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.
The birth of Chanel No. 5, weirdly, has been my favorite part of Chanel's biography. While reading about her affairs with composer Igor Stravinsky and polo player Boy Capel is all very fun, I know most of the gossip already. Reading about her working in the lab with perfumer Ernest Beaux is absolutely thrilling. It's funny, for an olfactory-challenged person such as myself, to read what individual scents appeal to others, or what ingredients make a good perfume.
For example, Chanel comments on a sample in the lab with, "That smells like leaf mold, of wet grass, something refreshing. It will help soften the scent of tuberose." Leaf mold? Well, that sounds pretty gross to me, but if the longevity of Chanel No. 5 is any indication, leaf mold is hot.
Chanel loathed the flowery perfumes popular in France at the time and wanted to create something musky and clean. To achieve this "natural" scent, Beaux and Chanel ended up choosing a concoction of 80 – 80! – different ingredients. This made Chanel No. 5 the most expensive perfume in the world at the time. And it still has this certain allure, a status-symbol quintessence about it. Chanel No. 5 means sophisticated elderly NY women with tweed suits lunching at Saks. Or the impossibly elegant Nicole Kidman, who did the ads for the perfume a couple years ago.
The most fascinating scent-related reading I've come across, however, is the other New York Times article on Sissel Tolaas by Susie Rushton. A sort of avant garde perfumer, Tolaas develops scents simulating armpit odor and the streets of Paris.
Her scents are like complex experiments. She has worn eau de armpit to a party (creating a juxtaposition with the scent by wearing a ballgown), simulated the scent of money to "find out if its hot, coppery perfume could improve performance in business," and displayed people's coats with labels of the smells detected on each one – one Prada coat had dog feces, soy sauce, codfish and Chanel No. 5 (natch), among other smells, detected. These experiments force us to consider how scent factors into, and affects, our everyday lives and also challenges us to think about preconceived notions about scent.
Despite the celebrity perfume craze, perfumery is hard work. And the best perfumers aspire to something that transcends lavender and roses. While I'm not entirely sure I would buy a vile of man's sweat to dab at my wrist, I certainly can appreciate the perfume-as-art these iconoclastic olfactory scientists are creating.