Can you tell your roses from your rutabagas? Do you enjoy a hint of mugwort in a fragrance? Can you recognise the origin of your favourite lavender solely by smell?
For over 35 years Les Senteurs has been helping every customer to find the fragrance that fits like a glove. You don’t need to be able to recognise the ingredients in a perfume to enjoy it - in fact many people relish the mystery of unidentifiable accords. Not knowing what makes up a scent can add well to the magic of things.
On the other hand, natural human curiosity prompts an interest in recognising the oils that are exciting the nose. There is also an almost hypnotic, incantatory power in reciting the exotic materials with their strange and evocative names. Who can resist such alluring words as myrrh, opoponax, tolu, frangipani, artemisia and boronia with all their mysterious and bewitching connotations?
And it’s lovely when you do identify a particular note that is teasing your nose: it’s like standing on a hillside as the mist clears to reveal a landscape that you have heard described but never before seen.
There are more practical and pragmatic reasons too. How can you avoid an ingredient that offends the nose if you can’t identify it? And what are the oils that infallibly stimulate and arouse you?
Here are some of my thoughts culled from a life in and around scents. Like the vast majority of Les Senteurs customers I adore scents, but I am not a perfumer; I do not create scents and I do not have the sort of exquisitely tuned nose and brain that can memorise and categorise thousands upon thousands of oils. That’s the rare kind of brain that can catalogue dozens of vetivers, each from a different climate and terrain; jasmines from France, Egypt, India or Morocco, each with its own character; hundreds of fascinating synthetic musks.
As our teachers used to say about French irregular verbs - there is no short cut to committing these oils to memory, you just have to learn them! It’s the job of a lifetime, but it can be highly intriguing and satisfying, like assembling a huge olfactory jigsaw puzzle.
Twelve top tips:
Over the years, however, I have learned certain additional techniques to help our customers find the perfume that works like a dream. For dreams are what we deal in: our stock in trade.
So here we go: twelve top tips!
1. Practice makes perfect.
Most of us have much keener noses than we imagine: we just need to release our inhibitions in using them. Don’t be shy: practice makes perfect.
2. No wrong answer
And the liberating thing to remember is, that there is no right or wrong in what each individual perceives with his nose - one person smells frangipani; another interprets this as rubber. The workings of our noses are like our fingerprints: individual and unique. Whatever you smell in a scent is there for you: this is another reason not to get too fixated the on the precise formula of a perfume.
3. Follow your heart
Because smell is such a visceral animal sense, don’t try to reason with it. Follow your heart, heed your instincts, listen to what a fragrance is saying to you. Never choose a fragrance because you think you ought to like it; or because someone else likes it. This one’s entirely for you!
4. The floral paradox
Florals are still the largest and most popular perfume family. If you fancy a floral do remember that the pure extracted essence of a plant often bears no relation to the smell of the flower, we know - or think we know - in the garden or at the florists. Attar of roses to many people smells more like crab apples. Violets in bloom can have a rather shocking meaty muskiness. Jasmine as an integrated accord may smell strangely unlike that jasmine, we loved twenty years ago cascading over a summer wall at Antibes. One of the great paradoxes of perfume is that a natural oil may need much tweaking in the lab to make it smell like the plants you love in the park. Perfumery is full of magical illusions, smoke and mirrors. Frederic Malle’s sublime Rose et Cuir uses fruits and geranium to evoke the eponymous flower. Tabac Blond has a surprisingly floral heart for a scent inspired by tobacco and cigarettes.
5. Take your time
When you come to Les Senteurs hot on the trail for a new scent, pick the right moment. You’ll need time and patience so wait for a day when your body clock is right, and you feel in the mood for fantasy and exploration. Don’t squeeze in a visit at the end of the afternoon when you are rushed and tired. Your brain and your nose get a just as fatigued as your feet and eyes as the day draws late. Did you know that exhaustion or stress can confuse or even temporarily cut off the sense of smell? Keep calm! Be nonchalant. This is not a boring duty but a fascinating adventure with all manner of intriguing byways and discoveries along the way.
6. Ask for help
Our wonderful team will help you just as much or as little as you need. All those hundreds of glittering bottles can be intimidating, so it may be useful to have the staff curate a small selection for you to try. We are here to save your time and your nose. What you need to do is to open your heart and imagination to us.... just a chink! Give us a clue.
7. Focus on its purpose
So, prepare in advance by pondering what you are looking for in a scent. For what occasion are you choosing it? For what mood? Are you looking for sensual escapism or a crisp little number for the office? Tell us what you would like the perfume to do for you! It’s very helpful, of course, to know what smells you like and dislike but not everyone finds this easy.
8. Use metaphorical descriptions
So: if you can’t find the language - and smell being abstract is very hard to describe - then maybe you’d prefer to express yourself in metaphor. All our staff are skilled interpreters so express yourself in whatever way feels most appropriate.
Here are some ideas:
- What colour do you visualise when thinking about a preferred perfume?
- What texture? What fabric? Silk, satin, wool or velvet? Rough, smooth, grainy or polished?
- What sound, tone or pitch? Is your perfume melodic, shrill, sonorous, muted, or like a veiled trumpet?
A client asked recently - “what IS that squeaky, rasping smell that really puts me off a perfume, every single time?”.
Close questioning and some sensitive guided smelling found this to be tuberose; so that now my customer knows to avoid that ingredient.
9. Less is sometimes more
The classic advice is to concentrate on no more than three perfume choices at any one time. It’s certainly better to try less than more. Remember that perfume on a dead paper strip tells less than half the story: it merely suggests whether you should proceed to spray the scent on the warm living skin. Here, your own chemistry and oils will ignite the fragrance, bringing it - hopefully - to palpitating magnificent life.
10. Stay fresh
To keep the nose clear and the brain alert, drink cold water while testing. We are very happy to serve you with hot or cold beverages and a glass of water works wonders. Smelling makes some people very thirsty. Fresh air, too, is essential. We have an open window policy at Les Senteurs which many visiting perfumers have applauded; and clients may choose to take a stroll outside in between tests to help neutralise the senses.
11. Utilise samples
If you are undecided between two choices, we may well suggest that you take a sample of each to take away and consider. Smelling the fragrances at home will probably clinch the matter. You will be in your own familiar surroundings, relaxed and at ease. There will be no unfamiliar extraneous odours to distract you. All should now fall comfortably and perfectly into place!
12. Patience is key
Patience is everything! Patience is key. Wait the fragrance out through all its many twists and turns. It may take hours for a new scent to unfold like a flower and to reveal all its facets. Enjoy the revelation!
Once you have made your final choice you will then experience the play of its ingredients and note the way in which each accord develops and captivates you. The longing to find your next perfume is now only a matter of time. Your fragrance wardrobe is already taking shape!!!