Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Nose is Never Wrong: Doubting One's Sense of Smell & Interpreting Fact into Words

The nose is never wrong. You read this right, the nose, any nose, is never wrong! Like the eye or the ear, the nose is a means to an end, a cluster of neurons transmitting factual information to the brain, where a complex
procedure is taking place into interpretating reality. We all see tiles in blue, but how many of us will describe them as cerulean, glaucous, Yale blue or azulejo? It all depends on our cultural and personal associations, our language's sophistication and our sensitivity to slight nuances. The same applies with smells. We've all heard of the limbic system, scent & pheromones, smell triggers memories, blah blah blah. How come if you take a hundred people in a room and ask them to smell the same thing you will have at least 20 different descriptors?

Because the fragrance industry has been cryptic for so long; because perfume writing and press material has been resting on familiar "structures" into communicating perfume a certain way; because sales associates have been instructed to just give out "notes" without furthering a dialogue with the potential consumer. For all these reasons, more often than not, a perfume lover is left doubting their own nose rather than contradict received knowledge. Let's illustrate our point with examples.

A common occurence is hair-tearing despair at the perfume counter when the sales assistant swears blind that the banana note you're smelling in a given perfume just isn't there. Who's right? (Probably your nose, banana is a natural facet of both jasmine sambac and ylang-ylang flowers, common ingredients in many fragrances). Another, a bit more elevated in the sophistication stakes, is arguing on the classification of a well-known perfume. Perfume enthusiasts know Dioressence by Dior is a revered classic. Some consider it an oriental; others classify it as a chypre. The same happens with Lancome's Magie Noire. What's the deal?
Oriental and chypre are two very distinct fragrance families with a different character and perceived effect: how can so many people err so much? Again, everyone's nose is on the right place, so to speak. The people who smell Dioressence and Magie Noire as oriental perfumes are smelling an older batch (or are going by received knowledge by perfume writing in books and blogs). The people who smell them as chypres are not wrong; they're smelling the leaned out, altered form of a newer reformulation, which gave a push to the direction of mossier, woodier (reminiscent correctly of chypre)! The industry is toying with us, hiding the years of reformulations unlike with wines which bear vintage year on their label, confusing us and making us doubt ourselves.

Chypre in particular is a tortured term: You see it brandished for every sophisticated blend in existence. It's perfumy, it's elegant, it's uncommon and smells like a million bucks? It must be a chypre! Not so, necessarily. There are quite a few wonderfully sophisticated and a bit green floral aldehydics, green florals and orientals with green elements out there which aren't technically chypres. Plus "nouveau chypres" (i.e. chypres technically enginered to avoid the obstacle of restricked oakmoss) are a bit different in smell anyway.
Chypre is a technical classification denoting a very specific structure and using the term is a very deliberate move on a speaker's/writer's part. We can't blanket-term using perfumery jargon! We can't use objective terms to convey subjective impressions or personal opinions. It's like bad journalism: "A fierce dog has bitten on an innocent citizen", jumbling opinion and fact, to reference Umberto Eco.

But the thing is what most people lack isn't a good grasp of scent (unless of course some medical peculiarity is present, but that's rare), but the best possible interpretative methodology into translating what they smell into a clear, coherent message. This can be down to education ~or more specifically the lack of simple & concise educational tools pertaining to olfaction. This is why we have insisted on Perfume Shrine on providing such tools through our Perfume Vocabulary posts and our Definition and Raw Materials articles, so as to facilitate the dialogue between people who wear and enjoy perfume.

Because ultimately, sharing the joy of perfume involves talking about it as well.

pic via


  1. Great post Perfume Shrine.Thank you.There is currently a lot of talk by people who do not know aboutthe grammar nor the vocabulary of perfume, and even less its historical background.
    Your blog (as the one of Octavian Coiffan, one or two others togetherwith the books of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez , Chandler Burr does wonders to enlighten us

  2. lovelyhazel19:08

    This was a wonderful post - thank you for clarifying some of these issues! I am rather new to perfumes, and find myself "doubting my nose" often! No more! :)

  3. Absolutely!
    This is the approach I would embrace 100%, both as a perfumista and as a sociologist/psychologist. Both these hats off to you!

  4. Dear Catherine,

    thank you very much indeed for your kind praise. Coming from you, I cherish it!

    It's important that we all keep on the same page, I believe, so as to make things clearer instead of just agreeing or agreeing to disagree, but without common methodology into it. Otherwise it's not dialogue, it's chaos.

    Hopefully the increased input by many will result in engagning more people from the "general" population and making more people realise that there are infinite shades of grey. The picking of the right pitch will naturally come later on.

  5. J,

    thanks for stopping by and for commenting! I'm touched you found it interesting and worthwhile. :-)

    By all means, trusting one's response (and what's more, everyone's response) and analysing in no emotional terms is the first step into a scientific approach; the basis of all serious research on any subject.

  6. Warum,

    thank you, glad it resonated with you in both capacities.

  7. I'm continuously learning, or rather reprogramming things. I have synesthesia and my brain wants me to imagine something totally different from the perfume vocabulary. Oriental would be Anthemis nobilis by buckets, some warm resins and maybe a touch of frankincense, not spices. Green would be the smell of colour green, and the closest I've come across is Crithmum maritimum essential oil. Etc.

    And then there are semantic shifts. Oakmoss doesn't smell mossy, it smells of warm embers in the fireplace. Mosses smell differently, been to the woods, smelled mosses. Wood doesn't smell woody either. At least spices smell spicy.

    Which is why I'm not aspiring to be an excellent perfume blogger. I leave it to impressions, rants and a mirror image of my messy soul.

    In other news, I finally snatched some Pure Coffee. It smells of (mostly) coffee. Life is sometimes easy.

  8. L,

    you bring up a very interesting point. It's fine to discuss impressions as long as they're clearly delineated as impressions. Your messy soul is extremely rich in nuance, which makes reading your take always interesting (and which is why we became friends, I should think!) What is confusing is when opinion is mixed with fact.
    Besides, there's another thing that is very important: The character of a perfumery raw material (as you wisely bring on oak moss into this) is often markedly different than the source from which it derives (this happens sometimes with food too, through the magic of cooking, heat etc.) . So it might create its own little confusion, especially among people who do have a rich and varied sensory input but are not familiar with the perfumery materials per se (and it's an ongoing process to learn these anyway, as the method of extraction/creation, but also the region, the plant that treats them, the containers even all bring on a different nuance to essences of the same thing, so for instance a Mane produce rose absolute might be different than the homologue Givaudan product). I think only top perfumers & evaluators working with access to everything under the sun are in the position to accurately and unevocally proclaim this smells like this or like that.

    Enjoy the Pure Coffee!! It's good stuff!

  9. Cheryl14:42

    Brilliant post. Many thanks!

  10. Cheryl,

    touched you thought so! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to say it out loud.

  11. I wore Wazamba yesterday, and experienced something interesting - my husband smelled it when recently applied, and remarked that to him, it smelled strongly of blackcurrant. I was baffled ... but then took a moment to think of blackcurrant, and found that the mingled smell of apple, myrrh and fir which is what I smell in Wazamba (no doubt influenced by my knowledge of its 'notes') are not entirely different in character from blackcurrant ... and I found that I could 'smell' what he was talking about (though not as easily as I smelled my own interpretation). I then told him that I believed he might be smelling apple, myrrh, and fir, and he immediately was able to separate the apple note out from the rest of the composition and recognize that was where his fruity association was coming from, while the other notes provided body and depth.

    I don't think that either of us was really wrong - because like you said, he smelled what associations his nose was giving him. Especially with my skin's tendency to bring out sweet notes, and his cultural background (English, and thus growing up drinking concentrated blackcurrant squash mixed with water), it was so interesting to see these different sides to the same fragrance.

    Though overall, incense is my strongest impression of Wazamba - something sort of wild and dissimilar to most other things I've smelled.

  12. A,

    excellent story, thanks so much for sharing it with us here!! Yeah, isn't that always the case? I think every one of us latches on to the part they find familiar (because otherwise, where would one start off at?) and then goes from there. So we essentially "see" a perfume in segments which the more our familiarity is the more we can reconstruct through a verbal medium to another (with hopefully recognisability of the elements we reference; apple is OK, Antartic iced mud might present some problems). So, I think you were both right indeed!

    To me Wazamba is apple and incense. Plain and simple and I don't even register much else. But I am intimately familiar with myrrh incense from church and therefore the association is a ready one. With some other stuff it takes a bit of mental work.

  13. Merln22:16

    My boyfriend commented that my spritz of Tauer's Orange Star struck him as similar to detergent! Until that point it was all Christmassy, warm, citrus and spicy to me. I loved it. But as soon as he said that it was as though the gestalt picture showed the old witch instead of the young woman, and I couldn't find the young woman again. The whole feel of warm, spicy orange should be the antithesis of detergent, so now I'm just horribly confused!

  14. Merln, I wonder if it could be the orange blossom? A lot of people have soap associations of one type or another with orange blossom, and I do think that Orange Star's composition can veer slightly in that direction especially on account of its slightly powdery nature as the scent develops on the skin.

    But I totally relate - I remember how much I enjoyed Annick Goutal Eau de Camille until I realized that to me, it smelled a lot like Irish Spring soap. And now I just *cannot* enjoy it properly. (Eau de Charlotte is still nice, and spring-y though.)

    Maybe you could switch your image back to the young woman if you imagined the powdery orange blossom-y smell as some sort of delicate Victorian ladies' skin powder melding with the warm, citrus-y spicy Christmas scent.

  15. Oh! and I think I smell fir more strongly in Wazamba because I've always had a thing for conifers.

    I'd like to find a scent that smells like the vanilla-y sweetness of the furrows in the bark on the trunk of a living Ponderosa Pine.

  16. A,

    excellent exlanation to Merlin!


    I think that soap is not a bad association to make (is it because it makes you think your scent is simplistic or not posh enough?) I read LT compare Cruel Gardenia to pink Camay soap and I loved it even more for it, as I didn't think of it in layman terms but in taxonomy (floral woody musky). What's better than capturing a nice smell of a familiar product in fragrance form and adding to it ?

  17. A,

    that might be so, about the fir. I don't have strong memories of firs, apart from the Xmas season.
    Pines, though, yes :-) (good quest!!)

  18. Merlin19:42

    Sorry about replying so late - I forgot I'd even asked the question.
    I don't mind frags with a soapy note, or even ones that smell fresh, so I don't think it's a posh thing. And I don't yet have a very cultivated nose so simple would't worry me.
    I think Proximity is on the right track with reconciling my original impression(warm, spicy, citrus) with the later one (powdery blossom). Those could tone into each other! When he told me that it smelled like his laundry when he'd used too much detergent it was like the impression I had from it lost all its nuances and was reduced to something blinding white, yet boring; all the richness suddenly got lost. Even though I only have a sample, it was quite unnerving because I had loved it so much. Suddenly all the golden fairy lights and cloved pomanders turned into bed-sheets.
    Hopefully I can reverse this effect.
    I think it may have to do with what one is expecting because I do like Prada's Infusion d' Homme and to me it smells like a very Luxurious cake of Platonic soap! I had never thought of it, though, as particularly warm or rich-


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