We Smell With Our Mind

“We smell with our mind. Your mood affects the way you smell. The French verb sentir, ‘to smell’, also means ‘to feel’. Smells change our moods. It’s no good if you’re tired. You must be intellectually fresh,” said the late International Flavors & Fragrances perfumer Bernard Chant.

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Chant was the creator of Clinique Aromatics ElixirEstee Lauder AzureeParfums Gres CabochardRalph Lauren Lauren, Aramis, and many other perfume classics. I love this quote, because it applies equally well to the professional perfumers’ work and enjoyment of scents in general. Creating fragrances is about the imagination, the ability of the creator to capture an abstract idea–dew covered orchids, a walk along the beach, a childhood memory–in a drop of liquid. For this reason, some perfumers resent the term “nose,” which reduces their work to a mere technique.

When wearing perfume and enjoying aromas, the same holds true. Occasionally people complain about having an “untrained” nose or being unable to distinguish notes, but neither is essential to become a perfume lover. Your ability to derive pleasure from smelling has little to do with whether you can tell jasmine apart from ylang-ylang or whether you can detect if a perfume includes Iso E Super or cedarwood essence. Much more important is to smell with an open mind, to fantasize and to be receptive to new experiences. Does a perfume conjure up a specific memory or does it evoke an image? Does it intrigue, repulse, delight? What kind of person do you imagine wearing it? Do you feel butterflies in your stomach?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

P.S. As for being intellectually fresh, the best time to smell is in the morning when both your mind and your nose aren’t yet saturated with too many sensory impressions.

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56 Comments

  • Anka: The ability to derive pleasure really is a foundation for further engagement with any peace of art. I can blissfully listen to the music e.g. of Wolfgang Rihm but am unable to tell why I like it or even talk about how his compositions are structured.
    With fragrance I am more ambitious, though. I really want to broaden my horizon, smell something new or exciting every day and read about perfume notes or perfumers. And thanks to your wonderful blog I am able to do so step by step! May 29, 2013 at 7:59am Reply

    • Victoria: I believe that the most you know about something, the more you can enjoy it. It’s definitely fun to parse out the notes, to learn about the sources of inspiration, and as a proud geek (in many other things, not just perfume), I do love all of that. At the same time, it’s a matter of balance, and if someone doesn’t care to delve into the details, it’s ok too. May 29, 2013 at 10:39am Reply

  • Ines: I agree with the fact that you need to be intellectually fresh. I noticed I can’t smell perfumes for review anymore if I am not a bit relaxed (so doing it at work is out of question as my mind seems to be over-capacitated). 🙂 May 29, 2013 at 9:52am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s very hard to concentrated on smelling when you’re distracted by other things. I remember finding the total silence of the perfumery school eerie at first, but it really helped to focus, especially in the beginning when you’re learning. Even today, I try to do most of my smelling in the first half of the day. May 29, 2013 at 10:46am Reply

  • Nate: Great quote! The same perfume can seem different to me depending on my mood. May 29, 2013 at 9:53am Reply

    • Victoria: It happens to me too. Whenever I feel stressed out, I can’t wear anything big and dramatic, because the smell begins to feel like an intrusion. May 29, 2013 at 10:50am Reply

  • solanace: Thank’s for still another thought-provoking post, V! Sometimes I like to simply enjoy art, without the straightjacket of theories that are always lacking in comparison to the works themselves. May 29, 2013 at 9:54am Reply

    • Victoria: Such interesting comments too, thank you in turn.

      I like to smell perfumes blindly, because it’s the best test. It’s very easy to be swayed by the brand and story, even if I’m consciously trying to avoid that. Smelling without any preconceptions, on the other hand, is revealing. This is how I’ve finally decided that I just don’t care for Patou Joy, its classical status notwithstanding, or that Serge Lutens’s Rahat Loukoum I’ve long coveted really smells like a drugstore almond candle (at least, to my nose and on my skin). May 29, 2013 at 10:54am Reply

  • OperaFan: Dear V – So very true! especially the last point. I always find that my “sniffer” is at its sharpest in the morning, and that I experience the same fragrance differently in the evening and the morning.

    I appreciate the talent of others to be able to pick out separate notes and accords in a fragrance, which I can only do in a limited capacity. However, in the end, I prefer to enjoy and experience the fragrance as an entity rather than by its separate components. Granted there are moments or passages in the wearing that smell and “feel” more special than others, just as certain phrases or passages in a musical work can touch my emotion/consciousness that makes the whole experience even more worthwhile.

    When I went to college in Baltimore and rode the bus home to NJ via Philadelphia on holidays, I used to listen to Beethoven’s 6th Symphony because it calms me and builds anticipation of going home. There are these little bursts or “explosions” that occur in the last movement of the work that remind me of fireworks. The waterfront houses and Greek Revival public structures along the Schuykill River and Ben Franklin Pkwy were all lit up at night, and I would time the start of the piece so that the bus would be driving by these buildings as these passages are being playing.

    It was magical. And I think we can achieve the same experiences with smell as we can with hearing. Not sure if I went off on a tangent – but your post just brought up this special little cache of memory.

    Cheers! May 29, 2013 at 10:14am Reply

    • Victoria: I just love this story! It made me think of Red, a French film from the trilogy of Red, White, and Blue. Music is almost like one of the actors in the movie, and the way it was woven into the plot is fantastic. If you haven’t seen it, I think that you would enjoy it.

      As to your other point, it also reminded me of a story a perfumer colleague told me. “I’ve once worked with a perfumer who had such a nose of a bloodhound,” she said. “He was the worst perfumer I’ve met. A total lack of imagination.” May 29, 2013 at 11:04am Reply

      • Ari: What a fascinating put-down! May 29, 2013 at 11:25am Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, that’s why I remembered it! May 29, 2013 at 2:52pm Reply

      • OperaFan: I DO remember seeing Blue, White, and Red!
        Granted, that was when the films were initially released. I was living in NY at the time and had easy access to the abundance of art house movie theatres in the city. It was so long ago that I cannot remember all the details, but I did recall all 3 separate threads coming together at the end. Red was my favorite. Thank you for the reminder – need to re-visit. 🙂 May 30, 2013 at 10:36am Reply

        • Victoria: Red was my favorite, and I loved the music and the dynamic between Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant. I had to look up their names, and as I googled, I realized with a start that it was released in 1994. And it felt like it was such a recent movie for some reason. May 30, 2013 at 10:58am Reply

    • maja: I love reading (your) reviews as it helps me understand the notes better and I think it is indispensable to sniff as much as possible. And no, it is not necessary for you to know what is in your perfume – I was 18 and loving the old Magie Noire with all my heart and no clue about the ingredients 🙂 However, I am always amazed by other people’s ability to verbalise and distinguish the notes or explain how a perfume evolves with such clarity. It is a skill but it is also a talent. The lack of that talent 🙂 does not prevent me from enjoying perfumes and smells in general – it opens the world of little olfactory delights continuously. There is, however, a question why some people are drawn to enjoy/discuss/care for or “feel” fragrances and smells more than others.

      ps. Speaking of Beethoven – I went for a run the other day on the hills near my house. Just as I was coming back and enjoying immensely the sea view, the light breeze and the smell of wild mimosas, my mp3 player chose randomly Beethoven’s 6th, the first movement “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country”. I simply had to shed a tear for the perfect moment in time – absolutely moving. 🙂 May 29, 2013 at 12:00pm Reply

      • Victoria: Maja, I can only speak based on the comments you leave here, but trust me, you have plenty of skill when it comes to telling notes apart and expressing what you love about scents.

        Your point about why some people like to analyze scents more than others is interesting. It made me think of a friend who works as a doctor and loves to bake bread. But she doesn’t just bake bread, she studies it the way she would study one of her medical cases. I love to bake bread too. While my baking is not nearly as scientific and analytical, my friend’s approach is fascinating. May 29, 2013 at 3:06pm Reply

        • Ariane: People on this site are so lovely,the stories with Beethoven’s symphony has brought tears to my eyes-but the article is also fascinating,I was just thinking about how little of the theory I know,even 3 years into my perfume obsession,and for the moment I am happy with learning through sniffing-how amazing that sentir in French means to smell and to feel! May 30, 2013 at 2:39am Reply

          • Victoria: I’m with you, Ariane. I’m grateful for these stories and that all of you share them. I went online and found Beethoven’s 6th symphony last night. Such an incredibly powerful piece! May 30, 2013 at 11:04am Reply

        • maja: You are always so kind. Thank you, I hope to learn so much more. 🙂 May 30, 2013 at 1:51pm Reply

      • OperaFan: The 1st movement of Beethoven’s 6th symphony was my absolute favorite piece of classical music in my teenage years. It touched me deeply in those early years, and still does whenever I have the occasion to listen to it.
        I still think of it as one of the great achievements in musical painting, romantically conceived within a set, classical symphonic structure. I think that some of the great perfume compositions were created with the similar manner of imagination and discipline. May 30, 2013 at 10:31am Reply

  • dee: i loved this V! what a beautiful way to begin the day, before my mind and nose are saturated…

    <3 May 29, 2013 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: You can even create your own mood by selecting certain scents. For instance, I only need to smell something with mandarin to feel festive (I associate them with Christmas). May 29, 2013 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Mary: Your mood affects the way you smell: very true. Before going to sleep I decide what to wear (clothes and perfume) the next day, but now and than I change the perfume!! Today Azyade by parfum d’empire!!! May 29, 2013 at 1:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: I do this too. This evening when I got home I really felt like something relaxing, so I picked Donna Karan Cashmere Mist, which wears like a soft, tender wrap. May 29, 2013 at 2:56pm Reply

  • Marika: I’m a perfume newbie and I find it reassuring that I don’t need to pick out notes. My nose isn’t sensitive like some people’s. May 29, 2013 at 1:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: Don’t worry about your nose not being sensitive, especially if you’re just starting to enjoy perfumes. This is something that comes with time, simply because you smell more. May 29, 2013 at 2:58pm Reply

  • becky: wow, this is interesting. i didn’t know perfumers didn’t like being called noses. i thought it meant the same thing as perfume creator. May 29, 2013 at 4:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Some don’t like it, but in general, yes, you’re right, it’s often used interchangeably with perfumer. May 30, 2013 at 10:24am Reply

  • Austenfan: I loved the nose/bloodhound comment in your post!
    Dogs are the perfect example of having amazing noses but (by our standards) very bad olfactory preferences. I ought to know, as I have a dog.

    It’s interesting though that our different senses affect us differently. I remember once watching an interview with Martha Nussbaum, in which she explained that she dealt with – I think- the loss of her mother, by listening to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder over and over again. Music as well as smell seems to be able to “bypass” our intellect. May 29, 2013 at 5:04pm Reply

    • Natalia: Ha ha! I have a dog and I know what you mean. May 29, 2013 at 5:36pm Reply

      • Austenfan: Let’s just say that they love indoles and leave it at that! May 29, 2013 at 5:38pm Reply

        • Natalia: If my dog were a perfumer, he would create Eau de Carrion. May 29, 2013 at 5:42pm Reply

          • Victoria: 🙂 When I was little, I had a cute, little dog that liked nothing more than to roll in the trash. So, her taste in scents was peculiar. May 30, 2013 at 11:05am Reply

    • Victoria: It makes so much sense to me. During a particularly difficult period I remember cooking a lot. I love to cook as it is, but the act of chopping, measuring, smelling spices to make blends made me forget about things that pained me at least for that moment. May 30, 2013 at 11:24am Reply

      • Austenfan: The series including this interview was broadcast on Dutch television in 1999.It was called: “Van de schoonheid en de troost” (Which I find hard to translate; schoonheid is beauty, troost is consolation) The whole series is available on DVD and the separate episodes are available for download, Nussbaum’s interview is in the second. It is subtitled in Dutch and not dubbed.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuQj5jQLCb4 May 30, 2013 at 2:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much! I’m going to watch them tonight. May 30, 2013 at 2:48pm Reply

  • Andy: I couldn’t agree more. When I am sampling a fragrance for the first time, I try to sample it in a neutral location, at a time when I’ll have a few hours alone. Then, as I keep wearing it, usually at scattered points over the next few days or weeks, I let myself get a full impression of the scent. My perception of a fragrance can be influenced very heavily by the way I was feeling, where I was, etc. during the first few times I sampled it. For some reason, those first impressions seem to color my view of a perfume significantly. I try to guard against the intrusion of too many initial influences, so I can let my emotional reaction toward the fragrance, and not my emotional state when I happen to be first wearing it, shape my view. May 29, 2013 at 5:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: You probably also had this happen to you when you smelled a particular fragrance on a bad day and the scent acquired an unpleasant association. It’s very hard to shake off. For this reason, I do all of my smelling before I start anything else, even better before I start reading my email. May 30, 2013 at 11:09am Reply

  • Natalia: I loved the part about he French verb sentir meaning “to smell” and “to feel”. Now that I got into perfume I regret I was a total slacker in my high-school French class. May 29, 2013 at 5:41pm Reply

    • Ra: You’ve not lost anything. Start now, at least you have the familiarity. May 30, 2013 at 7:33am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with Ra, you haven’t lost anything. Maybe, you already saw this blog, but Bela, a fellow perfume lover, created this great reference for pronouncing French words:
      Frag Name of the Day (a link in my Recommended Sites). It’s terrific! May 30, 2013 at 11:11am Reply

  • Cindy: Victoria, I love your blog and have since changed the way I choose my perfumes! No longer do I depend on Neiman Marcus or Other high end stores to find my scents… I am now interest in the hard to find Niche perfumes which are very hard to find in the US, Dallas in particular.. So thank you for opening my eyes to this new world.. I also,wanted your opinion on Attars. I have a friend who gets his in Dubai. The most glorious scent I have ever smelled. Supposedly made for Kings.. Do you know how to find some in the US???? May 29, 2013 at 9:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: Cindy, I’m glad that you’re enjoying your explorations! 🙂

      Have you smelled any of Amouage attars? They, at least, can be found at Aedes or Luckyscent (I think, but I’m not sure). The beauty of a well-made attar is in the quality of its ingredients, and I don’t know where in the US you can find the kind of attars available in the Middle East. On the other hand, Amouage or Montale could be a good start. I love Montale Black Aoud, for instance, but they have lots of different oud and rose based perfumes. May 30, 2013 at 11:21am Reply

  • Ra: This is so true, in one phase of my life all perfumes were just heavy and sickly. I was all about freshness, water, vegetable lol.
    Now I consider buying the likes of Prada Candy because I feel the need for that cozy, blankety feeling. May 30, 2013 at 7:32am Reply

    • Victoria: It changes, especially since our tastes always evolve. I also go from light to enveloping, sometimes even within the same week. 🙂 May 30, 2013 at 11:22am Reply

  • Ariadne: So I just found out from a friend that certain fish that go”home’ to spawn navigate back to ‘their’ river by the smell of the particular unique water they were born in. I mentioned to her that I can never forget the precise smell of the water in a river I grew up on and she told me this fact.
    I am also just now finding out now what those unidentified perfumes were that I smelled years ago in public places, That does not diminish the mystery they have held for me all these years. though!
    I am exceedingly nearsighted but appreciate that my sense of smell and hearing have become more acute to compensate for my near blindness. I am seeking out more scent memories now in the perfume world but am not finding the diversity I once enjoyed. I am nor sure why. May 30, 2013 at 8:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: This is such a poignant comment, Ariadne! It clicked with me too, because I also remember with surprising clarity the smell of the river where I swam as a child. I occasionally catch whiffs of it in the most unexpected places, and it is such a bittersweet feeling, the way childhood memories tend to be. May 31, 2013 at 11:12am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Technique is never a goal in itself. The ultimate goal of training is: being able to forget about it. You have to acquire a solid technique in order to achieve this. (The parfumer with the bloodhound nose was stuck in the technique, I suppose).
    If you don’t care about details, that’s ”ok too”, of course! But sooner or later you are aware of limits. That’s why we appreciate your articles, to widen or horizon. Your nose is trained, mine is not; this is not a complaint but the constatation of a fact.
    Of course my nose is trained in a certain way–smelling many perfumes over the years and reading about them, but that is amateurism.
    That doesn’t prevent me from having emotions, memories etc. ; ”smelling with the mind”. God forbid! But I think more training would give even more pleasure. May 31, 2013 at 5:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with you that technique is just a way to get there, and your comment about a perfumer with the bloodhound nose reminded me of many discussions I’ve had with my fellow dancers. Occasionally, you would see a beautiful dancer that can do perfect turns, perfect jumps, but their dancing doesn’t convey any emotion whatsoever. With perfumery, it’s similar, which is why many of us find that the fragrances which bear the author’s fingerprint resonate with us more. May 31, 2013 at 11:25am Reply

  • Figuier: Love that quote – it’s so true. The thing that fascinates me about ‘smelling in the mind’ is the way one can imagine or remember smells in the ‘mind’s nose’ (like the mind’s eye…) I find it much harder than visualisation and visual recollection, but still, certain well-known scents I can – almost -call to mind in full ‘3D’. Cut grass, chocolate, roses, cows (I grew up opposite a farm) are some of the easiest. I expect those with thorough training do this so much more effectively and vividly…must be great! May 31, 2013 at 9:31am Reply

    • Victoria: I was thinking that those notes–cut grass, chocolate, roses, cows–would make an interesting perfume! 🙂 From what I understand, the ability to recall scents has not that much to do with training, but more so, with the olfactory memories. No wonder that many perfumers come from perfumers’ families–they’ve been exposed to a wide palette of scents since they were children. May 31, 2013 at 1:57pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: I think that the confrontation with many scents is a kind of training already.
        Visual memory, auditive memory, olfactory memory (i.e. the ability to recall what you saw/heard/smelled) are presupposed faculties of the painter, the musician, the parfumeur.
        But what is talent without training? Even Mozart had to work on it. June 1, 2013 at 4:05am Reply

        • Victoria: Cannot agree more with you! Some of the most talented perfumers I know are the most hardworking ones. June 1, 2013 at 4:08am Reply

  • Carina: This post is beautiful and it sure makes sense. I also found this article quite interesting and this is the link: http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/01/04/depression-may-affect-smell/1738.html

    I sometimes feel that i spritz 6 times my edt or edp in my neck to feel a faint smell. Fortunately, when depression lifts, I can feel the perfume better. October 23, 2014 at 7:36am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for the link, Carina! It’s fascinating. October 23, 2014 at 7:55am Reply

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