Does salt have a scent? “It depends on what salt you’re talking about,” says Benoît, who hails from Guérande, a French town in southern Brittany famous for its salt marshes. We meet by chance at an airport lounge, and as he observes a book I’m reading, Jean-Claude Ellena’s Le Parfum, we strike up a conversation about scents. “Guérande’s fleur de sel smells of violets.” As he explains, refined table salt is about 97 percent sodium chloride and it’s virtually scentless, but sea salts from different regions have impurities that give them a distinctive flavor and scent. Fleur de sel is hand harvested salt from the tops of salt marshes, and while Benoît is passionate about it, he urges me to try different salts and compare. “If you create a perfume based on Guérande’s fleur de sel, please let me know,” he says as we bid each other goodbye.
While I’m yet to visit Guérande to experience the violet perfume of its famous salt ponds, I’ve been noticing the salty nuances in my perfume bottles. My salt collection has likewise grown. Even the sharp iodine scent of table salt now seems obvious to me, not to mention the roasted aroma of Korean bamboo salt or the earthy bite of Javanese lava salt. I’m suddenly discovering a whole new universe of saline flavors.
Along with sweet, sour, bitter, and umami, salt is one of the five basic tastes and it’s much easier to understand it as such–the sensation that you experience when a salt crystal melts on your tongue. But in perfume, the effect can also be distinctive. Spray The Different Company’s Sel de Vétiver or Lalique’s Encre Noire and notice the briny note that you can almost taste.
It’s not a coincidence that I named two vetiver based fragrances as my examples of salty notes in perfumes. Vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanoides) tolerates highly saline soils and absorbs some salt into its roots. There is an unmistakable salty nuance in vetiver oil, a complex material that could be a perfume by itself.
The salt crusted wood shavings, green grapefruit and licorice facets of vetiver have been explored in all of their savory beauty by fragrances like Guerlain Vétiver, Chanel Sycomore, and more recently, Olfactive Studio Flashback. Vétiver and Sycomore augment the natural facets of the root by making the licorice smell more anise like, grapefruit–more bitter, woods–more complex. Flashback, on the other hand, weaves vetiver into a rhubarb-apple dessert. The salty, marine twist is what keeps it intriguing and not exactly edible.
Benoît wasn’t exaggerating when he said that Guérande’s fleur de sel smells of violets. A research study sponsored by Givaudan uncovered various types of ionones, molecules with a violet-like odor, in the aroma of certain salts. Violet is somewhat of a chameleon, and if it’s paired with floral, fruity notes as in Frédéric Malle Lipstick Rose or Yves Saint Laurent Paris, it takes on a spun sugar sweetness. But in Annick Goutal Duel and Lez Nez The Unicorn Spell, the violet is salt sprinkled and green. Another take on Paris, this time by Balenciaga, goes into the green, crunchy direction. The salty part comes in the top notes and reminds me of sea salt and pepper sprinkled on lettuce leaves.
Modern research is also responsible for the sea salt accords that have appeared in some recent fragrances. In Jo Malone’s Blue Agava and Cacao, the salt note, or rather an accord of several notes mimicking the scent of sea salt, offsets the sweetness of chocolate and berries. Another salted perfume is Yves Saint Laurent Saharienne, a citrus cologne based on jasmine. The salty note is subtle, but it gives this simple perfume a much needed kick.
Salty effects in perfumes need not be deliberate, and various mineral, marine and earthy notes can give a briny illusion, from the earthy accents in Parfum d’Empire Azemour les Orangers to the seaweed like aroma in Hermès Eau des Merveilles. Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena admits that he prefers salty notes to sweet, and many of his fragrances have a briny accent. In Epice Marine, the salty seaweed (a synthetic molecule algenone) is married to citrus and spices, while in Terre d’Hermès, the vetiver is brined and mixed with mineral dust. It may be my own fancy, but when I smell Ellena’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, which he created for Bulgari, I swear I notice a violet-like fleur de sel note. I wonder what Benoît would have thought about that.
Now, it’s your turn. What perfumes smell salty to you?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, Persian blue salt