Making scents: A scent endures after words fade

Our vocabulary to describe fragrant scents and foul odours is limited. It borrows from the other senses; from what we hear or taste and, less often, from what we see and touch. Here are three words from the perfumers’ lexicon to help your journey through scent.

Perfumers find their own harmony in musical jargon. We speak of “composing” fragrances, wherein individual ingredients are the notes. Our perfumes can be built around dissonance or counterpoint. From the language of taste come gourmand descriptions such as spicy, fruity and meaty. From the language of touch we have velvet, silken, smooth and sharp. Borrowing from the eyes, we have scents that are bright, sunny, dusky or dark.

“Dissonance” means a lack of harmony: a tension or clash resulting from the combination of unsuitable elements, from the Latin dissonare, which means “conflict”. In perfumery “dissonance” describes a rupture in a fragrance, when certain raw materials paired together create an effect that is at odds.

When it is poorly executed, or results from spoiled raw materials or inferior synthetic compounds, it is divisive and we have a perfume that simply does not work. But when ­skilfully handled, it can impart a liveliness to a fragrance.

To explain “counterpoint”, I refer to my perfume Chapter Three, built around coffee and orange blossom (neroli). These two raw ­material scents set one another off and go around their nuances. Perhaps this is because the coffee is a carbon ­dioxide extract and the neroli is a steam-distilled essential oil. Or perhaps it is the magic of our scent senses.

“Sillage” (pronounced see-yarzh) is an important perfumer’s tool. From the French for “wake” or “trail”, it describes the scent you leave behind because of the longevity of the fragrance. It is your signature, a set of memories that you should consider with some care.

When buying a perfume, we are sold on its longevity. But the dry-down of the base notes of your ­fragrance (that is, the length of time it takes to display these notes; usually six to eight hours) is what will impart the sillage. Often this heady space contains richer florals, muddled with woods, roots and resins.

In Switzerland I heard a story from someone who had known Madame Guerlain. Apparently, she was so committed to her sillage that she would have her gown hung up and spray her fragrance on the garment itself. Then she would light a cigar and blow the smoke on to her dress. She believed it set the fragrance in a way that created a lasting impression like no other.

Sillage is an effective method for making people aware of you, the sensorial quality when someone leaves a lasting impression. In some instances, it is appropriate to display sillage, but please consider the appropriateness of the occasion!

The possibilities of counterpoint; the exhilaration of finely executed dissonance; the merits and perils of sillage, it is optimal to use these ideas to our advantage when selecting a perfume and sometimes we should opt for the subtle. It can be just as intriguing to fade away without leaving a trail.

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