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Michelle Krell Kydd is an Ann Arbor based writer whose expertise in fragrance has led her on an unusual career path. She works with perfumers and beauty companies as a freelance marketing consultant and writes for Perfumer and Flavorist magazine. She also blogs about the history, myth and folklore behind different scents and flavors at Glass, Petal, Smoke.
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Please introduce yourself… where are you from originally, and where do you live now?
I’m a writer with an unusual talent: I’m a trained nose in flavors and fragrance. I have the olfactory version of a photographic mind when it comes to smell and taste. Once I’m introduced to an ingredient I retain the sensory impression and continue to build on it with repeated exposure. It’s a fascinating process and somewhat autobiographical as how one relates to a taste or smell has a lot to do with individual life experience. The more things you smell and taste the more you realize how much more there is in the world that you have yet to encounter. That’s the beauty of olfaction; you are constantly learning, testing yourself, pushing the limit beyond likes and dislikes.
I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx by immigrant parents. The fact that English wasn’t their first language was a boon for me. I learned to decipher body language, the cadence of foreign tongues that tells you when someone is talking about you or someone you know, the kinds of things you need to master if you are going to live in two worlds, which most children of immigrants do. Writers live in two worlds; the one they observe around them every day and the one they create when they remove a rib from the universe and breathe life into it for the purpose of telling a story. I grew up with a father who loved to tell stories. You knew a tale was looming when he began his sentence with, “let me tell you something.”
I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is a bubble; a 28 mile bubble surrounded by reality. I can’t take credit for that statement. That came from a native behind the counter at Eastern Accents Bakery, around the corner from Liberty Street in the downtown area that is part of the central campus hub. The texture and flavor of an Eastern Accents red bean mooncake could sucker punch a Mott Street mooncake any day. There’s a great food scene in Ann Arbor and it’s sustained by local cuisine. That was key in the decision to move from New York to Ann Arbor.
How did you get your start as a writer, and when did you marry that interest with your passion for all things olfactory?
I started writing as soon as I could form words and images with pencils and crayons. When I was a kid I made more books out of construction paper than I could count (they were staple bound). The earliest one I recall writing is “A Mouse and His Dream.” It’s about an aspiring astronaut who wants to go to the moon and have an adventure. I’ve always had a keen sense of smell and was a budding perfumista at 10. That was a landmark year. I bought a trio of solid perfumes by Coty called Sweet Earth. My fascination with smell started with that compact because each of the three scents was accompanied by a brief scent story. The description of mimosa, a flower I knew from my Aunt Jean’s backyard, tugged at my 10-year-old imagination, “Mimosa. Honeyed, clinging. The tall, pink and white blossomed tree is deeply loved in France, where it grows along the rocky coast.” I never knew that smells could be described like that. After that I wanted to go to France and smell flowers.
Fast forward a few decades. My “nose” was discovered in 2003 after I identified 18 out of 23 raw materials in a blind smell test at Montblanc’s perfumery training for “Individuel” perfume. That affair led to professional olfactory training in the classroom and at Givaudan. Because I have a gift for describing tastes and smells (flavor is technically a combination of taste and smell and I LOVE food) I decided to start a blog that would inspire others to discover the world of olfaction and degustation. I have a unique perspective as an industry insider that is also a consumer of things olfactory and gustatory.
Our culture is highly focused on “celebrity” and that doesn’t empower the individual. It just crowdsources aspirants and capitalizes on people’s insecurities. Everyone is their own expert when it comes to smell and taste because experience in these areas is autobiographical. No one has lived your life story so only you get to sit on that throne. Glass Petal Smoke encourages readers to consider taste and smell in ways that make life more interesting. It also gives me a chance to share an insider’s perspective which is not common due to the secrecy that surrounds the flavor and fragrance industry.
My expertise has been tapped for a few speaking engagements. The last one I gave included an audience of scientists and fragrance regulators. Part of the presentation included collecting the scent memories of everyone in the audience. That stack of 135 index cards is a holy grail; the contents are poignant, revelatory and a testament to the power of olfaction. I plan on writing about that in a future post.
What are you working on now?
One of my recent projects involves working with Lisa Hoffman to support the launch of her new line of fragrance jewelry. Lisa Hoffman happens to be actor Dustin Hoffman’s wife and she is one of the most incredible human beings I have ever met. She is extremely down to earth and very knowledgeable when it comes to olfaction. She’s a writer’s dream client because she is clear with regard to what she wants and has a terrific sense of aesthetics. We have a kind of chemistry between us that is akin to osmosis. This results in copy that rarely needs goes into the rewrite stages. It amazes me every time it happens.
When you are writing copy about perfume and scented products it really helps when you can draw on historical and scientific elements connected to the art of perfumery; they are key to creating an authentic story. Without them you lack a foundation and your copy will read like hyperbolic marketing drivel. History and science impart wisdom and perspective, elements that enrich everyone. Lisa Hoffman Beauty’s latest offerings include bracelets and necklaces inspired by a pair of antique earrings that Dustin gave her as a gift. You can see the influence of wearable pomanders from the Victorian era in their design. The earrings led Lisa on an aromatic jewelry journey that resulted in the bracelets and necklaces she sells on her website.
What are your writing routines? Is there a certain place or time of day you like to write?
Writers write all of the time or at least I do. Writers are natural pattern seekers and transform what they gather into a story. There is no “off” button when you are a writer, except when you sleep, but even dreams can lead to story ideas and oftentimes do. I write in a room that is separate from other rooms in the house. It’s a practical approach when you are also working with scented materials that need to be stored properly so they don’t evaporate and get into other rooms in the house. I also write at the kitchen table when I’m working on food assignments because that is the best place to taste things. Food books fill the bookshelves that line the walls in the dining room so there is a bit of a library flavor in that space. As far as time goes I don’t really have a preference, but lately, the muse is fond of keeping me up at night when everyone is asleep.
You are a self-proclaimed fan of the pencil. Can you tell us why?
Writers change their minds and pencils have erasers that support this aspect of the writing process. I like the physical act of erasing something versus drawing a line though it. When you erase something it is completely gone. I think that’s one of the main reasons for pencil preferences in general.
I also like the sound of graphite on paper because it adds a sensorial dimension to the act of writing. The Rhodia pencil is made of Linden wood, which happens to be one of my favorite trees because the flower represents the perfume of spring. Linden blossoms are used to make a delicious varietal honey and an herbal tea which the French are quite fond of. (For the record, Proust waxed poetic on a madeleine while drinking linden blossom tea.) In this respect, the Rhodia is ideal for a flavor and fragrance lover that is also a writer.
There is also the aspect of the Rhodia pencil’s color. A rich school bus orange surrounds the pencil’s body and it reminds me of a time in my life when I enjoyed writing from a really pure place; a child’s imagination. The practicality, nostalgia and aesthetics of the black wood and complementary eraser add a multisensory element to writing. In sum, the Rhodia pencil is a talisman for me; I know I’m a writer when I use one.
Do you have anything like a favorite scent?
That’s like asking a parent which child it loves the most among its brood. I have a preference for certain flavor and fragrance “families”, but calling that out wouldn’t serve a purpose because smell and taste are part of an individual’s autobiographical memory. The environment in which we are exposed to sensory things changes constantly and this affects preferences. That said. I can tell you which smells I love right now, at this moment. That list would include: my husband, coffee, the smell of baking bread, osmanthus, fresh cut grass, petrichor (smell of rain on dry earth), caramelizing onions, rhubarb, green Formosa oolong tea, the smell of Omani frankincense burning in a censor, honeysuckle flowers, poplar buds, orange blossom, chocolate, rose, and a plate of bigos. I guess my answer is like a protracted haiku, but it is an honest answer. I live in a smell world.