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 americantransman.com