You’re thinking we could wrap up this blog post in just three words: spray, smell, decide.
But if you really want to appreciate the complexities of a perfume, you can’t expect it to tell its whole story in five seconds. The best perfumes tend to unfold over the minutes and hours, as the top, middle, and base notes step up at the right moment to deliver their lines. And if you follow the old spray-smell-decide approach, you’ll miss some very good parts of the story. Here’s how to get the most rewarding experience out of your sampling.
Before you even open the vial, commit to putting its contents on your skin. No questions. To some people, that sounds radical. Why put on something you don’t immediately like?
Because you are adventurous. Because you want to sample what life has to offer. Because you’ve skeptically eyeballed strange-looking foods but taken a bite anyway, only to experience a culinary epiphany. Because you’ve picked up a book that you felt certain would bore you to death and found truth inside. Because practicing the act of stepping out of your comfort zone will turn you into a person who can find comfort nearly anywhere.
(And, most important, because perfume washes off.)
2. Follow through.
Uncap the vial, pull out the wand, and smell. If you remember nothing else about responding to first impressions, remember this:
Oh yes. We diagrammed it.
All roads lead to trying it on, and here's why: What you smell in the vial may not be what you smell on skin. What you smell at first application won’t be what you smell five minutes later. Your perfume will evolve and change over time as the top notes—the lightest molecules—cede their place to the middle notes, and the middle notes fade to reveal the base notes. This unfolding and listening is part of the joy of experiencing perfume.
Soon, you'll be able compose a long list of beloved perfumes whose scents you didn’t like—or at least found puzzling—in the vial. So put it on and wait. You might be surprised.
3. Apply in the right spot, at the right time.
You have lots of great places to apply perfume, but these four spots work well for testing: the insides of both wrists, and the insides of both elbows. They’re easy to lift to your nose.
Don’t apply on top of another perfume or scented lotion, or you won’t know what you’re smelling. Don’t apply when you’re particularly sweaty or overheated, unless you live in a sweaty, overheated climate and want to see what those conditions will do to a scent.
4. Write down your observations.
Note your impressions at each stage: on the wand, on the skin, two minutes later, ten minutes later, thirty minutes later, an hour later, two hours later.
In the beginning, your observations might be… primitive (think ewww, oooo, and ahhh). But as you practice, you’ll start to recognize some of the components that you’re smelling, and you’ll start putting names to them. Your nose is learning a new language, and it takes time.
5. Read about it.
Now read the perfume’s notes. If they aren’t stated on the sample, look them up online. When you read the notes, you might realize that wow, you did detect that burst of lavender about a minute into it—you just couldn’t put your finger on the name at the time.
Also, look for reviews. Read ones that seem to come from noses with some smell experience. These may be a little more fact-based—discussing the effects of certain notes and accords—and focus a little less on basic evaluative terms like “good” or “yum” or “smells like an old lady.” What are they picking up? What did they notice that you didn’t?
6. Smell it again.
Now that you know some of the component parts, apply the perfume again, this time on your free wrist or in the crook of an elbow. See if your nose can start to put names to the components you’re smelling.
7. Make up your own mind.
A well-known critic thinks it's marvelous? A revered perfumer made it? That doesn't mean you have to love it. Similarly, just because it comes from one of those big brands and costs "only" $75 doesn't prevent it from being wonderful.
And, perhaps most important, just because you wouldn't wear it doesn't mean you can't respect it.
Smelling is largely about reference points: If you don’t have a reference point, you’ll lack the vocabulary to identify a scent. For example, ask a four-year-old child how she feels about the smell of cardamom. Cardawho? But ask her again when she is 30 and has traveled the world and sampled other cultures and cuisines, and she may be able to close her eyes and tell you that the smell of cardamom is deep and rich but sharp. She can call forth the smell of cardamom from experience—and she will notice it when it takes center stage in a perfume.
You and I are the same way. We need practice and association to know what we’re smelling. So get some essential oils and smell them. Learn them. If you can get your hands on some diluted perfumery ingredients, even better. For example, the first time you smell Estee Lauder Aliage, you might make a puzzled face. But when you revisit Aliage after learning some perfume ingredients, you might shout, “Galbanum!”
And just like that, your nose will have begun to decipher the language of scent.
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