What Does Galbanum Smell Like?
The image on the card above is an painting I made of the colors I see when I smell galbanum. Odors produce a color vibration in my mind (a phenomenon called synesthesia), so scent and color are strongly associated for me.
It's notoriously hard to describe fragrances in words. So I tried painting them instead. My paintings and perfumes explore this space between color and scent, visual forms, and olfactive "shapes."
Galbanum is a beautiful word that refers to a beautiful fragrance material. The odor is typically described as green. Green is an unusual word because it refers to both smells and colors. I don't think any other color word does that.
Actually, I lied. Galbanum isn't so beautiful, at least not at first. What does galbanum smell like? Pure galbanum essential oil smells harsh and unpleasant, like acrid, chopped spinach. When I first smelled the stuff, I could only imagine using it in a citrus scent where I needed a sharp, astringent, green note.
One cool fact about galbanum: while it smells green and leafy, it's extracted from a root, not a leaf. Galbanum is the resin extracted from the roots of Ferrula gummosa.
But galbanum has a secret identity that appears in low doses (what perfumers call "dilution"). Smell galbanum essential oil diluted to 1% in alcohol. You'll notice something unexpected: lushness, richness, plush velvet, moss, wax, and even a bit of powder.
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Perfumers love materials that straddle different odor families. Iris is famously both woody and floral, osmanthus is floral and fruity, and ionones are fruity and woody—to name just a few. Like chameleons, these materials change with their context.
Galbanum is also a chameleon. Skillfully dosed, the harsh aspects behave like an aldehyde to "shear out" heavy floral notes. They provide sharp contrast and bright texture to fragrances that would just be syrupy or suffocating.
Perfume accords are all about relationship, so while the galbanum modifies the florals, the florals also modify the galbanum, softening it and foregrounding the powdery waxiness. The result is a velvety shimmer in the first seconds after you spray a perfume. I use galbanum for this effect in Au Delà - Narcisse. It still surprises and delights me every time it. I also used a lot of galbanum in Zdravetz, my fresh, sparkling vanilla rose perfume. Both perfumes are included in the floral discovery set.
In your first painting class, you quickly learn that color words are too broad to describe all colors in the world. Green doesn't point to a single color. It points to thousands of "greens," some so different it's incredible we give them the same. What's more, each of those greens changes when placed alongside another color. So, what does galbanum smell like? It smells green, but it also smells velvety, powdery, and lush.
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