Why Bad Smells Are Important in Perfumery

One of the paradoxes of perfumery is that to create a good smell, you need a bit of funk. A strawberry accord won’t smell convincing without a sulphurous accent. Recreating a dewy white blossom requires the same substances that are present in horse sweat. There is even a space in every perfume lab devoted to materials with strong, reeking odors, and it’s appropriately called “the stinky room.” Next to the roses and vanillas in a perfumer’s palette, notes reminiscent of dirty hair, musty fur, burnt toast or decaying fruit have their place of honor–costus, musks, civet, pyrazines and many other pungent ingredients. They may be used in small quantities, but they’re important enhancers, giving vibrancy, texture and spice to an otherwise conventional fragrance.

Traditionally, the raunchy notes in classical perfumery were of animalic origin—musk, civet, and ambergris. Today they have been replaced by their synthetic analogs, but they play the same role, warming up a composition and giving it a lush character. Chanel No 5 wouldn’t be the marvel that it is without a cocktail of musks that lingers under the layer of champagne-like aldehydes, rose and jasmine. In Hermès’s Calèche, a whisper of sunwarmed skin keeps this refined blend from becoming icy and aloof. Even more unexpected is Cartier Déclaration, a citrus cologne with a shot of cumin, a spice with a distinctly sweaty odor. For a proper bombshell you could turn to Schiaparelli Shocking, which transforms musk, honey, and civet into a symphony of ripeness.

Why do we enjoy such smells? Déclaration, for instance, has been a success since its release in 1998, and Shocking is included in the pantheon of perfume legends. One of the reasons is that living things are rarely well-scrubbed and sterile, and a hint of something pungent reminds us of our own humanity. Such effects are as memorable as they are seductive, because our sensory perceptions are complex and like being stimulated. It’s the same reason why some people enjoy ripe Camembert, aged steak and dark chocolate—we like to be jolted out of our comfort zone.

In addition, some pungency may not just be pleasing, but also necessary. White flowers like jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom contain indole, a material that in its pure state smells of moth balls. Night blooming plants emit strong odors to attract insects, but along the way we too have fallen under their spell. Any attempt to make a gardenia or tuberose without even a modicum of indole will smell dull and flat. Ormonde Jayne Sampaquita, Annick Goutal Songes and Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower use indoles judiciously to evoke the scent of white blossoms and a texture of soft petals covered with pollen.

A perfumer’s genius lies in the careful balance of ingredients and an understanding of which combinations will produce the desired sensation and touch the wearer on an emotional level.  So, if your fantasy is for the jasmine festooned gardens of Alhambra, you might have to get there by way of a moth ball.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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48 Comments

  • Anne: I love the smell of musk, the darker, the better. Do anyone have a recommendation for a really animalic musk? January 15, 2021 at 8:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan is quite animalic, and so is Francis Kurkdjian Absolue pour le soir. I also like Musc Ravageur by Frederic Malle, which is animalic but still elegant. January 15, 2021 at 10:40am Reply

  • Tania: Great article! You explain perfumery so well, Victoria. I love your blog. January 15, 2021 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Tania! January 15, 2021 at 10:40am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Thank you for this reminder and insight! The sense that imperfection, or an incongruent texture, flavor, appearance, add to beauty and appeal has been noted for millennia; Marcus Aurelius wrote about it. The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi is based on it. I’m sure there are many other examples. I love your examples of this in scent. January 15, 2021 at 9:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Definitely! The so-called bad smells are key in perfumery, and many fragrances wouldn’t smell good without them. January 15, 2021 at 10:41am Reply

  • Michiko: A delightful text, as always.

    I believe Edmond Roudnitska was the great master of this kind of perfume – perfect in their oddness and richness of layers.

    Also, I was amazed to see how the use of some “funky” smells is importante in some cuisines as well. At least that was what I thought when I was introduced to Thai and Vietnamese food. They are delicious and simply do not work without the pungent fish sauce (nam pla). January 15, 2021 at 9:43am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree, the first time I smelled nam pla, I was shocked that it could be used in food, but now I can’t imagine making Thai or Vietnamese food without it. I also grew to like the smell out of the bottle. I notice interesting caramel nuances in it as well as spice. January 15, 2021 at 10:49am Reply

    • Victoria: By the way, there is a hint of jasmine in some types of pungent oil-cured olives. January 15, 2021 at 10:49am Reply

  • Caro: Great read! I love animalic musk, the cat pee facet of blackcurrant, and the indoles in the white flowers. Also, recently I’ve got a sample of Le Parfum de Therese and I was pleased by some aspects of the composition that seemed dirty/animalic to me. January 15, 2021 at 10:03am Reply

    • Victoria: So true. That aspect of blackcurrant is what makes it so intriguing. January 15, 2021 at 10:50am Reply

  • Maya: Thank you as always for a great article. When in early April I was recovering from Covid-19, I reached for my bottle of Chanel 31 Rue Cambon. To my terrible surprise, all I was smelling was screeching, acrid metal. I have since read about the virus sometimes having a lingering “distortion” affect on one’s sense of smell but I still wonder if what actually happened was that post illness my still recovering nose was simply picking up on what you term as the “bad smells” that go into the making of great perfume. January 15, 2021 at 11:05am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s possible. I was working not long ago with someone suffering from the post-Covid anosmia, and they could detect scents that are typically the basenotes of a perfume. So, they smelled woody ambers, but not citrus. Luckily, they’ve now recovered their sense of smell completely. January 15, 2021 at 11:43am Reply

      • Karina: Hello Victoria, I wonder if you could write some more about how to train your sense of smell if you are suffering from (temporary) anosmia. I understand you may want to be careful but I wish there was more information on this available. January 16, 2021 at 11:57am Reply

        • Victoria: I’ll put something together. Mostly, you have to keep on smelling and do the exercises I’ve described in some of my other videos. That’s the most important part. January 19, 2021 at 9:53am Reply

          • Karina: Thanks Victoria! January 19, 2021 at 12:26pm Reply

  • Nita: Those first four you mention, No5, Claeche, Declaration and Shocking are ALL in my top 12.
    How interesting. I must love a bit of skank.
    X January 15, 2021 at 11:31am Reply

    • Victoria: And you like classical fragrances! Classical perfumery doesn’t shy away from raunchy effects, which is what makes it both challenging and beguiling. January 15, 2021 at 11:44am Reply

      • Nita: I acquired a box of vintage ‘Nips’. There wasn’t a dud amongst them. Absolutely incredible. X January 15, 2021 at 11:55am Reply

        • Victoria: Lucky you! January 15, 2021 at 12:00pm Reply

        • Fazal: Yeah, I have some of those nips, too. Apparently those nip manufacturers went out of business because the brands such as Guerlain sued them for being unauthorized distributors. The nips manufacturers served the same function that decanters do these days. January 15, 2021 at 2:55pm Reply

  • Fazal: This article and many others you have posted keep reminding me the great number of similarities between cooking and perfumery, a fact you also have pointed out numerous times. Like perfumery, things we won’t touch in their raw form such as onion and garlic make huge differences in our favorite food items. I am not surprised cooking is one of your other passions besides perfumes and books.

    Just as a skilled perfumer takes time to smell something and notices things most people don’t, I have noticed that an expert chef often does not immediately digest a new food item he/she may be trying but instead leaves it on the tongue to dissect the individual ingredients and may even note the ingredients used in only minuscule amount. Helps me understand your suggestion as to why we should take our time to smell something, not just perfumes but other things also including food items, in order to train our noses. We notice more through patient observations than hurried experiences. January 15, 2021 at 2:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s definitely the case. Once you notice different facets of whatever it is that you’re studying (painting, scent, flavor), you never approach it the same way. It’s really rewarding to spend extra time smelling consciously. January 19, 2021 at 9:49am Reply

  • Andy: I love a cumin note and wore Declaration this week, so it had been on my mind. Sometimes (if it’s too hot, or I apply in the wrong manner), I find it to be too much, but due to the sharp woody notes rather than the cumin. I also love Ellena’s reformulation of Eau d’Hermes. The toasty cumin note is perfect, and makes a fragrance that could seem boring feel jaunty and the perfect amount of worn-in. Another spice I find somewhat animalic is white pepper—I’d love a perfume that showcases this slightly ripe and floral spice to spectacular effect. January 15, 2021 at 5:08pm Reply

    • Klaas: Eau d’ Hermes is so wonderful! It is my new favorite. I find it the essence of chic in a bottle! January 16, 2021 at 2:38pm Reply

      • Andy: I completely agree! January 17, 2021 at 8:54pm Reply

    • Chris in Oakland: White pepper smells very sweaty to me, much more so than cumin! I love Declaration but I think a white pepper note in perfume would be too much for me. 😉 January 18, 2021 at 2:47am Reply

    • Victoria: I also find white pepper animalic. It’s not used that much in perfumery, but in food, especially Asian cooking, it’s one of my favorite spices. January 19, 2021 at 9:50am Reply

  • Peter: Mahalo Victoria, for explaining the hidden depths in perfume. I’m glad that You, the Professional, did the dirty work, creating a perfect, balanced blend for Us, the Perfume Lovers. January 15, 2021 at 11:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! It’s quite an intricate process to create something that smells good. January 19, 2021 at 9:50am Reply

  • Monika: This post reminds me of my signature scent, for which I am in mourning. I’ve been wearing Paestum Rose ever since it first came out — it contrasts rose with darkness — musk and peppers — Chandler Burr described it as having a “crepuscular darkness”. First, it was re-formulated (when they switched to square bottles), and I could no longer smell it, and now, it has been discontinued along with all the other Eau d’Italie scents I loved the most (the scents by Bertrand Duchoufour) — Baume de Dodge and Sienne l’Hiver. I have (or had) an old round partial bottle sitting at our US shipping address since last February — Canada has kept the border closed since March, and I can’t pick it up. It is horrible to contemplate that I will never be able to wear it or smell it again. January 15, 2021 at 11:08pm Reply

    • Silvermoon: Oh this is sad news. I have three Eau d’Italie perfumes, my favourite Paestum Rose, next Baume du Doge, and Rosa Greta (it’s nice, but not a real favourite). Can’t believe they discontinued two of their best/most interesting and pleasing perfumes. Like you, I love Paestum Rose. Will just have to use my bottle selectively and carefully. January 16, 2021 at 12:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I didn’t realize that it was discontinued. Now, that’s a shame, because it was one of the best perfumes in the collection. January 19, 2021 at 9:51am Reply

  • Hilde: Hello Victoria, this shows how complex the job of a perfumer is.
    By the way, it surprises me everytime where you find the inspiration to shed a little light on another interesting topic of perfumery. January 16, 2021 at 1:47am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s always a pleasure to give you a further glimpse into the world of perfumery. I’ve been working in it for years, but I still find it exciting and fascinating. January 19, 2021 at 9:52am Reply

  • Rohini Sharma: Beautifully written and explained ❣️ I love your blog and appreciate how informative you make it. January 16, 2021 at 9:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much for your kind words! January 19, 2021 at 9:53am Reply

  • Klaas: I think people are so attracted to oud for the same reason. It is so complex, but also SO incredibly animalic and dirty! Dusita’s Oud Infini is the skankiest fragrance I know……it is really pungent and smells like a zoo almost. I love it, albeit in very small quantities…

    De Nicolai Incense Oud is another one. Incredibly opulent and luxurious, but oh that fecal undertone! It’s exactly this note that attracts me to it, in a perverse kind of way….. January 16, 2021 at 2:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Absolutely. Anything that leaves a trace in your memory is likely to be appealing, even if at first, you aren’t sure about liking it. January 19, 2021 at 9:55am Reply

  • Klaas: And some of the old Guerlains! Both Jicky and Mouchoir de Monsieur had a very bold civet note! They have both been tamed down quite a lot (civet is not everybodies cup of tea), but I without it the fragrances are lacking a lot of their lustre and appeal. Especially Mouchoir had such an erotic aura about it….. January 17, 2021 at 6:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Jicky in its vintage version is almost obscenely animalic! January 19, 2021 at 9:55am Reply

      • Klaas: Jicky was drop-dead-gorgeous, indeed. Une grande dame!! January 19, 2021 at 10:20am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    What – no video with exhibits of burnt toast, rotting fruit or a wet cat in your arms? No sweaty horse lured into your lounge? ONLY KIDDING!

    Thank you for another fascinating post.

    I recall first reading, many years ago, that an undiluted tincture of musk grain in alcohol would quickly clear a room, but a heavily diluted tincture smelled heavenly. I could understand that, because a little Vegemite or Worcestershire sauce was delicious, but too much was unpalatable.

    I also remember reading that pale flowers tended to be more heavily perfumed, because they couldn’t attract insects with their colour. I wonder which came first – the perfume or the pale colour. I’m guessing it was the colour, and that insects pollinated those that had a little more fragrance than others, until, over centuries, the fragrance of the flowers grew stronger. But how would they have been pollinated in the first place? Perhaps it was with pollen dropped from bees flying overhead, or by beggar bees who were short of flowers and couldn’t be choosy.

    I was interested to read that even a strawberry scent requires a little sulphur. I’ve never bought any cumin, and don’t know how it smells, but I shall buy some so that I can sample it, and then I can use it in cooking.

    As ambergris can be found floating on the sea or washed up on the coast, and doesn’t entail any harm to whales, I wonder why it is no longer used in perfumery. Oh, I suppose it’s the fact that it is astronomically expensive.

    Ah, “Shocking”… I remember Cathy saying, towards the end of the comment section in your “Classical Challenge” post, that her mother and grandmother had worn that perfume on special occasions, and that she had a vintage bottle and sometimes wore it. However, she said, “Sometimes people ask discreetly if my perfume might have gone off.” As I told her, I really must try it!

    Perhaps another reason we enjoy certain smells is that – dare I say it – they are reminiscent of the genitals, and human beings have evolved to find sexual smells attractive. Yes, people respond to the stronger ripe perfumes as differently as they do to the smell and taste of blue cheese. I adore the latter, but Peter doesn’t!

    Indeed, my appreciation of the perfumer’s skill just grows deeper. And I agree with Peter, I’m grateful that perfumers wrangle these mercurial aromas, so that we don’t have to.

    By the way, defying expectations, the spearmint and lime essential oils kept in my fridge still smell wonderful! January 17, 2021 at 11:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Many berries require some sort of sulphuric note, and civet is used a lot to create the luscious effect in raspberries, blueberries, etc. January 19, 2021 at 9:56am Reply

      • Tourmaline: It’s fascinating… January 20, 2021 at 6:36am Reply

  • gentiana: Dear Victoria, I am so happy to read your blog ! So interesting this topic ! I remember talking about these things with my dear (late) mom, who had a passion for perfumes equally with mine… She perceived a very strong funk from Silence of Jacomo, a raunchy b.o. from Narcisse Noir, an animalic smell from Hypnotic Poison, a bitumen or a rubber smell from I don t remember which perfume… It was so much fun smelling perfumes together (we called them „seances”) and talking about fragrances! I gave her perfumes to sniff blind and it was absolutely fantastic how she described the fragrances ! I translated her many of your posts and she too was a big admirer of your work and of you, as person… Thank you for the detailed explanation, for the information and for the fun you bring in our lives. January 20, 2021 at 8:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for this comment, Gentiana. Reading it was so moving, so touching. May your mother rest in peace. January 21, 2021 at 7:58am Reply

  • gentiana: Thank you January 22, 2021 at 2:26am Reply

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