The Language of Perfume

Revlon Charlie perfumeI 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.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    As a student of the mind, I find this kind of thing fascinating. I'll look for a reference later, but you are no doubt aware that the sense of smell is the only one of the five senses that directly links to the brain, as opposed to the others, which go through some complex mediation and that's why scents are so powerful emotionally and are so linked to our memories. Could that be why the sense of smell is taken so unseriously? I think that this more direct link to the brain is perhaps why you had your trouble recalling the name of the unlabeled sample, so don't be too hard on yourself.
    As Chandler Burr has written, and as you allude to above, fragrance has been dethroned from its rightful place as an art form, which all people who consider themselves cultured would have at least a passing familiarity with, to being the most frivolous aspect of the fashion industry. All of us have had the experience of being thought odd or frivolous because we have a serious interest in fragrance, when it's seen as perfectly normal to have an enthusiasm for fine wine, or the art of the Renaissance, or Genesis before and after Peter Gabriel left the band.
    I hope this does not all sound hopelessly pompous. I enjoyed your article. I wonder if there is a blogger out there who writes exclusively about the psychology of fragrance…

  2. Anonymous says:

    How can a comment referencing Peter Gabriel be pompous?!

    Maybe that direct link from nose to a particular spot in the brain is why it's so hard to label a smell sometimes–it doesn't go through any cognitive filters that might help identify the name for a smell. (I should stop speculating. I don't know a thing about how the brain works.)

  3. Anonymous says:

    That's not a bad idea. I know less than I would like about how the brain works than I would like, but I know a little, and your idea makes sense to me. Perhaps one of the NST readers is a neurologist and will step in here to help us out.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I really need to stop reading these fascinating posts and get back to work…but before I do:
    Another perfumista and I were chatting about this just awhile ago. I'd tried Fragonard Belle la Nuit and it immediately triggered a set of scent-sations (ow!) that I could smell and taste in my head but couldn't verbalise for the life of me! In the middle of a totally different conversation it hit me that it smelled exactly like Jo Malone's French Lime Blossom – at least at first sniff. Once I could isolate that lime note and make the connection I was able to break it down a little more (but not much, as they smell remarkably similar to me).
    Scent description and identification is very elusive, in my opinion. If you, Angela, with your extensive experience, have trouble imagine what us slow-noses must go through!!!:-). As for Port-a-Potty, it may be that icky sweet/disinfectant smell that they were attempting to describe. Sadly enough, I have smelled that in some sticky-sweet scents before….in fact, that overly sweet lime scent (I call it 'oily/round' for lack of a better phrase), on my skin, on a hot day,can closely approximate that awful potty combo!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Marvellous comment, especially the Peter Gabriel reference:)

    I agree with you that one's interest in fragrance is rarely taken seriously, but I've discovered that people in my milieu have started asking me for advice with scents – because they know I'm interested. I guess for many people it has to be practical, have practical value to be a worthy interest. Oh well, I'm always happy to do perfume research for others – it serves to broaden my own knowledge base.

    Sorry for going offtopic…

  6. Anonymous says:

    I'm quite young in my perfume addiction, so during my regular smelling saturdays (it has become a staple in my weekends) with a friend, when I find myself making comments about a fragrance, I often find it hard to describe scents. Beside identifyng single notes – which maybe I'll be able to do within 50 or 60 years, apart from a very little bunch of them – I find it difficult to use cathegories such as “sweet” or “dry”. I wonder whether this has to do with a perception that might be subjective or whether the problem lies in language, that is to say we are not trained to describe smells and when we try to do that as beginners, we (I) sometimes feel embarrassed. I, for myself, try to win over the embarrassment and find that tryng to describe not the perfume itself but the images it evokes and the way you feel it is the right way to learn, at least for me…

  7. Anonymous says:

    Angela, thank you for the thought-provoking post!

    Indeed, it is so much easier to think of scents and notes in terms of similarity and memories (“smells like…”, “reminds me of…”, etc.). Of course, I'm only learning, but it makes me so happy whenever I can identify a single note and say “Aha, this is vetiver!” or “Jasmine!”.

    In terms of learning to smell, I think this helps: whenever I find that scents are similar, I look up the ingredients and try to find similar notes – this, at least, works for me. Although, I'm sure you know lots more about it:)

  8. Anonymous says:

    as soon as you said citrus, then dark rose i knew it was voleur, then your mention of patchouli clinched it. unfortunately patchouli and i dont really get along. i go to school with a bunch of hippies, so maybe its a little close to home. haha. anyway, great post! it's true. i often (ie almost always) have trouble differentiating different floral notes (esp the white ones) at first sniff.

  9. Anonymous says:

    A neurologist perfumista/perfumisto–I bet we have a few of those!

  10. Anonymous says:

    I've turned into the office perfume info source, too, so I know just how you feel. Of course, I do love telling people what I think…

  11. Anonymous says:

    I'm glad to know I'm not alone in stumbling into those strange scent labeling problems.

    Portapotty on a hot day, though–yuck.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I agree that it is easier and helpful to describe fragrances in terms of how they make you feel or what experience they remind you of. In a way, it shows how powerful scent is. Sometimes scent makes me think of music, too.

  13. Anonymous says:

    It's really rewarding to smell something (without reading the notes) and realize you know what it is, isn't it? I'm always really proud of myself when I recognize the ylang ylang (or whatever) in something and find out that I'm right.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I know! It's such an easy scent to peg, but I was totally baffled until I stopped trying to figure it out. I've grown to really appreciate patchouli–not the rancid hippie patchouli, but the good stuff.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I tend to be a relational person when it comes to sniffing… rather than pick out individual notes, I tend to smell the intersection between the scent at hand and fragrances I've smelled before, and many iterations of this process combined with cross referencing lists of notes allow me to whittle down to specific ideas of notes. My husband, on the other hand, thinks everything I wear smells like chocolate, roses, or both, and he's never developed his scent perceptions beyond that.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I bet your husband goes wild for 100% love's cocoa and roses!

    As you say, I think experience with smells goes a long way toward helping identify particular notes. I can know in my head, for instance, that L'Inspiratrice has a lot of rose and patchouli. When A.maze reminds me of L'Inspiratrice, I remember the rose and patchouli so I can immediately tag the fragrancel with names.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I'd love to participate in a study sometime… How did she become part of it? :)

  18. Anonymous says:

    I too find it pretty hard to identify specific notes unless I have a frame of reference. Since I cook spices hit me pretty strongly, and when my nose gets really fatigued all I can smell is “general perfume note” black pepper, pink pepper and anise.

  19. Anonymous says:

    The funny thing is that I *never* wear anything with chocolate or roses, but he seems to think I'm a walking advertisement for Valentine's Day!

  20. Anonymous says:

    That's kind of sweet, really.

  21. Anonymous says:

    It was a friend of a friend referral.

  22. Anonymous says:

    With all the pink pepper fragrances out there these days, it would be hard to go wrong…

  23. Anonymous says:

    Hi Angela — another great article.
    With the help of an extremely generous botanist/writer/scent collector friend I've organized an informal perfumery class to gain just exactly the kind of expertise you're wishing for. Some day I will have my own collection and do those blind drills, but even sniffing the same limited palette in different combos every other week has made my perfumes a thousand times more vivid. It's like taking a class in architecture or music, all of a sudden your brain has the ability to say, “Oh, that's the bassoon picking up the lead melody” or “Wow, I like Victorians” instead of “Huh. That's pretty.”
    For a more affordable alternative to the Le Labo kit check out this place:
    And, by the way, my botanist friend is obsessed by just exactly the facet of scent you mentioned — the way it bypasses the cognitive, language centers of the brain. That's what he writes about.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I think that labeling visual or auditory things is so much easy than labeling smells. All it takes is experience and paying attention, as you say. But there's something about scent so that even if you can easily separate and identify its components, the words for them are harder to recall. It's so strange. I'd love to read some of your friend's work.

  25. Anonymous says:

    What I have assimilated from somewhere along the way is that the sense of smell is somehow wrapped up with the “primitive” brain or limbic system sort of in the bottom back half of your head, the first part of our brains to evolve, also called “the seat of emotions”. The neocortex, where language resides, was much later to develop and is way up near your forehead. All this to explain why it's difficult to put language to what you smell (or taste, or art, music, love…). And I think I have seen a book on Amazon specifically about the psychology/neurology of scent but have not read it.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Interesting! It probably explains, too, why scent is so powerful, so good at evoking emotion.

  27. Anonymous says:

    I agree — smells are harder. Especially since they can be so changeable, and of course with perfume we're always working with scents that are inspired by the originals, as it were. Different facets, natural or not, of some platonic ideal.

    I'd like to read some of my friend's work, too, but he is a shy perfectionist — he just talks about it a lot. I'll let you know if any ever comes my way…

  28. Anonymous says:

    Yes, please do let me know if publishes anything, that shy perfectionist. It sounds really interesting.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I've been dying to read this article all day (computers are wonky at work, I could only read the front page!). I don't know that the woman who said porta-potty or those who call perfumes granny scents are “wrong” exactly. You can break down a fragrance and tell me the notes (and they may be lovely on their own) – but if the combination of them smells like a toilet cleaner to me, then it does.

    Remember “Exclamation!” by Coty? It was the scourge of my junior high days – smells just like Dr. Pepper to me. But it's official notes are: amazon lily, orangeflower and jasmine with bergamot, musk, patchouli and amber. Show me the person who could have found those notes in that bottle and I will shake their hand! LOL!

    I'm a very visual person. I'd LOVE to have that kit and try to associate each scent with a specific color – I think it would help!

  30. Anonymous says:

    I have these vials the label fell off of. I keep them around partly because they're interesting and partly because … I don't know, to frustrate myself? Several of them were in various purses, etc. belonging to my late mother-in-law. And I treasure them because they are vials made up (presumably at Saks or what have you) of things she might have been interested in. And they are all very Big Fragrances. And I have this fantasy that one of these days I'll trot them into Saks or NM and see if anyone can sort me out.
    The others are mine, and of those there are at least three that I *know* I should know. Same thing — if you said “Chaos” to me, I'd say, yes! But dang, is it difficult for me to do that on my own.

  31. Anonymous says:

    It's definitely true that combinations of individual notes can blend together to make something different–and hopefully greater than–the sum of their parts. I'm wearing Nocturnes today, and that's how I feel about it. But lord help us, I hope no one is making perfume that smells like a Honeybucket!

    I'd love to have the scent kit, too. The idea of trying to associate scents with color is really intriguing.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Exactly! I'm determined to get my hands on a Le Labo set or a Perfumer's Apprentice set and try to forge a connection between those areas of my brain. It must be possible to do it–otherwise, how do perfumers and their assistants get by?

  33. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating. Here's my theory. We are visual creatures, and we imprint on the shape and color first. When we store stuff to recall them later, this unit of memory is tied with other other unit of memories, like “grandma's house, river, wood, gingerbread cookies”. The more ties to this memory unit, the better you can recall it, as there are more paths. The arrangement of these units is something we haven't figured out yet, but the mind doesn't file them away randomly. This is why something that is on the tip of your tongue (a name, like javier bardem) will resemble something you are recalling incorrectly, like “orange and creme”, or maybe “brolin” because he's in the same move. I'm making up this ridiculous example, of course. Anyhow, the visual cue is the primary thing you imprint, which is why when you say “lily of the valley”, the person would say “yes!”, because the recall looks up lily first and from there progress to the smell. Also try this with Jelly Belly, just get a box and have someone feed them to you while blindfolded. The pear one is killer, but once someone says, “it's pear”, you'll say “that's it! it can't be anything else.” The way to go back from the limbic region is not understood, at least, not by me. :) But once you recall on a smell, a bunch of things with secondary link to the smell is triggered as well, which explains the whole flood of feeling coming back.

    For fans of cognitive neurology, I recommend books by Steven Pinker. Sometimes dry but always fascinating.

  34. Anonymous says:

    This theory sounds good to me, and the Jelly Belly test is a great one (and a good excuse to eat jelly beans). After all, for most odors, except maybe fire or food turned bad, we don't really *have* to label it. Although we rely so much on language, we don't talk about scent unless we're connecting it directly to something we see or touch (or read and imagine).

  35. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting! My son and I play a Jelly Belly guessing game when we take ferry trips. It helps to while away the time and we get better at it each time we do it.

  36. Anonymous says:

    I swear we can learn to tag scent with a name, it just takes not letting the cognitive part of our brain take over. You're doing a great service to your son!

  37. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful article Angela. I believe that smell comes first and then some time later hear and see.

    We can fool ourselves about what we have heard or seen but never about what we have smelled.

    Our sense of smell never betrays us. Smell is a different kind of perception and words can only describe what we smell via detours of associations, through what we have learned later in life.

    As babies we could smell perfectly but words came only later in life.

    Oh well, I love perfumes and perfumes add more quality to my life…;-)

  38. Anonymous says:

    I'm really glad I'm not the only person who finds this hard!
    I know what I think smells great and that's about as far as it goes. I've been buying fragrancies for years now based purely on what I like and what makes me feel good when I wear it. As to whether I've got a good nose I don't know, but a lot of the scents I buy seem to get great reviews (up until recently I'd never read any scent reviews so I've been reading up retrospectively).
    I do find it intimidating sometimes when people go on about fougere, and powderiness etc.
    My nose is well refined for cooking (I can tell by smell how much of each herb or spice is in my cooking and what's needed to balanced flavours), but I get lost when it comes to one of the great loves of my life which is fragrances.

  39. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, M. What an interesting idea that our sense of smell doesn't lie–it makes sense when you think about how important it is that we don't eat spoiled meat, know when our babies are sick, etc.

  40. Anonymous says:

    I think that the ability to keenly smell something and perceive its nuances isn't necessarily the same thing as being able to say what those those are named, so don't worry! I know, though, that I'd love to be better at naming what I'm smelling. I feel like I've improved a lot over the past few years, but I have a long way to go.

  41. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the original comment about the difficulty that most people have with labeling smells or more accurately remembering what a certain smell is. I do, however disagree with the rest of your comment.

    Yes, most people would be able to tell the difference between Mozart and Nirvana, but certainly not between Mozart and Beethoven– not the general population.

    As well, a lot of “foodies” could the difference between basil and rosemary but not between sage and tarragon.

    Velvet may feel different than silk, but could you really tell the difference between rayon velvet and silk velvet, or even linen velvet?

    Our memory certainly has the possibility do make those differences, but we are not trained to do it.

    Too often our lives, by default, make us specialists in one area or another. Our brain may be able to recognize every herb and spice, if we are working in a kitchen, but be useless at identifying the smell of a flower. Our memory “muscle” is not exercised in all areas of knowledge.

    I may be able to identify an opera by listening to ten notes at the most, but I would not be able to tell Nirvana from Feist. …and don't even ask me about car parts.

    Excellent choice in topic… as always!


  42. Anonymous says:

    I think the general pop. can tell the difference. They couldn't LABEL it as Beet or Moz, and they may have problems articulating HOW they are different.

  43. Anonymous says:

    Hi there. You might also find the book The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates, interesting. I will look for the Steven Pinker books too.

  44. Anonymous says:

    (*writing down name of book*) Thanks!

  45. Anonymous says:

    Good point, but I think the difference between your comment and mine is that people might not be familiar with Beethovan (for instance) as opposed to Mozart, and that's why they can't tell the difference. With smell, on the other hand, people may well know jasmine from gardenia but be stumped when they smell them with a visual cue.

    And, hey, I'm a whiz with fabric identity! Not only can I tell I silk from a rayon or cotton velvet, I can tell a 1940s rayon from a 1980s rayon velvet! (Freak area of knowledge.)

  46. Anonymous says:

    Another good point. They can hear the difference, but don't know the music well enough to attribute the music to a particular composer.

  47. Anonymous says:

    I know what you are saying, but I still think that it take a trained nose AND a well educated brain to identify scents.

    Are people really that familiar with scents?

    We smell, but we rarely question.

    And what do we really smell?

    To differenciate between base scents takes a great deal of training, memory and access to pure unblended scents… which few of us have access to.

    I'm convinced that most people don't actually “KNOW” smells such as jasmine or gardenia…or even plain simple vanilla.

    What does vanilla smell like? That should be easy right?

    Most people like vanilla, eat vanilla, it's everywhere. But open a bottle of vanilla extract and chances are that it will smell mostly like coconut. At least, this is how it smells to me and how I would describe it. Why? Vanilla from Mexico can in fact have a slight coconut scent… So if all of a sudden you introduce me to Tahitian vanilla, I may not know what it is.

    I can now tell the difference between jasmine and gardenia, and identify them well, but that is only because 20 years ago I had the chance to spend a whole year on the French Riviera and both jasmine and gardenia were growing in my garden. I was able to smell each one by itself and learn their characteristics. To me, jasmine is the one that smells like rotting flesh. (God I hate jasmine!)

    I think that it's a mistake to assume that people “know” all these basic scents. Yes we do come accross them everyday, but they are seldom by themself. To recognize them by themself is almost impossible to the untrained nose.

    Only someone with a “freak area of knowledge” (I call it: knowledge bubble) could successfully do it.

  48. Anonymous says:

    A garden in the south of France! That sounds like somewhere I wish I were right now.

    Trained nose and educated brain are a difficult combo to find, that's for sure. Now more than ever I want to get a set of perfumer's materials so that I can learn them better.

  49. Anonymous says:

    Great piece of writing, Angela, and much food for thought! I find it extremely hard to “label” discrete notes in something complex like perfume, or wines, or when the accord is something with which I'm not extremely familiar.

    “I think the average person — no matter how keen his sense of smell — has trouble attaching a label to smells.” I'm not sure how I feel about that statement. For example, it's not difficult at all — in fact it's incredibly common — for the average person to identify and label many smells every day: oranges, coffee, skunk, fish, cut grass, gasoline, and so forth. Maybe it's more a question of the range of our “scent label” inventory or level of familiarity (I've smelled lily of the valley, but I'd be hard pressed to identify it blind) — or being able to identify scents when they're combined with others. I might be able to immediately identify the smell of a solitary piece of “fish”, but if I were blindfolded and asked to sniff a pot of chowder, it might be more difficult to say “I smell fish and celery and onions and potatoes and thyme and tomatoes and black pepper.” I would just know that it smells or tastes delicious, without being able to identify the component parts.

    I'm thrilled sometimes when I'm successful in my ability to detection specific tastes and smells, but I find so often that I get frustrated trying to separate out the different components when the melange is so seamlessly blended; sometimes I'm better off just enjoying the whole. For example, I love Hypnose Homme, but I'm having trouble reconciling the prominent lavender note that I'm told comprises it with the lavender from the garden — they just don't seem like the same scent to me at all.

    Those Perfumer's Apprentice kits are VERY tempting.

  50. Anonymous says:

    Hmm, well that's an interesting thought, that it's the combination of scents that confounds people and not the scents themselves. I can see that. The items you mention, though, are things we smell and label all the time. With repetition, probably most smells are easy enough to identify blind.

    I like the Jelly Belly test idea to see if I can pick out flavors and smells without a visual cue. Would I know a “skunk” Jelly Belly? (I know, why even think of it.)

  51. Anonymous says:

    I think there's a lot of truth in that. In a particularly well blended fragrance it can be difficult to separate the different notes.

    What I am good at is being able to do “smells like” comparisons. So for example I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and I tried Tommy Bahama (which you don't generally find in the UK). When that had dried down it reminded me of something I already have, which is Mont Blanc Presence, it's also not a million miles away from another scent I wear which is M7.

  52. Anonymous says:

    The “smells like” test really is helpful, and I've used it, too.

    I didn't know that Tommy Bahama was like M7 (one of my favorites). I guess the word “Bahama” made me think it would be something tropical.

  53. Anonymous says:

    It's not exactly like M7 but the dry down is that same kind of rich spiciness, it's quite a nice fragrance actually and had I not just treated myself to a new 100ml of Egoiste Platinum I might have bought a bottle just for the heck of it.

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