An Applied "Philosophy" for Fragrance, including tips and lessons I've learnt along the way. Part 1.

I have finally discovered the blog section after two years of basenotes membership. Given my predilection for long-form posting this feels like a belated match made in heaven. I have enjoyed writing discursive essay-style topics in the discussion section of this website yet a blog seems a far more natural setting for these posts.

With that in mind, it seems sensible to start at the start: a beginner's guide to modern perfumery that is in no way just for beginners. At the start of this year I wrote a post on a rival forum asking "What is your 'philosophy' on fragrance, & what lessons can you share?". The thread received many interesting replies before falling prey to the antisocial side of social media.

The following are my own thoughts on the matter. I hope they are useful for those who need them and at least somewhat interesting to those who don't.



Philosophy? Fragrance? Can we say anything meaningfully philosophical about perfume, or vice versa?

I find Roger Scruton's dismissal of perfumery as phenomena worthy (as well as capable) of objective, philosophical enquiry to be a succinct summation of what I have been leaning towards during my 'journey' through the hollow romance of the perfume world. He writes: "To experience beauty, it might seem to imply, we should concentrate on pure form, detached from utility. But this ignores the fact that knowledge of function is a vital preliminary to the experience of form. When Kant wrote that which pleases immediately, and without concepts he was providing a rich philosophical embellishment to this tradition of thinking. Tastes and smells are not capable of the kind of systematic organisation that turns sounds into words and tones. They are, so to speak, insufficiently intellectual to prompt the interest in beauty."

As such, even referring to these broad, slightly vague conclusions as 'philosophy' is a stretch but they are my own attempts to informally summarise the actual beauty of fragrance in light of the above, detached from the affectation and marketing that is so prominent in perfumery.

- "Fragrance is a way to add another facet of style to your personal grooming and public presentation. It should always be at the very least pleasant and appealing, in some ways beautiful, and - in situations and on occasions where it is acceptable - alluring and sensual."

- "Fragrances are aromas, they are not ideas. If you need fragrance to 'challenge' you; find it necessary to wear divisive or even repulsive fragrances; or feel transported in to a place or feeling as suggested by the marketing copy, then it is likely that you are trying to fill a psychological or emotional need with fragrances that fragrances cannot successfully fill. Fragrances are simply aromatic beauty products; they are neither high art nor an emotional crutch."

- "If you are interested in fragrance it is highly likely you were enamoured by or with someone who wore an evocative scent in your formative years. This is a very valid reason for wanting to understand more about fragrance and the way they intertwine with civilised maturity and accomplishment, as well as being a good motivation for the desire to find and wear good fragrances for yourself. This sort of intrigue shows the power of scent, on our memories and our present state of mind or mood; recognising the power of this reality goes a long way to gaining an appreciation of the aforementioned purposes and beauty of perfume, as well as the ability to harness fragrance for your own benefit."


Advice, Lessons, Tips, Tricks, and Insights

If fragrance is philosophically and intellectually barren then it is by no means fruitless to consider the minefield of applied psychology to modern economics, and how this impacts the heart, body, and mind of human beings (i.e. 'customers') who enjoy fragrance. Mindful and strategic approaches to the consumption of fragrance are integral to avoid the deliberate pitfalls of modern consumerism: over-indulgence and compensation for natural human emotions and desires via retail 'therapy'. There are few things that demonstrate this socio-economic culture more effectively than the 'Happy Meal' and I think much of the fragrance community ('fragcomm') can be understood and analysed through the capture of a large group of consumers in a similar manner to the way fast food managed to infiltrate society.

As such, the following list is what I consider to be something like a guide to navigating the modern 'fragcomm', with particular regard for how people are encouraged to indulge through the exploitation of their own decision-making in the era of social media. This phenomenon is by no means unique to perfume. In many ways it seems the 'fragcomm' is a relatively late-bloomer to the digital realm, being as it is so difficult to synthesise the sensory experience of perfume through a screen and boil it down in to its most basic components. The difficulty for perfumery in an age of audio and visual omnipresence via phones and other screen devices is 'how to capture an audience without offering the actual sensory experience'. Spotify has music, Instagram has pictures, Youtube has film, Twitter has the slogan, the aphorism, and the maxim, and even Pornhub has something akin to the voyeurism of sex. But perfume has no natural digital home: there is no 'app' for scent. Instead, the captive audience was caught through less sensorily immediate and direct tactics; the need to create a 'community', utilising and encompassing existing social and sensory media (Youtubers and Instagram, as well as blog sites that offer long term community like Basenotes), was essential for the 'capture' as a way to encourage people in to the desired consumerist behaviour.

And so these are my 'lessons' on how to dip your toe (or even your whole leg) in to the world of perfume without becoming a victim to the marketing and conformity of data-driven virtual reality.

- Buying fragrances can be somewhat addictive. Don't get 'addicted'.

- If you decide to dip your toe in to the online 'fragcomm' and all that comes with it (forums, youtube, buying/selling/trading, fragrance 'journeys') make sure you have an end goal. This can be numerically precise or it can be more vague - but have a point you are aiming for and that you stick to otherwise you will fall in to magpie/hoarder territory and the clutches of vice that fragcomm normalises and inspires.

- Small wardrobes produce the most pleasure with the least pain. A small collection of 'signature scents' is the way to go.

- Nobody needs more than 10 fragrances. 10 is the absolute top limit for a 'small' wardrobe. Once you get in to double figures you are in to the mindset of collecting and that is something quite different altogether.

- 4 fragrances is the ideal number of fragrances for one person and provides the right balance between versatility and cosistency of scent.

- Collecting, or large wardrobes in general, are an option taken by a few people. I'm unsure how this can be achieved without falling in to the previously mentioned addictive mindset. Some people hide unhealthy spending habits behind the notion of being a 'collector'. Seek the advice of other people who manage to collect fragrances sensibly if you truly want to see how this can be achieved as they can provide first hand accounts of how 'collecting' works. Otherwise, know that once you become a 'collector' who is actually just giving in to impulse buying, the only thing stopping you from owning thousands or fragrances is time, money, living space, and spousal anger.

- A single "signature" scent is a nice idea but rarely materialises due to the nature of different fragrances suiting different circumstances. Don't get too stressed about finding just one scent; 2 or 3 is much more feasible and puts less stress on trying to find something perfect. Perfection almost certainly doesn't exist in perfume, particularly when it comes to situational versatility.

- In online discussions, wearability is often overlooked for the sake of novelty, intrigue, or even how polarising or 'challenging' a fragrance is. Wearability, versatility, and the simple enjoyment gained from a wearable scent regularly is of high importance and a decisive factor in whether or not you should select a fragrance. Do not listen to people who dismiss a fragrance's wearability with terms such as 'boring' or 'generic'.

This list is continued in Part 2.


Blog Comments


Basenotes Plus
Basenotes Plus
Apr 17, 2021
Smell and taste are inextricably linked with memory. I could argue that memories can be intellectualized. And therefore philosophized. But I won’t. What I will opine is that anything one can associate with beauty or aesthetics can be philosophized. But that’s not why I buy perfume. I buy it because smelling it pleases me greatly. For a variety of reasons and on a number of levels.

Why I buy so much perfume could be it’s own dialectic.

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