Why Do We Love Perfume

Veraalice
The other day my mother shared a story of me as a seven year old trying to make a lilac perfume. I collected lilac flowers, covered them with water and kept the jar by my bedside to observe the transformation. Within days the jar started smelling rank and its contents looked rotten, but I refused to give up. Words cannot describe how disconsolate I felt when I came back from school and found that my jar was thrown away. Fast forward a few decades, and I am still engaged in much the same thing—blending raw materials and occasionally coming up with a mixture that smells more putrid than pretty. That I have been exploring scents consistently for this long comes as much as a surprise to me as to anyone else, but as time goes on, I find more and more reasons to fall deeper into the rabbit hole.

The simplest answer to “why I love perfume,” of course, is that perfume, like all beautiful things, makes me happy. The more longwinded answer is that perfume is such a complex topic that one can spend years studying it. It is not just about the commercial beauty product, but about the chemistry, fashion, and social trends. I love uncovering the intricacies of fragrance creations, the complexities of aroma-material interactions, and the technical issues of coming up with a harmonious accord.

However, there is an aspect of perfume that goes beyond the smell itself. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, once said about great literature that the ideas are beside the point; it is the story that matters. I more and more believe that the same can be applied to perfume—the stories the great fragrances tell enchant me more than their technical perfection. When I smell Robert Piguet Fracas with its devastatingly lush tuberose heart, I see a whole spectrum of images: Billie Holiday with a gardenia in her curls, the exuberance of the post-WWII years, a woman in a black silk dress reaching towards the mirror to paint her lips a vibrant red. The voluptuous beauty of Rochas Femme seems even more poignant when I realize that perfumer Edmond Roudnitska created it in war-torn Paris.

Besides its own inherent history, a perfume can be a ticket to creating your own fantasy. If I want, I can live out a film noir fantasy by dabbing a few drops of Chanel Cuir de Russie on my skin and feel its leather and iris darkness conjure up visions of smoky bars and femmes fatale. Or I can travel to the Moroccan souk by smelling Serge Lutens Féminité du Bois. If I want to step back into the Kiev of my childhood with its blooming chestnut trees and wet lilacs, I only need to reach for Frédéric Malle En Passant. A spritz of this green lilac scent, and I am transported where no airplane could ever take me.

The stories and fantasies that we share through perfume are also responsible for a wonderful connection with other perfume lovers I meet along the way. These stories, often exchanged via the internet, create a tangible link even though many of us are separated by long distances. This makes my fragrance quest very enjoyable, and is one of the main reasons why I’ve continued blogging all these years.

Moreover, I believe that the more one is attuned to smells in one’s surroundings, the more one can appreciate simple pleasures. In most of our mass media, simple pleasures get a short shrift. The pages of fashion magazines are filled with fantasies of shiny cars, Caribbean vacations and diamond rings. Even most perfume ads are created along the same contrived lines of sex and money. However, being aware of scents does not mean buying as much perfume as possible. One can be happy with only a couple of bottles of fragrances and still find life to be enormously enriched by the pleasure of discovering aromas: smelling the caramel in ripe tomatoes, noticing the sharp verdancy of a freshly mown lawn, recognizing some familiar perfume on a stranger in the street, or being surprised by the aroma emanating from the nearby bakery. Suddenly a grey winter day seems brighter and warmer, even though nothing concrete has changed. You are still you, with all of your worries and errands, and yet, you feel happier. If this alone is not worth relying more on one’s nose, I do not know what is!

Now, it is your turn—why do you love perfume?

Photography by VeraKL.

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52 Comments

  • Andy: A most beautiful piece! I would have to say that I love it mostly because it provides for me a simple pleasure to enjoy. Three years ago, I would have said that smell was the sense I felt least in touch with, and now it is the sense I feel closest to. A love of fragrance in general allows me to greater enjoy my passion of food and cooking. I admit, I still have trouble finding the slight caramel note in ripe tomatoes (though I always try!), but mysteries like this I see only as barriers to my senses that I have built, and that I must also overcome. Every fragrance helps me feel closer to my world, allowing me to enjoy a sense of satisfaction that I have a strong understanding of my sensory proclivities. January 9, 2012 at 6:29am Reply

  • Olfacta: Beam me up, Victoria! A beautiful piece. I love perfume because it enchants me. Because it has the power to turn an ordinary moment magical. January 9, 2012 at 6:52am Reply

  • Ines: He, he, I did the same thing with rose petals. 🙂
    And I kept wondering what I did wrong as it didn’t end up smelling nice…

    If I were to explain why I love perfume, I wouldn’t know how. But I agree, I think that people who love perfume are more inclined to enjoy the little things in life and find enjoyment in them, as nothing is more ephemeral than smell and if you love it, it just seems logical that you can enjoy life’s little pleasures more completely. January 9, 2012 at 7:34am Reply

  • pam: Beautiful writing! I think the sense of smell is so often overlooked, not just with perfumes, but with everyday smells like cooking and being outside. People are not aware of smells and let them go by without noticing. January 9, 2012 at 7:58am Reply

  • Annemarie: What I love most about perfume is that it can move me, in a very personal, intimate way. Sometimes a perfume can really speak to me and I can connect to it, it can touch me in my heart and in my soul, it can evoke memories and emotions, and it can kiss awake sides of my personality that were asleep for too long. It fascinates me and I think it is maybe an aspect you can find in all forms of art. Powerful stuff, those perfumes! January 9, 2012 at 9:09am Reply

  • Victoria: When I was jotting down my notes for this post, I realized that I kept using word magical over and over again. I completely agree with you–turning an ordinary into magical is definitely a reason behind scents’ charms for me as well. January 9, 2012 at 9:18am Reply

  • Victoria: You know, it is true–the moment you are aware of something, it is easier to spot. I am a perfume geek, I admit, but I notice myself parsing out various smells as I walk down the street–exhaust (burnt rubber, smoky wood, acrid-acidic note,) fallen leaves (musty, walnut shell, wet earth.) It makes an ordinary into magical, as Olfacta put it nicely.

    By the way, I made stollen, and this time it came out well! Makes me want to experiment more. German Christmas baking is so exceptional. January 9, 2012 at 9:22am Reply

  • Victoria: 🙂 I also tried it with roses, and yes, I still remember that musty scent. My grandmother then showed me how I could do much better using alcohol. She wouldn’t allow me to do it on my own, but together we tinctured various flowers. I recall white lilies being great in a simple tincture. January 9, 2012 at 9:26am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Pam! I agree with you. The scents of our daily life can be just as beautiful as anything contained in the bottle. January 9, 2012 at 9:30am Reply

  • Victoria: So true! The effect of scents can be incredibly visceral, to the point of having a physical sensation. This never fails to amaze me. January 9, 2012 at 9:33am Reply

  • lenore jago: Saturday, revisiting Dune by Dior as a result of your blog, I was suddenly swept away. Well into the drydown it suddenly smelled just like my grandfather’s Edgeworth pipe tobacco! Immediately, I was five years old and learning to dance by standing carefully on Grandpas’s feet while, pipe in mouth, he took us through the cha cha. Nothing is like perfume that way. It can transport us completely. January 9, 2012 at 10:45am Reply

  • Victoria: What a lovely, touching image! Thank you so much for sharing it.
    All this from just a drop… If this is not magical, I don't know what is. 🙂 January 9, 2012 at 11:04am Reply

  • Nancy: What a charming story! For me, perfume contains notes not unlike a musical composition, which can hold long-evoking memories — both good and bad. Whenever I happen to smell L’air du Temps, I immediately have thoughts of my late Mother who initiated my pure joy from scent — not only perfume but the wonderful cooking smells from her kitchen. It’s love. January 9, 2012 at 11:59am Reply

  • AromaX: “Why?” – it suggest there might be a logical explanation behind such an irrational thing as “love” 😉 I can’t find it. Really, I tried. So I have to agree with you on the point of simple pleasures. Perfume that triggers my imagination and my emotions giving the pleasure I want to experience repeatedly (hmmm, sounds like Pavlov)…

    And I am so agree with you on the communication of the perfume marketing – money and sex indeed seem to be the only subjects. Even if they don’t meet the fragrance itself they are still used… Prefer the image of “simple pleasure” that does fit the fragrance 😉 January 9, 2012 at 12:04pm Reply

  • skilletlicker: I am extremely sensitive to moments of enchantment created by scents and light. I prefer dark forests and jungles to blazing beaches. And I am more concerned with what perfume I will put on after my bath than what clothes I will wear for the day because it has the power to calibrate my attitude and tap into sense memory. For me, aside from imbuing the quotidian moment with exoticism, mystery, glamour, and indulgence, a perfume serves a portal into very remote precincts of my psyche. It can delight or disturb, as in, awaken. (Chanel #5 always reminds me of my parents bedroom, and the view with water oaks, hemlocks, and dogwoods in an unbroken vista – for some reason it’s always spring and the new green leaves seem electrically lit.) I compare the power perfume has to the way Hitchcock used the color red in Marnie – but without the grisly murder memory, post-traumatic shock syndrome, sexual disorder, and mental illness. January 9, 2012 at 12:38pm Reply

  • Acrossbee: Beautiful post! It’s hard to articulate, but for me perfume is about memory, feeling and fantasy. Tilleul by d’Orsay takes me back to my early childhood playing outside, Caleche and Shalimar remind me of my mother in the 1970s. Other scents help me feel a certain way, such as Fleur d’Iris by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier which makes me ready to face work with an air of total confidence. And then there are scents that conjure up an exotic world or another time, like Chergui and Apres l’Ondee, I can’t get enough of these scents! I just can’t resist trying new fragrances and ordering samples to find that next blend that resonates somehow with my memories or personal chemistry. January 9, 2012 at 12:40pm Reply

  • Victoria: I never fail to be amazed at how scents can conjure up these rich visions. January 9, 2012 at 2:28pm Reply

  • Victoria: Ah, so true! No logic in love, but hey, it is still fun to try and explore it. January 9, 2012 at 2:29pm Reply

  • Victoria: What a coincidence! I just watched Marnie this weekend, and the use of color struck me as very powerful (and in that case, disturbing.)

    Your comment about No5 reminding you of your parents’ bedroom made me think of one of my most vivid memories–the smell of my parents’ first apartment. Such a nice recollection… January 9, 2012 at 2:32pm Reply

  • Victoria: Memory, feeling and fantasy sums it up nicely for me as well. I suppose that it is the same thing that I feel with my favorite books and art–the ability to envision another world or to make your own better. January 9, 2012 at 2:34pm Reply

  • Andy: I’m so glad the stollen worked out! I try to focus all of my winter baking on my favorite German and Eastern Europen recipes. I, like you, am drawn to traditional recipes rich in spices or adorned with dried fruits. Whenever I see a recipe for cookies that says to mix the flour into hot honey, (as opposed to creaming butter, adding liquid ingredients, etc.) I immediately know I am in for a treat 🙂 January 9, 2012 at 3:25pm Reply

  • Rose D: Perfume makes me happy as well:)

    I think my perfume obsession begun with my mother. Every time I smell Chanel N°5 (edt) I am transported to my childhood. This was my mother’s personal fragrance, but near Christmas Eve, the entire first floor of our house was scented with it. She poured a few drops in a cotton ball, which she used for dabbing the front of a small baby Jesus figurine she had. Then, she laid it on a small table, forming a Sacred Family. Since then, many years have gone by and N°5 is everything but religious to me; but this is still the first souvenir in which I can point out directly at a given perfume. January 9, 2012 at 4:02pm Reply

  • Austenfan: I loved your early perfume experiments! I used to do that too. Not in order to make perfume mind you, but to make magic potions.
    I don’t know when my love for fragrance started. As a child I always liked nice soaps, and would always sniff my mother’s perfumes. You know, she went through a bottle of Schiaparelli Shocking, and I must have sniffed it but for the life of me can’t remember what it smelled like. I think I found it “perfumy”.
    When my day is rotten, perfume can lift my spirits ( Eau de Guerlain), it may bolster my confidence (Aromatics Elixir, Chanel 19), and sometimes it just gets at me, like Mon Parfum Chéri did.
    Great Post! January 9, 2012 at 4:46pm Reply

  • Bellatrix: Very short:
    They are TIMEMACHINE.
    Not just for the time, but also for emotions.

    And the feeling of happiness that brings… oh my … 🙂 January 9, 2012 at 5:03pm Reply

  • Dl: I’ve always had this somehow silly theory that there are two categories of people: those who live in the nostalgy of their teenage years and those who live in the nostalgy of their childhood. I believe that perfume lovers are in the second category: in my love of perfume, there is a nostalgy of a pre-symbolic age, an age before the representations of language. Discovering that perfumery in itself is a language, composed with smells, is ,I guess, a sort of reconciliation with the loss of this age 🙂
    It is also the best accompaniment one can have, a way to constantly have beauty by one’s side. January 9, 2012 at 5:42pm Reply

  • Dl: I guess the fact that most of our first perfume memories come from our mothers somehow comforts me in my theory 🙂 January 9, 2012 at 5:44pm Reply

  • bulldoggirl: Like many others here, I like the time machine aspect of perfumery. Open one bottle, my mother returns to me, another, my first boyfriend. But it’s more than just memory and nostalgia, because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love perfume–even as a toddler, I remember loving perfume. Always, always curious about the smells inside all those bottles, about what scent exactly was wafting off my babysitter or my teacher or my best friend’s older sister. I think it’s the same impulse that had me reading at a very early age: the desire to, as you say, suss out the story of things. Perfume, like all great art, tells a story, and in so doing, involves the wearer in a continuation of the narrative. And, unlike may of the other arts, it’s one of the few we can wear and be continually aware of. January 9, 2012 at 7:09pm Reply

  • Victoria: Such a lovely ritual! I almost can smell it, as I read your description. January 9, 2012 at 8:34pm Reply

  • Victoria: Ah-ha, it is not a big stretch from a perfume to magic potion! 🙂 January 9, 2012 at 8:35pm Reply

  • Victoria: Short and to the point! The timemachine aspect of perfume is what enthralls me time and again. January 9, 2012 at 8:35pm Reply

  • Victoria: You have a great theory there! 🙂 I never thought about it this way, but you know, it makes sense to me. In my case, having left the place of my childhood (and since it disappeared pretty much entirely,) I have some nostalgia for that time. In most cases, I can channel it into something productive though. January 9, 2012 at 8:37pm Reply

  • Victoria: Same here. Also, the moment I see the directions of soaking fruit in alcohol. That’s the reason why I love all of the traditional fruitcakes. I know that a fruitcake gets a bad rep, but the one made with good quality candied fruit and raisins is so good. January 9, 2012 at 8:39pm Reply

  • Victoria: >>>And, unlike may of the other arts, it’s one of the few we can wear and be continually aware of.

    I agree 100%. Luca Turin also called perfume “the most portable form of intelligence,” which is another interesting perspective.

    I remember one of my mentors telling me that even when she was a toddler, she was strongly aware of scents. Her mother would take to the market and have her smell milk and cheese in order to select the freshest products! My curiosity about smells was never that useful to my mom. Besides the rank potion mixing, one of my early experiments with smelling things ended with me at the hospital… Nothing serious, but my poor young mother was even more traumatized than I was. 🙂 January 9, 2012 at 8:43pm Reply

  • Carla: Thank you for this! What you say is so true. I becamed seriously interested in perfume when I was pregnant. A lost waist meant no more sartorial pleasures. Perfume has no size, happily. And, to find my waist again after the birth, perfume offered a sensual pleasure with no calories. These reasons to love perfume are not as romantic, though. January 10, 2012 at 10:49am Reply

  • Victoria: Finding pleasure in various things has a romantic undercurrent, doesn't it? 🙂 
    I also love playing dress up with perfume whenever I feel most unglamorous or have no desire to get particularly dolled up. Perfumes make me feel put together like nothing else. With the exception of a nice manicure, perhaps, but that is something I gave up once I fell in love with baking bread. 🙂  January 10, 2012 at 11:05am Reply

  • Carla: I don’t go in for manicures, if only because i have to pick and choose my indulgences. Highly manicured nails are kind of an American idea of feminity. I found European women prefer more natural looking nails. They also appreciate perfumes more than Americans, in general. January 10, 2012 at 12:25pm Reply

  • Victoria: Eastern Europeans and Italians also place quite an importance on manicured hands, based on my experience!
    When I do get manicures, I prefer a natural shade of nail polish (toes get all of the fun colors.) Having spent years in classical dance, I just cannot get used to the bright colors on my hands. Even as students we were not allowed it, because the colored nails broke the line, and it kind of stayed with me. January 10, 2012 at 1:16pm Reply

  • Raluca: I find that perfumes sometimes allow to escape on a daily basis, just for a sniff. It doesn’t matter where I am, I can just change the routine with a sniff.

    Perfumes can also change my mood.

    Perfumes are part of the outfit. It’s like an accessory that can change the outfit from plain to fun. 🙂 January 10, 2012 at 1:19pm Reply

  • Victoria: Ah, cannot agree more! Many different reasons and all of them so compelling. 🙂 January 10, 2012 at 4:38pm Reply

  • Cynthia: This is beautiful; you have expressed so well what I feel about my love of perfume. I had a similar experience when I took up painting for awhile (lots of fun but not much talent!) While I was going to lessons, I found I looked at the world diffently. Suddenly the clouds became more beautiful and I would see they weren’t just white, but had shadings of gray or a pink tinged rim. A tree became a study in leaf structure and limbs and branches. I felt so alive, visually, for the first time. That’s sort of how perfume makes me feel. Whenever I am in a new place i find i relexively breathe in deeply! January 10, 2012 at 8:50pm Reply

  • Sujaan: I realized this is exactly why i love perfume – when you wrote “Suddenly a grey winter day seems brighter and warmer, even though nothing concrete has changed. You are still you, with all of your worries and errands, and yet, you feel happier.” That’s it for me! Scent can change my fowl mood into glee! I squeal like a little girl when I find a scent I love or when a perfume package comes in the mail, I rip it open like a child on Christmas morning.
    Our sense of smell is so primal. They say it is our pheromones that help us choose a mate. I actually feel more complimented when someone says I smell great than when they tell me I look great! January 11, 2012 at 10:15am Reply

  • Linda: When my Mother died a few months ago, the main thing I wanted to keep of hers was her perfume. Same thing my Grandmother. Even though my Mother is gone, I just have only to sniff a scent of her perfume and she is back with me for a fleeting moment. I think perfume evokes emotions far greater than fine art or even fine music. January 11, 2012 at 2:03pm Reply

  • Victoria: I like learning new things for this very reason, somehow your worldview changes. January 11, 2012 at 9:45pm Reply

  • Victoria: Me too! If I smell something that is beautiful, I suddenly feel such an exhilaration. 🙂 January 11, 2012 at 9:46pm Reply

  • Victoria: I can relate to this. When my father passed away, I wanted to keep his cologne. It reminds me of him more than anything. January 11, 2012 at 9:49pm Reply

  • Julian: My reason to love perfume would have been summed up by the phrase :
    “Les parfums éveillent les sens et l’esprit” (= ~ perfumes awaken/uplift the senses and the spirit)
    But recently I found the almost exact same phrase on the booklet in a Lutens’s box. Who inspired the other first? ^_^ Pretty coincidence, I really thought to have come to this sentense on my own.

    I like how paradoxes are made harmonious in fragrances.
    We call it “balance” (foody/unedible, fresh/warm, etc.).
    But the main paradox made “non-dual” in fragrance is how something so sensual, linked to the body, and transient can be so spiritual, intellectual, and deep. January 15, 2012 at 8:51pm Reply

  • DianaWR: What a beautiful and inspiring post! January 17, 2012 at 11:43pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Diana! 🙂 January 18, 2012 at 7:57am Reply

  • Aida: I think smell is our way of connecting with the past, maybe?
    I love the smell of spring flowers as it always takes me back to childhood memories of gardens at Easter time, in bloom: lilac, narcissus, fresia. Somehow everything seemed lifted during those particular days…
    I loved the smell of my childhood home garden after rain, deep in clorophyle.One day, ‘Un jardin apres le mousson’ almost moved me to tears.
    And musk frangrances always take me back to my teenage love… January 23, 2012 at 4:29pm Reply

  • Christina: I absolutely love perfumes! I happen to be blind, and I’m also a musician. All input from every sense fascinates me. I love fragrances from everywhere. I’m expanding my fragrance wardrobe, I’m a budding perfumista. I have Lancome’s La Nuit Tresor, Givenchy’s Dahlia Divin, Armani’s Acqua di Gioia and Si, Calvin Klein One Shock for Her, Eternity and Euphoria, Ralph Lauren Pure Turquoise, just to name a few. They make me happy. It’s one of those awesome pleasures that makes me feel happy to be alive. I stumbled upon this blog surfing the Net, and I’m glad I did. Fragrances rule! They tell amazing stories and bring back memories as if they were yesterday! May 30, 2015 at 10:36pm Reply

    • Hamamelis: Hi Christina, there is so much more joy awaiting you! Hope to see you back here at BdJ often. May 31, 2015 at 8:15am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your poignant comment, Christina. Your experience with scents must be especially profound and meaningful. We have a regular reader here who is blind and also loves music (she is a singer). She wrote an article about her experiences with scents:
      http://boisdejasmin.com/2014/08/when-every-buy-is-blind-buy.html
      Perhaps, you might find it interesting. Shermeen is such a lovely person. May 31, 2015 at 11:36am Reply

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