I have a friend who is taking part in a fragrance study right now. The study is double blind, and even the consumer testing company administering it doesn't know much about it. But what the study is about isn't all that interesting to my normally prurient friend. What fascinates her most is how the study's participants talk about scent.
In the orientation for the study, the participants had to develop a scent "vocabulary" by smelling six perfumes and then writing down as many descriptors for the scents as they could. My friend, although no perfume expert, probably has more experience smelling perfume than most of the other study participants. (Besides that, although the company conducting the study required each participant to wear perfume at least five times a week and not to smoke, my friend knows for a fact that some of the participants almost never wear perfume, and she has seen a few of them outside of the study's offices sucking down that last cigarette before going in the building.)
After sniffing the perfumes, my friend diligently noted her perfume vocabulary on the worksheet: rose, powder, violet, aldehydes, cucumber, lily of the valley, and other standard notes. As she jotted what she smelled, she overheard some of the other participants talking about their descriptors. "Is 'heavy' a note?" one asked. "I think it smells like a port-a-potty," another said. "How about 'my sister's wedding'?" still another asked. "Old lady" and "grandma" were popular, and "cleaning products" was mentioned as a descriptor twice. Admittedly the perfumes tested probably aren't sold at Aedes. My friend swears that one of them was Revlon Charlie, another was Coty Emeraude, and a third was an Issey Miyake Eau d'Issey knock off. But still, port-a-potty?
I think the average person — no matter how keen his sense of smell — has trouble attaching a label to smells. Sure, we can identify a gas leak or a campfire by smell, but even telling lily of the valley from jasmine is difficult for most people. If you blindfold someone and ask her to smell, say, lily of the valley, she will probably say, "I know what this is...wait...I can't think of the word." Then you say, "lily of the valley," and she'll say, "Yes, that's it!" It's not being able to smell that is difficult, it's being able to label the smell that is so hard. Our brains have been trained by repetition and experience to differentiate between Mozart and Nirvana, or even Mozart and Beethoven. We're expected to know how basil tastes compared to rosemary, or how velvet feels compared to silk. But labeling a smell is still a challenge for most of us.
Last weekend I stumbled on an unlabeled sample vial. It was an assertive scent with a few discrete accords, and I knew the scent inside and out. I just couldn't put a name to its notes. Finally, a few hours later when my "thinking" brain had shut down, I remembered the names for what I smelled. It was citrus then dark rose, all infused with patchouli. It was L'Artisan Voleur de Roses. I couldn't label the patchouli! But I know patchouli a hundred ways! And I wear Voleur de Roses all the time!
Someday, when my ship comes in, I'll buy the Le Labo Olfactionary and do regular blind drills until I don't have to think and I can label most smells put before me. In the meantime, I'll take fish oil pills for brain power and keep paying attention to what I smell. I still think, though, that I'd know a portable toilet by smell without a lot of help.
Note: image via Images de Parfums.