom of movement around the auditorium. At night, the structure comes alive like beacons of celebration; it is after all a place of public gathering and performances. The Kursaal feels as though two big boulders were simply thrown there. One cannot help but feel that they have dotted the terrain since time immemorial.


Façade of the City Hall of Murcia faces the imposing Baroque traditions of the Cathedral of Murcia and the  Episcopal Palace.

Completed in 1998, the Murcia City Hall is an annex to the City Hall that happens to frame the historic square of Murcia. Here, Moneo’s unflinchingly modern façade might seem to contradict the rest of the edifices that include the sixteenth-century Cathedral of Murcia and the Episcopal Palace from 1768 – two buildings of strong historical connotation. But the surprise lies in the asymmetrical nature of staggered columns and irregular openings. In fact, Moneo was engaging in a dialogue with the historical façades as the motifs reference the many images of church altarpieces. It is an encoded intellectual discourse.

arch daily.jpg

Constrained, but not congested: the Northwest Corner Building of Columbia University may seem limited in space, but its designs encourage interactions aplenty.

And even when the construction tends to prevail in the case of the Northwest Corner Building of Columbia University that was completed in 2010, he never fails to offer a sense of engagement with the context, the site, and the community. Here, the constraint presented in the form of a gymnasium below the site  and limited space made the construction challenging. However, Moneo fulfilled the challenge by offering spaces for social interactions. For example, the wide exterior staircase connects the outside and the inside easily. And, on the upper storeys, the loft-like laboratory and office spaces encourage exchanges. The bridges that connect to neighbouring buildings also encourage interdisciplinary dialogue. In a way, Moneo’s designs force us to look around and at each other. The building may be confined to a corner, but it has plenty of generosity.

In contrast to the monolithic and intimidating forms to which most architectural modernism otherwise lends itself, the works of Rafael Moneo elevate the spirit. I like them because they may form a continuing dialogue with the precedents, or at times create an intellectual discourse, or resonate with the community. I would even go so far as to praise his humanistic touch. In the face of buildings of soulless glasses and concretes, his is a most welcome change.

‘Rafael Moneo: A Theoretical Reflection from the Professional Practice’ features archive materials from 1961 to 2013 and runs from 22th October 2016 to 14th January 2017 at the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI).

Sources: ArchDaily, HKDI