Essays

Getting a Whiff of Perfume’s Illusions

The glass bottles decorating our dressers and vanities aren’t just aesthetic layers to add and remove but a story we tell the world about ourselves.

The Garden of Scents (all image by Projectiles Arte Factory for Le Grand Musée du Parfum, unless noted)

We’ve all experienced it, whether we think of ourselves as olfactory aficionados or not: flashbacks and recollections triggered by perfume. Scent can literally manipulate emotions by sending signals to our hippocampus, the part of the brain that guards the pathways to the different elements that make up a memory. These memories intertwine with smells, conjuring up the past like a visceral film reel.

When Helena Fitzgerald, who writes the perfume newsletter “The Dry Down” with Rachel Syme, thinks about a fragrance she purchased in the beginning of a relationship, she is “overcome with a gratitude that I have a way to get back to that time in our lives, that I will still have that way to return to the first version of our loving each other, even when we’re old.” Perfume becomes a physical vessel for something intangible, a bottle containing not just scent notes but the excitement of a first trip abroad or the gut-punch of heartbreak.

Perfume Organ by Jason Bruges, an artistic work created specifically for the museum

In addition to recalling the past, perfume can have a profound effect on the present. It’s a method of communication: enticing or repulsive, playful or aggressive. “Being able to tell stories about ourselves rates high on the modern list of necessities,” writes Tara Isabella Burton at Real Life Magazine. She’s talking about the so-called “lipstick effect,” when an economic downturn results in higher sales of small luxury items. This seems to be the case with perfume, which became more affordable and accessible in recent years through the advent of sites like Surrender to Chance, where you can purchase decants of perfumes that may not otherwise be offered in budget sizes or as samples.

A bottle of Bapteme du Feu

Buying perfume via the internet has only added to its storytelling qualities. Most online shops use two descriptions for scented products: details about the actual notes, and a vignette that translates those notes into something we can better understand. To take just one example, Serge Lutens’s Bapteme de Feu is made of six components, three of which are “powdery notes,” “castoreum,” and “osmanthus.” This is difficult to imagine; easier to make sense of is the accompanying text describing the fragrance as “the moment when we’ve jumped and sit awaiting the unknown.” It’s a perfume for the daring, or those who want to be, a bottle of “dressing for the job you want” or “faking it ‘til you make it.”

“The perfumer is an illusionist before he is a chemist” states a press release for Le Grand Musée du Parfum, which opened in Paris this past December. Paris has a perfume museum already — several, in fact — but they tend to be run by specific perfumers, like the Musée du Parfum attached to and owned by Parfumerie Fragonard. By contrast, Le Grand Musée is co-owned by more than 100 perfume houses and industry experts, and it is more concerned with the art of perfume than individual perfumes as art. Through immersive experiences (like the Garden of Scents, a room of futuristic-looking flowers that spray mystery smells into the air for visitors to identify) and workshops, Le Grand Musée seeks to utilize the power of scent to “access the sphere of dreams.”

Sensory immersion exhibit
Perfume in the Middle Ages

This sound a bit woo-woo, but it’s actually not: Through the olfactory cortex’s role in the limbic system, which pilots emotions and behavior, perfume is able to influence both our beliefs and our fantasies. It’s an influence so notable that it must be controlled for in scientific testing: Scent samples are often misidentified to subjects to ensure they’re reacting to the scent itself and not just its associated memory. Study results from the Warwick Olfaction Research Group in England show that some fragrances have similar effects on the brain to those of antidepressant drugs, and the University of Tokyo concluded that scents like jasmine can act as stimulants. Perfumes that instill feelings of calm or alertness via memory, then, are potentially just as powerful.

Cadavre Exquis bottle and booklet (image courtesy of Bruno Fazzolari and Antonio Gardoni)

Perfumers are well aware of this power, and they are getting weird. While the bigger names iterate on high-earning formulas, many lesser-known artisans are outdoing themselves with each release, creating concoctions that challenge the wearer. Some shirk pleasant smells for the foul (Bruno Fazzolari and Antonio Gardoni’s Cadavre Exquis, which smells like rigor mortis), others aim to unsettle (Aftelier’s Memento Mori, named after the Victorian jewelry designed to “remind the viewer [or wearer] of their mortality and the shortness of human life”), and a select few seek to provoke (Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Phobia series, with each scent inspired by a fear).

Such fragrances may not be “pleasing” in a traditional sense, but that hardly makes them unappealing — horror movies are incredibly popular, after all. It is this kinship with media, a closer association with film and literature than other wearables, that makes perfume so captivating. The glass bottles decorating our dressers and vanities aren’t just aesthetic layers to add and remove but a story we tell the world about ourselves. And, like any story, perfume is highly subjective: What one individual finds moving might disgust someone else, and a nondescript fragrance worn for olfactory pleasure alone could produce intense, unexpected emotional reactions in those who smell it.

Perfume in the Middle Ages

Given perfume’s effect on everything from physical health to emotions, it’s not particularly surprising that Le Grand Musée has opened during a time that, for many of us, is uncertain and chaotic. We are compelled to tell stories, and museum president Guillaume de Maussion contends that perfume possesses “a gift for expressing who we are and what we aspire to be.” Like a character’s theme song, scent precedes you into a room and lingers when you leave, both announcer and historian. And like the hippocampus, it’s a master of pathways: those between being and narrative. If we must live in the anxiety-ridden moment right after the jump, shouldn’t we at least smell like it?

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