Making Sense of Scents

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I wrote this for the nice people at afia who give me lots of writing work, but I thought you might like to read it here too.

The brain, the smells and the words to describe them

Why is it that we can smell something we recognise, but not be able to say what it is? Then when we’re told, “That’s orange,” or “It’s vanilla,” we say “Of course it is! I knew that!”

During the 14 years that I wrote for Lush – the ones with the smelly shops and huge cakes of soap in the window who run hard-hitting campaigns against animal testing - the issue of describing scents cropped up all the time.

The creative team would introduce a new product and around the room we’d have comments like:

“Oh yes, it’s a bit like… don’t tell me, I’ll get it…”

“Is it…? Oh, what is it…?”

“I know this. I recognise it!”

“Does it have lavender in it?” “Liquorice?” “Mint?” “…Jasmine?”

Then the perfumer would read out the aromatic materials he’d used and we’d all kick ourselves, annoyed because we didn’t have the ability to put our recognition into words.

The theory is that putting smells into words is hard because the brain’s speech centres developed long after our ability to recognise scents. Human beings and our even earlier ancestors needed to be able to spot food or danger and react very quickly, long before we learned to say, “Right lads, I smell cherries. Let’s head that way.”

Or, “Lion!”

There’s a marvellous website for ‘fumeheads – people who are passionate about perfume – where you can go to read users’ reviews of almost all the scents that have ever existed. It’s called Basenotes and it’s run by the nicest couple ever, Danielle and Grant Osborne. Most of the perfumes which are currently in production have a list of the ‘notes’ they contain: the different individual materials which you can recognise if you’re very good at it. There are top notes  - like lime  - which disappear quickly because they’re lighter molecules, mid or heart notes – lots of the flowers and woods - and basenotes which stick around for hours or days, like the sticky vanilla, frankincense or rock rose resins.

The reviews often mention these notes in lavishly creative descriptions. But when the notes aren’t listed, the reviews are rather more sparce. Even ‘fumeheads have a hard time saying what they’re smelling when no-one’s given them a list of clues.

Pictures of perfumes

Which is probably one of the reasons that perfume marketing has almost no words. You get images or films of beautiful people in beautiful clothes (not many) in beautiful settings. And you get a famous name attached, a designer or a celebrity or a luxury brand. (I still think that Mont Blanc’s perfume should smell of ink, but it doesn’t.)

Last weekend I spent a day with Karen Gilbert, a friendly, knowledgeable perfumer, at her workshop on modern synthetic scent molecules. When we smelled one of the aldehydes (the things that make Chanel No 5 so attractive) a different Karen said, “Wow!” That’s not a scent, it’s a sensation.” True, it was a tingly, sparkly thing. We can describe scents as things other than smells. They can be feelings or textures: smooth, spiky, lively, metallic. Really, when you inhale rose oxide, it’s like smelling a shiny, smooth rose formed from a piece of aluminium. They can be living things: rose, orange, lavender, cucumber, raspberry. They can be shades and colours: dark, light, silvery, pink, green. There’s one that smells like just washed stone floors, others that smell like leather, horses, paper or wet dog. No kidding.

How do you do it? Practice. Build up a collection of scents that you associate with different occasions and places. Karen Gilbert told us that Dior’s Hypnotic Poison reminds her of the back of a kitten’s head. Although they’re probably not going to use that in their next ad campaign, maybe they’d sell more if they did.




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