Perfume Thriller – Interview with John Oehler of Aphrodesia Fame

Welcome to The Scented Salon at The Fragrant Man. This is a place for discussion, education, and appreciation of fragrance. A place for the dissemination of various opinions by readers, as well as my own. A place for us.

I love the manners of the online perfume community. They are courtly manners considering the diversity of strongly held opinions. The occasional battle or the boycott of a perfumer only highlights the usual smoothness of communication.

In this very special inaugural Scented Salon post, I spoke to John Oehler, the author of the novel Aphrodesia.

Jordan – Welcome to this salon John. Your book has a wealth of fragrant knowledge which gives authenticity to the plot and the characters. How did you gain the industry insights that underpin Aphrodesia? How did this thriller of a fragrant journey start?

John – Thank you Jordan. Smell is our most primal sense. It influences us in ways we sometimes don’t even realise. It’s the reason, for example, that strippers make bigger tips when they’re ovulating. And out of the top ten reasons women buy a fabric softener, smell is number one (fabric-softening ability is number ten). My mission in writing Aphrodesia, besides trying to tell a good story, was to help make people more aware of how important scent is in our daily lives.

The Gaining of Knowledge
​My education began in 1984 when I bought the 4-volume set, The H&R Book of Perfume. As a scientist, I appreciated their genealogies of feminine and masculine fragrances. It turns out the fragrances my wife wore and my aftershave were both in the Oriental family. This roused my interest in the psychology of scent and why people are attracted to one another.

​Soon after, I started buying other books: The Secret of Scent (Turin), A Natural History of the Senses (Ackerman), Essence and Alchemy (Aftel), The Emperor of Scent and later A year Inside the Perfume Industry (both by Burr). I saved perhaps a hundred articles from the Internet on subjects ranging from interviews with perfumers, to the physiology of smell, to ancient perfumes and their reconstruction, medical diagnoses, forensics, and the business of fragrances.

ISIPCA. Photo: John Oehler

ISIPCA is the post-graduate school in Versailles for perfume, cosmetic and flavour studies. The drum contains raw ingredients for the modern lab that can be glimpsed in the background. Photo: John Oehler

​In 2007, pursuing a tip from an employee of the Fragonard Museum in Paris, I lucked into a meeting with Marcello Aspria and Jean Kerléo at ISIPCA. ISIPCA is the post-graduate school in Versailles for perfume, cosmetic and flavour studies. That meeting was a turning point in my education.

Marcello Aspria and Jean Kerléo

Marcello Aspria from Scented Pages and Jean Kerléo at the ISIPCA. Photo: John Oehler

​The following year, I interviewed Kerléo for half a day, and he kindly took me down to see the vault of the Osmothèque which is in the basement of the chateau on the left, as you enter the grounds of ISIPCA (in the chateau not pictured in the photograph above).

Jean Kerléo Osmothèque

Kerléo preparing to open the vault at the Osmothèque. Photo John Oehler

It was during that meeting that he gave me the inspiration for my book, Aphrodesia. While writing it, I accumulated a long list of questions. Next year, I took the list back to ISIPCA and interviewed Kerléo again. The year after that, we had our fourth meeting — no interview this time, just a friendly lunch with him and my wife.
​I consider Kerléo to be my mentor.

John Kerléo

John Kerléo in the Education Room ISIPCA. Photo: John Oehler

Jordan – You met Marcello Asprio! Now there is a mystery. He hasn’t updated his Scented Pages since 2009. Let’s try to solve that mystery later in the interview.

hoto: John Oehler

ISIPCA lab where students mix ingredients for
their perfumes. You can see the electronic balances and the boxes full of
ingredients. Photo: John Oehler

Jean Kerléo sits high in the perfume pantheon. He founded the Osmothèque, the perfume museum and repository in Versailles and was its president until his recent retirement. Prior to founding the museum he spent 30 years as the Master Perfumer for Jean Patou perfumes. Let’s talk more about Jean in a moment.

What are your perfume preferences?

John – My favourite fragrance is the smell of my wife’s skin.
​When I wear scent — you’re going to CHOKE on this — it’s Old Spice aftershave. Why something so utterly plebian? Because it’s what I wore fifty years ago when we were first dating (and had no money), and she still loves the smell of it on me. Her preferences on herself include Murmur, Opium, Obsession and, occasionally as a bath oil, Ma Griffe. I like all of them.

​Intellectually, I’m partial to fragrances by l’Artisan and Creed. They aren’t overpoweringly sweet, they contain intriguing combinations of fragrance notes, they combine beautifully with the smells of skin and hair, and they evolve nicely into richer, darker aromas as the evening progresses. Among the former, I like Jatamansi and Dzongkha. Among the latter, Silver Mountain Water (especially the green tea note), Green Valley, and Millesime Imperial. Their Royal Water, made for Princess Diana, is also interesting, especially the ambergris in the base.

Jordan – One of the premises of the book is that great perfumes have always had one purpose: to seduce. I disagree. Of course in the context of your novel the idea is appropriate. I scent for personal pleasure and on some occasions to create atmosphere. But maybe you are right in the sense that I am often seduced by the juice, the flacon, the notes, the perfumer and the story long before I have encountered its sillage on another being. Lets explore this with reference to some other opinions.

Great perfumes have always had one purpose: to seduce.
– John Oehler

Serge Lutens, who now lives in Marrakech, is of the opinion that perfumes are not about frivolous seduction. This is not a unique viewpoint in the industry, since many perfumers perceive their work as an art form; but if most reject associations of sensuality and eroticism as a marketing ploy, Lutens’s criticism is more metaphysical. In his view, perfumes are meant to convey a sense of purification and harmony with the world, which is deeply inscribed in Arab culture.
– Marcello Aspria

C’est le sang des Arabes, surtout pas quelque chose dont on s’arrose pour séduire avant d’aller au restaurant. Il doit élever l’esprit et l’individu.
– Serge Lutens quoted in Le Guérer, 2002: 300.

It is the blood of the Arabs, and certainly not something one indulges in to seduce someone before going to the restaurant.
Its purpose is to elevate the spirit and the individual.
– Serge Lutens quoted in Le Guérer, 2002: 300. Trans: Marcello Aspria

John – Perhaps I should have said, to attract. ​Granted, many people today, especially single people, wear fragrances to please themselves and perhaps “elevate the spirit.” Napoleon’s violet would be an older example. But in most classic perfumes, the base note is distinctly animalic and designed to bloom last in the evaporative sequence, when a romantic evening culminates in sex. I believe this is what the great perfumer Jacques Guerlain meant when he famously said perfumes should smell like the “underside” of his mistress.

Jordan – Do you think perfumery is art, artisanal, design and manufacturing, molecular architecture or something else?

John – I consider fine perfumery to be an art. Unfortunately for perfumers, the EU considers it a craft — hence, formulas cannot be patented.

Jordan – Indeed, just like food recipes.

Sudent lab bench at ISIPC. Photo: John Oehler

Student’s bench-top in the lab at ISIPC – ingredients for the recipe or perfume formula. Photo: John Oehler

Fragrant Giving
Do you and your partner exchange fragrant gifts?

John – The last perfume I bought for my wife, without her knowledge, was Ma Griffe. My wife continues to buy me Old Spice because it’s still her favourite on me.

The Love Angle
Jordan – I like to highlight relationships and relationship longevity. Will you share some of your love story? You mentioned that you both like fragrances from the Oriental group and that this has contributed to your lifelong compatibility. Sweet or maybe I should say spicy and warm with a mellis accord!

John – I met my partner Dorothy Zeller at UCLA, the University of California in Los Angeles. After my two-year Peace Corp service in Nepal we were married in Katmandu in 1968 in a former palace. I became we and we then returned to UCLA for a PhD each in Geology.

Dorothy Zeller John Oehler

John and Dorothy shortly after the launch of NASA’s last space shuttle.

Jordan – I also like to highlight successful woman especially when they are not in the entertainment industry.

John – My wife is a scientist with NASA, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Her current research is aimed at identifying evidence of past or present life on Mars. She is a member of the science team that operates and analyses data from NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Last year, she received UCLA’s Distinguished Alumni award, the first woman ever to be so honoured. As you can probably tell, I’m very proud of her. By the way, she also designs the covers for my books.

John Oehler

John piloting a boat on a tributary to the Yantze River

We went to China recently so my wife could pet pandas. She’s a panda nut, and the tour was guided by the woman who, at that time, was the keeper of pandas at the national zoo in Washington, D.C. After spending several days with pandas, we took a cruise down the Yangtze River. At a few places, the cruise ship stopped so that passengers who wanted to could take side trips on smaller boats up tributaries to the Yangtze. On one of those side trips, the captain of the boat let me steer it for about half an hour. And that’s me, driving. I suspect the other passengers might have panicked if they knew their captain wasn’t at the helm.

The Marcello Aspria Mystery
About Marcello, I only met him once, for about half a day at ISIPCA. I’m not sure what he did for a living, but he was impressively knowledgeable about perfumes and had met many perfumers. I did not get a sense that he was a teacher. And now it seems he is getting, or has just received, a PhD in health sciences.

Photo: John Oehler

The other chateau (the one on the left as you enter ISIPCA) hides the Osmothèque vault in the basement. Photo: John Oehler

As a point of interest, I will relate something Marcello told me while we were walking from ISIPCA to the train station in Versailles.
He said we were very lucky that Kerléo spent so much time with us. He said Kerléo rarely spent more than 10 minutes with anyone. He said Kerléo was at such a height in the perfume business that most people were afraid to even approach him. He told me that he (Marcello) had spoken recently with a female master perfumer who heard Kerléo give a lecture and who wanted to ask him a question afterwards, but did not have the nerve to go up to him. Yet …

Jean Kerléo, Osmothèque

Perfume vault in the Osmothèque presided over by Jean Kerléo. Photo: John Oehler

… I visited Kerléo four times. Three times were at least half a day, and one of those ran to 8:00 at night. He arranged for the head of ISIPCA to give me a tour of the school, and accompanied us on that tour. He had lunch with my wife and me. He told me about his wife and her favourite fragrances. He told me about his childhood and how he stumbled into the perfume business. He told me about recreating the smell of the Brittany coast, where he grew up. He is one of the kindest men I know. Which I find very difficult to reconcile with the image of a man so formidable he cannot be approached.

Jean Kerléo

Jean Kerléo. Photo: John Oehler

The first time I met Kerléo, I had shown up at ISIPCA unannounced. The receptionist made a call, found out that Kerleo was speaking with someone (Marcello, it turned out), and said I could join them. When I walked in, Kerleo and Marcello were speaking in French, and they switched to English for my benefit. Both of them made me feel welcome. We moved from the small conference room where they had been speaking to the demonstration room in my photograph. And there, Kerléo took us through the history of perfumes, giving us mouillettes dipped in samples of all the landmark fragrances, as well as letting us smell a whole variety of raw materials. He was kind and generous to both of us — possibly because he had heard of Marcello. He certainly had never heard of me. So it’s thanks to Marcello that I was able to establish a relationship with Kerléo.

The latest information I can find about Marcello is that he is a PhD researcher at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, in the field of health policy and management. Having been a PhD student myself, I know that the work allows little time for anything else. We can all hope that, once he gets his professional feet on the ground, he’ll have time to update his Scented Pages.

Jordan – Thank you John for zoomin’ into The Fragrant Man. Write on.

Aphrodesia, John Oehler, Perfume Fiction

Whoosh on over to Olfactoria’s Travels for a book review of John’s perfume thriller.
Aphrodesia by John Oehler is available on Amazon for the unbelievable price of $USD2.99 on Kindle or $USD13.52 in paperback or for those of you in the Euro zone, €11.60 for the paperback and €2.60 for the Kindle edition.

Further Reading
John Oehler website
Marcello Aspria at Scented Pages Fragrant Musings: Perfumes and Femininity in Western Representations of the Orient
Post graduate perfume studies at ISIPCA
Jola visits the Osmothèque

24 responses to “Perfume Thriller – Interview with John Oehler of Aphrodesia Fame

  1. Bravo! Truly, Jordan, Bravo. What a fascinating, insightful interview! A few points that struck me. He feels that only some people, perhaps single people, wear perfume to “elevate the spirit.” Hm. I think it’s more than some and, certainly, more than just single people. In fact, wouldn’t it be the converse? That the single ones would be more likely to want to use perfume to seduce?

    Undina is actually having an interesting discussion today about whether people use perfume as mood elevators or modifiers. I certainly do. I shall have to get his book because I don’t think that perfume today is used predominantly to seduce.

    I’m much more with Serge Lutens on this one, though I don’t understand one of the comments which Mr. Aspria ascribes to Mr. Lutens: “perfumes are meant to convey a sense of purification and harmony with the world, which is deeply inscribed in Arab culture.” Purification? I think I agree more with Mr. Lutens’ actual, quoted comment.

    Totally OT, you simply have to tell me what a “mellis accord” is! I’ve waited long enough. 😉

    • The Mellis Accord is a future post; it’s coming like Christmas! Purification in this context will be explored more with some opinions and explanation from the heart of The Middle East; coming in a future post directly from Medina. Yes I visited Undina’s Looking Glass that morning for a chat that became a very interesting and lengthy conversation. Thank you for your kind words Kafka. It is not just scent than is an elevator. You are too.

  2. I never wore perfume to seduce but rather it was the scent of perfume that always seduced me 🙂 !!! Loved reading this interview…thank you,Jordan!

  3. I’ve always thought that the main purpose of any perfumes – great and not so – was to mask unpleasant odors, which couldn’t be dealt with otherwise in older times 😉

    In general, I do not believe in seductiveness of perfumes. Some people do react to perfumes. But, in my opinion, people are much less conditioned to react this way to perfumes than they are trained by the “culture” to react to special clothes/lingerie. When people are attracted to each other, the scent that accompanies the seduction or the following stage might be linked to the event and in future be associated with it and trigger similar feelings but the perfume itself is hardly a part in causing those initial emotions.

    • Welcome Undina. Thanks for swimming over to The Fragrant Man. As to your comment- indeed! It becomes part of a great memory but not the cause of it. And sometimes can be part of an unpleasant memory. Hope yours are all good, great and gorgeous.

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  14. On your comment, early in the article, regarding how many perfumers resent the notion that perfume is about simple seduction. I really don’t think there’s anything simple about seduction at all. Seduction is the vehicle for every lasting connection we make in life. Without seduction there would likely be no procreation, and no future for the species. Our olfactory sense is the one most closely affiliated with the formation of memories. Further back in our evolution we relied on smell for our very survival-not just to sense the presence of danger, but also as the signal that the time to procreate was upon us. Seduction, in this way, accomplished through the release of pheromones, was biological, and utterly necessary for any future generations to come about. Humans don’t make pheromones, at least not in the same sense that most animals do, but I believe some part of our brains still respond to scent as a signal that our opportunity to procreate is imminent. In the absence of true pheromones in this process, we have formulated them in the form of perfume. It is, perhaps, an evolutionary nostalgia. The many billions of dollars a year spent on fragrance throughout the world, however, would seem to indicate that seduction is still something we subconsciously perceive as essential to our survival as a species. That’s not something to balk at, or dismiss, as “simple” or “base”, and the perfumers that take insult at the idea that fragrance is about seduction have lost touch with the one irrefutable fact about humans; in all our sophistication we are still animals-programmed from conception (thankfully) with the instinctive desire to survive through procreation. If it weren’t for seduction, I don’t think nearly as many of us would get around to making babies, and humanity would fade into history as one of nature’s failed experiments.

  15. Well put, Matt. On top of that, Jean Kerleo (who for 30 years was the master perfumer at Jean Patou) told me that creation of an aphrodisiac fragrance was the “holy grail” of the perfumer’s art. I take him at his word.

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