Valienska Magfira

Capturing human scent through enfleurage

In reference to Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum

To smell culture and our own Odorama series, Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum (or Perfume: Story of a Murderer) can be considered as our cult classic. It tells us a story of a man with a superhuman sense of smell who we know as Jean-Baptise Grenouille. He finds himself on a journey throughout France during the 18th century to capture and preserve the most aromatic smells. From this, he learnt that the best method to do so is through enfleurage. The best scents however, comes from young beautiful girls.

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Enfleurage Trial at Mediamatic -

The Process of Enfleurage

Firstly, it is worth mentioning that enfleurage is an age-old method that is used to preserve scents. It’s considered a labour-intensive and time-consuming method which makes certain perfumes collected in this manner very expensive. 

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Bandages in enfleurage -

In a nutshell, you would need a flat surface, alcohol such as 90% ethyl alcohol, your fresh ingredients that you would like to extract the scent from (usually flowers), and animal fats such as lard. You would first need to spread the fat across the flat surface, press your ingredients into them and then wait a while for about 48 hours. The purpose of this wait is for the fat to be saturated with the fragrant molecules. After the wait, you repeat the process for a couple more times using the same fats but with new fresh ingredients.

After the fat is completely saturated with fragrance, you separate the oils from the fat using alcohol. From there, the oil gets evaporated and turns into the perfume.

Grenouille’s Process of Enfleurage

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Directed by Tom Tykwer (2006) - Moviestill

If you devote yourself to capturing the most unique and aromatic scent that can only come from a young girl, the process will be much more labour-intensive. As it is a process that can take weeks, he finds that he must kill his ‘material’ and have the fat saturated with the scent. Thus, he spreads the fat on areas where he can find the most of her natural oils such as the skin, hair, and clothes.

To capture and preserve human scents are indeed tricky. But it can still be done without having to kill your ‘ingredient’. Artists Yeb Wiersma and Lotte Geeven captured the essence of the city Rabot, Ghent by collecting the sweat and scent from t-shirts worn by 100 residents of Rabot. This preservation was done through a distillation process instead which you can find more about it in their project titled ‘Diffusion: Essence de Rabot’.

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Diffusion: Essence de Rabot by Yeb Wiersma and Lotte Geeven videostill - Image taken from  Yeb Wiersma 's website . Yeb Wiersma, Lotte Geeven, Fan Liao

Here at Mediamatic, the Institute for Art and Olfaction team will perform cold enfleurage on a red-headed lady through multiple sessions during the Art Olfaction Amsterdam programme. You may help us with the process during the Sex S(m)ells Playhouse!