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In Defence of Smell, my Favourite Sense

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Smell is very powerful, more than we realise and because of this I’ve always been drawn to the world of perfume. I think its power comes from the fact that we don’t rationalise smell, we don’t understand it. With our other senses, we think that we can only really see or hear something if we can understand it, if we can determine and recognise different aspects of a photograph or a piece of music. This is seen as important, and starts when we’re young.

If you think about it, we’re taught the colours when we’re little, because we have to be taught to identify them, it isn’t enough to just see them. However, we’re never taught anything about smell. When we smell something we don’t really have the words to categorise it. We find it hard to describe, to grasp and that’s why it stays, almost, a purely emotional sense. We don’t intellectualise it and I think that’s why it’s quite visceral. People say ‘ugh, I hate that’, or ‘oh I like that’, there’s much less of a filter than other things you’ve learned to identify a like and dislike of.


Smells, for most people, aren’t loaded with social and cultural connotations. People haven’t been told what’s good to like and what’s not good to like. When I give an Art of Perfume talk, I start with the scent families - citrus, herbal, woody and so on. It’s really interesting because people are quite withdrawn to start with, and after about twenty minutes they open up and become talkative, relaxed and they come out with all these experiences or memories, often childhood memories. They start to share things. It unlocks a certain part of people that they don’t normally access, they’re suddenly no longer self-conscious, they’re just wholly involved in their sense of smell.

I remember speaking to a big, burly farmer at one talk, and he just said “the smell of the primroses in the Spring, I just love the smell of the primroses”. Now, primroses are so faintly scented I was stunned that he not only noticed them (you have to get up close to them to smell anything) but that all of a sudden he was childish and sensitive again. This is what smell does, why it feels so magical. We can’t always see the clear links between the sensation of smell and the memories or emotions that sensation recalls, so it can catch us totally by surprise.


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Primroses are out! Spring is here!

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I find it amazing (of course I do!) that people don’t talk about this more, we don’t try and unravel all of these thoughts. So often, then, when we discuss scents everyone ends up reverting to “oh the smell of oranges is lovely and it makes you feel relaxed…” which is true, of course, but is just one part of the picture. Maybe it’s also the smell of oranges you picked from just off the beaten path, your first time in Rome, or the smell of orange quarters that were brought on as a half-time snack at a football match, a smell that clung to your fingers for the whole match after the juice ran down your arm. There’s no telling what smells will evoke.

Really, the smell of a specific fragrance on someone’s skin is the most incredible confluence of memories and places. If it’s a natural perfume, the smell is created by actual raw materials, essential oils distilled from a rose, or some ylang ylang that could be from half-way around the world. This then reacts with that person’s natural scent, so what you’re really smelling is the coalition of components from all across the globe with the wearer’s own personal, natural scent. This is then a smell that will remind some people, forever, of the scent’s wearer, and times had together. If they smell anything like it again, that person’s face will spring to mind at the end point of all this chemistry and logistics. I really find it all quite remarkable.

Sadie Chowen