Mapping the Smellscape

Researcher Avery Gilbert has a nose for the myriad
molecules (and emotions) detected (or unleashed) by “the quirky cousin” among the senses.

Avery Gilbert, author of What the Nose Knows, inhales an odoriferous bouquet.
Photo by Tom Sperduto.

Armed with a masters in biology and a doctorate in psychology, both from the University of Pennsylvania, the Montclair resident helps the fragrance industry make sense (and cents) out of scents. To help develop more effective deodorants, he has inhaled purified 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid—the aromatic essence of ripe, unwashed armpits. While heading the sensory psychology research group at New Jersey fragrance company Givaudan, he was among the first to whiff White Diamonds, Elizabeth Taylor’s signature perfume.

In demand today as a consultant, Gilbert, 53, sniffs his way through lab work, field work, and popular culture to explore the American smellscape. He shares his knowledge in his book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (Crown, 2008). “Pine forest or prairie, seashore or bayou,” he writes, “the essence of the ambience is there for the taking.”

What’s unique about smell?

Smell is the quirky cousin of the senses. We don’t think about it much until something terrifically nice or really foul comes along and grabs our attention. Smell is anatomically unique. All other senses detour through a brain structure called the thalamus. Smell has relatively direct nerve pathways to the cortex. From an emotional point of view, smell is far more likely than sight or sound to evoke vivid memories from the past.

How many smells exist?

That’s a Zen-like question. No one has ever tried to count all the smells in the world, or even all the smelly molecules they’re made of. When someone says “humans can smell 10,000 different odors,” don’t believe it. I describe in my book how that number—although widely cited—has no scientific weight at all. Some chemist pulled it out of his hat in 1927.

The fact is that the nose and brain divide the world into odor categories, just as the eye and brain create the colors of the rainbow. The entire universe of smells can probably be captured in a couple dozen categories: floral, woody, fruity, fecal, skunky, and so on. Perfumers and wine tasters have specialized odor vocabularies for what they do, but no one has yet created an all-encompassing system of smell classification.

As the brunt of smell jokes, New Jersey is an unlikely home for so many fragrance companies. How did that role evolve?

New Jersey is the world’s capital of the fragrance business because the talent is here. We have a long history in pharmaceuticals and fine chemistry. The drug and perfume industries both do a lot of very sophisticated chemistry.

On a practical level, New Jersey has large warehousing operations—and compared to New York, the price is right. Plus you’re close to the Manhattan headquarters of the major cosmetics and personal care companies like Coty, Estèe Lauder, Unilever, Avon, and Revlon.

Major multinational fragrance and flavor companies all have glamorous showrooms and studios in New York City, but most of the important work lives west of the Hudson. I mean, technical stuff like stability testing, consumer research, R&D, and manufacturing. As very complex mixtures of unstable molecules, perfumes may not play well with the other ingredients in a product and may cause off-odors or discoloration.

So the routine tests done here in New Jersey—like heating to accelerate product aging—are critical to insuring quality.

Would Parisians turn up their noses at Jersey’s claim to fragrance business preeminence?

They might. But they’d be wrong, even about their own history. Talk all you want about Paris and London but the work always gets done somewhere else. Take Roure, the French company I used to work for. It’s an elegant fragrance firm dating back to the nineteenth century. They created classic perfumes like L’Air du Temps and Opium. Yet the main plant was located in an industrial suburb of Paris called Argenteuil. In many ways, Argenteuil resembles Bayonne.

What was New Jersey’s contribution to the development of Smell-O-Vision?

Back in 1959, two rivals tried to bring smell to the movies. Michael Todd, Jr.—son of the flamboyant Broadway producer and Cinerama pioneer and stepson of Elizabeth Taylor—had a technically sophisticated system called Smell-O-Vision. It delivered precisely timed odor through tubes on the backs of seats in the theater. The company that produced their smells was Alpine Aromatics in Piscataway. It’s still there today. Their rival was AromaRama, bankrolled by New Jersey movie chain magnate Walter Reade Jr. Reade’s system pumped smells through the air-conditioning system—not a very elegant technology and one that soured theater owners on the whole idea of “smellies.”

Some people found the aromas to be a distraction from the movie experience. The filmmaker John Waters handed out scratch-and-sniff cards to audiences for Polyester. He thought it worked as a gag but he says it wouldn’t work in a dramatic film. Where you really find smell being used for entertainment these days is in theme parks. For example, Disney’s California Adventure Park has a simulated hang glider ride where you smell orange blossoms, desert sagebrush, and sea breeze.

What kinds of commercial smells have emerged from New Jersey laboratories?

Most of the toiletries and household products you use have some kind of scent or flavoring, including toothpaste, shampoo, laundry detergents, air fresheners, deodorants for the armpit. Some kind of artificial scent is usually needed just to cover the organic scent of raw materials. Unmasked, the amines in liquid laundry detergent would smell uncomfortably like dead fish.

What causes the infamous marsh stink that sometimes wafts from the Meadowlands?

The wetlands stink is a natural one, even if it is awful. It’s all about the decomposition of rotting leaves and other organic matter in slow-moving or stagnant water. Even after attempts at cleanup, it can smell like an outhouse, but that’s not the true odor source.

Now and then New Jersey gets the blame for mystery smells. For a long time no one pinned down the source of a maple-syrup smell sporadically reported over parts of Manhattan. Then in February Mayor Bloomberg announced that New York City and New Jersey environmental workers had “solved” the mystery. A city press release said the smell had been traced to a North Bergen factory processing fenugreek seeds to produce food additives.

In all likelihood the smell is due to one particular molecule in fenugreek, known informally as “caramel furanone,” or more precisely as sotolone, which is used to flavor artificial maple syrup. At first glance, the city’s map of wind direction and location of smell complaints doesn’t make a compelling case for a single point source.

What are some notable features of the Jersey smellscape?

From the 1920s until it closed in 1990, the Campbell’s soup factory made Camden smell like tomato soup. The M&M Mars facility gives a nice chocolate scent to Hackettstown. There was a coffee-roasting plant in Hoboken that smelled great for miles around. Newark airport sometimes gets a yeasty funk from the nearby Anheuser-Busch brewery. The giant Colgate sign in Jersey City still commemorates the scented soaps made there for decades. I’ve read that the smell of soap lingered even after the factory was torn down in 1989.

It’s ironic that a company from North Hollywood, California, got the jump on local companies by marketing a New Jersey fragrance. The Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab is selling a fragrance oil called the Jersey Devil, described as “the scent of the wild, hauntingly beautiful Pine Barrens…pitch pine with blackberry leaf, cranberry, cedar wood, and tomato leaf.”

Have they precisely captured the chemistry of New Jersey? Perhaps. Call it a fantasy drawn from imagination instead of from bona fide air samples. But who says you can’t have a pleasant fragrance fantasy about the Garden State?

S.L. Mintz lives in Montclair and writes about science, theatre, and finance for Economist publications.

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