Bottling Ghosts: Can & Should We Try to Capture the Scent of Our Dead Loved Ones?(for $650 a bottle)

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 article 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 specifically named in their promo material) and the product came to life.

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A nice story, the reality is a bit more complex 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 Manger (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 very clear that Kalain’s English copy and promo materials are written by a non-English speaker, and they are possibly 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 possible 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 scent 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-deign 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.

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I know you can’t see it, but that is some sexy machinery

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 in accordance with 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 useful 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 moth balls. 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 find 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.

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Sometimes all the components are there, but the soul 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 very low 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.

Life’s Ephemera

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 concept 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 very helpful 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 stage 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 can not 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.

 

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