Tuesday, 8 June 2010


I've learned a lot from this fragrance and perfume lark, following my usual habit of becoming fascinated by a topic and (in this case literally) inhaling a large amount of information about it. I thought I might summarise what I've grasped in the process of coming to appreciate a whole new artform.

First, smell is not uniquely subjective, nor does a fragrance smell different on different people because of their supposed 'chemistry'. The volatility of the topnotes can change a little if your skin happens to be particularly oily, but basically a given perfume smells the same on me as it does on you. Bacon, garlic, the seashore---they don't smell different for different people, and neither does fragrance. What varies is people's ability to recognise and articulate what they are smelling, which with a fine fragrance may be a very complicated, changing, layered composition. (There are around four hundred different types of molecule in your average perfume.) In the same way, you and I may notice divergent things when we both look at the Mona Lisa, but we are both seeing the same thing.

Secondly, perfume isn't much to do with essential oils, or with steeping flowers in copper stills stirred by laughing Provencal enfleurageuses in straw hats---all the usual impedimenta of tie-dyed old hippy shit. Most fragrances are incredibly complex mixtures of lots of synthetics and a few naturals, and yearning for 'all-natural' fragrance is a bit like saying you can't get much out of a Van Gogh because he used phthalocyanine blue instead of powdered lapiz lazuli, or titanium white instead of ground-up chalk. That is, it's an essentially ideological rather than aesthetic decision. If you are interested in perfume as an art form (rather than as a organic lifestyle accessory), then quite simply synthetics are your friend. This is because to recreate a powerfully evocative scent---a rose-garden in June, say---you do not simply slosh some rose essential oil about. Essential oils of the aromatherapy sort rarely smell exactly like the plant from which they are extracted; rose oil, for example, has a jammy, cooked smell in comparison with the scent you breathe in when you stick your nose in the living flower, which actually smells faintly boozy and lemony, factors which the perfumer needs to take into account when composing his portrait of a Platonic summer bower. (Guerlain's Nahéma, a very great rose perfume, famously has no extract of rose in it at all, and yet wonderfully, swooningly smells of the living blossom.) Further, you cannot manipulate the timing of most natural fragrances; you can use grapefruit oil, by all means, but it will be gone after five minutes, and there's nothing you can do about it. And, unless you are prepared to inquire closely into the rear-end of the musk-deer, you will want to use synthetic musks, which 'fix' lightweight, fly-away molecules and give persistence to a fragrance, rather in the same way that a coat of varnish adds depth and lustre to a painting. Perfumes made with all-natural ingredients may be pleasant (Aveda isn't bad), but they have little lasting power and tend to have a bong-water, greeny-brown smell because all the notes come at you at once. If you want Debussy (L'Heure Bleue) instead of windchimes, or Elgar's cello concerto (Mitsouko) instead of someone playing with their singing bowl, you need the full palette of calones, lactones, esters, indoles, and aromatic aldehydes.

Thirdly, I've learnt that appreciating perfume, like coming to love poetry or music, requires a bit of effort and application, the development of critical language that allows you to articulate to yourself what you are smelling. When I smell a fragrance now, I go through a kind of checklist, which goes as follows.

1) Spray on test card. Wait a few seconds for the alcohol to evaporate. Sniff. You may get an instant impression ('Yes!' or 'Ugh!'), or a generalized kind of white-noise 'perfume' smell. Wait a bit---it's possible for powerful smells to knock out your receptors for a few moments, so you may unexpectedly find that a perfume seems to smell of nothing at all.

2) You are now smelling the topnotes. Is this perfume representational, or abstract? In other words, does it smell like, say, milky tea in a rose-garden, or crushed lemons and kitchen herbs, or melon and the sea, or does it smell like something that doesn't exist in the real world? If the latter, ask yourself questions such as, 'What time of day does this abstract smell seem associated with? Is it light or dark? Does it remind you of a piece of music, or a sculpture? Is it friendly or unfriendly? Happy, or sad?'

3) In either event, then you should go on with some further questions, prime among them being---'Is it edible or inedible-smelling?' You may get 'food' notes of vanilla, pastry, spices, fruit, nuts, chocolate, and milk, for example, or wholly inedible smells like lavender, lily, amber, wet stone, incense, tomato-leaf, soap. You are trying to tie down your perceptions of a potentially very complicated creation.

4) Still more: 'Is it loud or soft? Cold or warm? Masculine, feminine, or genderless? Soft, or angular?'

5) Then ask yourself if the topnotes hang together. Do they, as it were, appear separately, so that you can focus on one while the other recede for a moment, or do they form a chord, as in music, with a unique, moving quality as a group which they do not have individually?

6) If you like the smell enough, spray it on yourself now and wait a few minutes. Go off and do something else, then peer beneath the surface. The topnotes will be pre-eminent for some ten to twenty minutes, before the 'heartnote' emerges. This may be quite different ---'Angel' famously has a rather masculine patchouli heartnote under its ditzy, fruit 'n' flowers topnotes; 'Mitsouko''s luscious peach-and-apricot flan topnote conceals inky, angular, almost austere depths. In a sense, this is the perfume's true character, the impression that it will make on other people unless you constantly reapply it to play the topnotes again. Is there an accord here, and with how many parts? Two? Three? Repeat questions 2) to 5) for the heartnote.

7) Wait two hours. The smell on your wrist is now the 'drydown', the trace left by the heaviest molecules in the fragrance with the lowest volatilities, which may persist for days. What kind of smell is it? Is it woody (salubrious, resinous, and dry, like pencil shavings)? Spicy (cinnamon, cloves, pepper)? Ambery (like a hippy-shop---a blend of sweet, fragrant incense resins)? Leathery (a tanning smell, bitter, tarry, and smoky)? Clean (a white, soapy smell, like fresh linen)? Floral? Herbaceous (cut-grass, 'green'-smelling)? Animalic (sweaty, urinous, even faecal)?

Once you've been through this process---and many perfumes, even ones you don't think you like, will repay this kind of 'close reading'---you can have a considered opinion about what you've smelled. Some fragrances, of course, strike one as so immediately crappy and horrible that you're quite justified in not bothering, but most of the products of the great houses like Guerlain, Givenchy, Chanel, Caron, Yves Saint Laurent etc, as well as those of niche perfumers like Parfums de Nicolai, the wonderful Andy Tauer or L'Artisan Parfumeur, will be interesting at the very least. Happy smelling!


Cailliomachas said...

This is excellent. Not only a powerful introduction to, for me, an unknowen art but also a very cogent argument for aesthetic objecivity. Many thanks. Míle buíochas.

maria guzman said...

You left out La Rose Jacqueminot (Coty) an exquisite odor. My mother even grew the rose in her garden. In earlier times I wore Emeraude when going on a date: intensely sweet but not at all cloying. My great grandmother used it; I'm sure it's no longer available. Then there is, or was, Gollywog, charming toilet water again with a long history.

Bo said...

I shall have to look for it, Maria! Thank you. And, Calliomachas, I'm glad you liked it!

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