Have you noticed that everyone seems to interpret smells differently? You’re not the only one. I love this excerpt that The Institute for Art and Olfactionshared recently, from an upcoming essay by founder Saskia Wilson-Brown:
“The increasingly fractured significance we apply to scent means that when our personal experiences, memories and preferences are expressed in smell, they are often done so through an uneasy combination of assumptions. “Timeless” meanings (“Frankincense smells holy!”) are assumed to be general understanding, and specific individual perspectives (“The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of my childhood summers in the south of Vietnam”) are assumed to be relatable.
Thus a young trans woman in Atlanta can perceive the smell of rose as a meaningful signifier of her feminine identity, while a Somali scholar in Dubai can concurrently ascribe to it the symbolic meaning of traditional hospitality. An elder from a Canadian First Peoples tribe can understand sage in the context of medicine and healing, while an affluent banker in Hong Kong can understand it as a luxury object in the form of a refreshing room spray.
The meaning of any given smell is heterogeneous; as Derrida would have it with language, so it is with scent. Traditional understandings, fragmented as they already are amongst cultures and epoch, are further splintered with every personal memory, micro-niche, trend, marketing pitch, and emotional analysis. In our globalized world everyone can see or experience everything, and everything means something to everybody. What this means for people working with scent is that, in fact, nothing means one thing to everybody (at least not without a hefty dose of contextual information). Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning. And therein lies the primary problem when working with scent.”
“Perfume is a language whose speech is worth learning and unpacking as one would a poem, book, or film. Scent is a path to getting closer to our senses, to instinct, and to our bodies and the earth at a time when those attachments are threatened.”
“The study of smell requires one to exit the realm of the beautiful to descend into what German philosophers used to call the Sublime, and come face to face with the enduring strangeness of raw sensation.” —Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent
Last year I took a natural perfume blending intensive class with Jessica Hannah at The Institute for Art and Olfaction. At the end of the introductory night, we made our own formula. I told Jessica, “I’m so into these 5 materials, but I don’t think they’ll ~go together~” and she said, “Let’s do it! Go for it, mix ‘em and see how it goes!” The result was this surprisingly lovely mix of benzoin and vetiver, lavender absolute and jasmine grandiflorum, and pink grapefruit.
I’ve learned a lot about blending perfumes since then and I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, but I still put this on every once in a while as a kind of perfume “palate cleanser” and as a reminder to go for it, to mix things up and see how it goes!
Have you ever tried to sit with a smell when you don’t know what it is, and describe it without first trying to find out what it is or how someone else describes it? It almost feels like you have your hands tied behind your back, and you just can’t “reach” it. It makes you realize how limited our language for scent is! But if you let yourself stay in that space for a few minutes to observe the scent, observe your response, and observe the thoughts the smell evokes, you can arrive at some interesting ideas you otherwise wouldn’t have.