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If there ever was: an exhibition of extinct and impossible scents

Rob Blackson


# Syzygium gambleanum, Hopea shingkeng, Ilex gardneriana, and

Santalum fernandezianum


Over the past century, deforestation, climate change, and urban sprawl

have pushed numerous scented and beautiful varieties of wild plants into

extinction. These forces have caused many plants to search for better

places to take root. However, flowering plants with heavy seeds do not

move” quickly enough to respond to these environmental changes.

Another contributing factor to this problem is the agricultural industry.

Using fertilizers that artificially raise the level of nutrients in the soil

encourages some plant species to move into richer patches of land and,

thus, into competition with other plants for space. Eventually, the less

hardy species are eliminated1.

Syzygium gambleanum, Hopea shingkeng, Ilex gardneriana, and

Santalum fernandezianum are extinct flowering plants. Syzygium

gambleanum, a sharp rose apple of the myrtle family commonly grown in

India, became extinct in 1998 due to habitat loss. Aromatic wood from the

small Hopea shingkeng tree was used to make house posts in India and

as a result was also registered as extinct in 1998. Since 1997, the pungent

herbal smell of Ilex gardneriana holly has vanished. And due to logging,

the smooth scent of Chilean Santalum fernandezianum sandalwood has

been gone since 1908. The extinct aroma from each of these plants has

been recreated using scents derived from relatives of these species and

blended together to form this now impossible bouquet 2 .


Scent by Bertrand Duchaufour


1. The Guardian (London), 24 April 2006.

2. I am grateful for the research of James Wong of Botanic Gardens

Conservation International for compiling this list of extinct plants.


# The surface of the Sun


The sun’s rays have been Earth’s source of life and destruction for over

4.5 billion years. Our closest star’s unbearable intensity is created by an

ongoing chemical reaction similar to that of a perpetual atomic blast

suspended in gravity. As such, the sun is predominantly composed of

hydrogen and helium with a molten cocktail of copper, terbium, strontium,

antimony, and europium in its core.

Scent by Geza Schön


# The Hiroshima scent


There is, as yet, no conclusive scientific explanation for how our noses

smell. Currently, two theories are debated by scientists. The first theory

maintains that our noses recognise smells by their shape. For example,

the airborne particle’s molecular shape of the smell from a rose fits into a

specific ‘rose’ receptor in our noses, in the same way that a round peg fits

into a round hole. In reality, this would mean that inside our noses are

hundreds of intricately defined holes—each waiting for a specific matching

If there ever was

An exhibition of extinct and impossible smells

smell molecule to f it inside. The other theory relies on vibration. Every

molecule, depending on the mass of its atoms and the energy of its

binding electrons, has a different vibration. This vibration is recognised by

our noses as smell; different vibrations are different smells. Some

scientif ic proof for this second theory seems to have come f rom an unlikely

and regrettable source. Miles f rom the epicentre of the bombing at

Hiroshima, victims described a smell of burning rubber that coincided with

the f lash of the blast. It is impossible for airborne particles (round peg) to

have travelled that distance in such a f lash of time. Rather, it is likely that

the vibration of gamma rays f rom the f lash, hitting the smell receptors in

the victims’ noses, caused the odour 1 .

Christophe Laudamiel created this scent inspired by the vibration of

Hiroshima’s atomic blast. He explains the theory underpinning this scent

as follows: “One aspect of the theory, if proven in some ways, will require

some isotopic work. Isotopes are one element, say carbon or uranium, but

diff erent only by the number of neutrons in their nucleus. Two common

isotopes are Carbon 12 (f ound in coal and diamond) and Carbon 14 (to

date old bones). Isotopes are extremely important f or nuclear reaction,

because some of them are radioactive, and might be important if the

vibration theory is even partially correct. The Hiroshima scent contains a

large portion of one isotopic ingredient.”

Scent by Christophe Laudamiel

1. I am indebted to Chandler Burr’s novel, The Emperor of Scent (2004,

Arrow Books) for introducing this topic to me.


# The scent of surrender


Incense had many practical uses in times of ancient warfare. It was of ten

lit during battles as a way of gaining favour f rom the gods of war and

strength. Before the tradition of waving the white flag of surrender,

burning a specif ic blend of incense over the walls of a city was also an

indication of defeat. Through modern­day Israel, Syria, and Egypt,

archaeologists have discovered clay relief s depicting the presentation of

the censer (incense burner) as a f orm of surrender. Commanders of cities

such as Ascalon, besieged by the Egyptians during the reign of Rameses

II, held a censer stuffed with a combination of storax, myrrh, f rankincense,

and mastic over the city walls. The smell of the city’s surrender would

then be carried on the wind to the advancing army 1 .

Scent by Patricia Millns and Kóan Jeff Baysa

1. K. Nielson, Incense in Ancient Israel (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 13;

quoted in Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott,

Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (London: Routledge, 1994), 39.


# Body Odour


On December 28, 1989, a slim young woman named Susanne Böden was

handing out leaf lets in East Berlin with her little sister. The leaf lets

promoted f ree speech for citizens of the Deutsche Democratic Republic.

Shortly after she started handing them out, Susanne was arrested by the

Stasi, or East German secret police. She stood trial at Stasi headquarters

If there ever was

An exhibition of extinct and impossible smells

in East Berlin and was served with a caution. Before being released, the

Stasi gave her a square of fabric to wipe against the back of her neck.

This f abric was then kept by the Stasi in a sealed jar with her name on it.

A person’s body odour is as distinctive and traceable as a f ingerprint. The

Stasi tracked the movements of suspected dissenters with trained sniffer

dogs. To get the scent of their suspects, the Stasi employed a variety of

methods such as breaking into apartments and stealing dirty clothes or

sitting suspects in a heated room for questioning. The Stasi would then

save a patch of fabric f rom this chair’s upholstery that had absorbed the

suspect’s body odour.

The Berlin Wall f ell within months of Susanne’s trial. During the ensuing

celebrations Stasi Headquarters were ransacked. Inside a small room at

the headquarters, revellers found hundreds of jars labelled with people’s

names and stuffed with bits of fabric.

Scent by Maki Ueda


# Cleopatra’s f ragrance


Due to the wealth of preserved ancient Egyptian records, much of the

history of making scents begins with Egypt. From incense to cosmetics

and perf umery, Egyptians developed numerous manuf acturing techniques

for a range of spiritual and social aromatic occasions. Like our

contemporary interests in preserving a youthful appearance, Egyptian

cosmetic care was of ten devoted to protecting skin f rom the sun’s harsh

rays. One method the Egyptians used to keep their bodies well­

moisturised was to perch a solidif ied cone of scented beef tallow on the

top of their heads. As the day wore on, the unguent would gradually melt

covering their hair and body with a f ilm of f ragrance.

Egyptian perf umes were a very precious commodity and could only be

used for three purposes: the aesthetic needs of the very rich and royal

class, as offerings to deities, and to embalm the dead. The plants used to

make many Egyptian perfumes were known as the “f ruits of the eye of

Re”. This is because the scents f rom these plants were thought to have

originated f rom the eye of the sun­god Re 1 . The most sacred of all

Egyptian f ragrances was kyphi, an aromatic blend including juniper,

raisins, cassia and pine kernels, a recipe most likely to have originated

f rom Greece. This precious scent was reserved only f or the gods and

would be offered to them each night by temple priests. Cleopatra was the

last of the Macedonian Ptolemy rulers of Egypt and introduced many

changes to Egyptian religious law. She believed that kyphi should not be

restricted to the gods but should also be worn by women. Although there

are no specif ic accounts of the f ragrance Cleopatra wore, it is recorded

that towards the end of her life she wore the perf ume of “her choice” 2 .

Scent by Steven Pearce

1. Lise Manniche, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy &

Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 34.

2. Mary Lynne, Galaxy of Scents: The Ancient Art of Perfume Making

(United Kingdom: Lightning Source, UK, Ltd., 1968), 34.

If there ever was

An exhibition of extinct and impossible smells


# A perfume capable of making a woman beautiful forever


Contemporary perfumery is often considered a side effect of science and

art. However, the origins of the trade are rooted in the study of alchemy.

In eighteenth century France, changes in aristocratic tastes along with

relaxed perfumery guild membership laws allowed the study of perfumery

to flourish. A number of the earliest and most popular perfumes retained

traces of perfume’s alchemical origins. For example, Le Secrets de

Maistre Alexys (1555), the oldest known book of perfume recipes, contains

the combination of ingredients, which would create a perfume capable of

making a woman beautiful forever: “Take a young raven from the nest;

feed it on hard eggs for forty days, kill it, and then distil it with myrtle

leaves, talc, and almond oil.” 1

Scent by Christoph Hornetz

1. Mandy Aftel, Essence & Alchemy (London: Bloomsbury, 2001), 27.


# The Titanic perfume


On April 10, 1912, Adolphe Saalfeld, an entrepreneurial German perfumer,

boarded the Titanic. He brought with him a bag of his own perfumes with

which he was hoping to seek his fortune in New York. Saalfeld survived

but his perfumes, he thought, were lost for ever. Almost ninety years later,

a submersible submarine combing the ocean floor for personal effects lost

on the Titanic discovered a leather satchel. When it was brought to the

surface, sixty­five sealed aluminium vials were found inside. As the first

vial was opened a delicate scent of Edwardian perfume filled the room.

Scents of Time is a company that acts as a “fragrance archaeologist.”

They have reconstructed numerous ancient perfumes by testing preserved

samples, researching historical literature, and stirring up ancient recipes.

Using contemporary tools such as gas layer chromatography and mass

spectrometry, Scents of Time’s managing director, perfumer David Pybus,

chemically fingerprinted the ingredients present in one of Saalfeld’s vials.

After identifying the components of this perfume, he then carefully

manipulated these known amounts and ingredients to transpose this scent

for our contemporary tastes without altering the aromatic sensation of this

lost perfume.

Scent by Scents of Time

Scents of Time often collaborates with larger fragrance houses to realise

their products. This perfume was produced in partnership with Givaudan.

I am indebted to Scents of Time for their booklet, Night Star, the Treasure

of Titanic (2007), for providing much of the information found in this text.


# The smell of Mir


On February 20, 1986, Russia launched a brave and unprecedented

exploration of outer space called Mir. Mir, meaning both “peace” and

world”, was designed under Soviet rule to float 350 kilometres above the

Earth as an orbital research station. Mir’s fifteen year mission resulted in

thousands of exhaustive scientific experiments, performed by a rolling

If there ever was

An exhibition of extinct and impossible smells

roster of 104 cosmonauts and astronauts. To minimise waste, Mir was

designed as an almost 100% recyclable environment. Even the humidity

in the space station was chemically broken down and re­used. However,

in this highly eff icient and controlled environment there was one rogue

stowaway that the Russians had not anticipated: smell.

George Aldrich is a nasalnaut. He works f or NASA as a chemical specialist

in a Molecular Desorption Analysis Laboratory at the White Sands Test

Facility in New Mexico. His job is to smell everything that will travel in

space shuttles, f rom teddy bears to toothpaste, to make sure that an

object’s odour is not too overwhelming for the capsule. The Russians

don’t have nasalnauts, but they did have lots of vodka that they took with

them onto Mir. When the cosmonauts perspired, their sweat contained

traces of the alcohol. This airborne alcohol then made its way through

Mir’s air f iltration system, which was intended to recycle H20 into pure

oxygen. However, a chemical by­product of the alcohol entering into the

f iltration process was the unintended production of f ormaldehyde. This is

a noxious substance primarily used as a pickling agent, it is what Damien

Hirst uses to submerge and preserve his animals. Over time, the f ilters in

the recycling units became clogged with a damp mould and the pungent

odour of pickling gym socks began to permanently waf t through the cabin,

making living conditions almost intolerable. With the scientists unable to

open a window or stop drinking, Mir continued to stink until it was

decommissioned and disintegrated in the upper atmosphere over Fiji on

March 23, 2001.

Scent by Steven Pearce


# The smell of a meteorite


In the late morning of September 15, 2007, something described as

ranging in size f rom a basketball to a small car was seen streaking across

the Peruvian sky. It landed in a farmer’s wet f ield with a thud heard in the

neighbouring town of Desaguadero, twenty kilometres away. The crater

caused by the impact quickly filled with boiling turbid brown groundwater

that was described by witnesses as giving off a strange and noxious

odour. Immediately, the locals began to complain of ailments including

dizziness, vomiting and skin lesions. Within days of the impact, over one

hundred people were reported to be suffering due to the unexplained

odour. And still there was no consensus about what had actually fallen

f rom the sky to cause the stench. Initially, one hypothesis was that it was

a missile launched by the neighbouring Chilean government, although this

unprovoked attack on a quiet farming village seemed implausible 1 . Then it

was reported in the Russian press that the malodorous f ireball was caused

by a downed United States KH­13 spy satellite. A radioactive isotope

powers this satellite and, if it survived re­entry to Earth, would explain the

reported illnesses as radiation poisoning. However, extensive tests of the

site by numerous off icials reported no traces of radiation. A further

explanation came f rom the Knight Science Journalism website claiming it

might be stinky panspermic alien microbes.

Af ter the dust settled, the initial overzealous estimate of the crater’s size

was accurately measured at thirteen meters (as opposed to the earlier

report of over thirty meters), the number of victims suffering f rom ailments

was downgraded f rom 150 to 30, and a more down to earth conclusion

If there ever was

An exhibition of extinct and impossible smells

was accepted. It was a meteorite that bore deeply enough into the soft

mud to hit a pocket of arsenic. There are numerous arsenic deposits in

Peru and it was gas from this deposit, slowly bubbling up through the

groundwater, which released the stench.

Scent by Mark Buxton

1. The New York Times (New York), 20 September 2007.


# The plague shield


Determining how disease spread was one of the most urgent questions of

the middle ages. Today’s health questions are evident in headlines

concerned with how many glasses of wine are healthy to drink and how

much red meat is safe to eat. Rather than heart disease or cancer, the top

killer of the fourteenth century was the black plague, commonly assumed

to be spread by its smell. With the span of the illness from contraction to

expiration rarely taking more than three to four days, the black plague was

a particularly nasty and swift killer. The black discharge seeping from a

victim’s infected glands was thought to carry a ‘polluted air’ or ‘miasma’. It

was this infected air that the healthy tried to contain and quarantine. Even

the breath of a plague victim was considered mortal poison. To keep this

murderous air at bay, a queer variety of olfactory protections akin to an

intangible plague shield were medically prescribed to combat the disease.

Christophe Laudamiel has re­created this shield. The following is a record

of his process. “To compose this plague shield I began an extensive

research of old texts. The scent informed by this study contains some

vinegar as this was the purifying base used at the time. We reconstituted

rose leaves using rose oil and true raspberry leaves. We added different

elements commonly used at the time to try preventing the settling of the

Yersinia pestis (plague) bacteria, such as beeswax, angelica, orange peel,

and clove. Also present in the plague shield is a smoky feeling because

many fires of aromatic wood were lit at the time to try to fend off the

polluted air. The scent from these bonfires was thought to subsume the

infected air, another popular belief of a population in distress of finding

causes and remedies for a disease they did not biologically understand.

Finally, we incorporated in this scent ingredients that happen to be gram­

negative antibacterial (the plague bacteria is a gram­negative bacteria like

E­coli). Some of these ingredients smell of thyme, and some of white lilies.

Many fragrance ingredients, even rose oil, are naturally anti­bacterial. I

wanted the scent not to smell offensive but, in fact, to include the elements

that draw you in, like anything bad also has an aspect that attracts you.”

Scent by Christophe Laudamiel

The New York Times (New York), 20 September 2007.


# The last breakfast


On the morning of February 20, 1976, police officers Phillip Black and

Donald Irwin were killed at a highway rest stop outside of Miami. The

details leading up to this crime were the subject of a legal debate that

continued throughout Jesse Tafero’s fourteen­year incarceration for their

If there ever was

An exhibition of extinct and impossible smells

murders. Earlier that morning, Tafero, his girlfriend Sonia Jacobs, and

their two young children accepted a ride f rom a f riend, Walter Rhodes,

who offered to take them to West Palm Beach. To get a break f rom

driving, they pulled into a rest stop for a nap in the car. Patrolman Black

approached the car for a routine check and saw the family along with

Rhodes asleep inside. It is alleged that Patrolman Black saw a gun in the

car. He woke them up and instructed Rhodes and Tafero to get out of the

vehicle. Soon af ter Black made this request, both he and Irwin were shot.

Gun­powder evidence swabbed f rom Tafero, Jacobs, and Rhodes

indicated that only Rhodes had f ired a weapon. Two eyewitnesses

testif ied that as the shots were f ired, Tafero was being held over the hood

of the car by one of the off icers. Both the gunpowder evidence and the

eyewitness testimonies were suppressed at the trials of Tafero and

Jacobs. Rhodes testif ied that both Tafero and Jacobs were guilty of the

murders. In exchange for his testimony, Rhodes was allowed to plead

guilty to second­degree murder, thereby avoiding the death penalty.

Jacobs and Tafero were f ound guilty of murder in the f irst degree and

sentenced to death by electrocution. In 1977, 1979, and 1982, Walter

Rhodes recanted his earlier testimony against Tafero. In these statements,

Rhodes confessed that he, not Tafero, had shot the officers. Eventually,

Rhodes reverted to his original testimony. Jesse Taf ero was executed on

May 4, 1990; he was forty­four years old. This is the smell of his last meal:

scrambled eggs, f ried pepperoni, toasted Italian bread, two tomatoes,

steamed broccoli, asparagus tips, strawberry shortcake with whipped

cream, whole milk, and Lipton tea. Jacobs was eventually released f rom

prison in 1992 when the courts recognised that Rhodes failed his original

1976 polygraph test in which he denied the murders. Had this evidence

been known to the court of appeals prior to 1990, it is probable that

Taf ero’s conviction would also have been overturned.

Scent by Steven Pearce


# The smell of communism


The closed market system of the Deutsche Democratic Republic imposed

severe restrictions on the production, importation, and sale of goods in

former East Berlin. The effects of this system were felt in everything f rom

buying a house to a bar of soap, so with these restrictions came a smell. It

;margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 15.0px Helvetica;">is recognised as the smell of communism and it was (and still is) f ound in

parts of Poland, former East Berlin and regional provinces of China like


These places, like closets unopened f or years, languished in the stale air

of imposed uniformity. Enclosing this smell was the Berlin Wall with its

political division as strong above ground as it was immediately below.

Berlin’s subway system was designed before the iron curtain. During the

cold war many of the subway lines going f rom east to west were closed to

eliminate the possibility of defection. However, Friedrichstraße Station,

located in East Berlin, remained open as a transfer station for West

Berliners. Walking across Friedrichstraße’s platform to the connecting

train was one of the few places for those of the f ree world to sniff this hint

of communism.

Scent by Sissel Tolaas

If there ever was

An exhibition of extinct and impossible smells


# The first scratch­n­sniff

During the research leading up to this project, I read just about every book

I could lay my hands on that was devoted to the topic of scent and its

significance to ancient and modern cultures. The subjects covered by

these resources ranged from academic discussions of memory and

nostalgia to anatomical drawings of nostrils. However, over and over I

found that one thing was missing. I could find no reference, either flippant

or formal, to scratch–n­sniff. It’s true, I don’t really need a book devoted to

this topic I already have one. It’s tucked away in a box in the corner of my

parents’ basement and it’s filled with scratch­n­sniff stickers. If I were to go

there now I am sure I would find a synthetic smorgasbord waiting under

my fingernail. Who can forget that fluorescent odour of banana, the slice

of pepperoni pizza, the square of chocolate that never really smelled like

chocolate, and the smooth mellow root beer foaming over the side of that

thick glass mug? We owe these pleasures to Dr. Gayle Matson 1 .

In the 1960s, he was working as an organic chemist in the Carbonless

Paper/Related Products division of 3M (Minnesota Mining and

Manufacturing Company). What Matson was trying to figure out was a

way of making duplicate copies without the use of carbon paper. Carbon

paper is the stuff we sometimes use to fill out delivery forms or insurance

waivers. It is the subject of the conversation, “No, you keep the pink one

and we’ll hold onto the blue one for our files.” What Matson discovered

was that if you spread tiny plastic beads (say forty million per square inch)

of encapsulated ink onto a paper surface and then rubbed or scratched

this surface with your fingernail, it appeared as though your finger wrote

like a pen. Really what was happening was that the pressure of your

finger broke open the ink beads as it moved across the page. The penny

dropped when 3M’s Public Relations department asked Matson to replace

the ink he was using with a fragrance. First he tried strawberry.

1. 3M Megaphone (St. Paul), 9 May 1980.




If There Ever Was: a book of extinct and impossible smells accompanies the exhibition and

is published by Art Editions North (ISBN: 978­0­9557478­0­9.). This hardback publication is

on sale at Reg Vardy Gallery (rrp £12.00) and is distributed by Cornerhouse, The Reg Vardy Gallery is open: Tuesday 10 am to 8 pm, Wednesday

to Friday 10 am to 6 pm and Saturday by appointment. For more information please call

0191 515 2128, email Rob Blackson or visit

Opening: Tuesday, 29 April 6­8

Artist talk: Tuesday, 29 April 5­6

Draw What You Smell: Tuesday, 20 May 1­3 pm

Exhibition continues: 30 April – 6 June 2008

Reg Vardy Gallery

University of Sunderland

Ashburne House

Ryhope Road