How One Writer Learned to Appreciate the Power of Perfume
Alix Strauss goes to scent school to learn to tell a story through fragrance.
Unlike many women, I’ve never had a love affair with fragrance. In the past 25 years, I’ve worn only two: Clinique’s Calyx and The Scent of Peace by Bond No. 9. I was drawn to them because…I liked their smell. Surely, it’s not more complicated than that, I thought. Yet I’ve interviewed perfumers who discuss their creations as if they were works of art, talked to friends who rhapsodize about their favorite fragrances’ je ne sais quoi. Was I lacking a certain scents-ibility?
This question lingered like eau de cologne on a pillowcase. So I was intrigued when I was invited to a one-on-one training class at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) in Manhattan, where master fragrance makers learn their craft, typically over the course of three years. With any luck, a two-hour session would give me at least a sniff.
On the appointed day, the teacher, senior perfumer and IFF consultant and trainer Ron Winnegrad, is decked out in dueling colors, from his mismatched socks (one red, one cream) to his rainbow crocheted sweater to his floral shirt and tie. Like many experts, he believes smell is the strongest of our five senses because the olfactory bulb, where smell is processed, closely connects to brain regions responsible for storing memories and recording emotions. Yet smell is the one sense we typically don’t actively refine. We deepen our appreciation of music, painting, and food by studying the artistry behind their creation. Today I’ll attempt a bit of the same thing with fragrance.
But first Ron tells me I need to learn to smell scented blotters the right way. Apparently, holding one steady under your nose and breathing in is the wrong way. Instead, I’m advised to move the strip of fragranced paper back and forth under both nostrils. This is because at any given time, a person might be relying on one nostril more than the other. “Each nostril will have a different airflow, and if you’re favoring one, you may be missing some of the important nuances of a fragrance,” says Ron. Once I’ve mastered the strip sniffing, I’m ready to hear about colors and emotions and how crucial they are to appreciating perfume. The perfumer’s job, Ron says, is to create something people feel a connection to—a connection that’s often quite hard to articulate. “If you can talk about a scent emotionally, using colors and descriptive words, everyone can relate to it,” he explains.
To drive this point home, Ron gives me a scent strip that he’s just spritzed, then tells me to close my eyes and visualize the colors I smell. It feels a little kooky, like I’m trying to read someone’s aura, but I take a stab. I detect something a little airy and slightly floral. “Green, blue, orange,” I tell him. When I open my eyes, Ron is holding a print of a Monet painting that features a lush outdoor scene with a garden—and the colors I’ve just named. He’s impressed. “You’re really in touch with your intuition,” he says. I feel myself beam with pride.
Three more Monet prints are placed in front of me: a misty river scene, water lilies in a green-blue pond, and what looks like an orangy sunset reflected in water. I look at the photos, smell three new blotters as I’ve been taught, and place the strips where I think they match. I put the light, fresh scent with the river; the almost-verdant fragrance with the water lilies; and the woodsy, spicy aroma with the sunset. My score: three for three.
Then Ron shows me three photographs: a shirtless man doing laundry, a woman holding a laughing baby, another woman ready for a night on the town. He asks me to smell two fragrances and match them with the pictures. The first reminds me of detergent and something clean. Easy: the laundry guy. The second smells of baby powder. Even easier. The point, Ron says, is to get me thinking about scent in a more emotional way. It’s not just about smelling good; it’s about choosing fragrance that conjures specific images and feelings.
These exercises are like circuit training for my nose and brain: I started on the treadmill and advanced to the StairMaster, and now it’s my turn on the stationary bike. Ron tells me that fragrance makers often pull from as many as 1,500 ingredients to create one scent. But he restricts himself to about 300. “In my perspective, less is more elegant,” he says. Some notes, he says, are more intense or immediately recognizable; others take longer to develop—the perfumer strikes a balance between them, depending on his vision for a scent. With a keen emotional understanding of scent, he can also select notes that help evoke a feeling or a state of being. “Recently, a major fragrance brand wanted me to replicate a specific evening,” Ron says. “The client told me about a cold, wet November night when it started snowing and you could see the moon sparkle. She wanted to create that evening and the sentiment that went with it in a smell.”
Suddenly, I understand. A perfumer isn’t simply combining smells and ingredients in a pleasing way. He’s telling stories, using scent to evoke scenes and feelings.
Armed with my newly sharpened olfactory skills, I take myself to Sephora to attempt to find a perfume I can experience, rather than just like. With eyes shut, I try something slightly reminiscent of a stable, though not unpleasantly so. I pick up the aroma of leather and dirt, so it’s no shock when I examine the bottle and see that the scent is from Hermès, a brand known for its equestrian heritage.
I move down the aisle and pick up a clear, nondescript flacon by Dolce & Gabbana. I reach for a scent strip, give it a spritz, close my eyes, and suddenly envision myself taking off on a flight to somewhere warm; it smells like fresh air and clouds and makes me feel excited and optimistic. I realize in one deep inhale that this is what Ron and my friends were talking about: perfume’s ability to transport and transform. I promise myself that when I get paid for writing this story, I’ll come back and buy this vacation in a bottle. Ah, the sweet smell of enlightenment.
Fill out perfumer Sue Phillips’s questionnaire (“What is your favorite fabric?” “What do you prefer to drink?”), and she’ll create a special scent based on your answers. Sue Phillips House of Fragrance by Scenterprises Luxury Perfumes ($85 to $145; scenterprises.com)