Evolution or involution?

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Distillation cauldron in my grandfather’s lavender plantation, Mira, Province of Cuenca

 

Of all the senses, smell is the most primitive and archaic. It was crucial for survival. However, it is the sense that has deteriorated the most in our evolutionary process. Quite beyond the human species, in my family as well its loss is clear. Not only for the size and shape of our noses, but when it comes to the subtlety and precision of our olfactory apparatuses. Yet in my family, the more our noses have lost their character, the more daring they have become.

 

Don José Collado Herrero, my grandfather

 

My grandfather was a chemist and a man with a fine sense of smell and a prominent nose. He was able to differentiate the scent of 53 different kinds of roses. Working for Myrurgia and Dana he invented some of the most popular colognes and toiletries of his time (such as the cologne Simpatía and the Maja soap line). In 1925 he created a laboratory of essential oils that exported its products to the great French perfumers.

My father was known as the Catalan Alberto Sordi, because of his resemblance to the popular Italian actor with the imposing nose. Yet he could hardly tell the difference between peppermint and lavender. However, he did know how to deal with the dire effects of synthetic fragrances on the family business, creating innovative new lines of disinfecting soaps and getting into the prophylaxis market. So in that way, in the end, he demonstrated that he did have a good nose—for business.

 

My father with Don Paco, manager of the lands and a good friend of my grandfather, in Mira, Province of Cuenca

 

So that is where I come along, neither continuing in the family business nor inheriting a good sense of smell. Yet in 2010 I began to feel the effects of a curious neuronal extravagance: phantosmia, or olfactory hallucination. My nose (in reality, my mind) was not able to tell apart 53 kinds of roses, but it was able to create smells that do not exist. They were smells that were usually difficult to identify and were the result of impossible combinations.

 

This is me, gathering juniper boughs on a rainy day

 

Written that way it sounds good, but for me it brought on enormous anxiety. What if all the smells that I thought I was recognizing did not in any way resemble what others were smelling? I kept this as my dark secret, afraid to let it out and a bit ashamed. It was then that I began to become interested in everything that had to do with smells. I read about glands, neuronal pathways, olfactory families and aromatic notes. Rather than opting for artificial perfumes and aromas, I began to ask what my own world smelled like. Living in the Empordà and being inclined to taking long walks, the first thing I did was ask about these landscapes. What does a forest of cork oaks in Les Gavarres smell like? Or a springtime walk near the mouth of the Ter river, or the marvellous pollination of the pine groves on the Costa Brava?

The answer, of course, was in the plants themselves. I bought a small still and began to combine essential oils I extracted from the plants, bark and mosses that I gathered on my wanderings. Those first colognes sought to reproduce the smells of those walks, of the landscapes and moments which filled my everyday existence. I wanted to fix these smells without additives of any kind, and share them with my friends and loved ones to check if we were smelling the same thing, or in any case, to see if those smells had similar effects on us. My adventurous nose came out of its self-imposed ostracism and dared to show itself, just how it really was. The results of those combinations were and still are veritable hallucinations, it couldn’t be any other way.