Tom Ford Urban Musk: mind-maps and memory hard-wiring

Tom Ford Urban Musk

The last day of 2011 was marked by an unplanned, unexpected purchase and a happy trip to childhood. It was Tom Ford Urban Musk, from the Private Blend Collection, which at 175 euros for 50 ml (I’ll do the shameful math for you, 3,5 per ml) is past my “worth testing” benchmark, let alone “worth buying”. I now feel in need to apologize to myself for having spent all that money on perfume but actually I didn’t pay for the perfume: I paid for the memory and for getting a glimpse of how (my) mind stores, categorizes and recalls olfactory memories.

Memory 1. The filmstrip projector. It was there in my home when I was growing up in the 70′s. It was a heavy, bulky, metal projector and I used to have filmstrips with children’s stories that I loved to “watch” – stills with subtitles. It pretty  much looked like the one in the photo.

filmstrip projector (photo from gilai.com)

OK, I know this looks like something from a Flintstone’s story, no I am not that old! In my defence, the thing was in the house before me. I do not remember much else from this thing other than smell. When I lifted the lid to fit the roll of film strip the warmest, almost numbing smell would fill the room. The memory faded with the years but apparently remained archived in the hippocampus.

Memory 2: In September 2009 Tom Ford released the White Musk Collection. I must have sprayed casually on skin or on paper all four of them at some point in one of my walk-through’s in Attica department store in down-town Athens. I remember doing this. I don’t remember anything remarkable about them and the price tag is just ridiculous. The fact that you pay 3.5 euro per ml for the 50ml bottle and a far more reasonable 1.6ml for the 250ml decanter makes things more outrageous.

Stimulation 1: At some point during late 2010 or early 2011 I was out for a drink in Cantina Social, a small bar in down-town Athens and a box exactly like the one that came with my old filmstrip projector was part of the decoration. A bright purple box with black and multi coloured rays. The memories of childhood started to resurface.

Stimulation 2: In Autumn 2011 while I was walking home from work I started smelling the exact same smell that was bringing be back to my childhood. I could smell it every time I walked past a recently closed down shop that used to be a mobile phone dealership. Day after day that smell was creeping into me and together with the visual reminder of the projector box started haunting me. I had to find this machine and re-smell its exhalation.

Stimulation 3: In November 2011 I found this post on Bois de Jasmin about “Good Bad Smells”. About things that in general are considered as smelling foul but still have an attraction for some people. My favorite from this category is mildew or humid basement smell. I commented on this post and then I thought this would be an excellent place to ask if someone has ever smelled the odor of this projector and eventually help me find one on e-bay. So this is what I wrote:

“I have another strange smell and I would appreciate it if anyone could help me identify the source. Back in the 70′s when I was a child(…..) we had this grey heavy projection machine. It would take films of celluloid but it was projecting stills, not movies, and of course no sound. We had rolls of films with cartoon stories. There was a button on the side that you had to turn to get from one still to the next.

The smell of the inside of that machine was amazing. The other day I was walking past an abandoned shop and this smell hit me again and reminded me of my childhood. It is like some sort of clean, urban (as TF would put it) musk. Anyone knows what I am talking about?”

Final association: On the last day of 2011 I was in the halls of Attica department store once again. Standing in front of the Tom Ford Private Blend collection I saw a tester of Urban Musk. Immediately I remembered the words I used in my comment to describe the elusive smell. I had used them as a simile and never actually thought of why I chose these words and why the Tom Ford release came to my mind. So I picked the tester up and sprayed. And it was the exact same smell. The exhalation of the filmstrip projector.

Obviously I was moved by the fact that I was revisiting a childhood olfactory memory but more than anything else I was in awe of the way my nose and memory already knew the answer to the question I was asking, before I did. The memory of the projector and the memory of testing Urban Musk had obviously crossed their neuronic pathways inside my hippocampus and they had recognized themselves as relatives. I couldn’t make the connection because the two memories where very far apart in time. When I saw the box the memory of my childhood started to resurface. Smelling a similar smell in the street obviously triggered my subconscious to dig into my repository of perfumes I have tested and the search engine of my personal memory discovered a true match for the smell of the projector in Urban Musk. The connection was made but remained in my subconscious. I even wrote about it without realizing that “urban musk” was not just a simile that I found appropriate but the actual name of a perfume that smells identical. I made the connection only when I saw the bottle with the words written in bold capital print.

The perfume itself is the most interesting of the White Musk collection. It opens with a strange note that oscillates between wood and halitosis. Now the idea of smelling like bad breath and liking it is something that has most of you frowning in disgust already, but it is not just me. Kevin of Now Smell This has reviewed all four from the White Musk collection and he also reports the “bad breath” note and agrees with me that Urban Musk is the most interesting of the quartet. I cannot quite explain how this note can be attractive in a perfume. All I can imagine is that it feels warm and alive. I smell the same note in the opening of Le Labo Oud 27. In the opening of Urban Musk it is more restrained and has a woody quality. Film strips contain lignin which is a form of cellulose, the sugar that gives rigidity to plants. Pyrolysis (a heat mediated reaction) of lignin yields guaiacol, and yes, this is the connection between the smell of my projector and perfume. The heat of the projector lamp slowly turns film lignin to an aromatic derivative usually isolated from guaiac wood and palo santo tree. I do not know how all this connects to halitosis but the fact is that both Urban Musk and Oud 27 have been accused of this association. The opening of Urban Musk feels grey and woolly. This doesn’t last long. Ylang-ylang and musk add familiarity, sweetness and warmth. The musk is slightly dirty and animalic but in an elegant way. Honey and benzoin added in moderation increase the balmy sensation but they never impose on the composition. The overall effect remains airy and velvety. The drydown is powdery. Although iris is not listed in the semi-official lists of Fragrantica and parfyym.pri.ee there is a striking similarity with L’Homme de Coeur, a stellar iris perfume.

Is this worth the 3.5 euros per ml? Probably not. I didn’t consider it remarkable the first time I tried it. Is it worth the 1.6 euros per ml of the large decanter? I think yes but this means that you would have to find someone(s) to split the huge bottle with and this will not be very easy as Urban Musk was not received with an ovation. Some people report a fecal note. Lignin is the culprit for this and I do not have to explain to you the connection between cellulose aka hay and manure. Others do not get the “urban” characterization. I think it is definitely urban because I associate it strongly with a machine.

Buying Urban Musk was an unforeseeable expense but also a very moving experience. The last day of 2011 was a bridge to my past that I have been looking for a long time to cross over to times of innocence. And at the same time a keyhole into the mechanisms of my memory.

Happy 2012!

Notes from parfyym.pri.ee: pepper, carrot seeds, white honey, jasmine, plum, musk, benzoin

halitosis (from hauntedamericatours.com)/ ylangylang (from bodymarinade.health.officelive.com)/ musk (from lalaessentialoils.com)/ honey (from alkalimauci.wordpress.com)/vanilla (from tajagroproducts.com)

Notes from my nose: halitosis, ylang-ylang, musk, honey, vanilla

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas http://pantelismakkas.blogspot.com/. You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.

27 comments

  1. GeM

    aaaah so that was the one! the filmstrip projector’s reminiscent!… I’m curious, I can easily find Tom Ford’s Private Blend so I’ll smell when I come across it.

  2. now I must try – musks are so tricky, one’s treasure is another’s dead zone.

  3. Christos, you fascinated me with this post … it’s definitely one of the weirdest perfume posts I’ve ever read, and I like it for that reason, because I have to confess … there was a toy called Lite-Brite that my sisters and I got for Christmas when we were little. You made pictures by plugging little colored, plastic pegs into a screen that had a light behind it. And I used to love the way it smelled when the pegs were in it for awhile and got heated up by the lamp. I don’t know why that smelled so good to me, but I still think about it.

    So enjoy that Tom Ford Urban Musk and don’t worry about it being spendy. You earned it, via this wonderful piece of writing! :)

    • Suzanne, it was such a weird experience for me too. It was proof that the mind does actually register all the information and hides it somewhere. The subconscious has access to this information all the time and it interacts with it. The underprivileged conscious part of us needs cracks like this be able to glimpse through and realize how things work.

      Of course, needless to say, smelling a similar smell was the strongest stimulation and what finally unearthed the name of the perfume, even though I, consciously was not looking for a similar perfume but for the original object. Memories and vision where not capable to make the connection but smell was. This is proof of the ability of smell to relate directly to memories.

      Thank you for your comments Suzanne.

    • …and I would like to add that you are the second person confessing a similar memory from the smell of a projector to me. Now what could it be…?

  4. I found myself reading this post with that same feeling I get when a detective explains his deductions at the end of a mystery novel (which is to say, I really enjoyed following all the steps in the process!). I remember the smell of filmstrips from my early childhood days — they may or may not be the same as the one you had, because the projectors didn’t look the same, but you have intrigued me to try this when I next come across it. Thanks for the review!

    • It felt like a mystery story to me. A story about mind mysteries. So you are the fourth to confess remembering the projector smell… It stars to sound like a conspiracy… LOL

  5. Happy New Year Christos! I really enjoyed reading this post. That your conscious mind is unable to access memories from decades past but a fragrance has the ability to unlock these memories from the unconscious within a split second is a remarkable thing…. I am not a big musk fan, but I recently was at the Tom Ford counter looking for inspiration and walked through all the TF musks. Together they were an excellent essay on all the varieties of synthetic musks popularised by modern perfume. I had fun spraying them all one by one. I’ve never quite connected to the sexual reference associated with musk. Do you have an opinion on this? To me musk smells very innocent, clean and pure. It doesn’t ignite any carnal desire within me that musk is reputed to create.

  6. A Happy 2012 to you too Clayton!

    I think musk does not have a sexual connotation any more for humans. What it does have is a very strong feeling of familiarity. It transcends common perception of tastes. If smell can indeed cut through layers of the conscious and subconscious (as my post hopefully shows) musk is like a laser scalpel that can reach deeper. There is this rather cheap perfume that I have from a very constant in terms of quality company, Les Nereides. It is Fleur Poudrée de Musc. It smells so piss-y that I have to believe it contains real musk (I am no expert and I would love to hear any expert opinion). The point is that something in this smell is sort of… basic. I just need to smell it and I do not even get to the point of making my mind up of whether I like it or not. It sort of puts me in touch with something primordial.

    • Very true. I wonder if this sense of familiarity comes from our constant connection with these molecules; they permeate our laundry after washing, the fragrances we wear, our toiletries and sometimes skincare…. I have added Fleur Poudree de Musc to the list of fragrances I need to sample in my travels! Sounds interesting…. : )

      • Or maybe the familiarity of musk being a molecule that is associated with the smell of human body. Some people are less comfortable with the idea and think that Muscs Koublai Khan smells like a homeless person. Others are and to them it smells comforting and motherly.

  7. Christos, I enjoyed your story tremendously! For me this is the best form of a review: a story, memories behind our perfume fascination. Thank you.

    I wasn’t impressed much by any of the perfumes in White Musk collection: nothing unpleasant but at the same time nothing that I wanted to spend my skin RE at the store. Now, after reading your story, I’ll give this one another sniff when I have a chance.

    Happy New Year to you. I hope you’ll enjoy wearing your “spur-of-the-memory” purchase.

    • Thank you Undina. It didn’t impress me the first time I smelled it either but obviously it made its impact. But I am also thinking, what percentage of our perfume decisions are based on such subconscious associations that we do not even register. Think of the weirdest perfume you own and try to think if there is a tiny, insignificant memory of that smell back in your childhood that is responsible for the decision to buy this.

  8. Woow, love this post! Really really great…
    Love it because you shared your emotions with us! ;)

    J.
    bleauog.blogspot.com

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  11. Oana Nedeianu

    So sad this has been discontinued, I absolutely loved it and imagined growing old with it. Anyone know where I can buy some? Any other perfumes which smell similar? Help Please!

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