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A Life in Scent

I was recently at an impromptu high school reunion in Beirut, the first I’d ever gone to since we graduated 24 years ago. (I graduated at 16, so I’m not that old!) And I was dreading it. I was so dreading it, the only way I could make it was by treating myself to an entire (special) brownie, and a new bottle of perfume (Goti’s Smoke, if you’re curious). I was dreading it for a couple of reasons: not only was I coming out to many of them (I wasn’t out in high school), but it was my outing as an olfactory art curator, too. The music was a bit loud, and there was plenty of alcohol, but I heard “Old factory art?” so often I decided I’m just going with scent art from now on. But the real reason I dreaded it was that I was my class’ valedictorian, and I feared I’d be the least accomplished amongst them–at least monetarily… But I also got asked “How did you get into that?” so often that I decided to finally write it down.

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With dad and mom, in her pharmacy

I’m not sure when my love of scent started. I used to get livid as a kid when my nose got congested. I say now it’s because I couldn’t smell, not because I couldn’t breathe. Some of my earliest memories are in my mother’s pharmacy smelling everything that I could: eau de colognes, shampoos, shower gels, deodorants, you name it. I’d also help my mother every now and then prepare ointments, creams and other prescriptions. And I loved it all: the fresh and the musky, the oily and the powdery, the astringent and the pungent.

And of course, I smelled every perfume on every counter that I could get my then-little hands on: my grandma’s Samsara, my mom’s Amarige, my dad’s Kouros Soon, I started to develop the knack of being able to recognize people’s perfumes in passing. But I didn’t come into my own, in terms of perfume, until I got to college.

Two streets up from our university, there used to be a small perfume store owned by two sisters (across from GS, for those who know Beirut; I don’t know if either of them is still there). I used to go, sniff testers to my heart’s content, and blow most of what little money I had on perfumes. No pretense, no hassle, no pressure to buy, no uncalled-for spritzes in the face, no meaningless marketing speak. There I discovered and bought some of the classics of my youth: Nina Ricci’s Ricci Club(1989), Givenchy’s Insensé (1993), Calvin Klein’s CK One (1994), Boucheron’s Jaipur and Gai Mattiolo’s Uomo (1998). There I also bought my first boyfriend Sculpture by Nikos (1995), which I still cannot smell without thinking of him. Similarly, I don’t like to smell Calvin Klein’s CK be (1996) because it reminds of the one that followed…

It never occurred to me, though, to consider perfume as a profession. Yes, my mom was a chemist, but I was born in the poor suburbs of Beirut, not the outskirts of Paris or Grasse. I was studying biology to become a medical doctor, like my dad. But I left med school before the end of the first semester; the smells of dissecting embalmed cadavers in the morgue were too much for me to stomach. I’d seen The English Patient (1996) and wanted to head to Hollywood to become a filmmaker.

I got into USC, but filmmaking wasn’t a profession for Lebanon, my parents said. (Poor things, they had no idea what was coming instead: smelly art!) So instead, I went to upstate New York to study architecture, a “solid profession”–and my mom’s dream. She was born at a place and time when it was somehow unacceptable for a woman to study architecture. Alas, these accidents of birth that define us, define what we are allowed to aspire to and the dreams we are entitled to…

In New York, I met my future-husband. He wore Calvin Klein’s Contradiction (1998) and Clinique’s Happy (1999). It’s funny how we often don’t recognize those life-changing moments when they happen. We have no idea at the time that a chance encounter will end up taking our life down a whole new path we never anticipated. I thought it was a one-night stand during a city fall break; but a dozen years later, we got married and moved to Switzerland. I studied German for a year, applied for more than seventy architecture jobs, gave up and decided to reinvent myself…  

By then, I’d come across Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The Guide (2008), which introduced me to niche perfumery, and down the rabbit hole I fell. We were still living in Philadelphia then, and so it was, fate: I happened to be there for one of the foundational exhibitions of olfactory art, Odor Limits, curated by Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher at an art gallery at the Monell Center in the city. It’s like happening to be in Paris in time for Duchamp’s 1938 Surrealist Exhibition… Two years later, I was in the auditorium for the iconic Headspace, a symposium on “Scent as Design” organized by Parsons and MoMA, with IFF and Coty, moderated by Chandler Burr, then New York Times’ scent critic. There I met Chandler, so of course I was there too, two years on, for his Art of Scent exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design. Sometimes we really can’t take too much credit for our life…  

I ended up getting another master’s degree, this time in art curating, and focusing on olfactory art my first year there. And the little seminar paper I wrote that year is now the second result on Google for “olfactory art history”–the first being the Wikipedia entry for “Olfactory art”, which cites it 5 times. And last week I was in Milan, representing the Art and Olfaction Awards at Esxence:

When I was there two years before, it was Luca Turin doing that, one of the guys who started me down that hole with his Guide. It was dizzying, to say the least.

It wasn’t all roses. I went through some pretty dark places along the way. I met some wonderful people whom I wouldn’t be here without. But there were also others along the road whom I wish I’d never met, were it not for the fact that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. So thank you all for everything, including the dismissals, the rejections, the stabs in the back, and the heartbreak; I wouldn’t have made it without you.

Ashraf Osman

One thought on “A Life in Scent

  1. So that’s why the two sisters in the perfume store that’s (still) right across GS insist that they know me!

    This was a good read. I especially loved how you managed to highlight the intertwining between biography and perfumes so effortlessly.

    Liked by 1 person

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