I don’t believe there to be anything more subjective than scent. In whatever form, be it the rising vapours from the kitchen, a whisper on the breeze or held within the faceted confines of a glass bottle, an olfactory experience reaches deeper into the soul than any other. What it discovers there is entirely personal, completely unique and utterly fascinating.
One could argue that writing about scent is a self indulgent pastime. The only story I am telling is my own and a ‘review’ of a perfume doesn’t really inform the reader of anything except the emotional reaction of one person. Even the most factual reviews can seem utterly at odds with the perfume that you smell on your own skin, a breakdown of notes, composition and development make for interesting reading but were you to write it yourself, the analysis might be quite different. The beauty of writing about my experiences with scent and reading other people’s is that it opens a little window into the soul, and the story is unique to that soul. It is coloured by memories, twisted by personal interpretation. I believe that asking someone to tell you what a smell makes them think about is more revealing than asking them to draw a self portrait.
I began writing about perfume because it moves me emotionally and creatively. I also like to examine the inner workings of my own mind. The experiences I have with scent present me with memories, pictures and emotions that are sometimes very personal, sometimes unnervingly alien. A stirring happens somewhere deep in my subconscious and struggles to break through the fog of other stuff that swirls around in there. It can be like having a thought that doesn’t belong to me. I am continually intrigued by these reactions. There are stories to be told about these perfumes. The scent fuels my imagination and helps me to create characters that couldn’t exist without it.
As a writer, I fear a blank page above all else. It exudes malice and demands to be written upon. The biggest challenge is finding words to fill the vast expanse. Even with a hundred ideas chattering in my mind, typing a coherent sentence has sometimes been beyond me. The moment I decided to try writing about a perfume was the moment my fear evaporated. Perfume gives me instant inspiration, it takes me on a journey into a scented story book where all the characters and landscapes are there waiting to be rendered descriptively upon the page.
Often I draw from my own experience and memory. There have been times in my life that I hadn’t realised were connected with a scent until I came across it again. Even a single note in a perfume can be enough to transport me back through time. Lemongrass reminds me of a summer overshadowed by thunderstorms but glowing with love beneath the heavy skies. Powdery rose is an instant vision of my grandmother’s bedroom at the house in Stansted Road where she lived for many years. I am a little girl again, sitting at the dressing table, surrounded by vintage perfume bottles and searching through her costume jewellery as if it were treasure.
We all have scent associations. The comforting vanilla of sweet pastries, berry picking in summer, incense wafting through lofty churches. Green grass, orange citrus, coal fires and rainy streets. A mother’s embrace, the scent of a father’s briefcase, the crush of too many people on the tube. All that imagery is to be found in perfume. Even unfamiliar scents can conjure a vivid portrait. For example, I have never seen or smelt frangipani blossoming in the wild, but the scent of it in perfume is a pollen filled, fleshy wallop of tropical humidity that is expressive enough to paint a picture of paradise.
Scent has colour too. If you close your eyes and try to see what you are smelling, even if you have no idea of the components, the perfume will develop shape, shade and tone. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes a complete surprise. Not all woody notes have autumnal hues. Sweet doesn’t always have to be pink. Often there is texture to accompany the colour. Cashmere, water, silk, fur. Fuzzy fluff, spikes and grit and sandpaper. Flushed skin, oiled skin, waxy petals and freshly unfurled leaves. Ash and fire, dry baked earth, talcum and lipstick. Frozen stone, wet pavements, mulch and murky ponds.
It can be difficult to use your imagination when a scent is thrust out into the world, branded to the hilt. It struts down the red carpet in glamorous designer wrappings, with a superstar on its arm. Such dazzle is hard to ignore. I do so wish that perfume was not marketed in this way because I prefer to make up my own characters. I believe that fragrance can look just as attractive in abstract clothing. But scent is big business. Everyone likes to smell good and with directional branding it is simple to find your perfume and believe you smell great in it. For many, fashionable and popular fragrance is the only fragrance. There are so many of these to choose from, with new releases coming thick and fast. It is affordable, accessible, but most importantly, it conforms to the ideal.
For those looking for something ‘other’, there are also hundreds of niche houses to explore. Here the perfumers are usually more dedicated to the quality and individuality of their creations and it is within this realm of scent making that I have found the most challenging and genuinely moving perfumes. There is a lot more room for interpretation and personal experiences here. The branding does not seek to guide the consumer in the same way as mass market perfume does. Of course it is still designed to intrigue and bewitch, but in using more subtle visual communication we are made to feel that the discovery of a perfume has been truly our own. I cannot deny that I am a sucker for beautiful packaging. The fragrance I first chose for myself when I was twelve, I chose because I loved the illustrated label. I don’t think I am alone in this, a lot of people’s first infatuation with scent starts with a covetable bottle. I wonder, if we were to smell those long lost scents again, whether a whole different set of memories would dredge themselves up. Memories we had forgotten about. Such is the wonder of our own minds.
Perfume is also a way of communicating something about myself, similar to my choice in clothing, music, lifestyle. My scent represents me. In many ways it is easier to express myself in this way. It may be invisible but fragrance can leave a lasting impression on the people around me. I can speak without words, impress my image into another’s mind with a simple spritz onto warm skin. I can disguise myself or bare my soul, depending on which perfume I choose. Personal chemistry plays a huge part in this communication. The sound of a scent sings a different melody for me than it may do for you and that is what makes it so beautiful. When a perfume touches skin it becomes a deeply unique expression of self.
Scent is the most intimate kind of art. I think about the motivations of the perfumer as a fragrance takes shape in their mind. I seems to me that they create a beautifully bound book, the delicate pages impregnated with essences and oils, the outlines of a story sketched in brilliant ink. It is up to me to fill in the details. Only my skin can bring the painterly brush strokes to life and summon the characters from the page to tell their scented tale. Every person will tell the story differently. To make something that is so open to interpretation must take courage. In comparison writing about it is easy.
Of all the knowledge that there is to garner out there in the world of perfume, the most fundamental lesson to be learned is that of enjoyment. Too much deconstruction of a scent renders it lifeless for me. To truly enjoy perfume my advice would be this: find something that appeals to you aesthetically and intellectually. Spray it onto your skin. Forget everything you’ve read about it, close your eyes and just let it take you on a journey.
Remember, reflect, imagine. Be emotional, be truthful, wear it however you want, as long as you make it your own.