I’ve lost my head for perfume. When I’m writing, I can’t give up reading altogether, as some stronger-willed writers do. Instead, I gravitate to topics unlike whatever I’m writing. Instead of dutifully whittling down the pile on my nightstand, I add to it. This is a trait I apparently share with many fellow writers. I occasionally fear that an unexpected tremor will cause the carefully balanced stacks of books to shudder, setting off a cascade of beautiful writing, dusty books, and good intentions that will bury me in my sleep. But I digress.
Reading about perfume has changed the shape of my world. I wear perfume. I love the way it can be a mood applied over your skin, with you through the day, invisible to almost everyone around you. Yet the profound depths of my ignorance have unfolded before me with each delicately described sniff.
I don’t know how smelling works.
I don’t know how to describe smells.
I am at a loss for words.
We all go around smelling things all day, but how little we really know. It’s no wonder dogs, with their superior noses, think we’re dense.
Somehow, we breathe molecules in and our brains “read” the molecules. How? Is it the shape? The micro-vibration of electrons? How does a small chemical structure evoke oranges? Musk? Florida sunsets and the coconut-woodsy-grassy smell that brings back a long-ago vacation with utter clarity and vivid memory?
I wish I could conjure words the way molecules elicit smell – urgently, fully, and vividly—with no apparent effort.
My daughter and I sat at the table yesterday after lunch taking turns.
Yeasty. Fresh. Beige.
Citrusy. Bright. Tropical.
Our language of smell is stunningly paltry. Thank goodness for the internet and people who share everything they know.
Bois de Jasim has a dictionary of excellent terms and her writing shifts between hints of sweetness and brightness to the noir musks of the perfume world.
In her hands, Chanel No. 5 is an interplay between the “sparkling aldehydic veil and the honeyed rose and jasmine notes as the fragrance moves into its dark base.”
Animalic and marine.
Startling green notes.
Lactonic (think peaches and cream).
Fragrance Cellar takes a different approach to fragrance vocabulary. Diagrams, organization, and relationships are neatly mapped out, with examples from sweet and familiar to saffron: “leathery, warm, rich and intimate.”
This world of fragrance invites me into her lavender mists, opening possibilities that pull me forward. She challenges me to go farther, to let my mind wander, roaming long enough to bring home that nugget of amber tree sap wrapped in sun-dried linen. To collect that pungent herb infused with a bright, sharp oil to enhance the top note of my next tale.
What a delight to find better writing right under our noses.
Originally published March 14, 2016