One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All Write

When we were in Oxford a couple of weeks ago we stumbled across a tiny shop called Scriptum, magnificently crowded with merchandise. The website barely hints at the sheer gorgeousness of the contents: high-quality paper, wonderful pens and inks, beautifully bound blank books. Oh, and Venetian masks, for some reason.

According to the website, the shop surrounds you with "the smell of leather and the sound of Italian Opera", and ain't that the truth; the smell is gorgeous, not just leather but paper and ink, which have their own smells, and I'm pretty sure that was Maria Callas singing Traviata when I was in. (Jim waited outside; pens are not the sort of thing that interests him.)

I couldn't justify buying anything, partly because it was late in the trip and I had already spent kind of lot of money, and even more because I just don't write that much by hand any more, particularly with a dip pen--who does?--but mostly because I already have a bunch of pens and inks at home.

But you know how it is when you're on vacation, and you spot something that you don't really need in any meaningful sense, but you're really drawn to it, and you tell yourself that you'll probably never get back to wherever it is you are, and so you should buy it because you'll regret it later if you don't?

That didn't happen. Didn't buy a thing. I figure I probably will get back to Oxford and therefore to Scriptum, and if I don't, well, there are other suppliers of pens and inks. You know, Internet and all. (But oh, it was wonderful, and if you are ever in Oxford, you ought to go. 3 Turl Street.)

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So naturally, since I am such an olfactory person, and since I had already dragged out my pens and inks to play with, I began to interest myself in the idea of scented inks. You can buy some online, of course: if a thing can exist, then someone will make it and sell it on the Internet.

You can also use the Internet to look up how to make some: the instructions consist mostly of putting essential oil into ink, but that technique seemed kind of dubious to me, since essentials oils are not soluble in water, whereas inks are water-based, so I had this image of the oil floating on top of the ink in the bottle, separating out even if you shook it, and making greasy little haloes around your inked letters. I don't know that this would happen, but the idea worried me.

It seemed to me that a better idea might be to put an existing perfume--in which the aromatics are already dissolved into alcohol and water--into ink. So that is what I did.

I didn't want to pump a sprayer a zillion times into a bottle, so I settled on a Serge Lutens, which come packaged with a separate screw-on spray; that way, I could get into the bottle with a dropper or a pipette.

I thought Chypre Rouge would be a good choice for a first attempt, since it suggests an ink colour: red, of course, a deep, burnished red. I figured I didn't want to be writing with scented red ink--too redolent of moody teenaged girls writing bad poetry in their journals--so I would make a blackened red.

I started by filling an empty half-ounce ink bottle about a half full of black ink--Windsor and Newton India Ink, if you're curious; about seven droppersful (since a dropperful seems to be more or less a millilitre). Then I added another four of red (Windsor and Newton Scarlet drawing ink), and then three of Chypre Rouge. I had no idea how this was going to turn out, but it was a first experiment, so I figured what the hell; if it doesn't work, tip it down the sink and start afresh. (I began the experiment by counting drops and writing down the numbers, but it was clear that that was going to take a LONG time, so I abandoned the scientific method and just eyeballed it.)

The result isn't an unqualified success: I used way too much black ink, so it completely overwhelms the scarlet, which is transparent on its own. I think I probably should have used about one mL of black to eleven of red, or started with the bottle half-full of red and titrated more of each colour alternately until I ended up with something I liked. Next time.

In addition the new ink is wetter; it soaks through the paper a little more readily than the plain black ink (I tried both for comparison, of course), which I expected because of the alcohol. Nevertheless, the scented ink doesn't spread any more than the plain: its letters are just as crisp.

In one regard the compounded ink is perfectly successful: it smells like Chypre Rouge, subtly but deliciously. If you withdrew a letter written in this ink from an envelope, there would be no doubt in your mind that it was scented. I think that because of the dilution of the fragrance, you would do well to use a strong scent: Muscs Khoublai Khan is probably going to be a better choice than Bulgari Eau Parfumee.

So there you have it. If you are determined to romantically write perfumed letters, all you have to do is get yourself a nice pen and some appealingly coloured ink (in an attractive bottle or an inkwell--you might as well do it right), mix the ink with your favourite scent in a ratio of about three to one, shake gently, and have at it.

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