Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, Guerlain Shalimar, Bulgari Black, Annick Goutal Sables, Chanel Cuir de Russie, anything with woods. The only thing these perfumes have in common is that I disliked them after my first encounter and now they’re among my favorites. I even remember giving away a bottle of vintage Guerlain L’Heure Bleue because I dismissed it far too quickly. Now I want to kick myself! So please don’t repeat my mistakes. If you’ve ever taken one whiff of a perfume, determined that you didn’t like it and crossed it off your list, you might as well not have bothered to smell it. Making a decision based on one sniff would be like deciding that one doesn’t like Tolstoy based on the first page of War and Peace.
Any scent, however simple or complex, requires more than one encounter. For instance, professional tasters believe that it takes 5 to 10 tries to determine if you dislike a flavor, and the same theory can be applied to perfume. Since a fragrant blend will change its character and even style over time, it’s especially important to be patient. Even the mood in which you smell can play a crucial role in shaping your judgement.
But why should we bother with something we don’t like? Aren’t there enough scents out there with which we immediately click? There is a fine balance between forcing oneself to like something and keeping an open mind to new sensory thrills. The biggest satisfaction and the most exhilarating pleasure of perfume is in discovery. All of us naturally gravitate to some types of aromas, but when you push the boundary a bit, you can find many treasures.
By the same token, if something is immediately likable, there is always the danger that the perfume will end up boring you and the half-finished bottle will just sit on your dresser. If I continued to rely only on my innate love for anything white floral, I would have a battery of simple jasmine and orange blossom blends on my dresser. But an intriguing blend may end up thrilling you for years to come. Today, when I wear the smoky Bulgari Black, I don’t think of “burnt rubber,” but of incense scented tea and bonfires. Every time I wear it I discover another layer, another twist, another surprise.
Savoring is how I prefer to think about smelling. When I have a pile of samples on my desk, instead of scarfing down one scent after another, I would rather savor them over a period of time. Of course, it’s tempting to dab everything on my arms at once, but the enjoyment is often in the anticipation of pleasure.
I enjoy perfumes much more when I let them tell their story slowly. Sometimes I wear the same perfume for several days in a row. Or I may keep a scented blotter on hand to take little whiffs as I work. While it would be unrealistic to devote several days or weeks to each scent, I nevertheless challenge myself. I repeatedly wear scents that don’t immediately appeal to me and occasionally I score a nice surprise, whether it’s the fun and fruity Calvin Klein Downtown or the musky Chanel No 19 Poudré. Over time, it becomes easier to differentiate between scents you don’t like and those you don’t like but that seem like they’re worth pursuing.
Another great part of savoring scents is that taking things slowly helps to control the expense of a perfume hobby. Perfume is a luxury, but enjoying scents need not require a big bank account. You can get free samples at Sephora or acquire a few vials from various sampling services for the same price as that of a couple of Starbucks lattes. Drawing out the pleasure of a single sample vial is an infinitely better experience than taking many sniffs from different bottles.
Last but not least, please don’t feel like you have to like the much lauded fragrances. Classics were crafted in an era when the creators didn’t fear to challenge the perfume wearers, and they deliberately sought to provoke an emotional response. As a result, many classics are polarizing; they were never meant to have wide appeal. You may never care for Guerlain Mitsouko, nor understand all the fuss over Chanel No 22 and you may even hate Serge Lutens Féminité du Bois. Give them a fair chance, but don’t feel guilty if there is no match made in heaven for you. Our scent preferences are complex and highly individual, but it’s all part of the fun.
Are there any perfumes about which you’ve changed your mind? Do you have any of your own smelling tips?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin