Lost smells

Viti Vinci 24/03/2021

We live in a world where, as time goes on, natural resources come and go. Usually animals are at the forefront of conversations around extinction, however many plants have ceased to exist on the planet. Plants become extinct for many reasons, such as an incompatibility with ever-changing landscapes, human overzealousness, and over harvesting. Many individual plant types that were once popular were all the rage in perfume for their scent quality. Scientists, botanists, and perfumers have long pondered on how these plants may have smelled and have since attempted to replicate its scent quality. As civilisation develops, so do our individual wants and desires.


The science of identifying smells merges with the innovation of perfume-making as technology has allowed us to identify specific compounds in gas samples. Yet a tried-and-tested method has relied on our own body parts, the nose. The narcissus flower is one such wild flower used in commercial perfumes, bathing our scent-sense in opulence. The rich heady florals of the narcissus flower are simple enough to identify, yet encapsulate the complexities of the natural world with its many-layered associations. Jasmine is another iconic flower used in perfume making as well as aromatherapy due to its relaxing quality. Flowering tobacco, tuberose, lily of the valley are just a few other examples of the natural resources we are able to pluck, distill, and customise into perfumes and oils. These are smells we’re accustomed to in this modern era, but what about plants that have ceased to exist? Can we replicate their essence by using science or even by working with their relatives in the plant kingdom?


Let’s imagine a walk around an ancient, now-extinct garden in Babylon. You can imagine the royal feat of the king and his concubines as they planted almost all the trees and foliages known to them. It’s a wonder as to how many of those plants are now lost to history since time moved on. With its lush vegetation embracing pillars over 70ft tall, herbs and exotic flowers emanating wild and heady smells. You may breeze past the sweet aroma of the almond tree and linger for a moment in the complex smells of the fig tree in intrigue; gently shifting between the milky-creamy-sweet facets and the sharp bitterness of its green leaves.


Silphium, a now-extinct wild plant cultivated widely by the ancient Romans was likened to asafetida; a highly pungent, spicy, resinous smelling herb extract. It houses similar scents to celery or the sweetness of fennel, so perhaps silphium smelled like a hybrid of the two, merging the fruity and green quality of some modern day perfumes. The Cry Violet, native to central france, has recently become extinct due to the quarrying of its original region. The Cry Violet was coveted for its lightly fragrant, floral scent. The list of extinct smells is surprisingly long, yet the loss of the St Helena Olive is perhaps the most tragic due to scientists’ efforts in keeping the plant alive. Olive has a unique, ethereal fruity quality that stands out in perfumes when used. Considering olive essential oil, which marries the tartness of olive and the floral delicacy, there is abundant room for speculating the abstract-yet-integral smells that may have once radiated from these mysterious wild flowers.


Perfumers have long traversed the world in a quest to uncover all of its mysterious and gorgeous secrets that can unlock our own potential relating to the natural world. Our human curiosity is not dissimilar to the mammals introduced to St Helena, nibbling on the precious St Helena olive trees. We are also part of this rich, ever-changing anthropocene rather than considering ourselves separate from it. The way nature and life finds a way is in line with our discovery. The complexity of wildlife is replicated in our resourcefulness in the ways we transform them into food, oils, perfume, aphrodisiacs, aromatherapy, and medicine. By using science and history, we are able to uncover a wealth of information about past cultures. Smells are often forgotten about as generations pass by, yet there is much to understand about civilisation in the information smells can carry. Like an old leather-bound book or the first batch of perfumes created in an ancient civilisation. As the world is a continuation of events and experiences, these musings beg the question, to what extent are the smells that were so present in past cultures ingrained in our own genetics? Does this mean that we have an ancestral olfactory memory? Think back, won’t you, to how the smell of pine or cinnamon can evoke memories of Christmas. Our rich neurological databases are expansive, infinite, and borrow past truths to build a current reality.


Jean-Francois Courtine says “the sublime is not so much where we’re going back to, but where we’re coming from.” The love we hold for our dear planet encourages us to look to the future by learning from the past. At Viti Vinci, we honour the Earth by creating sustainable perfumes and honouring the philosophy of having loved and lost. We go one step further from sustainability and create perfumes that are regenerative: actively participating in reforestation and replanting programmes, starting with soil regeneration. Our imaginations are limitless, and we too feel the dull throb of loss when thinking about the captivating scents that are out of reach now. As we rewild our planet by encouraging natural landscapes to thrive, our projects aim to elevate and reproduce the aromatic palette of Mallorca through the conservation of autochthonous and endemic species.


Life is a complicated yet beautiful continuation of history. No one thing can exist without the other having a relation to it. We know that nothing can be lost forever, and that future technologies will only further our understanding and experience of the far-reaches of history. But loss is inevitable if we continue destroying our ecosystems, no matter how hard scientists and artists strive to protect this sacredness. As much as we hope, we bounce to action to provide our fellow humans with a sensual experience as well as elongating the lifespan of any living creature and their habitats. We believe that everything in abundance comes from a place of balance.

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