Let's start with the Neanderthal.

I mentioned to a longtime acquaintance that I write an online column on men's fragrances. “Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme,” were the words that then immediately came out of his mouth. He nodded his head profusely to assure me, and added, “no really!”

The simplicity of his idea, his “stage of scent understanding” is clear in his brevity: for him all the whole domain is “Dolce & Gabanna Pour Homme.” I didn't even ask what did he meant, as in why D&G Pour Homme, what about it makes it ever perfect, did he wear it every day, say, or save it for weekend parties. Or otherwise why it would be the only one--maybe he'd argue D&G harvested more ladies per night's wearing, for example, or maybe he'd say it's the first one he bought himself after Mama stopped his buying. Who knows why or what for

There's a whole who-what-why-where and even how about scent choices we make, but so much is not answered by my acquaintance's single answer. Was his point that I should wear Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme then? Should every man? For further proof my acquaintance gathered a woman he knew (we were at a party) and said he'd told me about Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme. She chimed in with overwhelming agreement--yes, she said, it was the only one.

So there. Consider me informed.

Stages of the Hunt

Experience is a scent teacher. What the neanderthal doesn't understand is that there are different ways to think of how and why we pick scents; further, there are different ways we think of the purpose of scents, and lastly--and best of all--there's an evolution in scent understanding that comes with experience.

But starting out it's hard to know how to go about a scent hunt, much less do it with sophistication.

So what's a beginner do? As with learning anything, what makes experience? What's superficial familiarity, what's depth understanding, what makes an aficionado, and, perhaps more to the point, “what exactly is it to be scent-wise?” and “how can I be smart, or look it, as I make myself scent-savvy?”

Little of the hunt is precise, so be forewarned: the stages of scent learning are presented here through a series of my observations and speculations; from them I make my own indulgent conclusions. Anyone is free to disagree. One thing I'm certain of is that there are stages through which people pass as they learn about scents, and as they see their tastes develop. Perhaps this column is a story that applies to learning anything--where the greatest insights come at the end, and are surprisingly not the knowledge that one originally sought. Instead, the real expression of learning turns out to be in the complicated tangents and side details that end up illustrating depth of understanding. And, as with anything, the end result of knowledge is to realize how little one knows anyway.

The First Stage

A close cousin of mine showed me what the first stage of fragrance understanding is. I was going to give her some scents and asked what she had and wore already. She didn't have or wear any she said, “because I don't have anyone to wear it for!” Simply stated that's the initial stage of fragrance understanding in our lives--that we'd apply scents to our skin for someone else. We use it for others. The social aspect determines our personal understanding of the product's function.

For my cousin a fragrance was for events, occasions, dates, moments already defined as “special” for other reasons, and primping with a smell was a way of conforming to, and elevating one's self to the ceremonial. If you had a significant other, you wore scents for him or her as a will to please or a will to be attractive.

If you look at putting scents into your life through this paradigm, what makes a scent good? A “good” scent would be one that pleases other people's noses, or wins them over. Emphasis on other people.

No big surprise. Who wouldn't want to enliven social interaction, ceremonies, or special events by rendering them special? Nothing wrong with it, it's not wrong or inaccurate, it's just a stage, or that's what I mean to suggest.

Maybe this stage's paradigm explains why fragrance sales people so often pitch scents they're trying to sell as “this one's brand new,” or “we just got this in,” or even “this is a number one seller.”

When I hear those lines I wonder why the presumption is that I would want the latest or most popular. First, the logic might reflect advertising's “New and Improved” legend: got a new floor wax you want to sell in a crowded floor wax market? Label it new and improved. All the waxes before don't work as well--your latest product eclipses them all. “This fragrance is the latest!” says the same. It suggests the perfumer had a nasal look-see on perfumery and thought none of the examples out there functioned as well as a scent should. “I'll have to make a new scent that does better than those that have gone before!” exclaims, Kenneth Cole, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, or the next greedy American design megalomaniac, when he or she releases a new scent. This is the latest means this replaces everything else. There could be other reasons sales people think the latest is a sure fire selling point, but I think it is only so from within the first stage of scent understanding, claiming, “this is what works best on all the people for whom you'll be wearing it.”

An example of a character's (and likely the author's) first stage understanding of scent comes in Alan Furst's 2006 thriller The Foreign Correspondent. Set shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, a character in Paris is summoned by his mistress in Berlin and packs his overnight bags with straight razor, shaving soap, and “The cologne called Chypre, which Christa had said she liked. Put some on for the trip? No, she won't be at the airport, and why smell good for the border Kontrolle

The Shift

If we can sum up the first stage as a paradigm of wearing fragrances for others, maybe it's a give away that the second stage is one of wearing them for one's self.

Before we get there, though, I should briefly explain the distinction between the neanderthal and another type of scent user, who I'll call the “one-scent” user.

Some people have just one scent, and make it a smell signature, wearing it whenever they need a scent, or wearing it every day, or else they save it for fancy events. They're unlike a neanderthal, however, since they know theirs is a scent that does one thing--pleases them. They don't believe the scent they wear answers any questions of “what's the best” smell, what's the latest, what eclipses all the other scents. The one-scent user is unlike the neanderthal, who thinks there's a scent that answers all questions. There are plenty of one-scent wearers and they're removed from the stages I'm laying out just because they're not even on the hunt for a scent, they're not you reading this, and when they're current bottle is empty they'll hope someone will give them another. No biggie. Think of them as uncles, dads, husbands, or boyfriends who leave the scent choice to the great people who give them smelly gifts.

But back on the stages of the scent hunt, I don't know what brings about the transition from the first stage to the second, but I think of it as a mystical moment of “getting it.”

Maybe an angst brings it about, an angst that ends up making wearing scents more profound. You see, there are a godawful lot of scents out there, and anyone charged up and seeking “which one of all of these is the best?” like a true first-stage wearer is bound to find that pursuit unfulfilling. When a first-stager storms about trying to get “the best scent” he or she is going to find out that there's the best for now, the best for tonight, the best for this season, the best for this event, the best for this mood, the best lavender, the best sandalwood, the best vetiver, the best oriental, the best fougere, the best chypre. It's overwhelming, and the answers are weak as soon as they're proposed.

The more a first-stager looks into getting answers for what scents are best around other people, the more indecision and lack of answers he or she will encounter. What about when there are multiple superior scents for X or Y occasion? What about when one sandalwood is a delight in certain ways but another is better in other ways? What happens when there aren't answers?

“Chuck all this scent talk!” is what happens. The reviews, the advice, all the testing, all the far-away expensive scents, screw all that blabber, since scent opinions are inherently subjective. That means chuck the first stage of fragrance understanding--the stage of other people's noses and other people's definitions of quality. So the first stage dies.

Simply stated, the next and second stage is when one wears scents for one's self, and, just the reverse of the neanderthal, when there are more questions than answers about what smell world you project.

The Second Stage

Of course we want other people to like how we smell even if we pick the odor to please ourselves, but I think my cousin stepped out of the first stage when she told me, later, “you're right. There are some out there that are amazing--that hit you and you know they're perfect and wonderful.”

Perfect and wonderful. When she said that she was referring to Diptyque's L'Ombre dans l'Eau, a fantastic damp, sour, green rose launched in 1983 that I'd sent her. L'Ombre might not be a nasal magic-carpet-ride experience for everyone, but for my cousin it's a special scent she'll wear with special regard or for the utter uniqueness it grants her. Her finding it was lucky--nothing in it is so perfect that it answers all questions and turns her into a neanderthal.

Here's why: for all L'Ombre dans l'Eau's perfection, on other days there are other scents she'd rather wear. There are times when L'Ombre's perfection, as standard setting as it might be, would feel inappropriate, even imperfect if she were to be wearing it. Weather, season, humidity, office politics, even architecture or time on the freeway might make L'Ombre somehow impressionistically imperfect. On those days there's a different standard of “perfection” for a scent and a different scent will be evaluated better against the setting. The key is that the scent, perfect or not, has to adapt to or fit a situation, and do so in the nose and mind of the wearer not the noses of others. This is the key to the second stage.

Compare this use of fragrance to the way of the neanderthal: a true second-stage fragrance user has all the questions all day, and never has a full answer for them. For example, a second stage wearer lives the day with the scent, thinking, “this is really great in this heat,” “how does that violet element come out so late?” “wish I knew what gives a scent like this the fizzy element in the nose like carbonated water gives soda in the mouth,” “god I love that dry rosemary middle.”

A second stage user also knows of inherent scent disappointments. For example, reactions like the following: “Man this is coming on too strong in the sweet vein; I thought it would work this morning, but I sure wish I had picked a citrus for today instead.” “Sure, this is nice, but it's too much in the background and isn't giving me a picture that seems to cheer up and fight back a day when the boss says I need an editor.” “Well, since this is only our second get together, I guess I'll stick with one of those damn nice-guy vetivers again.” “Holy cow this floral is blowing my mind. How in hell aren't there more floral notes in men's scents?” “Sure, this is nice, but doesn't really seem fitting somehow.” “This was great this morning, and I've worn it hundreds of times over the years, but it's dull this afternoon and I'm sick of it.”

Indulge me as I step into the trippy and preposterous: get conscious of your surroundings, reader! Think of it, I earlier listed the weather, the humidity, the season, the office politics, the architecture, and the freeway as measurement sticks against which a scent is judged by a second stager. That's the essence and point of this column, and of scent wearing at its highest; consciousness of what's around you, consciousness of where you are when on the globe, and how you are in the history of it. Odor is a ticket into thinking of that, of the specialness and pricelessness of well, presence, and mere being. Of being lucky to be alive. In the second stage you become so much more aware of time and space and how your scent fits into them. Whether you are pleased with the scent or not, even. These are things the neanderthal cannot grasp.

A pretty trippy and a preposterous extension of my scent love for sure, but dear First Stager, I'd wager there are lots of Second Stagers who read the above and say “YESSSSSSSSSS!”

It's a pretty good trip.

Think again of my cousin's discovery of a smell that is perfect and wonderful according to her. Her thought is on a higher plane than pondering what's the best scent to wear work days. When I told her I'm using her quotations to set up the distinction between the stages of wearing things for others and wearing things for one's self, reminding her of her thoughts of L'Ombre dans l'Eau, she added that she still loved it but that she'd since found some people who didn't think much of it on her. As a true second stager, she didn't care. She'd clearly chucked the notion that one picks and wears a scent for others. Some people didn't like L'Ombre? I guess it just sucks to be those idiots.

An Invitation

Scent wearers on this great earth are all in different and intermediate stages of scent understanding, god love 'em. The Neanderthals can think one scent polishes their low sloping foreheads, one-scenters can feel great in whatever it was the nieces and nephews gave last birthday, first-stagers can still be fooled by fragrance sellers who tell them what “the best” scent is, and how it will make them “the most attractive.” Second-stagers can be stuck with their blues from seldom nabbing the perfect trippy elixir, but the beauty of all of them is that they each show something with smell.

Something which makes them different from the other air around them. Something that will remind us that we're human, that we can choose our smell, unlike the flowers, and express something of how we see ourselves by it.

Check out another use of scent-in-life mentioned in literature, from Evan S. Connell's 1974 novel, The Connoisseur. An art collector is suspicious of a man and woman team who own an art gallery and and he sizes them up this way:“Strange couple. Guy [the guy's first name] is handsome enough to be mistaken for a celebrity. But he doesn't radiate anything. He's bland, less forceful and probably less intelligent than his calculating lady. How intimate they seem and yet how dissimilar they are, though they both give the impression of being narcissistic. He reeks of shaving lotion and she--well, nothing. No perfume. No invitation.”

An invitation. That's what a scent is. A first-stager wonders what will be the best invitation and a second-stager sees it for more of what it is--a levity, a curiosity, a chance, an effort, a thought, a changeable thing that needn't be. It's a mere invitation, a tool of engagement, a lightweight thing and nothing more. Having read this column you've now got the mental equipment to know richer pleasures of scent-in-life, and to scent hunt knowing that invitations we pick aren't an on or off switch for the mistress or the Kontrolle, for, now we know making an invitation is a great personal pleasure.

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[Editor's note : Chris also wrote some additional notes to follow the first-stage, and second-stage sections. He gave me the option to leave them out, but I like them, so I've left them here for anyone who wants to enjoy them!]

Prom night is a metaphor for the limitations of first-stage fragrance understanding. “Prom night,” for all readers unfamiliar with the ritual, is a tradition in North American high schools in which students, usually in the last two academic years, go to a formal dinner and dance at the end of the academic year. On its face it sounds like a noble custom, but the reality is that many of the youngsters get drunk with all the fashions and liquor as they live out the night's idea, which is to join adulthood's rituals.

On prom night kids are out on their own, each with a date, and wearing formal ball attire. When you watch them, you see their body language trying to live up to their clothes, and their mannerisms imitating an idea of what's formal and what's elegant. As a rule they're sort of stiff in the unfamiliar yet delightful formal wear: they sit upright because they think that's the classy way to sit; they're conscious of their stride as they walk; and their mien tries to suggest that the situation is normal for them. Pretty good theater!

The whole chuckle of watching prom-goers is that the clothes wear the prom-goers instead of the other way around. The first stage on scent's way functions similarly: The first stage wearer thinks he or she has “the best” of something and thus tries to live up to it. “I'm wearing something special now, so I'll behave like it, and further, since this is special, I'll have expectations of what the scent will do for me and how cool it will make me.”

This first stage is stiff and limited, and doesn't lead to wearing fragrances well. A first-stage user might smell fantastic, but integral to his or her wearing the scent is the implicit mental presence of “now I'm one of those fancy people.”

I guess the advantage would be every day would be turned into prom night. Not bad if your scent can get it, but all that stiff-backed walking/wearing would sure tire me out.

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Second-stage fragrance understanding is like making an omelette without any planning.

Say you're looking at an omelette recipe in a cookbook. Some people will think they need the exact ingredients the book lists in order to make it. So they'll either 1.) get those precise ingredients, or 2.) look for a different recipe that calls for ingredients that are more accessible, or 3.) skip some ingredients and make the omelette thinking it won't be as good as the one in the cookbook.

In contrast, still working the comparison, a scent second-stager is like someone who will make an omelette out of whatever happens to be available in the kitchen. Someone who will know that it isn't a “recipe,” but who will think about it as an omelette made of whatever is around at the moment, and a meal unique from any other night's omelette.

Eating that omelette gives the second stager a chance to think in the moment about liking thyme in the omelette, say, or that there's too much salt, or that it's lucky the cheese was available, or that the original Tobasco sauce is better than the newer chipotle flavored version.

In fragrance understanding a second-stager knows there's no scent recipe for the day, for the activity, for “success.” The first-stager presumes there's a recipe for scents to use, and the second-stager knows there are only thoughts on the quality of what's available, or how a scent chosen earlier works out.

Chris Peterson is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.