I'll admit, I've never been a fan of perfume. I remember accompanying my mother to Sephora in New York as a little girl and running out after about five minutes, unable to withstand all the floral and musky odors. I also remember taking car trips and having to sit next to my grandma, whose perfume would seep every corner of the enclosed vehicle and make me nauseous.
I still have problems with perfume. While I now can spend over five minutes in Sephora, I always race through the perfume section to the back, where the makeup is generally kept (except in Pittsburgh – where I grew up – where the scents line the walls, so I just try to stay in the center as much as I can). The only cologne I own is one from Origins, which has the faintest hint of ginger, and even that I only wear for special – or dire – occasions.
But lately, I feel I have slighted the perfume industry and perhaps I should train my olfactory senses. Currently, I'm reading Axel Madsen's biography on iconic designer Coco Chanel, and Madsen goes into particular detail chronicling the inception of the equally iconic perfume Chanel No. 5. Since reading this chapter, I have stumbled upon articles about "odor artist" Sissel Tolaas and synthetic perfumes (both in the New York Times). Maybe my dislike for perfumes is more a lack of appreciation or understanding of perfumes.
With practically every celebrity – from Sarah Jessica Parker to Jennifer Lopez to Paris Hilton – starting her own perfume, it's easy to dismiss the industry. I mean, if Paris Hilton can do it, how hard can it be? But what these recent readings on scents have taught me is that perfumes, sometimes, aren't just about smelling nice, and some bottled up scents can even be revolutionary or thought-provoking.
For example, in the article "Synthetic No. 5," Chandler Burr contrasts natural sandalwood to a synthetic concoction used to simulate sandalwood, one of the advantages to the synthetic option being that it's eco-friendly: "The sandalwood forests of India are being destroyed at a terrible rate, and the price of natural sandalwood is skyrocketing" ($800 per pound). As Burr goes on, "One perfumer I know told me that because of this, he now refuses to use natural materials in his perfumes."
There are all sorts of fascinating nuggets of information in the article, from deconstructing common myths and misconceptions about perfumes (American scents are artificial, French are natural; artificial scents are cheap) to breaking down a perfume's essence by its molecules. Perfumes aren't just an amalgamation of flowers that smell pretty, but elaborate scientific experiments.