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Scents & Sensibilites

Max Blagg noses around the fragrance counter

People who dress well and smell divine smite us in a holistic way. Our sense of smell is underrated; the nose connects to the right side of the brain, where emotion and memory reside, so fragrances literally change our moods. Aromatherapy, once mocked as a New Age fad, is now a widely accepted form of healing, and inhaling lavender is certainly more pleasant than the hour spent on a shrink’s couch.

Certain fragrances, blending with the body’s natural odors, create a unique third scent, capable of triggering a pheromonal storm. Pheromones, the mysterious chemicals the body emits to send its secret signals, are the perfumer’s grail. Several brands claim to have isolated these elusive molecules and loaded them into their scents, but their methods remain well-guarded secrets. In humans, some of the strongest pheromonic signals emanate from the armpit, which is once again a natural resource, a fertile valley of organic odors that professional “noses” are happily replicating.

Odors rifle through our memory banks, activating different emotions in each of us. Everyone has a favorite. The fragrance in a sunscreen reminds a friend of a distant European summer’s love affair. Another friend has difficulty with a fragrance promoted by a famous actress. The lad’s mum wore copious amounts of this weighty floral, and he experiences disturbing thoughts, conflating movie star sensuality with his homely mum.

In my youth, I was easily tracked by the cloud of vetiver hanging about my head, guaranteed to deter moths and mosquitoes. I purchased it in raw form, a viscous yellow substance, from an ancient pharmacy. Since it was an essential oil, a mere dab sufficed, but it took me years to realize that. Responses to this garland of veti-vapor were extreme—admiration from those for whom it invoked the souk of Marrakech, disdain from others who considered it an assault on their nasal space. I still use vetiver, but only une larme, a teardrop.

The three kings who steered by starlight to Bethlehem looking for the precious Infant brought frankincense and myrrh along, and Jesus himself condoned fragrances, chiding Judas when he reproved Mary Magdalene for splashing expensive oils on the Savior’s feet.

Long ago, before en suite baths, people exuded powerful natural odors, and since odors were associated with disease, oils and fragrances were laid over this frisky reek by those who could afford them. In seventeenth-century France, this immersion in florals as a form of faux hygiene was de rigueur among the upper classes, endorsed by the Sun King, an aficionado whose apartments were sprayed daily with scents and adorned with flowers.

When water flowed freely at last, the well-bathed body seemed almost unnatural and required enhancement of its neutral odor and defense against aggressive ambient whiffs, so the adornments began with fragrances derived from herbs and flowers, then crusaders brought back from the East musk and spices. Ambergris, produced by sperm whales to help rid them of giant squid beaks, is an excellent fixative and contains desirable perfume notes. Although still found floating on the high seas in fifty-pound blocks, ambergris is expensive. Scientists have created a synthetic version called Ambroxan, which reproduces the salient qualities of the real thing.

The wizards who concoct these astounding aromatics no longer require a field full of flowers or the scent glands of civet cats to strum our senses. Almost any smell can be reproduced artificially. Synthetic versions are actually preferred, being less complex. The high-tech aromascope can isolate the specific odor of any plant or flower in a glass dome and record the chemical components of its aroma, which can then be simulated note for note.

Synesthesia, the simultaneous stimulation of more than one sense, was a derangement sought after by nineteenth-century poets like Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier, who tried to achieve it by using hashish in rooms filled with music and flowers. Modern perfumers have similar aspirations, but their experiments take place in the laboratory, where they juggle their artificial equations to achieve a similar melding of the senses. A recent launch seeks to evoke a poet not unlike Baudelaire, the streets of his city and the devilish green liqueur that drove him mad.

As more subtle and obscure smells seize the public imagination, a demand for more singular fragrances has developed. Amber, cedarwood, cumin, moss, citrus—a thousand delicious aromas—are blended by chemists to create personalized fragrances marking the wearer as unique, desirable or wealthy. There is supposedly in preparation a scent of fresh banknotes, one among a multitude of eccentric odors—warm leather, snow, fairgrounds, wet silk—astonishingly accurate replicas, reconstituted molecule by molecule from the originals, all intended to toy with emotions, memories or mating instincts. BG

Our Beauty Editor explains the fine distinctions of fragrances