Could other factors, apart from the aroma itself, influence our perception of perfume? Yes, of course, and this is not limited to fragrance. Elisa explores the topic.
A few years ago, I went to a nearby wine shop to stock up for a weekend in the mountains with some old college friends. A representative from a local winery intercepted me in the red blends aisle and implored me to try a bottle of his family’s wine. Colorado is not known for its vineyards, but I went along in the spirit of adventure, bonhomie, and perhaps a touch of pity.
When we got to the mountains, I warned my friends (occasional wine snobs) that I couldn’t vouch for the quality of the local wine. Since we were all sure it would be bad, we saved it until the end of dinner, a couple of bottles in. When we finally opened and tasted it, we were blown away—it was utterly unusual, with the complexity and creaminess of a good Bordeaux but some additional, unplaceable quirk that made it compulsively drinkable. I was sad when it was gone.
Back in Denver, I went to some lengths to procure more of it. I couldn’t remember the exact name of the vineyard—just that there was a pheasant on the label—and the shop seemed to be out of it. They eventually found the last two from the case in their basement and sold them to me. But when I tried it again, at home, it was nothing special—not bad by any means, but with none of the exhilarating je ne sais quoi I remembered. Were these bottles from a different batch? Did I not let it breathe enough? Or had it been the good company and our low expectations that made it taste so good in the mountains? I’ll never know.
Perfume is just as mercurial as wine—context can change everything.
Love by association
Sometimes a perfume doesn’t speak to me until I associate it with a friend. Years ago, I interviewed Alyssa Harad over Skype in support of her then-new book, Coming to My Senses. She mentioned that one of her all-time favorite perfumes is Chanel Coco. I had never connected with Coco—it just seemed too baroque and “adult” for me—but she sent me a bit of her vintage parfum, and this felt to me like a new introduction to the scent. Suddenly I wanted to like it, and found that I did. Now I always think of Alyssa when I smell Coco.
The charm of hand-written labels
Another dear friend, formerly local and now living abroad, passed several partial bottles of perfume on to me before she moved. Among them are scents I probably never would have given much attention to, in other circumstances. Take Tocca Margaux—I can’t keep the Tocca names straight and tend to just skip over them at Sephora, but it’s become a go-to comfort scent, my fragrance white noise. And then there’s Sensuous Nude; when I first tried it at a department store, I thought it smelled like Coppertone, period. But I gave it another shot once I knew my friend loved it, and now I love it too. (It does smell like suntan lotion—but better!) She also gave me a whole box of samples, which I treasure because the composite smell reminds me of her.
There’s a review in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide in which either Luca Turin or Tania Sanchez (I can’t recall which, nor the perfume in question) writes that he/she thought it was dull when approached as a feminine but, when he/she realized it was for men, suddenly thought, “Oh, not bad!” The implication is that we lower our expectations when we sniff men’s fragrances, but there are other ways that gender affects how I perceive perfume.
It’s a bit of a Cosmo cliché for women to say they find wearing men’s “colognes” sexier. (Before she was the face of Coco Mademoiselle, Keira Knightley claimed to only wear men’s fragrances: “I didn’t want something light and flowery—I’m not that kind of girl.”) But what I really love is when men wear more typically feminine notes, like gourmands or anything floral. For example, most days the vanilla in Bulgari Black is a little too sweet for me, but I love it on my husband, on whom the sweetness seems more surprising, and therefore more arresting.
Passage of time
One of my favorite perfume-life phenomena: when a scent I didn’t use to care for suddenly clicks. This happens on occasion with mainstream releases that didn’t impress me at launch time but, after five to ten years, they start to smell interesting. Take Miss Dior Chérie—it initially smelled to me like cheap canned beer. Now I find its effervescent strawberry-patchouli accord charming, even nostalgic. Maybe it’s because it no longer blends in with everything else that was following the same trends circa 2005; maybe it’s because mainstream releases get worse every year!
Other times, I just need time to learn to love a fragrance. I’ve blind-bought a handful of perfumes that at first seemed like big mistakes. Eau de Joy was shockingly animalic on first sniff; I could barely find the rose through all that horsey jasmine. Paloma Picasso smelled bitter and dated and deeply not me. Luckily I hung on to them long enough to discover the beauty I was missing. A decade later I’d give Paloma Picasso an 8 or 9 on the me scale, and Eau de Joy is one of the rosiest roses I know.
Has a shift in context ever changed your perspective on a perfume?
First image: Komura Settai (1887-1940), Autumn Leaves. Photography by Bois de Jasmin. Second: Elisa’s perfume samples.