Ways of Smelling

Here's a story I heard one time; a perfumer was asked to make a scent for a client's swimming pool.
He found out what sort of thing they wanted, asked a few questions about the water purification system and went ahead and mixed up something fresh. When it was done the client smelled it on a paper strip and said 'Ok, that's fine', paid for the stuff, and took it home. The next day there was a phone call. 'What have you done? It's awful. The swimming pool smells like sewage!' The perfumer jumped in his Range Rover and got over there pronto. 'Sure enough' he said, 'it smelt horrible - nothing like what I had made'.
It turned out the client forgot to tell him about a product they use to sterilise the water. Something in it had reacted with the perfume and created a dreadful stink. The perfumer found out which molecule had caused the problem, adjusted his formula accordingly and delivered an extra large batch to the client free of charge.

Now, this is an extreme example, but it highlights an important factor when smelling perfume : a scent can be affected by the thing we apply it to, whether that's paper, skin or some other material.

The first time we smell a perfume it's often on a paper strip. This is a good way to assess it because paper gives a neutral rendition of the profile. But even if it gives us a clear view of the odour, this isn't necessarily a guide to how it will smell when you come to wear it, especially if the perfumer has only assessed their work on paper, and not on skin. Some perfumes change a lot between paper and skin, some very little.

It's widely understood that a perfume reacts to a person's skin, perhaps differently from one person to the next, or even the same person at different times; skin chemistry, hormones and also nutrition could play a role here. But the picture seems to be more complex than that. I find some perfumes react differently when sprayed on open skin than they do to when they're under clothing.

Another method is to spray your clothes. This is recommended for spinning out perfumes in general, and delicate head notes in particular. I find Aramis works very well like this. You can also spray the air and walk through the mist, which is almost like spraying your clothes. I use this method for wearing colognes on a hot day.

But no matter how you apply your scent, there are other, more tricky factors at work. If you sniff it up close, or waft, or just catch the odd whiff from yourself, they all tend to show different aspects of the perfume. And then there is smelling the sillage of some one else as they walk past...

I remember the first time I smelled Bandit. There was a biker in our neighbourhood who called himself (you've guessed it) Bandit, and his girlfriend used to spray his leather with it - possibly to hide the pong - and he would trail this incredible rainbow sillage as he roared up the street on his Harley.
And here's the rub, I'm wearing Bandit now, but when I went out of a closed room and came back in, it smelt more like galbanum than rainbows.

Another type of enclosed space is the Moncler glass. Luca Turin wrote about this. It's a kind of wine glass with a hole in it, where you insert a smelling strip to brew - before lifting the glass to get a snapshot of the whole profile. If you don't have a Moncler you can try bending up a smelling strip and putting it under a wine glass, but personally I haven't tried that, I tend to use mine for more traditional purposes.
Any experience with potted sillage? Comments welcome.

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Blog Comments


May 20, 2020
Very interesting article!
I have gone through massive hormonal changes in the last 5 years, due to hormon replacement therapy, and I am under the impression that many of the fragrance that wore 6 years ago behave very differently when I wear them now.

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