Salt and cherry air

ODOU4We’re in love with stories. Our brains prefer a narrative structure to information. Communicating about smell is hard. Perfumers, evaluators, marketers, sales people and perfume bloggers have to do it all the time and our ability to do so is limited by language.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing a lot of smelling in the lab.

“Why am I getting a marzipan note?”

“Oh yes – but it’s not marzipan – it’s the air above a jar of maraschino cherries.”


“It’s very white.”


“I need a salty smell.”


“It’s got a coriander note, or more specifically, the dry heat sensation of coriander.”

Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
Ludwig Wittgenstein

My article in ODOU Issue 4 talks about the reductionism of perfume to its ingredients. On one hand ingredients are, of course, of great interest to perfumers at the point of creation (odour, cost, impact, regulatory issues, stability). A perfumer may get deep into discussion with another about a new aroma chemical and its use levels in different applications or about a natural material which they have found exciting in recent work. Whole conferences are dedicated to showing off new raw materials to perfumers.

Sometimes the spark of inspiration for a new perfume is a single raw material. In some cases a particular note may strongly influence how the finished scent smells. Some brave brands have even started mentioning aroma chemicals in their marketing. Still, these are technical discussions. They are useful to perfumers and to product creators, but won’t convey how the complete perfume smells. One can’t even say “I know blue suits me, ergo, this new blue dress will suit me” because perfumes aren’t made up of blocks of smells, nestling side-by-side. When you add smell 1 + smell 2 you don’t get 3. You get a completely new smell. Perfumers are illusionists. Listing fragrance notes in a pyramid or on press releases is never going to be as good as smelling the thing itself.

And since we do love a good story, romantic stories of ingredients (where they came from, what they smell like, who discovered them, where they’ve been used before…) can help sell a fragrance. Sure. It’s all part of the theatre and it works.

However. Should we insist that the value of perfume is entirely about the value of its ingredients? Do we want consumers to start calculating how much the juice in the bottle costs and thinking “hold on a minute, I’m being ripped off here.” Of course not. Should books or paintings be reduced to their raw materials? Is that what they’re worth? Did the author or the artist not have something to do with the value of the end product?

Read ODOU and let me know your thoughts.

6 thoughts on “Salt and cherry air

  1. I look forward to reading this when my copy of Odou arrives! Seems to be a hot topic of discussion lately. Angelo Orazio Pregoni doesn’t like it when fragrances are reduced to lists of notes, and I just read a blog post by Sarah McCartney on notes vs. ingredients. Interesting thoughts to ponder… I look forward to your article!

    • I seem to have sniffed the zeitgeist a while back. 😀 submitted my article for ODOU a few months ago. Very glad to see this topic explored by so many – and looking forward to more imaginative perfume stories…

      • This topic is really interesting to me. I write about perfume, yet I don’t make it, yet. It’s important for me to have an understanding of how things work together, how they combine, yet at the moment, I really only understand perfume from an outsider’s perspective. As a composer of music, though, I can’t imagine talking/writing about a piece of music without mentioning the ingredients/materials (instruments or sounds and their combination)/forms and structures used. I simply wouldn’t be able to appreciate it fully without thinking about these elements. But that’s as a highly trained musician and composer! 😀 I wouldn’t ever converse with someone who wasn’t a musician and start talking about it in a highly technical way, mentioning things like motifs and counterpoint, sonata form and “that plagal cadence at the end”. It wouldn’t make sense to them and I wouldn’t be able to discuss it with them. I would talk, though, about instrumentation, and form perhaps (e.g. a symphony, a sonata, an opera), and then I would use some emotive terms about how it makes me feel and what it evokes. Or use some adjectives to describe the sound of it. It strikes me though that *some* mention of materials is necessary to convey what I’ve just heard to someone else. I’d never just say “I heard this amazing piece by Bach and it transported me to a magical place and it reminded me of being in a forest.” No doubt someone would ask me what instrument the piece was written for, and possibly the name of it, or about the genre of the work. In short, I think that most art forms describe art with at least some description of the materials and techniques used. It happens in visual art all the time, and I think it’s necessary to even have a basic conversation about any work of art.

        It strikes me that there should be more dialogue for and between perfumers: journals and the equivalent of essays and program notes for musicians/composers. There isn’t much of an academic/technical outlet for this way of describing and discussing fragrance yet, is there? I think that would be a good start!

      • Thank you for the insights into music – really interesting. And, absolutely, some mention of the materials will no doubt always remain (and should, even), but where it gets tricky is when the value of the finished piece is equated with the cost of the raw materials. Or where consumers assume that a perfume which lists ‘lily of the valley’ really has some in it (the latter is not such a biggie, but it would still be nice to have wider appreciation for the moods and impressions rather than reductionism). Because as lovely as the violin may be, a rubbish player isn’t going to make beautiful music with it, and the concert shouldn’t cost more because someone has a cool piano.

      • You’re absolutely right about cost and that fragrances shouldn’t merit artistic appreciation simply by using (or claiming to use) expensive materials. I just wrote a long post about oud, and learnt along the way that almost no-one uses real oud, and yet most pretend to. Oud is one of the most expensive raw materials in the world, yet it’s not used in many of the perfumes that claim to contain it. I wonder if they call something an oud fragrance simply to add an air of prestige or quality? To make people think it’s good, and/or worth the price (many of them are expensive niche fragrances)?

  2. This whole notes vs ingredients debate and the things you address are very interesting and relevant. I understand Pollytechnic’s point of view too. When I started getting interested in perfume, around 2006, I was obsessed with what I liked, why I liked what I liked and the notes and materials used. I even joined a couple of perfume making groups and tried my hand at blending natural perfume. As I mentioned to Sarah after reading her article, what that taught me was that though I love oils and absolutes and playing with them, the way they smell is so different from how they smell combined and also so different from the natural materials they are derived from. So oak moss absolute doesn’t necessarily smell like an ‘oakmoss note’ in perfume. Most tuberose perfumes smell more like the absolute than the actual flower etc.

    So now while there is always a nerdy pleasure to be had by trying to figure out what I smell and guessing the raw materials used, I don’t know if trying to break down the perfume into its parts is necessarily the best way to convey what we smell. But I am not yet sure what exactly I think about what could be the right way or best way. Or if there even is a right way or best way (there probably isn’t). As PT said, there is definitely some value to conveying what you smell, directly, rather than soley relying on imagery which can often times be meaningless. But what does ‘directly’ even mean since most people don’t necessarily have the same set of raw material references. Mostly, references to things you smell in the ‘wild’ end up being more informative though not necessarily the most satisfying for somebody who wants to geek out on raw materials..:)

    I do agree with what you said, a piece of art should not be reduced to its raw materials. And a good perfume is generally bigger than the sum of its parts. You don’t necessarily think of painting in terms of the quality of paint used (though there is probably a baseline that should be met, I guess, in terms of materials used in any art). Now that I’m thinking a bit more about it, I think, the instruments/materials used should be above a certain standard. But what makes a thing, ‘art’ is something more than that, that the the artist brings..I think :).

    Lots of food for thought – I must get my hands on Odou.

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