A Splash of Color, A Dab of Perfume

The cherry blossoms in Central Park are not the only signs that spring has arrived in the Big Apple. When I notice that New Yorkers shed their habitual dark uniforms and incorporate a splash of color into their wardrobe, I know that winter is finally over. I start taking my lunch outside and find small open air coffee shops to enjoy some sunshine and people watching—one hour of la dolce vita, if you will. As I was observing a beautiful redhead in a pistachio green coat and pink shoes, I realized how energizing colors can be. I myself was dressed in grey jeans and a black sweater, hardly a dazzling color combination.

I could not go home and change, so I decided to fix my boring sartorial choice in the way most familiar to me. I returned to the office and put on some fragrance. In the perfumery school, we sometimes played a game where we had to smell a perfume and describe its scent in terms of colors. At first, I was skeptical about this exercise, because it seemed to me that such things are subjective. Jasmine might smell yellow to me, but pink to someone else, right? Well, the uncanny thing was that our descriptions often matched, even though we smelled everything blindly and didn’t discuss our answers. A spicy bombshell like Yves Saint Laurent Opium was brown, red and orange. A rich jasmine like Givenchy Ysatis would be purple and brown, and so on.

I know that there are some studies about synesthesia—a condition of mixed sensations, and perhaps there is a straightforward explanation of how this scent-color match happens. Or maybe we just were conditioned to think that spices smell red and woods brown. The fun aspect about this game was that it made me think about scents in new ways. And so I started to see the lemon yellow in Frederic Malle Carnal Flower and carmine red in Ormonde Jayne Woman.   Today, for instance, I am wearing one of my most colorful ensembles– Badgley Mischka Perfume, which to me smells shocking pink and bright purple. I have no illusions that it makes my weekend outfit of yoga pants and white T-shirt more exciting, but it sure does make me feel more upbeat.

What about you? Do you have perfumes that smell colorful to you?

Image: Dublin’s Secret Blast of Colour by Steve H via flickr, some rights reserved



  • Nancy: Victoria,

    First, welcome back and congrats on the new site. It looks good! If I’m not wearing a bright color (which I usually don’t since I lean towards what I refer to as my NY sooty black attire) the colors and scents definitely correspond. Balenciaga & L’essence are soft mauves, creamy white maybe because they have beautiful violets in the notes. This also sets a tone of emotion as well. April 14, 2012 at 11:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Nancy!!

      I love to dress up and I love colors, but there are days when it’s just easier to go with the flow and wear something simple and comfortable. Although I did wear my green dress the other day, so I’m not a total lost cause. 🙂 April 14, 2012 at 11:53am Reply

  • CM: I often coordinate outfits and perfume based on color. FM Iris Poudre is pink and I often wear it with lavendars. I agree that Balencia Paris is shaves of mauve/light lavender. Mimosa Pour Moi is also a very pale pink and sometimes pale yellow, and goes particularly well with jammies. I like to layer MpM with Dzing which reads brown and red to me. Another favorite, Infusion d’Iris, is light green just like the packaging.

    It’s interesting to me that as I get ready in the morning, I put together what I’m going to wear and then select a scent. If I put on a perfume and then change my mind about the clothing choice, it’s tough! For instance, I could never wear Iris Poudre with my red sweater. April 14, 2012 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love this idea! Seems like a fun way to create your own perfume wardrobe and to enjoy it. April 14, 2012 at 2:47pm Reply

  • Nicola: Nearly a year ago a lovely guy who was studying all things olfactory gave a series of talks on synasthesia through Le Labo and using their shop in London and some of their materials. It was fascinating and great fun. We just dealt with single notes but still the point was made. Painting neroli and using the keyboard to play frankincense was illuminating as all those present turned to very similar colours/notes. Mitsouko is one of my favourite coloured perfumes, all burnished hues of yellow (with a touch of pink/red) green and brown. April 14, 2012 at 2:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: I once tried it with a group of kids from a local school, and they painted colors with such gusto that they ended up painting all themselves too! But in the end, nearly all of them painted Pleasures as pink, blue and yellow and a cinnamon based accord as red and orange.

      Like you, I think of Mitsouko as burnished gold and warm tones. April 14, 2012 at 2:15pm Reply

  • iodine: Sure, all my perfumes have a colour! Vamp à NY, for instance, is orange yellow, Bornèo is dark brown, Avignon is deep grey with a bluish hue, Farnesiana is creamy white, Azemour is dark green… I enjoy this kinds of synaesthetic games a lot, I also love to match perfumes with the music I’m listening in the underground getting to work!
    BTW, I love your new website! April 14, 2012 at 2:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you!
      I enjoyed the Scented Opera at the Guggenheim Museum a couple of year ago–they used perfume as a scented soundtrack. There were some drawbacks–the scents were accumulated towards the end, but overall it was very interesting.

      Azemour also smells like something dark green to me. And I just realized that I never reviewed it for some reason. April 14, 2012 at 2:51pm Reply

  • Susan Marmé: I can’t wear scents that smell green/brown to me with clothing in the blue/black range. Examples of green/brown: Coriandre, first Prada, Cuir Béluga, Cristalle, Feuille de Réglisse. Examples of blue/black: Murasaki, Rive Gauche (as was), Guerlain London, le De, Very Valentino. Opium and a few other orientals are more flexible. April 14, 2012 at 3:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your comment reminded me that I haven’t worn Le De in a while. Such an elegant, sophisticated fragrance. I know that it was reissued a few years ago. April 14, 2012 at 3:51pm Reply

  • Lavanya: Enjoyed your article V- I find this subject fascinating (these kind of crossmodal sensations)..You are right- often people seem to associate some scents to similar colors and like you said I don’t know if that is because of some kind of conditioning or there if it is something more fundamental..
    (not to advertise or anything like that-only to add to this conversation. feel free to delete the link if necessary) I discussed something similar here: http://purplepaperplanes.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/describing-smells/ April 14, 2012 at 9:37pm Reply

    • Undina: I thought that the topic seemed familiar! 🙂 I’ve answered the similar question already. April 15, 2012 at 3:50am Reply

    • Victoria: Like Undina, I didn’t think of scents and colors before, so I think that the conditioning has something to do with it. Also, as I was writing about perfume more and more, I was trying to figure out ways to describe scents. And colors and shapes seemed like a natural way to go. Now, it is second nature.

      But I am far from being a complete synesthete. Synesthetes like Nabokov, who saw letters in different and very specific shades, always fascinate me. April 15, 2012 at 10:38am Reply

      • Lavanya: Yes, I am not a hard wired synesthete either but synesthesia fascinates me too!…You are right- I think conditioning has a lot to do with it since we seem to have built a larger ‘visual vocabulary’.
        But I think there has to be some degree of cross-wiring for metaphorical language to have developed, no? There is a recent neuroscience study about audio-visual interaction that sort of addresses this interaction between different senses. I’ll post about it once it is published..

        [I really enjoy nerdy conversations especially when art and science cross paths..:)..I loved chemistry growing up but haven’t had much chemistry after the first year of undergrad- so I am going to have to pick your brain about book recommendations that will allow me to read about and understand fragrance chemistry. Especially that book you posted about recently] April 15, 2012 at 3:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: Have you read Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory”? I recommend it wholeheartedly in any case, but since we are speaking on synesthesia, it is interesting. He distinguishes sounds of letters in different languages by colors and explains how he sees them. That is quite interesting. I recently re-read “Speak, Memory” in Russian. It is one of the books I return to again and again.

          As for the fragrance chemistry books, ask away! I would be glad to help. April 15, 2012 at 3:37pm Reply

          • Lavanya: No I haven’t- I’ll try to get a hold of it.

            So my fragrant chem question: To read the Molecular world of odors- what chem book would you recommend as a good basic chemistry/molecular structure refresher of sorts? April 15, 2012 at 3:41pm Reply

            • Victoria: I would first read Charles Sell’s The Chemistry of Fragrances: From Perfumer to Consumer first to get the most out of Scent and Chemistry. It covers different topics of fragrance chemistry as well as the way R&D functions. A good read. April 15, 2012 at 3:51pm Reply

          • Lavanya: ooh- I just found Speak, memory in my library- will borrow it- Thanks!! April 15, 2012 at 3:42pm Reply

            • Victoria: You are about to discover something very special and beautiful. I still remember how inspired and moved I was when I first read “Speak, Memory.” April 15, 2012 at 3:53pm Reply

  • Lavanya: oh and to answer your question- yes, perfume does smell ‘colorful’ to me..so Parfum de Therese is a golden yellow light, PdN is a lighter yellow with a greenish tinge, and Aftelier Lumiere is an almost off-white translucent yellow..Chypres like Miss Dior and Jubiliation 25- are golden-amber colored but I also see them as textured liked an amber-colored netted material..:) April 14, 2012 at 9:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: And thank you for a link! I’ve discovered your fig kheer, which I really want to try. And by the way, you have some of my favorite food blogs in your blogroll–it is like seeing the familiar faces. 🙂 April 15, 2012 at 10:40am Reply

      • Lavanya: Thanks for stopping by, V. If you do make it-let me know how it turns out..:D It was such an impromptu recipe – I’d love to know if it is any good (I need to make it again too).

        Yes- the perfume and food blog on the list were the ones I started with 5-6 years ago (and still read!). I do need to update my blogroll with the newer blogs I’ve started reading and of course your new website..:) April 15, 2012 at 3:27pm Reply

        • Victoria: Have you seen this blog: http://www.themahanandi.org/?

          I love Indira’s recipes and made many of them already. She has not been posting many recipes lately, but her archives are packed with interesting information.

          I will definitely try your fig kheer. Considering that rice desserts and figs are among my favorite things to eat, your combination seems so good. April 15, 2012 at 3:45pm Reply

          • Lavanya: V- yes I have seen Indira’s blog and have used it as a reference for some Andhra dishes! Do you have any must try dishes from her blog?

            Two of my favorite blog recipes are the Udipi Sambhar from Padma’s Kitchen and the potato stew (ishtu) from jugalbandi.org- you must try them if you haven’t already. Also the aloo-do-pyaaza recipe from ghar-ka-khana.blogspot.com is very simple yet delicious (especially with roti/whole wheat tortillas)..Ok- I’ll stop before I get carried away further. It is lunch time here, so that explains my frantic recipe recommendations..lol April 15, 2012 at 4:19pm Reply

            • Victoria: Oh, feel free to give more recommendations! I am going to try aloo-do-pyaaza tomorrow, since I have everything for it.

              Indira’s vegetable recipes are fantastic, especially her recipes with ridgegourd, which until then I haven’t tried:
              Ridge Gourd Kura (Beerakaya Kura)
              Ridge Gourd-Dill Kura (Turai-Suwa Curry)
              Ridge Gourd-Methi Curry (Beerakaya Menthi kura)

              I’ve learned making idli from her blog as well as many Indian sweets. I have plenty of other recipes, but her clear instructions were the best guidance. Indian sweets fall into the category of candy making, which was new to me. April 15, 2012 at 7:40pm Reply

              • Lavanya: Beerakaya/ridgegourd is a vegetable that I didn’t pay too much attention to till I tasted my MIL’s dishes that featured them like kura and pacchadi which is kind of like a chutney (my husband is from Andhra)..I will try those that you mention too- Thanks! I think I made pesarattu using Indira’s recipe and it turned out pretty great. April 15, 2012 at 7:48pm Reply

                • Victoria: I love those Andhra-style chutneys. They are so good in sandwiches too.

                  A lot of vegetables that Indira uses were completely new to me as well, mostly because they are not used as much in the areas of India where I traveled the most. Lemon cucumber is another discovery. It is so good–tart and refreshing. Indira has a recipe for lemon cucumber dal, and I loved it. April 15, 2012 at 10:33pm Reply

  • Undina: As when I answered Lavanya’s question nine months ago, today I’m still “color-blind” when it comes to perfumes: I do not see them in colors. As well as I almost never have any visual images associated with perfumes. Tastes, memories, literature associations but almost never colors or images. April 15, 2012 at 3:57am Reply

    • Victoria: I think that our perceptions change over time, but because I had so much trouble initially believing in this scent-color link, I asked many people who worked with fragrances their opinion. Well, not all perfumers think that it holds any water and many would say that they don’t think in colors at all. So, it really depends on what makes it easier for you to remember smells and to evoke them later. April 15, 2012 at 10:43am Reply

  • Zazie: Smells *are* colored! At least my perfumes are!
    Carnal flower is shimmery green against a dark brown color; OJ frangipani is all pretty pinks and yellows…some smells are also sounds: isn’t n.5 parfum a Mozart symphony? Tubereuse Criminelle a movie soundtrack? The latter is all green and violet – I think the packaging and the blue Turkish quartz tile on which it stands have something to do with the violet tinge.
    Now, call me crazy, but to me some perfumes are not only colored, and musical, but they also perform actions. Shalimar and Mitsouko always smile, while BK beautiful amber oud comforts me in a melancholic embrace…
    P.s. If you go on FM’s website, all of his perfumes are associated with beautiful abstract pictures, colored accordingly with the fragrance… April 15, 2012 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Not crazy at all! Scents and sounds make a lot of sense–some are high-pitched, others are low and sonorous. At Sephora’s Sensorium event, the scents were connected with the images and sounds. That was pretty interesting.

      Now, you’ve made me wonder for what movie would Tubereuse Criminelle would work as a soundtrack? 🙂 April 15, 2012 at 10:48am Reply

  • Meg: Congrats on the new site. We’re on the same page with our synethesia, as my notes for Carnal Flower say “colour bright yellow.” April 15, 2012 at 3:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Meg!
      Carnal Flower always makes me feel as if I am wearing a bright yellow dress. I wore it for my wedding–and my outfit was yellow and green–so it was a perfect match. April 15, 2012 at 3:47pm Reply

  • Alyssa: What a fascinating post and conversation! (And I adore the photo you used to illustrate the post, too.) Like you, I am suspicious of how universal such characterizations are–I think they probably have a lot to do with one’s cultural and personal memories–but more and more I am coming around to the idea that we are hardwired for some of this stuff.

    For me, perfumes have color, texture, mood, action, and personalities. They also evoke places and circumstances. What some see as a difficulty–the lack of a cultural vocabulary for scent–I find freeing. More room to project my own fantasies! 😉 April 15, 2012 at 5:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s my attitude as well, which is probably why I could keep on writing about perfume for so long. The lack of vocabulary never feels like an insurmountable issue, but the lack of imagination that I see in the press releases does. Why is perfume always described in such ridiculous terms by the fragrance copywriters? April 15, 2012 at 7:31pm Reply

      • Alyssa: Ha! Just finished selecting my finalists for NST’s Prix Eau Faux. Honestly, sometimes I think perfume companies assume no one reads the copy. I can think of no other explanation for some of the badly translated, un-proofread ridiculousness that we see. April 15, 2012 at 8:59pm Reply

        • Victoria: There have been times when I’ve read entries in the Prix Eau Faux contest and for a second I thought that I’m reading an actual PR announcement. 🙂 April 15, 2012 at 10:37pm Reply

  • Alyssa: P.S. Must now read Speak, Memory which I’ve put off because of my ambivalent feelings about Nabokov. And regarding Lavanya’s comments, I’ve always hoped you would be the one to give us a book that made the poetry of perfume chemistry visible. I love the ideas and connection making of chemistry, but so far I have not been able to get past the long, unpronounceable names and the baffling diagrams. April 15, 2012 at 5:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Other than you and maybe two-three other people, I don’t see such a book luring many people, including a publisher. 🙂

      I have my own ambivalent feelings about Nabokov, especially given his remarks about female writers. Is that what you meant as well? April 15, 2012 at 7:33pm Reply

      • Alyssa: Perhaps you are right. *Sigh* And yet–Natalie Angier! Diane Ackerman! There are ways of making science sensuous and lyrical and when people succeed they rocket straight to the top of the lists…

        As for Nabokov. His supreme self-confidence, while warranted, always made me think of him as a very uncomfortable person, inclined to judgment and contempt. Not someone I really want to hang out with, which is what one does in a memoir. And yet, the writing… April 15, 2012 at 9:01pm Reply

        • Victoria: There are so many beautiful, lyrical passages in “Speak, Memory” that the image you mention doesn’t haunt the memoir. Plus, he is writing as an exile, trying to recreate the world that vanished overnight for him, and it gives a very different flavor to the writing. April 15, 2012 at 10:44pm Reply

  • Erin: Well, I have to say I was a believer about colour/scent synesthesia, and I know a few hardcore synesthetes, like Musette (Anita) over at Perfume Posse, who sees numbers as colours… but I have to admit that reading the comments has made me skeptical! Apparently the colour associations are not as universal as I thought.

    I mean, I think your painting exercise with the kids makes sense, because assumably elemntary students are young enough that they don’t associate Ystasis with purple because the bottle and packaging has been purple. So, fair enough, pastel pink for Pleasures. But for all of us fragrance obsessives, I think it might be hard to tease out when we’re not being affected by an association. Do I think of green and black for OJ Woman because that’s what I picture when I smell or because of TS’s review in Perfumes: The Guide, for example? Is Azemour green because of the label? (Andit’s not green for me, actually.) It’s interesting, because some of the “smell paintings” on the FM website seem instinctively (hard-wiredly) right to me. I think, though, that others might have different opinions of the exact same paintings. April 16, 2012 at 11:35am Reply

    • Victoria: The fragrances used as part of the game were labeled A, B, C, D, etc and came in simple lab vials. Otherwise, yes, the color of the packaging and the scent-color perception is difficult to separate. So, it was most interesting to observe what kids were painting, because they were guided by their instincts.

      I was reading recently how Seven Up (or maybe, it was Mountain Dew) changed their packaging to be a shade lighter, and the consumers started to complain that the company changed the formula. The drink recipe remained the same though! So, Seven Up had to go back and change the color back to the original. April 16, 2012 at 11:42am Reply

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