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Making Sense of Scent

Interview given for—and first published in—Departures Magazine by American Express. [link]

“KALEIDOSCOPIC TECHNICOLOR HUES.”“Silky, with just enough animalic funk.”“The olfactory equivalent of Aphrodite’s girdle.”“Dirty and bleak.”“A gem, a joke, a monster, a memory, a tribute, love, puke.”“Rosebuds stained with lipstick.”

Welcome to the comments section for a single perfume — Schiaparelli’s Shocking — on Fragrantica, the encyclopedic online fragrance hub boasting 1.3 million reviews from over 800,000 registered users.

Ardent perfume lovers, or “fragrance heads” as they are colloquially termed (fragheads for short), love a poetic description, equal parts artful and “extra.” This may be due to the fact that any well-formulated fragrance will have multiple notes: a top note, the first perceived layer of the scent; a middle note, sometimes called the heart of the scent; and a bottom note, which is what a fragrance will ultimately settle into after some hours, and which is typically most remembered by the wearer. But the wide spectrum and flowery language of the assessments may also be attributed to the difficulty of translating this most abstract sense — smell — into language. It is the first of the five senses to complete development in the womb, beginning at eight weeks and becoming fully functional at 24 weeks (talk about “knowing your mother’s scent”). Despite this, smell continues to be the least commonly understood sensory experience.

Mindy Yang, founder of retail incubator, agency, and think tank Perfumarie, speculates that the reason for scent being the most underappreciated sense is because it is largely operating on a subconscious level. Yang references this study from 2011, wherein more than half of young people said they’d give up their sense of smell before giving up their laptop or cell phone. That’s prescient questioning, given that Covid-19 would trigger that very reality — life lived through a personal screen and loss of smell — less than a decade later.

Our sense of smell serves a variety of functions: sounding a warning alarm for dangerous environs or foods, helping us select a suitable mate, and generating 75%–95% of what we perceive as taste. Smell is not some sort of aesthetic bonus sense, as many perceive it to be; it is a crucial link between our bodies and the environments we inhabit, the loss of which drives many to severe depression.

Scent is also big business. Perfume and fragrance manufacturing in the U.S. is projected to reach 3.2 billion dollars in 2022; the global perfume market reached a value of $33.5 billion in 2021. Looking ahead, the market is projected to reach $47.6 billion by 2027. Adjacently, the global home fragrance market, dominated by scented candles, was valued at $7.12 billion in 2021. The advent of online forums for discussion, from Reddit to Facebook to Basenotes and beyond, has ushered in an era where the language of fragrance and scent has developed a new olfactive culture, not exclusively relegated to niche obsessives. And these communities are only growing.

Sheila Metzner, celebrated fine art and fashion photographer (and mother of my childhood best friend), was the first to illuminate for me the vital role of marketing and branding in the fragrance industry. Having shot advertising campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Fendi, Victoria’s Secret, and others in the 1980s and ’90s, I remember so clearly her stance at that time: Fragrance, more than fashion or lifestyle products, is entirely reliant on imagery to sell to consumers, as people lack the language, understanding, and insight to really interpret their own preferences when it comes to smells.

Fragrance itself, in the form of “scent marketing,” the term used for pumping smells into retail and hospitality spaces, is often used to affect our behaviors, even when we’re unaware. This practice began as a way to camouflage the cigarette odor in casinos, then spilled into the adjoining hotel lobbies. In 1990, the first studies on scent marketing in retail were performed by Dr. Alan Hirsch by comparing sales data between two Nike shops — one with pumped-in purified air, the other scented with a floral scent. The floral-room subjects reported an 84% increase in sales compared to the purified-room subjects; the floral-scent consumers were also willing to pay 10% more for the same products. The scent-marketing industry mushroomed once those studies were published.

Scent marketing has become more refined since the ’90s; brands seek to touch the memory centers of their audiences through scent. Nike’s current custom scent is inspired by — what else? — the smell of a rubber basketball sneaker scraping across the court and a soccer cleat dragging through grass and dirt. This branded smell is not only used in sales environments but is also pumped throughout company offices.The olfactory bulb is the structure in the front of the brain that detects odor. This region of the brain is intertwined with the memory centers in the hippocampus, and on its other side abutted with the amygdala, the brain’s integrative center for emotions. Thus, odors are directly processed through the limbic system, the overall region dictating human behavior and emotions.

Dana Sandu, olfactive anthropologist, fragrance evaluator, and educator further emphasized this limbic-system symphony. Over the course of our animated conversation, Sandu, better known as @a_nose_knows, pointed to neuroscience studies that have proven that olfactory stimuli will light up brain activity in the memory centers more strongly than visual stimuli will — think smelling a rose versus viewing one, then trying to remember it later. “Neuroscientists are already mapping the protocols for retracing neural paths in degenerative diseases using smell,” Sandu imparts.

When discussing larger movements within the industry, Sandu brings up the decolonization of perfumery. Centering Europe, and specifically France, in the conversation of fragrance, has been the de facto norm since the sixteenth century; but the history of perfumery dates back much further than that, of course, well established in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Indus cultures (primarily deriving from woods, flowers, and spices such as myrrh, frankincense, lily, myrtle, oregano, and thyme).

Decolonization also includes the shift of language regarding one of the primary categories of scents — “oriental.” The category includes the warm and sensual notes including amber, sandalwood, coumarin, orris, vanilla, and gum resins. While the oriental designation is still highly debated and widely used, the shift is afoot to re-term this grouping as simply the amber group, making the modern fragrance wheel comprised of the floral, woody, amber, and fresh categories.

I spoke with Franco Wright, the co-founder of Luckyscent, a beautifully curated fragrance boutique carrying hundreds of niche fragrance lines, both online and in their three shops across Los Angeles and New York City. Wright attributes the pandemic to a flourishing in fragrance interest, and sales; 2020 became the company’s strongest sales year since opening in 2002, despite having to (temporarily) shutter their brick-and-mortar stores. With the isolation and the absence of typical external olfactory stimuli, folks addressed a self-soothing impulse via the accessible luxury of perfume.

In turn, Wright notes the current popularity of gourmand fragrances, particularly cherry and vanilla, as having a real moment. With the collective stress of the last several years, perhaps people are summoning childhood in all its delectable, comforting sweetness.There is also a current trend, particularly among younger consumers, toward fragrances derived from all-natural ingredients, citing concerns over allergens and petrochemicals, including phthalates and parabens. Most high-end fragrances contain a combination of organic and synthetic components. In actuality, the expansion of synthetics in perfumery is arguably the greenest development within the field, as it has reduced the depletion of limited resources. Musk, a foundational pillar in some of the most iconic fragrances of all time, was traditionally extracted from the anal glands of deer, civet, and whales. With the advent of chemical compounds mimicking these rarefied natural scents, the whales catch a break.

Another trend in perfumery has been the mainstreaming of unisex product. De-gendering in fragrance is hardly a new conceit; people have been formulating unisex perfumes ever since Calvin Klein launched CK One in 1994. There are now hundreds of unisex options filling the market, and while it is not uncommon for women to wear men’s colognes, men wearing fragrances marketed toward women still holds a bit of a subversive power. My husband seemed to baffle the sales lady at the duty-free shop in Milan this summer when he went to sample Chanel’s Paris-Deauville, pulled squarely from the women’s aisle, on his wrist. She asked if he understood it was a lady’s perfume three times before allowing him to pay.

Perhaps the hardest trend on the horizon to fathom: a fragrant metaverse. Mindy Yang outlined this most futurist of perfume spaces: “Taste and smell are missing in the metaverse. Scientists aim to develop a predictive model relating molecular structure and olfactory perception — think Pantone or primary colors for scent! Once these primaries are identified, the world of retail, education, training, and entertainment will be forever transformed.” And it’s already in motion: Nike-owned digital fashion start-up Rtfkt partnered with Byredo this summer to release wearable digital “auras” and accompanying physical fragrances. (And if you’re confused by all this, don’t worry. We all are.)

Perfumery is slowly beginning to claim its (rightful) space in the art world, with cross-disciplinary presentations showing up in art galleries, multisensorial installations, and performances — dance presented in collaboration with fragrance.

Developing one’s nose like a muscle will yield improvement, just like CrossFit training. But the crucial ingredient of mindfulness must be at play. It’s not enough to just stick one’s nose in a variety of pungent places; we must be consciously translating what we smell to thoughts and words for our noses to improve. I’ll see you at the gym.

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