Barry Shell's nose has been a finely tuned instrument for most of his life.
When he was a boy, dairy, in particular, titillated his olfactory senses. And he drove his mother crazy sniffing eggs, cheeses and a specific brand of milk, Safeway's Lucerne.
"I can't remember why, but I think it had barnyard overtones that put me off," the Vancouver native says. "At the table, I'd pick up and smell everything, and my mother would say: 'Oh, Barry, why do you have to smell it? Just eat it.'"
Now 66, and retired from British Columbia's Simon Fraser University, Shell has time on his hands to pursue his passion: olfaction and perfumery. Smells, he says, can repulse, warn of danger, evoke powerful emotion, or trigger long-forgotten memories. Ambergris, a byproduct of sperm whales, is classified as an animalic scent and, for whatever reason, it reminds him of a dear-departed, favourite uncle. "He wore a certain aftershave, and whenever I smell ambergris, it takes me back."
Four years ago, after leaving his position as writer/editor of the newsletter SFU Research Matters, Shell went online to check out what was available for aspiring perfumers. He found a website for Dominique Dubrana, an eccentric perfumer who lives in the hills of Rimini, Italy. What caught his eye was a starter kit for making custom perfumes.
"It cost me about $400 but all these things came in the mail, all beautifully packed, in little wooden boxes," says Shell, who majored in organic chemistry, but only worked in labs for a few years because it was "boring and slightly dangerous."
The magical box from Italy was a sensory delight. "It was just glorious opening up the boxes, full of amber-coloured glass bottles with violet leaves, vetiver and the usual things like roses, cedar, orange, lemon, grapefruit."
The self-taught smell guru now has some 500 scents in his meticulously labelled collection of vials and bottles of tinctures, extracts, oils and essences. There are citrus, florals, mossy woods, herbs, fruits and orientals. Some have exotic names like bergamot (the smell of Earl Grey tea) or galbanum (woody, green bamboo). Others are more everyday, such as pine.
Shell spends hours in his basement sanctum, researching, experimenting, and making perfumes, hand creams and shampoos for family and friends. He buys a base of odourless shampoo and hand cream (from Vancouver's refill shop, the Soap Dispensary) and then adds his fragrant mix. He does not sell his creations. They're all purely for his edification.
"My wife likes my eccentricity. But she is glad I keep it all in the basement."
Former colleagues at SFU were so intrigued with Shell's hobby that they asked him to teach a continuing-education class, which he calls Making Sense of Scents. The takeaway from his lectures? Don't underestimate the impact of smell.
"The word perfume, derived from the Latin per fumus, means 'through smoke,'" he says. "If you go back to the original Hebrew Bible, the idea of scent is mentioned many times, and it has to do with the so-called burnt offering or sacrifice, typically an animal. The smell would go up to the heavens. The original purpose of perfume was to communicate spiritually with God. Smell goes beyond sight and sound. It's spiritual and transcendent."
Students take whiffs of smell strips that Shell passes around. One is a sample of what the novice perfumer imagines Nostradamus's "rose pill" was like: a concoction that the French physician/seer made out of pulverized roses, cypress sawdust, Florentine iris, cloves, sweet flag, aloe wood and other things. Patients tucked the rose pill under their tongues to ward off the plague (and bad breath). Another is a sample of Napoleon Bonaparte's favourite eau de cologne (from Cologne, Germany). "They didn't have baths very often in those days," Shell says. "So they'd spray their wigs, gloves and clothes. Napoleon doused himself in it." (It was also used to treat sore gums and indigestion.)
A few years ago, when biking in the countryside outside Lisbon, Shell's nose led him to a heady-smelling bush, called cistus, or rock rose. Its resin has an amber, woody scent – labdanum – which he uses in one of his perfumes, Memento.
In New York, he attended an olfactory show at the Museum of Arts and Design. In France, he visited Grasse, the epicentre of scents in the French Riviera. Most recently, on a trip to Japan, he found the essential oils of yuzu (citrus-like) and hinoki (an evergreen smell), as well as all sorts of kodo incense woods. (Kodo is the Japanese art of burning incense).
Regardless of where he is, Shell's beloved collection is always close at hand. "I keep a small vial in my pocket at all times. It's so much fun at cocktail parties. I put a tiny dab on paper, or on their wrist, and it's a great conversation starter.
"Smell brings people together. It's a molecular connection that literally goes up their noses and touches their brain. And their soul."