Apparently, if you smell a fresh meteorite it smells like sulphur, according to reports about the Tagish Lake meteorite and the aroma that filled the air during its fall in 2000. And the Aguas Zarcas meteorite that fell in Costa Rica in 2019 has been said to smell of compost, vanilla and Brussels sprouts, depending on what you read. So in truth, it’s really more about reek to high heaven, than scent from heaven.
Fortunately, Earth’s perfumers weren’t aiming for aromatic authenticity when orchestrating the olfactory notes for fragrances such as Meteorites and Meteor — and it would surely have put paid to Al Pacino’s desire to tango with the girl in the 1992 film Scent of a Woman.
Scent of a meteorite
As I ruminated on the odoriferous properties of meteorites, I found myself questioning why any perfume would be named after pungent pieces of exceptionally old rock which are essentially the debris from the formation of the Solar System, or named after the incineration the rocks endure on their fated nose dive through Earth’s atmosphere.
The famous Murchison meteorite that fell in Australia in 1969, often described as a mudball, has a particularly powerful pungency, variously compared by meteoriticists as similar to methylated spirits, wet hay and tar.
The reason for the not-so-heavenly scent of meteorites lies in the organic and other carbon compounds they contain, especially true for the carbonaceous chondrite group of meteorites (of which Tagish Lake, Aguas Zarcas and Murchison are all members). Although some non-carbonaceous meteorites can pack a punch too.
Most meteorites found on Earth are fragments of asteroids or, more rarely, from other nearby planetary bodies such as the Moon and Mars. These fragments were freed from the parent body by impacts and collisions and eventually encountered Earth along their trajectory. Some of the fragments may even be pieces of comets, although comets are extremely friable and therefore fragments are less likely to make it through our atmosphere intact, so cometary meteorites are even more rare.
Geological processes on a parent body asteroid involving episodes of heating may, over time, degrade or destroy the organic compounds. Therefore, the rocks that underwent the least processing back home may still contain an abundance of organics when they arrive on Earth. The higher the abundance of organic compounds, such as hydrocarbons and amino acids, that are still present in a meteorite when it falls to Earth, the more likely it will offend our senses — it’s the volatile component evaporating from these compounds that we smell.
Despite perfumes being packed full of their own potpourri of organic compounds (alcohols, essentially), naming a fragrance after pungent pieces of rock from space is a curious choice — albeit a popular one, since there have been a not insignificant number of meteorically-monikered products in fragrant form since 1949 — for example, Meteor (Coty) and Meteor (Swiss Arabian), Les Météorites and Météorites (Guerlain), Meteorite (Cuarzo The Circle) and Météore (Louis Vuitton), to name just a few.
It seems that these meteoritical and meteoric phenomena are being glamourised like dazzling fireworks in the sky, whereas they are nothing like this, except, maybe, for the short-lived meteor phase. In reality, it is a case of the nomenclature not being fully understood — after all, the terms meteoroid, meteor and meteorite are much misused in the media and movies even today, just as the terms asteroid and comet are often confused.
A meteor shower
In 1949, Coty, one of the largest beauty companies in the world, launched Meteor. The fragrance was marketed throughout the 1950s until, like its namesake, it disappeared in a flash. By the end of the decade it had vanished (although you can still pick up the occasional vintage bottle on eBay in 2020 for £100).
As a vintage brochure for Coty’s long-departed Bond Street salon explains: “Meteor is the latest perfume with the glorious double note. It starts with a low voluptuous vibration. In a moment it sings up to a clear high brilliance and lights the Earth. The woody notes are still there but the dominant has almost unearthly beauty.“
In a nutshell, that means notes of jasmine, tuberose and musk.
Coty’s first advertisement for Meteor (above, left) introduced “le nouveau parfum que vous n’oublierez pas” which means “the new fragrance you won’t forget.” The strapline certainly tells us (albeit unintentionally) what to expect if we caught a fleeting whiff of a passing meteor and the visual also does a good job of informing us that something is burning up.
However, a later series of colour advertisements (for example, the one shown above right), which I assume was a mid-1950s relaunch of the perfume, since Coty was having a half-price sale of Meteor in “discontinued packages” around that time, depicts a heavenly event over the Place de la Concorde, with straplines such as “Out of the heavens to you!” and “Sparkling and new…inspired by the flashing beauty of a shooting star.” Although rather than showing a shimmering shower of shooting stars, the colour advertisement above depicts a befuddling cascade of comets.
Despite a close physical connection between the two phenomena, when we observe a comet and when we observe a meteor we are observing two completely different events, occurring under completely different circumstances and in completely different regions of the sky (or space), which Coty appears to have muddled up. This will become clear as you read on, as I fathom out Coty’s inspiration for launching a fragrance named Meteor in 1949 at all.
But first, here’s the science bit…
A meteor is caused by the passage of a solid body (a piece of rocky debris, for example) that drops through Earth’s atmosphere (or any planet with an atmosphere). The meteor isn’t the solid body per se, it’s the name given to the light and other associated physical phenomena created by friction as the outer part of the material heats up and burns off. The incoming object is known as a meteoroid (whether an asteroid, comet or fragment of some other planetary body). The plasma created around the vaporising body — the glow or fireball — is the meteor. Any remnants of the incoming meteoroid that survive the meteor phase and fall to Earth are called meteorites. Although not all incoming bodies produce a visible meteor.
Similarly, a meteor shower can occur when Earth passes through the stream of debris that resides trailing in a comet’s orbit. In the same way as described above, the friction created as the debris passes through Earth’s atmosphere produces a succession of meteors radiating from the same point on the sky — commonly referred to as shooting stars.
Although a meteor and its debris source have a physical connection with the parent comet from which the debris once came, neither one is a comet — one is light and heat, and the other is comet dust. So let’s not be confused like Coty: when we see a shooting star or any meteoric event, it’s occurring in Earth’s atmosphere and is seen only for a brief time. This is quite different to the apparition of a comet, which may be visible for many weeks or months on its close approach around the Sun.
Meteor showers are common: hundreds of regular showers occur every year, about one hundred of which are well-known, well-documented events. For example, when Earth passes each year through debris associated with the orbit of Halley’s Comet (1P/Halley) we see the Eta Aquariids in April/May and the Orionids in October/November, whereas the comet itself makes an apparition every 76 years. It was last observed (with the naked eye or binoculars) on its close approach to the Sun in 1986, before that in 1910, and will return in 2061.
Similarly, the annual Leonids meteor shower in November are associated with the debris trails of 55P/Tempel–Tuttle, a comet which makes a close approach to the Sun every 33 years, the next one being in 2031. The image above depicts the scale of a spectacular meteor storm observed during the comet’s apparition in 1833. Notice that the ‘shooting stars’ are correctly depicted with straight trains, the mass curvature only being used to indicate they are coming from the same point on the sky. It’s quite different to Coty’s curved meteors coming out of the heavens to us.
But space dust and debris pass through Earth’s atmosphere all the time, up to 60 tonnes daily. Go outside at night and look up for long enough and you will eventually spot a shooting star. But the majority probably go unnoticed.
With Coty’s advertisements now picked to pieces, let’s think about what sparked the idea for its Meteor perfume in 1949. Was it a particularly good year for meteors?
The answer is yes, sort of.
More precisely, the two years preceding 1949 were extraordinary years for meteors, or rather for meteorite falls.
Firstly, in February 1947, following an estimated 10 kilotonne explosion and sighting of a super-bright fireball meteor, around 23 tonnes of iron meteorites rained down over the mountains in eastern Siberia in what is now known as the Sikhote-Alin meteorite fall.
Then, in February 1948, more than a tonne of stony meteorites fell after another bright fireball streaked across the sky over parts of Nebraska and Kansas, in an event now known as the Norton County meteorite fall.
Those two events produced what are still two of the largest ever collections of meteorite falls in human history and were widely reported throughout the world’s press…once the news filtered through. During April and May 1947, Time ran an article on the Sikhote-Alin event reporting that “astronomers throughout most of the world got that frustrated feeling last week over a bit of news that plodded, with maddening deliberation, out of Russia,” following reports from the Russian News Agency that “a minor planet had collided with the Earth“. London reported it in the summer with a headline reminiscent of the mysterious 1908 Tunguska event stating, “Forest vanishes without trace in meteor blast“. A year later, Moscow was still reporting the “iron shower never and nowhere before seen”.
So these two globally reported events present a possible inspiration for launching a perfume named Meteor in 1949, and a whole lot more besides. Take the Meteor automobile, for example, launched by Ford in Canada in June 1948 with advertisements in 1949 that use the strapline “Look what’s hit the low price field“, clearly playing on the fact that many of the Norton County meteorites were collected from local wheat fields.
Another product that launched around the same time (1947–1949) was the Meteor camera, although this fared less well, with Universal Camera Corporation filing for bankruptcy just a few years later.
The telltale tail of a comet
The copywriters at Coty may well have been inspired by the flashing beauty of a shooting star, although we already know that somewhere along in the branding process the lines got crossed. And here we have another noteworthy example, showing our shooting star with the impressively large and distinctly two-part tail (part straight, part curved)…of a comet.
To pick up where we left off in our science talk earlier, we should note that shooting stars or meteors — whether in the form of a fleeting flash or a ferocious fireball — don’t have curved tails; they have straight trains. Without doubt this vintage design depicts a comet, not a meteor.
The curvature of a comet’s dust tail is due to the net force of the Sun’s radiation pressure and gravitational pull, which together divert the dust being ripped from the comet into different orbits to the comet’s own orbit, producing a curved dust tail.
But a comet has a two-part tail: the impressive curved part and a less impressive straight part, just as shown in the advertisement above. The straight tail (an ion tail) is composed of gases and is affected by the force of the solar wind, following its magnetic field lines. When viewed from Earth, the comet’s dust tail and ion tail often point in slightly different directions, just as shown in the advertisement above.
It turns out that 1948 was also a very good year for comets, according to reports in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The national press also reported the famous Eclipse Comet (officially known as comet C/1948 V1) which was discovered during the total solar eclipse on 1 November 1948 (even if reports of the length of that particular comet’s tail were somewhat exaggerated).
Skipping back in time almost a century further, take a look below at one of the many 19th century paintings of Donati’s Comet (officially known as comet C/1858 L1), a spectacular event which most certainly caused a major comet-frenzy around the world in the autumn of 1858. Look familiar?
This particular impression of Donati’s brush-like tail went on to provide the archetypal visual depiction of a two-tailed comet in the media for decades thereafter.
Inadvertently, it seems this painting (or maybe one of the many others like it since) may have been the inspiration for Coty’s shooting star, although the product itself and the name were more likely inspired by the equally impressive 1947 and 1948 meteorite falls.
The effect of the 1858 apparition of Donati’s Comet was, to say the least, huge. In London, Charles Dickens included three articles about it in his two-penny weekly magazine Household Words, and the explorer Dr Livingstone noted in his diary during his less than successful Zambezi expedition, “Observed a comet this evening…It is a fine one, the tail a little bent“. The spectacle also inspired Jules Verne to go off and write Off on a Comet in 1877.
A sprinkling of stardust
Packed with highly floral notes, Coty’s Meteor perfume sadly lacks the acrid aromatic delights of any meteoric, meteoritic or even cometary event.
For example, when a piece of the 1948 Norton County meteorite was removed from its sealed plastic packaging after many years undisturbed, the accumulated odour was described as the type of smell you get from an electric heater when you first turn it on or an overheated skillet (according to Meteorite Times Magazine). And the Murchison meteorite has further been described as smelling “smoky, dusty and sour” and “reminiscent of a cigar butt or the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag” (according to David Dreamer in his book).
These all bring to mind the descriptions given by Apollo astronauts when they returned to the lunar module after walking on the Moon, comparing the smell of moondust on their spacesuits to that of spent gunpowder.
Not only do some meteorites smell atrociously bad but their looks don’t make up for it either, arriving as they do covered in a rather drab and dark fusion crust, having melted on the outside during the passage through Earth’s atmosphere. And when cut open, Murchison is also one of the dullest and most unimpressive looking lumps of rock you may ever see. But let’s not be too superficial…
The Murchison meteorite is also some of the oldest material you may ever come across, a leftover remnant from the formation of the planets 4.567 billion years ago. Furthermore, Murchison and its siblings (the so-called CM2 meteorite group) contain trapped gases and silicon carbide grains (see inset photo above) that are significantly older still, predating the solar nebula out of which the Solar System formed. Grains which literally are stardust.
The importance of these carbonaceous meteorites also resides in the array of biologically important organic compounds they contain in the form of amino acids, nucleobases, sugars and alcohols, meaning rocks such as these could potentially have played a key role in delivering the building blocks of life to Earth early in the history of the Solar System.
And these rocks just keep on giving, because they also contain a multitude of tiny nanodiamonds within which some of those ancient gases are trapped.
When meteorites are crushed up and dissolved in acid to isolate all these different parts of the rock, the gases and volatiles trapped in the minerals diffuse out and evaporate to produce a veritable smorgasbord of smells which, once spent, are sadly lost for good.
Scents and sensibility
Replete with stardust and space bling, it seems that an ugly-duckling meteorite with an odour to rival Pepé Le Pew may be rather more glamorous now, n’est ce pas? Because in 2000, the French fragrance firm Guerlain, another of the longest established cosmetics companies in the world, launched its own scent from heaven in the form of Les Météorites.
Les Météorites is another highly floral fragrance, with notes of violets, iris and heliotrope, but alas still no hint of cigar butt, overheated skillet or spent gunpowder, despite gunpowder being a fairly common note in some perfumes these days, because a quick search for notes of gunpowder on Fragrantica turns up more than 30 fragrances, including the exquisitely named Flowerbomb Nectar by Viktor & Rolf.
Despite the tenuous visual link, I rather like Guerlain’s depiction of ses météorites parfumées emerging from a swirling spiral galaxy, much like the rare gems of stardust a meteorite might just contain.
I also find it rather enchanting that the perfume incorporates notes of heliotrope, because heliotropic flowers turn to face the Sun as they track its motion across the sky, much like the tail of a comet (the straight ion tail, of course) always points away from the Sun as it moves along its orbit. Of course, this is only of relevance if our incoming meteorites are cometary in origin, which almost all are not.
As I mentioned early on in this article, most meteorites are thought to originate from asteroids. Some very rare and extremely volatile-rich carbonaceous chondrites (of the CI group) could possibly be cometary in origin based on their composition and their apparent outer Solar System origin determined from the trajectory of their incoming meteor. The reason meteorites from comets are rare is because they literally fall to pieces or burn up and don’t make it through the atmosphere. (Unless, of course, a piece of comet is hiding inside an asteroidal meteorite, something scientists discovered recently when they examined the carbonaceous chondrite meteorite LaPaz Icefield 02342. But I digress.)
Les Météorites fragrance was not the first space rock-branded product from Guerlain. Les Météorites followed the hugely successful Météorites make-up range launched more than a decade earlier in 1987, marketed as incorporating Guerlain’s very own “stardust technology” packed into lovely luminescent pearls of powder to blur out our blemishes.
Then in 2018, the perfume Les Météorites received a revamp, losing the definite article “Les” and nabbing some new notes. It is now named Météorites Le Parfum with a more powdery smell, still strong on violets, but incorporating a hint apple and white musk in the mix.
In an attempt not to alienate half the population, in 2020 Louis Vuiton (also part of the LVMH group, like Guerlain) launched Météore, a fragrance aimed specifically at men. This creation fuses mandarin, neroli and bergamot with a trio of peppers, cardamom, nutmeg and vetiver wood.
Météore’s aromatic recipe reads not too dissimilar to that of Meteorite (yes, another one), a fragrance launched in 2014 by the Spanish brand Cuarzo The Circle . This is a fragrance with its own unique masculine overtone. Described as “a superhuman luxury“, it fuses cold metallic notes with the aroma of tangerine, black pepper, white amber, cedar and incense. And another USP (if having two USPs isn’t a contradiction in terms) is that this Meteorite perfume comes with a piece of meteorite in the box: a little piece of the Campo del Cielo iron meteorite.
Finally, for completeness, there is also a concentrated perfume oil named Meteor made by Swiss Arabian, which provides a fusion of florals, aromatics and spice. I don’t know anything more about this one.
L’eau de space
Looking at the bigger picture, attempts have been made to reproduce the smell of space itself by the likes of NASA and ESA, amongst others.
In 2008, NASA contracted with expert perfumers at Omega Ingredients in the UK to recreate the scent of space for use in astronaut training simulations. The recipe was based on detailed astronaut accounts of the lingering aroma left on their spacesuits after moonwalks and ISS spacewalks.
Accounts of the smell of moon dust date back to the Apollo Moon landings in 1969–1972, with Eugene Cernan (the last man ever to have walked on the Moon) famously describing the residual smell on his spacesuit as similar to spent gunpowder — and he should know, having clocked up a total of 22 hours on the Moon’s surface. But others have variously described the residual aroma as sweet, smoky, acrid and a bit like ozone.
While the NASA fragrance was no joke, Lockheed Martin launched a short-run fragrance called Vector in 2019 as an April Fool’s Day prank. It was concocted by perfumers at Scented Studio in Denver and promoted with the help of retired astronaut Tony Antonelli (who now heads Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft mission planning program).
A dedicated website for the fictitious cosmic cologne stated “…created by the engineers at Lockheed Martin, this out-of-this-world scent blends metallic notes to create a clean scent with a sterile feel, balanced by subtle, fiery undertones that burn off like vapor in the atmosphere.” A small number of samples were sent out to a random, lucky selection of people who signed up to the website, as well as being handed out in swag bags at the 35th annual Space Symposium, held in Colorado Springs in 2019.
Possibly inspired by news of these events, a new Kickstarter project (not affiliated with any space agency or aerospace corporation) was launched in June 2020 with the intention of manufacturing two fragrances, Eau de Space and Eau de Luna, so the public itself could experience the alleged aroma of outer space extra-vehicular activity.
The campaign creators state they used a Freedom of Information request to glean information about NASA’s 2008 fragrance-making venture via “a secret shelved formula based on verified astronaut accounts“, citing on the product page a description of the smell of space as “…a rather pleasant metallic sensation… [like] …sweet-smelling welding fumes, burning metal, a distinct odour of ozone, an acrid smell, walnuts and brake pads, gunpowder, fruit, rum, and even burnt almond cookie“.
In 2016, however, some people were fortunate enough to lay their hands on a bottle of the Open University’s scent from heaven in the form of Eau de 67P. Now this one is the scent of a comet — the comet with the awfully long name — which, it seems, has an awfully bad aroma to match. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission had reached comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014 and its onboard sensor was sniffing the atmosphere with the help of a couple of mass spectrometers. Using that chemical analysis, the scent was recreated by perfumers at The Aroma Company in the UK and decanted into little bottles to be handed out by the Open University to visitors at The Royal Society’s 2016 Summer Science Exhibition in London.
Some of the molecules detected in the coma of 67P are particularly pungent and notoriously noxious, for example hydrogen cyanide, ammonia and formaldehyde (an aromatic mix of bitter almonds, cat urine and something akin to embalming fluid) and sulphur dioxide and methane (rotten eggs and flatulence), although the majority of the comet’s atmosphere is carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and water, all of which are odourless. All the fun without the risk.
The end of the world
On the subject of comets, back in 1910, two particular cometary events topped the headlines. Halley’s Comet was due to return in April and the media were whipping up a frenzy of sensational stories, just as with our famous Comet Donati fifty years prior.
Much like certain British tabloids do today with seemingly non-stop warnings about the impending end of the world because an asteroid the size of Texas is going to wipe us out a week next Tuesday, some newspapers in 1910 were reporting that Earth’s atmosphere could be impregnated with the hydrogen cyanide gas that astronomers had detected to be present in the coma of Halley’s Comet, with some scientists suggesting it could “snuff out all life on Earth.”
With speculation that the gas would combine with the nitrogen in our air and produce something akin to laughing gas (nitrous oxide), people were advised to take cover, go underground and even hide under water where the gas couldn’t penetrate.
On 20 May 1910, the London Daily News reported that thousands of US miners refused to leave mine shafts and that farm labourers stayed home fearing that the comet’s tail would whisk them up into a vacuous vortex. Elsewhere, large crowds congregated around crucifixes waiting for the end of the world.
It didn’t take long for enterprising individuals to start peddling all manner of mitigation products as protection from this harbinger of misfortune. Other prevailing misconceptions were that those living under the comet’s orbital path might suffer violent convulsions or that the comet might trigger a global pandemic.
Much like the 2020 panic buying of face masks and chloroquine phosphate anti-malaria pills during our recent coronavirus pandemic, back then it was gas masks and anti-comet pills as “an elixir for escaping the wrath of the heavens.”
In attempting to quell the fear of Earth passing through the comet’s tail, one local US newspaper reported on 8 April: “There is as little danger in that collision as there is in colliding with the odoriferious [sic] particles emanating from the highly perfumed dress of a person that has crossed the sidewalk a few seconds before you arrive on that spot.“
The Daily Mirror in London reported on 19 February one scientist at the Royal Institution saying, “If you like to bottle some of the air and hand it down to your grandchildren they will have in their possession some of Halley’s Comet of 1910.”
However, in the run-up to the event, a near-parabolic comet (now named C/1910 A1 but at the time dubbed the Great Daylight Comet of 1910) unexpectedly stole the limelight by turning up a couple of months prior to Halley.
The hysteria that accompanied these two events went some way to inspire the first ever comet impact disaster movie, a Danish silent film called The End of the World (1916) in which the world is gripped by mass panic and descends into economic disaster even before the comet fragments strike Earth. The 1894 book, La Fin du Monde, by scientist Camille Flammarion, himself one of the harbingers of Halley’s harmful potential, no doubt also had some influence on the film.
The main antagonist in the movie leaves everyone behind to take shelter underground with his wife in one of his mines, but suffocates in the noxious gases already pervading the tunnels from his mining activities. Unfortunately, he didn’t take a canary.
The events of 1910 left an over-excited public somewhat deflated as Halley’s Comet came and went and, as another local US newspaper pointed out, “without causing any known convulsions of nature or apparent atmospheric disturbances.”
But that was long ago, as the song Stardust once put it.
A meteor storm
To wrap up, a quick internet search unleashes a veritable storm of non-aromatic products with the name Meteor, radiant from a whole range of industries, from a rather attractive pink lipstick by British make-up brand Illamasqua, to lighting systems, telephone caller ID systems and large scale greenhouse tunnel growing systems.
You can also pickup Meteor and Shooting Star fragrance lamps by Ashleigh & Burwood, adorned with shimmering little silver mosaics for “a tiny piece of the sparkling universe ready to dazzle your home,” into which you can burn your own scent from heaven.
But one of my favourite products is this a subtly textured paper named Meteor by James Cropper, a company which has been innovating paper products since 1845. The random ripples across the surface (either by coincidence or, I hope, by design) are reminiscent of the ripples in the black fusion crust that coats every meteorite that makes it to Earth.
And finally, in what is probably my favourite aromatic example, there is an industrial strength cleaning fluid named Meteor which contains “caustic pearls” together with an array of organic and other carbon compounds. It may well be the closest many of us will get to experiencing the volatile pungency of a meteoric event, unless you can get your hands on a bottle of Eau de Space on Kickstarter.
If you enjoyed this soliloquy about scent from heaven, you can read more from the same author about comets, asteroids, meteoroids, meteors and meteorites here.
Fair Use Notice: All images shown in this article are being used to illustrate the discussion of the topic and have been carefully chosen to support the commentary, which constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material. But suffice to say, if any individual or organisation is unhappy about the use of an image, get in touch and ask for it to be removed.