In 2015 Kalain, a French start-up opened to a flurry of news articles. They claim to bottle the olfactive essence of your dead relatives for bereavement purposes. The process is simple; send them a scent infused item like a pillowcase, they work their magic, and bada bing bada boom you get a bespoke essence of your loved one Patrick Suskind-style, but without the murder. The desire to capture lost love in a bottle is a profound fascination that compels much of the perfume world. Yet, is it possible to create a perfect facsimile and should we pay $650 for 10ml to do it? This topic has been the most requested by far on the blog, so without further ado here is my take.
The concept is alluring and compelling. Scent and memory are indispensable parts of bereavement. Nothing connects to our memories and specifically our emotional memories like olfaction. Our bodies are hardwired for this response, and it can have a profound impact on our psyches. I can not sniff Youth Dew without smelling my grandmother. I open that belted bottle of dark elixir, and it is like I am hugging her. I can tap into a ghost of her when I smell her signature fragrance, but can I buy an authentic perfume of her?
Well, Kalain says they do not sell perfume per se (even though they refer to their product as perfume multiple times, in two languages) stating unequivocally on their site that they sell olfactive links or olfactory comforts. What is an olfactive link/comfort you ask? Well as far as I can tell it is bespoke ‘perfume-like’ product consisting of about 50 synthetic or isolated scent molecules suspended in perfumer’s alcohol meant to emulate the scent of a person. We can call it an olfactive link if you want, but if it looks like a cat, smells like a cat, and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. Is it effective? Well, as their website puts it, “Your overall satisfaction depends primarily on you…Kalain is not a magician”, (um, ok). Their website also claims that different races have noticeably different skin scent signatures, (oh good grief!). This company has been on my radar since before their opening in September 2015, but I decided to wait to chime in as really everything can change in the first year of a new company, and I didn’t want to do a shallow dive like the 90 other articles released last year about them. So let’s go swimming in the deep end.
The Company: What I could find
According to company lore, Kalain was founded by mother and son team of Florian Rabeau and Katia Apalategui eight years ago after a death in the family. Katia processed through her grief with the assistance of the scent of her father’s pillowcase and an idea germinated. After years of research, a secret proprietary technology was developed with the support of a university (that is not named explicitly in their promo material) and the product came to life.
A nice story, the reality is a bit more complicated but no less valid, which begs the question, why the simplified story? The idea may have germinated long ago, but the actual process did not get off the ground until 2011 when Katia pitched the general concept of perfume based off of the smell of a loved one to Seinari (the regional innovation agency of Upper Normandy), now called AD Normandy. Seinari got Katia in touch with the URCOM lab at Universite de Havre, and specifically Dr Géraldine Savary, URCOM lecturer and Dr Michel Grisel, lab director, that had the expertise to do the actual research in 2012. In 2015 the Universite de Havre gave Kalain the rights to the extraction process months before the official launch. The involvement of the university or the URCOM lab at this point is unclear.
Though the mission of Kalain is to sell scented material to the grieving, preferably through funeral homes. Neither Florian or Katia have a background in the funeral business, bereavement care, olfactive chemistry, or perfuming. According to her Linkedin, Mrs Apalategui continues to sell insurance as she has for the last 19 years. Florian, who graduated from university in 2015 with a degree in commerce, lists his past work experiences on Linkedin as a Logistics Trainee (3 months), Resort Housekeeping Manager (5 months), and Exchange Student (5 months) before becoming the President of Kalain. It goes without saying that these are not sparkling credentials in the world of scent science or perfume.
I thought, surely there must be a Chief Science Officer, Scent Chemist, or Perfumer on board as a partner handling the technical side while Apalategui is the capital and Rebeau is the marketer, but there is none listed. The company does say they employ a chemical engineer, but it is all very vague how the company is handling production or even where production is occurring. The contact number is a cell phone, and the company has no street or mailing address listed.
Also, a small pet peeve. If you are working in a language that is not your native tongue, make sure you hire a copy editor for your professional website. Hell, English is my native language, and I still have my husband, a professional translator, check my work. It is evident that Kalain’s English copy and promo materials are written by a non-English speaker, and they are using text-to-speech software for their voice-overs. How else to explain this video? Which once again does not inspire confidence that they are going to deliver a bespoke product promising bottled dreams.
The Process: My Hypothesis
So here is the thing, I hate bullshit marketing. I especially hate bullshit marketing that treats consumers like dumb dumbs that wouldn’t understand how the sausage is made. I would give Kalain points if they gave a simplified explanation in their marketing because their technique is a big part of the sales pitch, but all the material they officially present treats the tech they use as some special snowflake we couldn’t possibly understand and all I could do was roll my eyes.
Collecting human skin scent is not new. Studies going back to the 1980s have sampled the scent of test subject’s skin. The extraction of odour from fabric isn’t new either. Testing of armpit odour and deodorant usually involves fabric, most often t-shirts, as a controlled medium for scent collection. It is also used all the time, as we have discussed, to retro-design fragrances in the perfume industry. This type of lab work just hasn’t been applied to random cloth articles of dead people with the hope of retro-engineering the semblance of that person’s living smell.
My theory is this super secret extraction method involves some variant of solid phase microextraction, gas chromatographic and olfactory analysis. In English, an object is placed in a hollow air-tight chamber. The sample is gently heated to release the volatile organic compounds which are then absorbed into some medium for processing. This medium could be lab-grade charcoal, cold surface capture, solvent traps, or other adsorbent materials. It doesn’t matter, in the end, the VOCs are in the material which will allow them to be transferred and desorbed into a gas chromatograph which will, in turn, give you a handy reading of the VOCs in the sample, some of which will be detectable by the human nose.
My guess of phase two is, based on the GC readout, the 50 most prominent olfactive VOCs from the sample are selected. These compounds, are manufactured as synthetic or natural isolates and available for purchase by labs and perfumers. A GC reading will also tell you how much of a particular VOC is present in a sample, so the fragrance materials are mixed following their percentages in the sample. Add perfumer’s alcohol and ta-da, a reproduction of the gas chromatograph read-out of your dead relative’s headspace sample. It’s a lot less romantic when you phrase it like that then olfactive link. Where is this lab working happening? I don’t know; my email went unanswered. I doubt they bought their own equipment as you are looking at $50,000-$100,000 in equipment. Maybe they have lab space somewhere. I don’t know they don’t say, but I feel like this is something they should address given how hard they pitch the tech. Also, why isn’t their chemical engineer part of the media campaign? The heartfelt story is nice, but if you are selling this as a biotech company, I want to see the technical person doing the work because it clearly isn’t the owners.
Why didn’t someone else do this before? Well partly because it is an olfactive mess. There isn’t any statistical data that is collected from this kind of sampling, and it isn’t used as a perfume element for production because it is not repeatable. So is their process innovative? Yes, but in the way, that science takes microscopic baby steps towards innovation using thousands of researchers all over the globe. Kalain did not reinvent the wheel, and any credit for actually creating a process probably falls to Savary, Grisel, and team.
Is that the process? I don’t know, but I don’t think it is too far off. At the end of the day, consumers don’t really care if it is a new system or an old system. They care if the process delivers.
The Product: My Expectation
Solid phase, business plans, who cares, Nuri do you think they put grandpa in a bottle? My answer: sort of. See human skin alone has hundred of odoriferous volatile organic compounds, but they mix and transform each other, as well as the ebb and flow with skin surface temperatures, and vary from locations on the body. Then you add soap, cosmetics, tobacco, detergents, perfume, medication, body secretions like blood, sweat, and faeces to the mix.
On top of that, there are the possible VOCs from the item itself, dust, bacteria or sample contamination. You are looking at hundreds if not thousands of molecules making up a scent. How they act in a warm body is not the same as how they behave when reproduced.
Take for instance the naturally occurring Putrescine which is responsible for the rotting smell of decomposition and bad breath. In nature, it is found alongside lots of other scent molecules like Cadaverine that form part of the foul cocktail we understand as human decomposition. Putrescine, which can be isolated and manufactured in a lab, without any of it’s other smelly buddied smells less like rot and more like mothballs. It is molecularly the same, but we don’t build our memories of these scents in a vacuum.
Our noses may be laughable to a dog, but they are complex machines that can take in thousands of combinations permeating the ether, and out of that chemical chaos we find grandpa. Our noses detect the right menage of ingredients that are linked to the memory of our grandfathers and that creates the quintessential grandpa smell. Isolated components do not always equate to the sum of their parts. Also remember that the second the body starts to cool, that scent changes. By the time you are talking about the scent of a room temperature pillowcase, the most volatile of compounds have already flown away. Taking that pillowcase and extracting 50, or 100, or even 300 compounds and suspend it in alcohol isn’t going to give you your grandfather’s essence. It’s a spectre, a ghost in a bottle. Maybe some of the broad strokes are there, but he is not.
Would I buy it
So, I may have bought/be buying this for testing purposes through another person (you will just have to stay tuned to see), but should you buy it? I think if you have money to spare, you know what you are getting into, and your expectations are meagre it’s harmless but, overall I would say no. Put the pillowcase in a plastic bag, buy a bottle of your grandmother’s perfume, keep grandpa’s tobacco pouch in a drawer. You are far more likely to have a real emotional memory connection through the smelling of these items then spending a lot of money on an olfactive ghost.
I feel that the company is very young, messy in their marketing, and is trying to reinvent the wheel. What they are selling isn’t their tech (which isn’t that spectacular), it’s their product (which hasn’t gotten me excited), but they call themselves a biotech company and not perfumers and they do not have a clue how to engage their potential customers. Yet, I don’t believe the price is unreasonable if they are running the kind of analysis they say they are for each bottle and the price isn’t outlandish for a bespoke perfume, which at the end of the day is all it is despite the sales pitch. How they hope to make this a profitable business I’m not sure.
However, I think the disappointment factor is high here because the expectations for the product are so high. There is an excellent chance this will not smell the way you want it to, and there is a very good chance that this may not be wearable as a personal fragrance or even palatable. Kalain distinctly says they are not perfumers and there is no artistic composition in the products. That means no balancing, no understanding of how scent molecules dance in alcohol and how to use them like paint to create an olfactive picture.
Also, I think the process is iffy at best. I love the smell of my husband’s chest. It smells like warm cedar wood chip, dried Irish seaweed, and fur. His armpits, however, are dead ringers for rotting onions in the sun if he sweats. As the person who washes his shirts, I can tell you the underarms will hold that smell for days in the hamper, but his buttery warm saltiness fades as soon as the shirt is cold. So the shirt that will be/was sent will have the slightest trace of the real scent I love and a whole lot of the one, I could do without.
Along with my reservations, I was unable, in the month of researching this piece, to locate a single verifiable customer review anywhere on the internet in English, French, or German. There are four testimonials on the website, but none of them have names attached, not even first names. So I can’t even give you a differing opinion or a first-hand account.
Here’s the thing, I don’t like crapping on start-ups and small businesses. There is probably no one on earth that would want to see this company succeed more than myself given my own dog and pony show. Both owners seem truly sincere and invested in the concept, and the idea is filling a real desire. However, I have serious reservations in regards to delivering on the marketed product, but I’m leaving reviews of the juice for another time. I sincerely hope they attract some venture capital that will develop the brand and install a science officer and a marketing team.
Even if the tech can deliver and the marketing improves, I’m left with the question should we preserve the olfactive essence of our dead permanently? I don’t know if there is one right answer. I think the use of ritual olfaction, especially early on, in the mourning process is beneficial and should be encouraged, but you don’t need to spend money to do it. I also think the fading of your loved one’s scent is part of the process, part of the letting go. It isn’t overnight, but one day you wake up, and the ephemera of them is gone. That can be upsetting, but it is also a natural indicator that it’s time to move to a new stage in your grief and a new phase of remembering them. I worry that this wrangling of an olfactive ghost can contribute to complicated grief, which I most certainly do not want for anyone. Personally, I would feel haunted to have this preserved spirit, but then again it is only 10ml, and the process cannot be repeated so actually you’re only capturing their scent for as long as the bottle lasts.
That’s my take, but I’m always interested in hearing your thoughts. There will be a follow up on this piece in the future about the juice itself, but I do not have a release date yet. Sign up below to receive DS&LG in your email and never miss a post.
I reached out to Kalain (not under my name), and one of the scientists mentioned (under my name) asking for clarification on a few points. I did not receive a reply by the time of publication. This post is based on my opinion given the materials I could readily find as a consumer. This post will be updated should further information become available.
So in the year and change since I published the original article a few things have happened. Firstly, the company neither responded to my questions sent to them through my secret shopper nor did the academics get in touch with me. Kalain set up and closed an Indigogo campaign to secure $200,000 in additional funding. They ended up raising $85. They also removed the nameless testimonials from their site. In its place, you will find a new video that is worlds above their last one with real humans doing the voice over and everything. Little editing aside though, if you are shooting your promo in French and you are using voiceover for the English version, if the lips and words don’t match, just cut that part, it is distracting and looks silly. Also, a nameless woman in a promo clip is not a testimonial, even if you put it in that section on the website.
Most importantly I or should I say, my beloved secret shopper, received the Olfactive Comfort. The scent was based on a garment bought just for this experiment that was worn to bed for a month straight during the summer and quite frankly was a bit rank when we mailed it. We cut a sample from the item for comparison and kept it in a zip bag. The perfume (I’m sorry I can’t with the synonyms, its perfume) came in a sturdy box with space for a photo as well as scent strips, a silk hankie and a flacon. The bottle wasn’t labelled or etched but wrapped with gold floss around the neck holding a small tag. Once again, if we are thinking of this as a luxury item (as it is undoubtedly luxury priced), I would expect a personalised etched bottle. Packaging wise, if this were a $100-$200 product, the packaging would be totally worth it. $650 however, no. People that buy fragrance in this price range regularly will think the packaging is on the cheap side. As for the juice, guys, it was a mess. I was hoping beyond hope that they were going to turn me around. Even if it smelled terrible but close to the original garment, I would have considered it a win. It is no way represented the sample.
Firstly it was very very subtle, the sillage was nothing, and the wear-time on skin was minutes. On cloth, it faded within hours. The most robust note we could identify was an almond accord, my guess its benzaldehyde. Oh, and baby powder, did I mention we said the memorial was for a dead baby? I know, I’m probably going to hell for that, but you have to identify the person that wore the garment. I wanted the opposite of a living adult. Even though baby powder was not worn during this experiment, hell they didn’t even have baby powder in the house, it was in the juice. Now could this be a response to the readout? Possibly, lotions and other body products were worn, maybe there was an iris or heliotrope note somewhere. Could this ingredient have been chosen based not on the GC/MS readout but on who we identified as the subject? Yea, I think that is very likely. If I were a grieving mother would this be close enough to a sort of skin smell and some kind of baby smell to sort of smell like my kid? If I was primed for it and squinting at it then, yes. Is it what we sent them? No. Is it good? No, it smells cheap and unbalanced.
My feelings about this company haven’t changed in the year since the first review. While I’m always sensitive to people marketing to the mourning, I can appreciate that personal experiences with the olfactive side of grief gave the owners this idea. They clearly invested a great deal of time and money into this and do look like they are willing to learn and grow. If this were $100, I would say go for it for the novelty alone if you want. At the current price point and for what you are getting. I can’t recommend this product. I really wish Kalain would take a page from the DNA sequencing companies and focus on building communities and educate their consumers. Instead of upgrading the packaging, I would now say, any strategy to lower the price should be considered. If they can’t do the English market well, they should start with the French, and for the love of Saint Sassafras get an executive science officer and a perfumer who can explain the product and actually make something worth smelling. In the end, I think it is a good idea, but I think it is something that would require a lot more know-how and capital then this mom and son team have. I think the most profitable outcome for them would be to sell their company to a larger fragrance concern that may want their tech.
Minor Aside Update 2019
While Kalain still exists, it seems that the owners have opened a second company, CARACTER. This company appears to be just like Kalain except they have a better website, call their products Olfactive Snapshots instead of Olfactive Comforts and instead of focusing on death they leave the use of their products entirely open-ended. In fact, it isn’t apparent what CARACTER sells. The only thing I could find about this company was that in 2018 they teamed up with Match.com UK to do a popup ad event called Eau Mon Garcon in which they synthesised the scents of 6 dudes on the site for women to smell and then message online.
The link to the campaign in the Youtube video didn’t work, but I was able to find an archive of the page. It stated, “By sending six Match bachelors’ clothing to CARACTER’S lab, we were able to distil their ‘olfactory portraits’ (a.k.a natural odours) and bottle them into personalised Eau M.G. scents. A person’s olfactory portrait contains pheromones, which when released by the body are subconsciously detected by the nose and brain, which can help determine genetic compatibility.”
Oh good, human pheromones, because we all know how scientifically accurate they are in human mating. It seems that the owners are determined to make their tech work one way or another. If death doesn’t sell, maybe sex will? We at Death/Scent wish them luck.