The art of scent

I always include a section which relates to the sense of smell in my women wellness workshops. When coaching women on a one-on-one basis, I create conversations and suggest tools that are connected to the five senses, including the olfactory sense. I feel that when we become aware of the power of our sense of smell, we automatically feel more present, vibrant and alive. While leading a workshop, I love watching women’s faces when their skin awakens, their eyes get larger and they start smiling when smelling a delicate perfume or a scented body oil.

When detecting a smell, our olfactory neurons in the upper part of the nose send an impulse to the brain through the olfactory nerve. It first reaches the olfactory bulb, which then sends a signal to the limbic system, which includes a set of structures in the brain that control our memory, emotions and behavior.

I read this inspiring interview of Mathilde Laurent, the “nose” behind the Cartier perfumes, in a French magazine, a couple of months ago. This article caught my attention as its headline was : ” Je n’ai pas peur de puer”, which means : ” I am not afraid to stink”. I thought it was a quite daring and interesting statement, especially when these words are said by the perfumer of the famous Cartier jewelry brand. Her perception of smells seems so unusual these days, it goes against the grain and the global trend to make everything ” smell good”. She speaks about all sorts of smells, the attractive and the repulsive ones. Mathilde reminds us that defining a smell as awful or amazing is linked to our social and educational backgrounds as well as our own cultural legacy. She specifies that she is interested in all types of scents, even those of rotten food or body odor. She underlines that in our cleanliness obsessed society, someone who does not wear a deodorant nor a perfume may be afraid of stinking. She states that she is not afraid of stinking as she is confident enough to know that she does not. This is such a refreshing comment at a time when many building hallways smell like chemical baby powder and thousands of people, especially in America, look at someone with hatred in their eyes if they dare to exhale the smell of cigarette.

I remember reading this fascinating book called ” Perfume : a story of a murderer ” by German writer Patrick Suskind, which story unfolds in the 18th century Paris. The fantasy novel focuses on smell, all kinds of smells. This intriguing story is impossible to describe, however the writer’s ability to define thousands of different scents is purely incredible. Reading this book made me become more aware of the intense power of our olfactory sense. For those who have not read it, I highly recommend it.

Then I recently got to watch a Ted Talk about the art of scent. Chandler Burr is the curator of the olfactory department at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. He states that the olfactory medium should be elevated at the level of art, such as dance, music, painting and photography. He gave a fantastic presentation in a Ted Talk and explained how three perfumes transformed what existed before to create a new trend, just like in architecture, literature or music. He demonstrates how olfactory artists create works of art (not the perfume packaging but the scent itself) which bring a disruption in the world of fragrances. I really like two of the examples that he gave in his presentation. The first one is Jicky by Guerlain, which was created in 1889. It was the second perfume to be crafted with synthetic ingredients and it launched the trend of romanticism in the industry, featuring oriental aromatic (oriental fern). The second perfume was Numero 5 by Chanel, which was created in 1921. It launched the artistic trend of modernism in the perfume industry by incorporating carbon molecules, which were supposed to alter its scent.

The disruption created by a new perfume can only be understood when placed in its cultural and historical contexts. I loved listening to the podcast of Hidden Beauty about the launch and commercial success of Drakkar Noir by Guy Laroche in 1982. It had such a masculine yet fresh scent. It was crafted at the time of gym culture and was designed for the executive corporate businessman, the tanned Wall Street, hyper sexual and muscular alpha male. It was the first perfume to be made with a chemical molecule used in detergents to cover-up their strong smell. Believe it or not, my seventy year old grandmother loved it and it became her perfume; such a revolutionary taste for a very conservative looking- Bourgeois style Parisian grandmother !

I must have inherited my grandmother’s taste as I naturally gravitate around men’s perfumes. I love woody fragrances, especially those who encapsulate hints of sandalwood, leather, tobacco and resin. I find them richer and more sensual then most women or unisex “eaux de toilette”.

When it comes to choosing your own perfume, I suggest to try many and take your time until you find the one that speaks to your soul and your senses. Mathilde Laurent said that too many women wear a fragrance that they like but don’t truly feel connected to. Social pressure and advertising can make many women pick a perfume which marketing positioning is “cool” or because it smells “good”. Wait until you find the one that seems like it was designed for you.

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