The Story of a Scent

March 13, 2013


When people who love perfume talk about a scent, you might think they were talking about a novel. Beginning, middle, end. Unfolding, developing. The surprises and the left turns can sound like plot twists in a Russian novel.

There's a good reason for that: Many of the best perfumes really do have beginnings, middles, and ends in the form of top notes, middle notes, and base notes. Referring to notes as top, middle, and base is a layman's way of describing the weight of the molecules that compose a perfume and the order in which they "appear." The top notes are the lightest molecules, so they float up to your nose first. The base notes are the heaviest, warming up on the skin for a while before they float up and reach your nose.

If you understand this—and harbor a mind-boggling amount of intimate knowledge of perfumery's 6,000 ingredients and how they interact—then you just might be able to beginto try to manipulate the scientific qualities of these molecules into a work of art. (Now you know why we respect perfumers so much.)

Never noticed that your perfume was telling a story? There's a good reason for that, too: Fewer perfumes tell stories these days, because modern consumers don't have the time to listen.

Long before the era of department stores and their endless labyrinths of glass-and-mirror counters, a scent's ability to develop over time and not fall apart midway through the story was a mark of quality. It was also the mark of a master perfumer. In the early days of modern perfumery—say, the late 1800s and early 1900s—when you wanted to try a perfume, you went to a shop dedicated to perfume. You went there to try on a fragrance, and you took your time. You smelled it in the bottle. You sniffed immediately after putting it on your skin, and you smelled it again after five minutes, a half-hour, an hour, several hours. You noticed the way the notes revealed themselves over time, how they played off each other, and how the nature of the entire scent morphed as each molecular character took its spot center stage. You ended up with an opinion of each stage of the perfume's development—and an opinion of the composition as a whole.

Today? You enter a department store. A bottle catches your eye, so you grab a long, skinny piece of paper. You spray, you sniff, you decide, you move on. And that's it. That’s the whole story. This perfume among hundreds, clamoring for your attention and affection, has won or lost you in mere seconds. And it never even had the chance to touch your skin.

It should be no surprise that perfumery has had to change to keep up with the way its product is sold. Shoppers have no time to wait for a perfume to tell a complex, nuanced story, and they've probably never been told that a well-constructed perfume could even have such an ability. That's why so many mainstream scents pack their punch into the first few seconds. Rather than stories, they are fading snapshots.

So the next time you get your hands on a niche scent, decide to spend some time with it. Spray it, sample it, consider it quietly. Wait it out. Listen with your nose. See what unfolds over the minutes and hours.

And above all, remember what would have happened if you had made up your mind about Anna Karenina on the first page. As first pages go, it was pretty great—but it was only a sign of what was to come.

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