In France, Md. Teen Scents Hope

Emma Liu and her family folded 1,000 paper cranes as a symbol of hope for her mother, who has breast cancer.
Emma Liu and her family folded 1,000 paper cranes as a symbol of hope for her mother, who has breast cancer. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

To the perceptive nose, the honey-colored soap in the square plastic bottle is the scent of geraniums and lavender with a touch of vanilla. To 14-year-old Emma Liu, it is also the scent of hope and possibility.

For the shy Bethesda teenager with long, wavy, brown hair, every day is a reminder of the limitations she faces as a visually impaired person in a seeing world. Emma has Stargardt's disease, which affects her central vision. At school, she can't see what her teachers write on the white board, and sometimes it's difficult for her to pick faces out of crowds when people greet her.

But for a few days this month, she was reminded of the abilities she does have. Emma -- who will be a freshman in the fall at Walt Whitman High School -- was one of five blind or visually impaired teenagers invited to a perfume school in Provence designed for young people like her. There, in a four-day course, they were taught the secrets of perfume-making, a process that is less about seeing than about smelling, feeling and imagining.

Olivier Baussan, the founder of the French cosmetic company L'Occitane, started the school in 1998 after seeing a blind woman smelling perfume. It struck him that people, particularly young people, should not be limited by the abilities they lack and instead should be able to capitalize on the skills they possess.

Kelly Parisi, who as vice president of communications at the American Foundation for the Blind helped coordinate the trip, said that blind people don't have superior olfactory skills, but because they lack one sense, their others may be more finely tuned.

People who have Stargardt's disease, a form of macular degeneration that most often affects young people, have difficulty processing Vitamin A. The disease is hereditary but relatively rare because both parents must carry the genetic trait to pass it on. About 30,000 people in the United States have Stargardt's disease.

Emma, who was diagnosed with the disease when she was 11, has peripheral vision but cannot see images directly in front of her. Most experts say it is unlikely that she will completely lose her eyesight, but she will require special accommodations.

The disease hasn't prevented Emma from playing basketball and taking up the unicycle -- or being a world traveler.

In Provence, the teenagers were taught how to extract oils from flowers, and they heard from a master perfumer -- or "nose," as they are known in the business. Kate Green, vice president of marketing for fine fragrance for Givaudan, a Swiss fragrance company, said there are about 350 such noses in the world. Most have been handpicked for their olfactory abilities and train for years at exclusive schools, she said.

In crafting their scents, the teenagers were encouraged to draw from their memories as master noses do, Emma said. The goal, they were told, was to take moments from their lives and express them through scent.

The memory that inspired Emma's geranium, lavender and vanilla creation was one that was both hopeful and sad.

Just a few months before Emma turned 13, her mother, Marie Liu, was found to have breast cancer.

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