A Classical Experiment : How to Learn to Smell Better

In my September 2018 newsletter, I shared an experiment with three perfume classics. While re-reading the Odyssey (see my fall reading list), I was inspired to turn to another favorite book, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I lingered over the scene when the sultry red-haired witch enticed women with the promise of “Guerlain, Chanel No. 5, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, evening gowns, cocktail dresses...”  Why not revisit them, I thought?

I decided to devote a few days to each perfume, wearing it every day and studying it closely. I also applied the three perfumes on blotters and kept them within reach to smell as often as I remembered, noting down the changes in scent and its intensity. In my newsletter, I proposed that you also do the experiment with these perfumes, but on reflection, you can repeat it with any fragrance you like. I recommend classics, because they are usually complex and they have elements that you’ll find in modern fragrances. It’s like reading The Odyssey to understand the famous tropes of Western literature.

The main thing to keep in mind–wear (or at least smell on a blotter) your chosen perfume for 7 days in a row. The experiment will not only make you understand the composition of your favorite, but will also teach you to smell better and with a new level of concentration.

For instance, Chanel No. 5, Mitsouko, and Narcisse Noir couldn’t be more familiar fragrances to me. I’ve worn them for several years, and I’ve studied them in perfumery school. Even so, the exercise revealed new layers.  I found an almond meringue twist in Guerlain Mitsouko and a minty green accent in Chanel No 5.

To recap: If you would like to repeat my experiment, try wearing these perfumes on your skin and smelling them on a blotter. A blotter will slow down the development, allowing you to notice more nuances. Keep the blotter for at least 24 hours and see how these great fragrances tell their stories over time. You don’t have to wear a single perfume for several days in a row, but try to smell it at least once a day during the course of a week. Keep notes and please share your impressions with me. (You can use the comment field under this article to do so.)

My future newsletters will feature more exercises and tips to sharpen your sense of smell, so please subscribe, if you haven’t already.

So, are you ready to join me? What perfume would you like to study?

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39 Comments

  • Matty: An interesting experiment September 14, 2018 at 10:51am Reply

  • Annie: A great idea! I’m going to try Guerlain Mitsouko and Frederic Malle Une Rose. I have only a sample of Mitsouko and I don’t quite get it so I hope the experiment will help me. Une Rose isn’t a classic but I like it a lot.

    Thank you! September 14, 2018 at 10:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Feel free to post questions as you test! September 18, 2018 at 3:05am Reply

  • John: A wonderful idea to apply to anything one considers a classic! I’d love to do it with some of my favourites, especially the process of selecting the suite of fragrances itself. I sometimes think that some of my favourites (Caron Pour un Homme, Habit Rouge, Egoïste, Zino) are all varied iterations, not only of the same notes or accords (lavender, geranium, vanilla, rosewood or sandalwood…) but, maybe, some of the same sensations, moods or impressions. Of course, the differences are as important as the similarities… September 14, 2018 at 12:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree! You can always compare and contrast your chosen perfumes, which is another great exercise. September 18, 2018 at 3:04am Reply

  • Sandra: Great idea V!
    I will join in on this… September 14, 2018 at 1:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Which perfumes will you pick? September 18, 2018 at 3:03am Reply

      • Sandra: I have a fragrance wardrobe from Chanel from the 90’s. I can start there?
        Allure Coco No22 No19 & No5 are in the coffret. Any suggestions of which to pick? September 19, 2018 at 9:41am Reply

  • Carla: I recently ordered several samples from luckyscent and perfumes court. I also ordered smelling strips. I dip the strip in the tiny sample and it is so interesting to think about the perfume this way. Amazing how much you can smell with so little on the strip. I do this rarely, only in the evening when I’m not too tired, but it’s a pleasure and an entertainment. So yes I have very recently discovered that the perfume unfolds more slowly and clearly on paper. I have been trying this with perfumes that are new to me but I should try with old favorites September 14, 2018 at 2:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s even better and more useful to do this exercise with the old favorites. I find that we tend to take our favorites for granted, so it’s always good to revisit them. September 18, 2018 at 3:03am Reply

  • Celeste Church: I like this idea! I’m going to try using vintage Givenchy Organza Indecence. I’m trying to tell the difference (and I’m convinced it’s there) between Indecence and Demeter Christmas in New York. For some reason my nose is telling me they smell just alike, which can’t be true. (Can it?). Maybe examining in this way will help me figure out why sad sad little nose is confusing a legendary Givenchy scent with a cheapie! Thanks for this idea. Excited to try. September 14, 2018 at 6:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds like a fine pick. 🙂 September 18, 2018 at 3:02am Reply

  • Qwendy: I love this idea, just the perfect thing at the perfect time for me! I think I am going to go for Vol de Nuit, Chamade and My Sin …. starting today the French Journée de Patrimoine 🙂 September 15, 2018 at 3:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Perfect! 🙂 September 18, 2018 at 3:01am Reply

      • Qwendy: For a perfume and food lover I am not at all good at picking out notes! First I tried Vol de Nuit Extrait (because the EDT lasts like 15 minutes on and off the blotter for me) and while I adored it, it held together so well I could barely detect development, even the next day, when it still lingered on the blotter, so gorgeous! Then I tried Private Collection with similar results. So today I am using LaPorte Chypre, for which I can discern more development, and My Sin, which I ADORE but can’t really pick out notes for. Maybe a bit of the problem is that I particularly love scents that are so masterfully blended that notes don’t stick out, and combined with my nose’s pecularity I can’t see the trees but the forest! But I am really loving discovering old faves I have had on the back shelf! Xxx September 25, 2018 at 12:46pm Reply

  • Ann Gibbon: Thank you for revisiting these perfumes. I wore two out of those three! I recently bough a favorite of mine – une rose (Frederick Malle/Flechier) – and was disappointed. It lacked the soft and deep rose scent and somehow smelled cheap. How can that be? I will try your method of reacquainting yourself with an oldie, and hopefully it will please my nose! September 15, 2018 at 6:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: My guess is that they’ve reformulated it again. September 18, 2018 at 3:01am Reply

  • Marie Jacques: Happened to come across your blog from Into The Gloss, and am so happy I did! Will be cruising through, trying to learn as much as I can. For my first study, I’ll be trying out Chloe’s Eau De Parfum. I’ve already noticed that environment definitely affects the scent of this perfume. Excited to share what I’ve learned. 🙂 September 16, 2018 at 12:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Chloe. September 18, 2018 at 3:00am Reply

  • Romi Grace: Hello! Would it be possible to request a post/article on a specific topic?

    I have adored Annick Goutal forever – but it is soo hard to find certain scents now that a lot have been discont’d over the years…does anyone here have any idea? beauty supplies are probably a good place to look…

    you can find bottles on ebay of course. Des Lys, Le Jasmin, hm…well I haven’t been able to find them self. Mon Parfum Par Cheri is also discont’d but there are a few bottles on ebay.

    Clearly the line is going through a transformation – the bottles/packaging have totally changed too…but there are so many wonderful perfumes worth looking over from the line still, of what remains of it. Plus, they recently came out with Chat Perché – for people 3 & up – I didn’t see a review of that one on here 🙂 Would love anyone’s thoughts on the new Eau de Ciel too – if it’s worth it…

    I find the line so romantic and saw on Alanis Morisette’s site that Des Lys is one of her favs… https://alanis.com/news/top-10-favorite-perfumes/ She writes very nicely of course.

    my beloved late (and coincidentally French) father used to buy perfume for my mother from AG in Paris & I grew up smelling Eau de Lavande, Eau de Camille & of course Petite Cherie – which I loved to wear as a young girl.

    sad they’re rumored to be cutting it down from 45 to 25 fragrances…it is interesting seeing how the line is changing…I wonder if there is backstock of the discontd perfumes you can order directly from them in Paris? Would love to know if anyone has any info about this 🙂 September 16, 2018 at 2:32am Reply

    • Victoria: They’ve done some reformulation too. Many changes in that company. As for the back stock, you’ll see it on EBay soon enough. September 18, 2018 at 3:00am Reply

  • Aurora: What a great experiment! I was trying to decide which perfumes to choose. Perfumes I haven’t used it in a while and would like to figure out. September 16, 2018 at 6:47am Reply

    • Victoria: It would be a good idea, since this way you can observe them closer. September 18, 2018 at 2:59am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Hi, very interesting idea. So I brought out my old Arpège by Lanvin. I have a large stock of various grades (edt and extraits), and I revisited especially my oldest edt. It’s in an old, flimsy and paper-thin cardboard box (yellow by age) and is called “Eau de Lanvin – Arpège” with a 85° in a circle.
    Quite wonderful and it brought back my remembrance at my initial horror smelling the strong aldehydes which at the time reminded me of cheap-cheap hairspray! The scent itself is a seamless mélange and it is impossible for me to pick out, say one single floral element. The dry-down is wonderful especially the creamy sandalwood which is very discernible.
    Yes, it is old-fashioned now but perhaps in a retro way quite new too as young people probably wouldn’t know the scent :-).
    The extrait has a denser feel, a luminous sparkle and a slightly boozy quality but otherwise is quite similar to the edt.
    What is amazing is the fact that the scent lingers on for ever, I smell it the next day.
    This longevity is also true for Nuit de Noël by Caron–here too: what an exquisite perfume! September 16, 2018 at 9:28am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a great description! I also agree with you on the drydown–creamy and soft. And old-fashioned it is, but I still enjoy that retro vibe. September 18, 2018 at 2:58am Reply

  • Aurora: I had fun deciding what perfumes would be part of the experiment. It’s going to be Sortilege, Ivoire (1st version), I hesitated because it’s obscure but I want to figure it out: Robert Beaulieu Vison Noir as a third.

    My nose tingled on application so I think, aldehydes and it is now at a very fruity stage: definitely fruits but not apples, rather cooked stone fruits, well blended, not acidic, fruit compote, I had forgotten it smelled so fruity. September 17, 2018 at 1:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a great lineup!

      I love how you’ve classified the fruity note. 🙂 September 18, 2018 at 3:14am Reply

      • Aurora: Thank you, Victoria, I did like that fruity stage. Late last evening I gave back to the blotter and added, creamy sandalwood.

        Today, I have been thinking about comparison. What sprung to my mind was Guy Laroche Clandestine, and Cassini which reminds me of GLC. And with that in mind went to the notes of VN on Fragrantica. It is listed, but notes are very succinct so I searched further and the notes listed in the comments and on Parfumo were filling out Fragrantica’s. Making note of plum which would be the stone fruit I got, and tuberose. And I felt genuinely on a winning streak when I discovered that Clandestine and Cassini also share plum and… tuberose. Loulou is another one with that combination which seems to be classic. This evening I am spritzing Clandestine and Cassini next to VN.
        Now I wonder if what I perceived as aldehydes are in fact citrus: bergamot and mandarin listed on Parfumo? September 18, 2018 at 2:17pm Reply

  • Aurora: Got back to the blotter – not gave back, sorry. September 18, 2018 at 2:58pm Reply

  • Marianna: This is my favorite book and the only book I enjoy reading in both English and Russian!! It is amazing how these brands are still enticing us!! September 19, 2018 at 6:15pm Reply

  • Em: What a great idea! I’m going with a Chanel theme. I’ll start with No. 5, and then go with the No. 19 and No. 22 in my collection. I’m confident the No. 5 is good, but not so much the 19 and 22. If nothing else, perhaps the latter two will teach me how to tell if perfume’s gone off.

    By the way, I’m from the US (sorry, everybody) and take comfort from this web site when the news is unbearable here, as it is today. September 28, 2018 at 2:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Please let me know how it went! October 2, 2018 at 5:20am Reply

  • Aurora: If it’s alright, I will continue with the experiment, next is Sortilege. First I wanted to say that I had so much fun testing Vison Noir, and it made me realize something very useful, my collection which has grown so much, needs editing… I shouldn’t have 3 plum and tuberose perfumes. But here you go, it’s too late for these three but I will be more prudent in future.

    Sortilege: I sprayed the eau de cologne and the pdt on blotters this morning and applied some cologne on my wrist, it is at first a delicate floral and I thought I dectected aldehydes in the top notes, this time I think it’s right because I couldn’t smell any citrus which I have sometimes mistaken for aldehydes.

    Now several hours later, on my skin the drydown from the edc seems to be very potent and I smell sandalwood, very smooth and creamy, and it is slightly powdery as well, and another note that I can’t identify, maybe a special musk. and on blotters I still detect florals, especially the edc which seems to have more throw, I think rose the most, and the scent is not as creamy as on my skin, where it really blooms. On purpose I hadn’t checked Fragrantica but now I see that lilac, narcissus and mimosa are listed notes that I didn’t really detect, but what an unusual mix of flowers and in the drydown are listed musk and labdanum.
    I will from now pay attention to the combination of sandalwood and labdanum because I discover that I love it unless it’s that unusual musk. October 6, 2018 at 12:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for sharing your impressions! Now I want to find my sample and try it alongside you. October 8, 2018 at 6:40am Reply

      • Aurora: Thank you so much Victoria, it’s an absolute delight to learn to know Sortilege better. This evening the pdt blotter still smells strongly of that drydown that so fascinated me and it is fainter with the edc. Oh, yes if you have a chance revisit!
        Next weekend I will experiment with Ivoire first version. October 8, 2018 at 2:27pm Reply

        • Victoria: Can’t wait to hear about it! 🙂 October 10, 2018 at 1:16pm Reply

  • Aurora: The last perfume I wished to understand better is Ivoire 1st version. On application of the EDT I recognize galbanum (I learned a lot about this note by wearing Vent Vert although my bottle is the 90s reformulation). At this stage it’s very green and citrusy. Then I smell spices, lots of spices in the extrait on the blotter, and there is a very pleasant bitterness edge more noticeable now that the galbanum is subsiding, for the moment I am surprised at how unchypre-like the scent is behaving because at the moment, I know Ivoire is supposed to be a chypre. I don’t smell white flowers rather I pick up an effect of red flowers, carnation and rose or geranium. Maybe it’s the spices so there could be cloves among the spices and I think nutmeg. What is most striking is the absence of sweetness that almost bitter aspect, not unlike J-L Scherrer. Overall the scent is very cool, but underneath I can detect a whiff of animalic nuance but I maybe mistaken. What strikes me is the elegance of this mix and its definite retro aura, no perfume on the market smells like this today. I doesn’t remind me of the modern Ivoire.

    The drydown: I don’t smell any patchouli, but I think oakmoss with its dark, damp undercurrent which I learned to recognize in Helena Rubinstein Courant and it still is slighty spicy on the blotter but no longer on my skin, and I think, vetiver, the parfum remains more flowery than the EDT. Above all it is not powdery at all, so very 70’s because of that.

    Conclusion: The word that comes up instantly is refined and balanced, this scent is complex, the most of the 3 in the experiment, it is not archetypal of a chypre, I know I will have not recognized many notes, and I will check that on Fragrantica in a moment. And very important for me, I will enjoy it most in the summer as it is so very green at the start.

    Thank you for reading, Victoria, this exercise has been very valuable to me. October 14, 2018 at 6:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Gosh, I’m enjoying all of your comments so much! October 15, 2018 at 9:56am Reply

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