Last week I sat outside a bar with a friend, enjoying one of the last warm evenings of the year. My friend works Saturday afternoons at a wine store, and he told me about how he helps people find the right bottle of wine. "I ask people what they like," he said, "But it seems like they're always more articulate about what it is that they don't like."
Right away I thought of how I once went into a perfume shop and told the sales person that whatever perfume he brought out, please make sure that it doesn't have vanilla, because I don't like vanilla. It was the early 1990s, and everywhere I went I was bombarded by Calvin Klein Obsession and detested it. In my mind at that time, Obsession equaled vanilla. Now I think back at the sales person and marvel at his ability to suggest anything given such lame guidance. (For the record, he suggested Guerlain Jardins de Bagatelle.)
I know, though, that I'm not the only person who could focus more easily on what I didn't like in a perfume than what I liked. Just look at the Monday Mail columns. You can tell that it's much easier for the Monday Mail subjects to describe what they don't like and what doesn't work than to say what they do like, and I don't blame them. After all, if they knew what they liked, why would they be asking for guidance?
On reflection, it seems that people who are just beginning to explore perfume can best describe what is that they don't like. Later, when they begin to delve into the intricacies of perfume, they can identify that they like leather or incense or jasmine and can ask for fragrances that feature those notes. They can smell Piguet Bandit and know that it intrigues them and ask to smell other leathers, like Knize Ten or Hermès Bel Ami. Or, tantalized by Guerlain Mitsouko's reputation, they might become intrigued with peachy chypres and want to know Yves Saint Laurent Yvresse and Rochas Femme. It's a great way to develop a perfume vocabulary.
In the end, although it's helpful to start to identify notes and what you like or don't like, I think the hard core perfume lover wants to smell everything. He or she just might be surprised, and even comes to look forward to it. No, I'm not wild about strong vetiver, but the way vetiver is treated in Vero Profumo Onda makes me see and appreciate vetiver in a new way. Or, violet-based fragrances always seemed too pastille to me, but wearing the violet heavy Caron N'Aimez Que Moi makes me feel like Carole Lombard in a romantic comedy, and I love that.
Maybe we start our perfume connoisseurship by narrowing what we experience into a slot that we can know and own. After a while, after we feel comfortable, we try scents we never imagined we'd want to wear, sort of like dressing up in velvet cocktail dresses from other eras and posing in front of the mirror. Instead of saying, "I don't like powder" we say, "I'd love to try something different."
By trying each scent, by dabbing those strange drops of Guerlain Jicky extrait or Etro Shaal Nur or Comme de Garçons Avignon on our necks, we learn by trial and error who it is that we really are. That is, for the time being.
Note: image via Images de Parfums.