Smelling in Colors : Blue

Do you smell in color? Or perhaps you associate scents with shapes, textures or tastes? For some people, a synesthetic perception of the world around them is part of their life. Synesthesia refers to a condition when the stimulation of one sense engages others, and some famous writers and artists like Vladimir Nabokov, Vincent van Gogh and Tori Amos are known to be synesthetes.

I don’t think of myself as a true synesthete, but over the years, I have developed a way of thinking about smells that has an element of synesthesia. Certain aromas evoke colors for me, and in my video and article today, I wanted to share my experience of scents that smell blue.

The fragrances that smell blue to me are the ones that contain vetiver. The roots of this Indian grass have a complex aroma reminiscent of fresh hazelnuts, salty driftwood and licorice, but in compositions, vetiver evokes for me a dazzling variety of blue hues, from cobalt to cyan.

Guerlain Vétiver, one of the truest vetiver perfumes in existence, smells like turquoise with hints of green. The Different Company Sel de Vétiver has glints of aquamarine suggested by its combination of salty woods and cardamom. Cardamom, by the way, smells like misty sapphire to me, which I sometimes explore to advantage by pairing it with blueberries in compotes and cakes.

Another blue perfume is Chanel Sycomore, except that this dark vetiver laced with cedarwood and balsams is of a more intense blue than the other fragrances mentioned.

I also cover other perfumes in my video and share the story of why Thierry Mugler’s decision to tint Angel blue was controversial at the time–and ultimately, successful.

Matching colors and scents is ultimately personal and idiosyncratic, but thinking in terms of hues when smelling is a great way to boost your creativity–and to make the world around you more vibrant.

Please share your favorite scent-color combinations!

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, mosaics of Isfahan.

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32 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this fascinating and entertaining post and video.

    I don’t think I’m a synesthete, either, but I do associate certain scents with particular colours, and I especially associate colours with shapes. For me, the cool colours have straight lines. Red is an oval, orange is round (because, to me, it is the warmest colour, like a drop of melted liquid), yellow is a longer oval than red, green is a longish rectangle, true blue is a longer rectangle, and violet is a shorter, rounded oblong (on account of the red and violet that it contains; its shape is a cross between those of red and violet). Black has no shape; it is an amorphous mass. White is a straight line, like white light. I have done a painting expressing my feeling for the shapes of colours.

    With perfume, on the other hand, my ideas of the colours are linked in some way to the colours of the flowers, or the packaging, or other associations. Many years ago, I made a list of colours, including gradations of each colour, and listed the fragrances I owned that I would wear with clothing of each of those colours. (I did the same thing with the four seasons.) The list is quite out of date, as I have acquired many scents since then. I must update it.

    Here are some examples of my pairings of scents and colours. Diorissimo is white, carnation scents like Bellodgia and L’Air du Temps are light pink, musk is bright pink (like the candy), Paris is the coral pink that is on the cap, rose is pink of various depths, or red, Chamade is red (like a heart), Lipstick Rose is ruby red, Ciara ranges from raspberry (funny, that) to burgundy, Shalimar is red and orange, fruit scents are the colours of their fruit (e.g. grapefruit, orange, lemon and lime), Mitsouko is coral pink, Tresor is the apricot colour of its rose (and the box), Angel is golden-brown (like caramel and chocolate), Sunflowers and Champs-Élysées are yellow, Herba Fresca is green, Le Dix, Insolence and violet are purple (surprise!), Pur Désir de Lilas is lilac (more surprise!), Poison is aubergine, liquorice and aniseed are black, and Beyond Paradise is multicoloured. I could go on and on but I’ll stop there.

    Blue scents include my favourite Clair de Jour (which makes me think of a clear morning sky, Oceanus, Bluebell, Blueberry (an old Avon body spray), Blue Grass, Rive Gauche, and – yes – L’Heure Bleue.

    Thanks again for your post. Writing down my associations has been fun. Also, were those hydrangeas that you were holding? My father and I so miss the blue hydrangeas he used to grow in his garden. They need a lot of water, and when we had a drought some years ago and were not allowed to water the garden, they died.

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline October 16, 2020 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t know what this variety is called. I bought for the color. It was even bluer when I first brought them home, but now they are starting to fade.

      I have a friend who is a true synesthete, and her associations of colors and scents are remarkably precise. We did the painting exercise together (the one I talked about in the video), and she could create really complex compositions. Even if I tested her with the same scents, she still painted the same colors.

      It’s also a good idea to play this game with someone else blindly, because we are too influenced by names and colors of the liquid. October 16, 2020 at 9:19am Reply

      • Tourmaline: I know the colour you mean, because Dad’s were a richer blue. For this colour, you need acidic soil.

        Your friend’s synesthesia is fascinating. That game is a great idea. I would definitely need to be blindfolded, because I am so influenced by names, packaging colours and so on. October 16, 2020 at 9:33am Reply

        • Victoria: You just need someone to hand you a blotter scented with perfume. Would your dad be up to try this game? It’s quite creative. October 16, 2020 at 9:36am Reply

          • Tourmaline: He would if I asked him to! Sadly, he has hardly any sense of smell, so it wouldn’t bother him at all! October 16, 2020 at 9:49am Reply

  • emercycrite: Interesting. I would’ve thought the colour blue would have a natural affinity for marine or light and airy scents. I picture vetiver as an olive or khaki sort of colour. October 16, 2020 at 8:58am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s not an association of color with color for me, it’s an association with the nature of the scent itself. I see it this way, but it doesn’t mean that others would see it similarly. October 16, 2020 at 9:15am Reply

    • Katherine x: emercycrite – you spoke my thoughts exactly. October 18, 2020 at 5:24pm Reply

  • Carla: I’m pleased you mentioned Tori Amos, such a creative talent! For me Guerlain Vétiver is more yellow. Caron Pour un Homme would be blue. I especially love the idea of this exercise now when here in the US I have been sucked into the media loop online – it will be a good way out to smell a few of my perfumes and see if I associate a color. October 16, 2020 at 9:55am Reply

    • Gabriela: Love Tori Amos, there’s a song called Down by the seaside, with Robert Plant, It’s very beautiful!
      A very interesting article Victoria, will be more aware of colors from now on. October 16, 2020 at 1:19pm Reply

  • N: I refer to my perfumes by color. I tend to see different colors as the notes develop during the course of wearing them. I’ve always seen colors in my mind for fragrances and it has always happened, so I never thought much about it. Aquatic fragrances are too obviously blue. A perfume that has a lot of blue to me is L’Air du Temps. Vetiver is a green color to me and is a very particular shade of deep velvety green. It is interesting to me that vetiver is blue to you. October 16, 2020 at 10:51am Reply

  • Muriel: Hello Victoria,
    Thanks a lot for this great post!!
    Two summers ago, I went to Isipca for a 2-week perfume training and Denyse Beaulieu gave us some blotters to smell and asked us to associate what we smelled with words, shapes or colours. I remember that she gave us a blotter with Twilly on it, and it smelled orange to me (but I had never seen nor smelled Twilly before, actually I had not smelled any perfume in years :D). And then, she said that someone in the packaging must have made the same link, because the box was indeed very “orange”. I particularly liked those exercises, because when you do them, you should really try to forget about the perfume composition. You just close your eyes and let your imagination guide you. I’ll try and find a “blue” perfume in the few samples I have at home!! October 16, 2020 at 11:09am Reply

  • Nancy A: Music particularly classical evokes color, food, wine all components to my personal sense of colors that lends itself to my fragrance choice at a given time to enhance my mood and stimulate what I will wear. Sadly, so many fragrances of late do not do anything for me. Interesting topic.
    I guess so many people are in good company. October 16, 2020 at 11:21am Reply

  • Ramin: Guerlain vetiver for me
    Study for Head of George Dyer by Francis Bacon 1967 October 16, 2020 at 12:01pm Reply

  • Damiana: I associate hues of blue/grey to incense and myrrh. Interestingly, Pantheon Roma Cosi’ Blu has a beautiful incense note. I also enjoy associating scents to textures. October 16, 2020 at 1:29pm Reply

  • CristinaM: To me. Chergui is brown (not only for the liquid), as is Amy Winehouse’s voice. October 16, 2020 at 2:31pm Reply

  • Fazal: You are quite independent when it comes to associating smells with colors. On the other hand, I concede that my associations have been mostly shaped by cultures and marketing efforts over the decades. Or in many instances, my visual observations form my smell associations. For instance, I associate aquatic notes with blue and grassy notes with green, and herbal or spicy notes with brown or red. October 16, 2020 at 7:35pm Reply

  • Peter: Mahalo Victoria, for this intriguing post. I would love to have the gift of Synesthesia. I remember reading patient experiences, under LSD, where they could smell colors. I wonder if this sense lies dormant in our minds.

    I tried to experiment with Hermes Vetiver Tonka and Sycomore. Alas, I couldn’t conjure up any colors. These are not fragrances I’ve worn recently. I enjoyed the contrast of the burnt caramel in Vetiver Tonka with the majestic smokiness of Sycomore. October 16, 2020 at 10:21pm Reply

    • Tourmaline: That’s an interesting question – whether the sense lies dormant in our minds, or at least the minds of some of us. October 16, 2020 at 10:53pm Reply

  • Lily: I don’t have synesthesia, but I am very alert to and aware of “harmonics” across multiple senses. Do the colors and the shapes, AND the texture of the garments and jewelry against my skin, AND the perfume I choose, all work together. Not matchy matchy, just…complementing or coordinating. Harmonized.

    There are certain scents I can only (Or at least very strongly tend to) wear with certain colors, and I might be surprised to find how many I only wear with certain colors without realizing. But the ones I know about:

    Atelier Cologne Sud Magnolia – this is such a big bright summer scent I can only wear it with hot pink. I mean if I wore orange maybe also a bright orange but orange and my skin tone are not friends

    Lolita Lempicka (original) – this is one of my blue scents. I can wear purple or grey but mostly I pair it with blue.

    Balenciaga Paris is my other blue scent. It’s like the violet and the leaves settle on the bridging color. I can wear with black or grey but mostly wear with blue.

    Hm. I will have to see if I notice other perfumes picking my outfit or being chosen by my outfit! October 17, 2020 at 8:17am Reply

  • crystalwrists2020: Great article! A blue scent to me is Oolang Infini by Atelier. I know the aquatic scents from the early 90s-now have long been associated with blue (and that makes sense for the most part), but they don’t get to have blue all to themselves! October 17, 2020 at 11:39am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Hello everyone, I don’t consider myself a synesthete but there is one instance that I experience (sound>colour), and that only in the concert hall or in the opera: when a crescendo is played with a hefty brass section (the more the better), say Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss, then I „see“ or „feel“ (?) a cloud of red light.
    As to perfumes, I have rational colour associations: vetiver to me is a dirty green/brown; Hermès‘ garden perfumes (Nil & Monsieur Li) are aquamarine; „white flowers“ perversely are orange; iris are grey; Chanel perfumes often are champagne-coloured etc. October 17, 2020 at 3:17pm Reply

    • Tourmaline: Perhaps the white flowers are orange for you because those flowers tend to have the strongest scents.

      That’s interesting about your association between grand crescendos and red. October 17, 2020 at 10:25pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: Orange: perhaps because the juice of Fleurs d‘Oranger (Lutens) is orange 😄 October 18, 2020 at 2:46am Reply

        • Tourmaline: You’d have a better idea than I! October 18, 2020 at 3:27am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Fascinating article. I associate white florals, especially jasmine, with the color green, tuberose sometimes with pink. L’Eau d’Hiver is light blue to me, an arctic blue. October 17, 2020 at 4:06pm Reply

  • John Luna: I love this idea! Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneering abstract artist & theorist, wrote compellingly about his childhood experiences with synesthesia and also made comparisons between music and painting via his two series, ‘improvisation’ and ‘composition.’ One thought that has interested me is that an ancient Greek argument is that visual art and writing are both narrative disciplines (we look to them for a story of subject matter), while architecture and abstraction are fundamentally abstract (the body experiences them as holistic impressions often before it seeks decipher any kind of progression of narrative). So many abstract painters (Kandinsky, Mondrian, Sonia Delaunay or Picasso & Braque in their early cubist works) mapped painting onto conceptual structures that related to either music or architecture. Hegel argued that colour was the key component of painting, but that it was so dynamic and diffuse that the artist had to effectively be a ‘magician’ in deploying it. I like this idea in relation to fragrance compositions, especially those of my favourite noses (like Edmond Roudnitska) who truly do seem like magicians to me.

    Anyway, I suspect that I’m not so synesthetic myself, as I do often make straightforward connections between the colours of food or perfume (or perfume labelling) and the colours they conjure up for me. One exception is that I tend to think of notes or accords as having their own colours and sometimes changing as the composition as a whole evolves. For example, Guerlain Vetiver seems like a pale grassy to mossy green to me overall, with the vetiver note accompanied by citruses (yellow-gold and pale blue) initially being a light but vibrant chartreuse before later, accompanied first by tobacco (tan & grey) and then by cedar and musks (sienna & pale grey respectively), as progressively an opaque, flat sunset peach then a soft grey-pink, the whole lined with the yellow-green gradation of a healing bruise.

    Caron Pour un Homme is certainly a lavender blue, but with the lavender note itself (an ingredient with so many aromatic facets) being alternately ultramarine (or maybe Yves Klein Blue), unmixed cobalt violet (I am a painter, so I think in pigments), a softy neutralized violet as you might get by mixing cobalt violet & Naples yellow, and also a pale green-grey. A dully metallic white-grey, like lead dented by a thumbnail, runs through it all… October 17, 2020 at 4:25pm Reply

  • Janet: One scent that I immediately connected with a color is Chanel’s Bois de Isles. To me this smells like burnished gold.

    The complete opposite is Chanel No. 19; cold and silvery. So is Rive Gauche for that matter. I tend to classify perfumes as warm or cool. And I guess I love Shalimar so much because it’s both. October 18, 2020 at 11:34am Reply

  • bregje sturkenboom: What an interesting subject.
    I have done this experiment several times with painting music.
    The results are so interesting because you essentially bypass the mind(if you are able to).

    I associate blue with water,healing and soothing,soft sensations.Spiritual also.There are so many shades of blue though.Indigo has an entirely different feel than turquoise or lavender.I suppose colours have that in common with scents
    incense would probably be more of a dark purple hue for me.
    Thank you for sharing.I’m going to explore this idea further;) October 19, 2020 at 6:54pm Reply

  • Jills: Victoria, first I love your blog so much. I have Synaesthesia and associate blue with iris, periwinkle with lavender. I associate Chanel#19 eau poudre with pastel blue and celadon. I can see Bois des iles as burnished gold but i also see a fleck of pink. I like fragrances where the colors blend well. Dawn Spencer Horwitz is a master at this. Her Chaitagnes du Bous is a favorite of mine this time of year in terms of fall colors and comfort. October 20, 2020 at 9:43am Reply

  • Margie Armour: I have heard that Laura Nyro did not read music, but composed her melodies in colors. Varying colors of blue for different notes.

    To me Shalimar smells blue

    I loved this article. I think I may have Synaethesia October 20, 2020 at 4:46pm Reply

  • Patricia Devine: I have synaesthesia with music, which I see in colours, but not so much with scent. But I do ‘see’ marine scents such as calone as blue. Oddly, although blue is my favourite colour and my house features it in every shade from sky through aqua to turquoise, I really dislike ‘blue’ scents and avoid calone like the plague. I will experiment a bit with blind-sniffing and see what comes up. October 24, 2020 at 3:47am Reply

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