You know the infamous joke that you can’t really describe intricate colour shades to men, they don’t get what turquoise, taupe or fuchsia is. Sexist as this may be, it hinges on a nugget of fact; we can’t (men, nor women) really describe something, unless we have a common language to express our experience. Blue consists of hundreds of possible nuances, from navy blue to greyish glaucous, right? Smells are no less so.
The nose, much like the eye, consists of a cluster of neurons which transmit information to our brain, where the interpretation takes place. We then express those interpretations in language. Sounds straightforward enough. Then how is it possible that if you take a hundred people in a room, and ask them to smell the same thing, you will have at the very least 30 different descriptors? Do we smell the same and express it differently, or is smell subjective to begin with?
Selective anosmia aside, (or when we can’t detect certain aromas), we all have cultural biases and past experiences which influence our perception of smells. Have you smelled the durian fruit? To westerners it smells putrid; a foreign commodity. To populations of the Far East it smells like a great delicacy.
In order to become better at enjoying scents and talking about them, one needs to be able to describe what we smell. Two basic tools to parse fragrances are understanding Fragrance Families and deciphering a Fragrance Pyramid.
Some scents are easy to track and smell. The garden is a good place to start. When most people think of scent, they envision a fragrant flower. But have you stopped to smell the roses lately? Puns aside, you might be surprised to stoop over a peony, or lily of the valley (also known as muguet), or a ripe gardenia, to realise that you hadn’t really thought about how they differ from each other. Peonies, for instance, exude a scent close to that of roses, but airier; gardenias feel waxy and intoxicating; while lily of the valley is piercingly sweet and feels green, as if it carries with it the smell of the forest where the tiny white bells grow in the first place.
Don’t just smell; take notes in a notepad or your iPhone, as well. Note down whatever impresses you, without much concern about accuracy; it will come later on.
Be experimental with fruits as well, fruity fragrances being increasingly common indeed. Pierce the rind of citrusy fruits with a nail. This is the reservoir of their essential oils. Do you smell the difference between a mandarin and an orange? The former is sweeter. Then compare an orange to a lemon. Orange is sweeter still, so the litmus test becomes the object against which we’re comparing something.
Open the kitchen cupboard and bring out the basic spices and herbs. From fiery pepper to sweetish, inviting cinnamon, and from piquant ginger to exotic star anise, they all have their individual properties. These are all included in several fine fragrances, rendering spicy notes which tingle the nose. See if you can pinpoint them against your LKNU bought fragrance samples. Herbs, dried or fresh, like basil, rosemary, sage, and thyme, all lend their bucolic facets into fragrances as well, especially those corresponding to the green, herbal and aromatic descriptors.
In a more advanced level, try to search for individual essential and aromatic oils at your local chemist’s, herbalist’s or wholesale store. These are labelled with the raw ingredient name, sometimes in Latin (Google might be your friend). Therefore, you can better understand how vetiver, cedarwood or patchouli smell like. Do consider however that these are used in dilution in fine fragrances. They can also be sometimes substituted with man-made analogues.
One important distinction is among essential oils and aromatic oils; the former are produced through a very specific to each material extraction process (distillation, solvent extraction, etc.), while aromatic oils are man-made, synthesized in the lab to produce an effect, rather than being a raw material in itself. For instance if you see “lilac oil”, you should know it’s an aromatic oil; the blossoms cannot yield a sufficient enough oil for perfumery.
In general, when trying to decipher scents try to think along those scales and parameters:
- Sweetness against bitterness/sourness
- Sweetness against dryness (an analogy taken from wine)
- Sharpness against dullness/softness (citrus scents can seem sharp, as in piercing, while musks can be soft and caressing)
- Lightness against heaviness. The latter parameter has to do with perception, as we often tend to characterise as “heavy” things we find overwhelming, which is highly subjective, but try to think in relation to evaporation: does the given facet evaporate easily and quickly? Or does it stick for long periods of time? This is a way to better grasp which elements are considered “top notes”, the introductory notes in a fragrance pyramid, and which are considered “base notes”, i.e. the elements which will accompany you for hours on end.
With these in mind you could describe Hypnotic Poison, for instance, as “sweet, and soft, yet heavy”, whereas Light Blue is “sharp, dry and light”. And from then on you can further pinpoint elements such as bitter almond, lemon, cedarwood, or coconut.
Armed with this knowledge you will not only be a better customer, knowing what to search for, but you will be able to better enjoy what your fragrances are communicating to others.
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