The Nose Knows

Well, it doesn't smell like vanilla...

On a quiet, shady street in lower Manhattan, a man sitting at a table at an outdoor restaurant continued to drink one glass of water after another. The waiter initially kept up with the abnormal pace but as Doan Pickett drained the fourth reload of his glass within seconds of its arrival, the waiter, quietly exasperated, brought a large pitcher. Doan smiled as he drank and was finally satisfied. As he sat there with the morning paper and a little icy remnant at the bottom of his well-worked glass, it was obvious that thirst had been the main motivator but for the rest of the nearby diners and curious pedestrians, but the secondary, and far less obvious, motivation was unknown.

Doan was now calm and began to scan the menu for something to eat and as usual, chose a large steak for lunch. His eating habits had long confounded, in order, his mother, his teachers, his girlfriend, his wife (now ex-wife), his rebound girlfriend, his second wife (now ex-wife), his second rebound girlfriend, his third wife (now ex-wife) and his current roster of official non-rebounded girlfriends. His skills in meeting women were never Doan’s problem; he could meet them with a quietly efficient elegance. However, his ability to stay married was his fatal flaw. All the women, especially the ex-wives, still think he is a wonderful man with a great heart and wish him nothing but the best. This has been demonstrated by no contested divorces or messy break-ups, no alimony or child support and a complete lack of antagonism between Doan and the ladies. They all said the same thing: he was never the problem and the reason for relationship failed: it was his nose’s fault. In fact, every ex-wife has gone on record with their friends and family that they would take him back in a second if circumstances were different.

Doan was a house chemist for one of the world’s largest fragrance houses and as such, was categorized with the descriptor of a “nose” in the business lexicon. Every fragrance, perfume, scented cleaner or flavored lozenge had to pass through one of the few working and competent noses in the business today. Each industry had their noses and luckily, Doan was, nostrils down, the best working in the cold, heartless world of women’s fragrances. Decades earlier, when the fragrance was managed by emotion, each perfume house had their own staffs of chemists and testing facilities with the exclusive purpose of composing the next great scent. As it is with any concentrated and misguided effort towards enlightened and expedited discovery, too many people and too many choices combined to make a muddled olfactory mess. This adventure was no different with dozens of colognes, body mists and perfumes were afflicted onto the buying public, each with their memorable signature or fragrance note.

Doan was a house chemist for one of the world’s largest fragrance houses and as such, was categorized with the descriptor of a “nose” in the business lexicon. Every fragrance, perfume, scented cleaner or flavored lozenge had to pass through one of the few working and competent noses in the business today. Each industry had their noses and luckily, Doan was, nostrils down, the best working in the cold, heartless world of women’s fragrances. Decades earlier, when the fragrance was managed by emotion, each perfume house had their own staffs of chemists and testing facilities with the exclusive purpose of composing the next great scent. As it is with any concentrated and misguided effort towards enlightened and expedited discovery, too many people and too many choices combined to make a muddled olfactory mess. This adventure was no different with dozens of colognes, body mists and perfumes were afflicted onto the buying public, each with their memorable signature or fragrance note.

Each company fell into the illogical theory that great scents were made by marketing these discoveries down the passive proboscises of a basically fragrance-neutral public as well as the realization that “memorable” did not necessarily have to mean “wonderful.” This flawed thinking led to the ridiculous strategy of “fragrance wardrobing” which tried to convince the easily convincible that one could combine scents just as easily as throwing together complimenting accessories such as a hat, scarf and gloves. Luckily, the usually gullible buying public was paying attention and dismissed the idea without merit. However, the nadir of the business was still on the horizon as the idea of celebrity-sponsored fragrance creations was germinating within the tiny, little minds of marketing departments everywhere. When the fragrance history books are written, they will point out the summer of 1992 as the season the wheels came off.

The elders will state that the worst idea of all, even worse than selling fragrance spiffs in bathroom vending machines, was allowing the uninitiated and finite celebrity to make up their own custom scents. This caused such havoc in the once-stable business. As a result of aroma anarchy, the market suffered backlash from legions of confused customers once the charade was exposed by unhappy customers and uncooperative fragrance sales people alike. It was obvious that perfume was best created through a benevolent dictatorship of a few powerful sources; not through a free-for-all fragrance orgy motivated by options versus vision. Celebrities from all walks of life were let lose in chemical labs, splashing libraries of fragrances into beakers with hopes of enlightenment. To a person, those experiments failed.

Doan was enjoying a renaissance in his career because the pendulum of creativity had finally swung back to the individual, professional practitioner who would blend and create fragrances without any noise from the outside. The best of these creations would begin a long and winding assessment from internal panels all the way to test marketing initiatives and the best of the best would actually become a signature fragrance. Once a fragrance, the beauty of the business would blossom with downstream products including toilet waters, body colognes, shampoos and other sundries Doan had several well-known fragrances to his credit as well as a few promising newcomers waiting in the wings for the still-necessary celebrity endorsed product or to eventually replace a poorly-performing fragrance that fell from favor due to changing tastes or aging customer mortality.

Although many of the fragrances were still hawked by some celebrity, at least he found solace in the fact that scent created by him were timeless and at worst, generically pleasant. The horror stories of unleashed celebrities still made the rounds in the industry; outfitted in white lab coats while playing to still photographers, they were allowed to mix and match raw fragrances for an all-too-long period of time. Never in the history of fragrances was this strategy such a complete and abject failure; the chosen celebrities would sniff and immediately pour some raw fragrances together to create a new scent but to a person, all they created was a random and reeking stench of expensive extracts with no hope of success. Luckily they quickly grew bored and left with their equally useless entourage after receiving assurances that they would be credited for something wonderful down the road.

Back in the day, perfumes consisted almost exclusively of man-made mixtures of aromatic chemicals and essential natural oils. Today, modern perfumes are almost all synthetic representations of natural fragrances and may contain up to three hundred different elements in its blend. As a result, not many true noses are used anymore as all fragrances are digitally inventoried and made to be called up and created on a computer well before anybody ever smells them for the first time. Their fragrance matrix or stink pattern (as it is known in the lab) will be produced and analyzed and you will see how something smells well before you actually can smell it and the expense of using raw fragrance truly shows that the business is still both an art and a science. Currently, natural, pure perfumes (literally crushed fragrance) are very rare because there are thousands of misses that occur before a well-received hit. The days of Parisian-looking scientists in white coats sniffing test tubes of pure fragrances of lilac and vanilla are over and the uses of noses dropped significantly as a result but there always was room for a professional like Doan. Just as the intelligence services have learned when they relied more on satillites and computer analysis versus spies, you still need a few pros on the ground to get things done.

Doan was unique as he didn’t spend time trying to make a formulaic success; he literally followed his nose, which always followed his heart. Most folks think that being a nose has to be a perfect job: mixing pure raw plant and flower scents and then sit around smelling the hundreds of fragrant iterations. If you don’t like it, add some vanilla bean, citrus root or sandalwood and see where that brings you. If you think it is too green or too tart, toss in a little rose and hope the tincturing lights would appear. However, like a good meatloaf, the simplicity of scent creation is its strength. Adding extra eggs or more crackers, usually will just leave you with a goboon of individually fine ingredients poorly performing as a single creation.

And just like meatloaf, adding top notes of rose, jasmine and lily of the valley with myrrh and patchouli and then blending in bottom notes of ambergris, civet and musk can create a timeless scent or just as easily smell like tart monkey ass. As chemists, all known fragrances are within reach and time marches on while a select group of experts dabble in the art and science of distillate adventures. In addition to natural scents, new chemical notes are now considered less sacrilege than before. Chemical enhancers are far more consistent from batch to batch so the chemists don’t worry about minute changes in concentrations. However, perfumers usually have to compensate heavier quantities of fruit and vanilla notes in order to soften the harsh character of these chemical elements. The science of aesthetics is a fine balance of things known and unknown and when one finds a nose like Doan’s, you take advantage of it as soon as possible.

A good nose instinctively knows all the different available odors; if you think you can memorize and study this skill like an Organic Chemistry mid-term, everyone becomes sadly mistaken. Doan became an enemy of piquant mediocrity and a defender of the natural, elegant aesthetics of inspired creation. As with all great noses, intuition was very important for him in the creative process. He has his favorite, most respected scents that he relied on for reassurance when he was creating an essential oil foundation; lavender, vanilla, anise and rose. He loved a fragrance that seem destined to collaboration to give the world an essence that truly was a joy forever.

The use of a professional was still in use in specific situations did have needs. A few of the high-end, perfume houses still had one or two noses on staff when dealing with the exclusive, obscenely expensive batches. These types of perfumes are similar to bringing a new pharmaceutical to market; tons of research and development, barrels of raw materials and volumes of unit testing. Too often, mixing together a concoction of individually gorgeous fragrances resulted in a mishmash of contradictory smells: like a bad meatloaf, too many things usually doom the original vision. It is tough to keep a light hand when surrounded by thousands of options but the best discoveries have always been elegant and minimal.

A man approached Doan and sat down across from him. Looking over several empty water glasses and a plate littered with steak orts, he smiled and said, “Looks like you had a busy morning. A tough time in Nostril City?”

“No kidding, James” said Doan, “I don’t think I can smell another lilac for the rest of the day.”

“Well, at least you can justify your existence.”

Doan’s friend was a marketing veteran for a major fashion house. Originally, he was caught up in the glamour of setting trends but it didn’t take long for him to realize the complete lack of respect that happens with the major houses of fashion. When people discussed their problems at work, he would jump in with his horror stories of how designers would force new looks and colors down the collective throats of the ignorant public. Doan had known him for years and did not encourage his diatribe and did everything to haul the conversation either to a neutral subject or back to his troubles because he couldn’t take another hour of this guy riffing on the cultural abuses of the fashion industry while real people suffered real tragedies. Doan had made the mistake early in their acquaintence to confuse abuses occurring in third-world assembly plants with the made-up fashion abuses championed by James so, he started to pick at the remnants of his steak and hope of a change in topic. Unfortunately, his return to eating was misinterpreted as a lunch invitation and James flagged down a waiter and requested a menu.

Doan's luck began to turn. A good friend of Doan's was walking by and Doan reached out and grabbed her hand. He pulled her towards the table and said, "There you are, I was so hungry that I started eating before you showed up."

She looked at him with a quiet and confused look and then realized that Doan needed some company. "I will be back in two minutes, I need to run an errand next door and then we can have our lunch." She overtly squeezed his hand and walked into a nearby bookstore.

James got the hint and said, "You should have told me you had a date."

"I was getting around to it," lied Doan. "I was enjoying our conversation so it kind of slipped my mind."

James smiled as he rose. "I appreciate talking to you because you 'get' me." He shook Doan's hand and kept walking down the street. The comment about "getting him" troubled Doan because it appeared that polite silence was now being misinterpreted for passive agreement.

"Evidentially," thought Doan, "I have to start arguing more."

After five minutes, his friend returned James refocused on his morning notes and blissfully alone. She said, “I see you are still eating steak.”

“Yes” said Doan. “After working all morning with infused and aromatic oils, the only two things that seem to cleanse my nose and my spirit are water and steak.”


“No kidding. The trouble is that if I don’t clean out of the old system, I can maybe hit two hundred constituents.”

Now formally bored, his friend officially changed the subject. “So, tell me about your weekend.”

Doan frowned, “It was okay but Kari’s mother still wears, or rather swims in, White Linen.”

White Linen was one of Estee Lauder’s most famous fragrances. Built to mask all types of odors, it was termed to be the neutron bomb of all perfumes; all other smells were destroyed; just leaving the wearer declared the winner of all scents as they sat resplendent with their matching shoes and purse. Still popular enough to produce, Doan was just hoping for the legions of blue hairs to quickly die and have the scent quarantined for time immortal. However like the scent, these legions of hat-wearing boozehounds continued to roam the earth with a double Manhattan in one gloved hand and a White Linen-soaked handkerchief in the other.

“The smell continued to violate my brain stem, my lateral hypothalamus, my eyes and my dreams for the whole weekend,” Doan continued. “It was like the scent morphed into sisal and was strangling my entire nervous system.”

“It sounds nice. You have always told me that White Linen is the agent orange of fragrances. Since listening to you, I worry about the long-term effects of it and have convinvced my mother to stop wearing it.”

“That's good: one more wearer converted. I would much rather deal with them humanely through negotiation versus having them killed in their sleep. Other that that, it was a long, slow hellish weekend. And how was yours?”

“It was significantly better than yours. No potential mother-in-laws, no incense, no White Linen, no waiting in lines and no drum solos. Oh, and thanks for not having my mother offed.”

“You are a lucky bastard.”

“I certainly am,” said his friend as she took a sip of iced tea that had appeared during the White Linen diatribe. "And I got a free lunch out of it."

Lunchtime was over and the two parted ways: Doan always liked her because she was pretty, smart and always smelled nice. There was never any romantic overtones which allowed for cleaner communication as neither of them had to either fend off or initiate amateurish flirting attempts.

Doan decided to go back to his office and write down his thoughts in his journal. He was unique in the business as a documenter of his qualitative feelings of each lab visit. He had the hard data dealing with constituent and scent details but he would take the time to capture his thoughts and reactions that were generated by the fragrances. He referred to his notebook numerous times during the creative period to help re-focus and re-emphasize the purpose of the adventure. Once the fragrance was in production, he would close the book and begin a new challenge with a new notebook. He kept the books in a secure location and shared them only with a few trusted friends. Over the years, the legend of his notebooks took on its own quality, similar to the rough drafts of famous authors or the rehearsals of great musicians. He kept them to himself not to keep trade secrets from his competitors but because he would lay himself emotionally open due to his methods of creation.

He added an entry with his lunch with his friend: "August 14th: Had lunch with Brea near MSG. She smelled very sunny and happy. Great conversation. What scents can smell happy, sunny and engaging? I see yellows and bright citrus notes but they need to stay in the background and compliment the vision."

His notes would take on a feeling of a diary; equating scents and feelings to personal tragedy or triumph with vulnerability and a fragile nature of his own humanity. And, just like a diary, he was very uncomfortable in sharing his thoughts with others so when a notebook was opened by someone else, Doan would sit quietly with a semi-blushed face until it was returned to him with additional assurances of complete confidentiality. These journals were rarely opened and as a part of his employment were not considered property of the company. He kept them as reminders of past thoughts as well as tools to learn from going forward or when he was in need of inspriation. People who had seen them were amazed at the depth of his observations and insights; the actual scent created always represented those feelings in an elegant and artistic manner.

What separated Doan from other noses and the entire industry in general was his conviction that a scent must make things better. If you smelled something, it should make you happy or excited about wearing it. Doan always thought that buying a non-requested perfume or cologne for a gift was a risk; wearers should choose their fragrance, not have one foisted upon you at Christmas. If you are given a fragrance, you are obligated to wear it no matter how ill-fitting or odd smelling the consequences may be for the recipient. As a result, thousands of gallons of perfumes and colognes lay dormant in bathrooms across the country with the owner even more paranoid to ever consider another scent again.

People asked Doan what cologne or fragrance he personally wore and were always surprised to hear that he rarely wore anything, and if he had to, an old bay rum cologne that his father wore to church. Bay rum has been around for decades and is the quintessential smell of an old barber shop and Doan wore it once in awhile because his Dad wore it once in awhile. Just like musicians who listed only to talk radio or chefs that made macaroni and cheese at home, Doan didn’t take his occupational thoughts home with him. The dark scent of bay rum was agreeable but could be filtered out by choice so it was used frugally for a family wedding or similar get-together. Also, Doan was very comfortable not smelling like anything and viewed that time as a quiet regeneration of his powerful sense of smell. If hugged by a pre-teen niece or nonagenarian aunt, who believed more was more when it came to perfume, the sheer strength of the scent would cause Doan to snap his head back in a manner similar to demolitions expert hearing an explosion. As a result, the presence of no smells was always his preferred element. He wasn’t one of these apparently afflicted fragrance victims; forever allergic to selective scents while being able to accommodate personal favorites, he just liked moderation.

Sitting at his desk, Doan was thinking about a totally new fragrance; he had several saleable perfumes in the pipeline so he could take his time and attempt to come up with a new one that was unencumbered by known aromas and boundaries. It is easy to make a fragrance that someone will wear but the challenge is to make one that someone wishes to re-apply and subconsciously declare his or her personal scent. One can mix sandalwood, rose and mint and come up with a bright but anonymous scent that no one would dislike but at the same time, no one would embrace. Doan decided to review several of his early journals, before he was first married, to look for clues or inspirations on paths not yet smelled or imagined. As he read, he would wander from his office to the labratory to sample a few scents that may have preoccupied him during the thought process. Smelling raw product allowed him to concentrate his thought patterns in a manner that helped organize the creative process. If he became pre-occupied with the heavy scent of freshly processed vanilla beans, he learned it was easier to sample the scent during his research than to clutter up his mind with older recollections of historic smells from the past.

The day quickly got away from him and it was dark when Doan looked up from the earliest journal. He was concentrating so deeply that he became oblivious to the time and was surprised to see the city lights out his window. He had grown accustomed to the gradual darkening of the day and his eyes were completely dilated with pupils’wide open to continue to study his notes. He was careful to turn on his office light so as not to send himself into some yet-to-be named ocular shock thanks to his concentration on his earlier notes.

As he left the office and took stock of his efforts, he knew the day was a good one. He had cleared time on his schedule to pursue the ideal of a new fragrance with no self-imposed boundaries. He was also enthused with finally signing off on a new fragrance as it was going to become a winner from both revenue and critical acclaim. He now had five solid fragrances attributed to him, which gave him the rank of a legitimate ace within the perfume and fragrance community. Combining that with the three other sure hits in his back pocket, he was going to stay at the forefront of fragrances for awhile or at least long enough to find the new scent.

He went home with a new, uncracked notebook and started to write his thoughts about what he wanted to achieve. The scent had to be unique but pleasant enough to the uninitiated nose. He wanted it to give the impression of derivation but not enough to put pressure on the origin. He wanted all types of people to feel all kinds of things with no pattern of consistency amongst them; a scent that made everyone feel the same in totally different ways, a scent for the ages. He couldn’t rely on any of his old favorite ingredients; cucumber and rose would have to remain on the shelf along with orange juice carbonyls, chocolate extract, beeswax and black currant buds. This had to be a scent of almost ecumenical proportions for the ages with a timeless and immediate punch that is backed up with feeling that the wearer never wants to end.

He started to play around with the thoughts of second tier root ingredients including chamomile seed, muhuhu, petitgrain oil, pimento berry and jonquil to try to see if any inspiration would lead but he remained uninspired but not discouraged. This journey was without time constraint; his recent hard work saw to the elimination of that issue while at the same time, he was excited that the clues were in front of him to piece together in due time. He stayed engaged and continued to work towards this goal for several months and concentrated on making something complete and pure.

The next day, Doan awoke refreshed and left the house early. The train ride into work would be less crowded than usual due to the day and he took this momentary freedom as a sign to begin the search for the new scent in earnest. The train moved quickly and he was able to crack a small window in his almost vacant section and allowed the moderately fresh air to rush in. The smells of small gardens that sprinkled the route into Manhattan combined with a brisk breeze from the Ocean sharpened his senses much like a large steak would do. As he traveled into the city, he was writing his random thoughts into his new notebook while the sun shone on his face and the earthy scents were being collected in his nasal sub-conscious.

He continued to become pre-occupied with citrus and complimentary darker, earthy scents. The ideas were coming to him; hints of chocolate and cherry with an underlying base of vanilla. Doan was not concerned that it may be too sweet to the wearer, like smearing on a chocolate-covered cherry, because the final scent was going to be more muted with base fragrances. He was onto something and as he sat in his office, eyes closed, he was actually forming the fragrance in his mind. He could see it and it looked beautiful.

The phone rang, startling Doan from his deep thought.

"Hello, this is Doan.” He voice trailed off and he tried to write down a few remaining thoughts. The phone call was going to pull him reluctantly back into reality and whatever residual feelings were going to be lost in a few seconds.

“It sounds like you’re working.” Doan smiled because it was Kari and she knew all about his creative process and wasn’t alarmed or offended by it.

“I am just about finished,” said Doan. “I am just writing down a few last ideas and I can relax.”

“Great,” said Kari. “Let’s meet for a light supper. I am assuming you have a full stomach of steak bolus.”

“That is correct.”

“It doesn’t matter to me so let’s meet at 6:30 at the usual joint.”

Kari knew that Doan liked to eat at the same restaurant and she enjoyed it as well. She compensated with her own friends by trying all the new and trendy places but the small sacrifice to allow Doan some peace of mind was well worth it so she continued to go there without discussion.

"Great as well,” said Doan. “I will see you at 6:30 and I appreciate it. And in case you think I forgot but I promise I will go anywhere you wish the next time. Maybe it is time to branch out a bit.”

“We can branch out next time,” said Kari. “This plan will do just fine tonight.”

Doan finished his work and walked to the restaurant as was greeted by the whole staff. They knew he was appreciative of their service and food and always made a point to recognize his loyalty.

He sat down and a large pitcher of ice water was waiting. Kari walked in and gave him a kiss. Their cheeks touched and he inhaled deeply and allowed her gentle scent to roll around in his head. She smelled wonderful with a light fragrance that mixed elegantly with her own personal aroma. Doan closed his eyes and remembered the chocolate tones from this afternoon and allowed those to be introduced and intermingle with Kari’s presence that was still within him. He was definitely onto something. It was out there and he knew he was close; he could just about smell it.

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