eyeliner on a cat

eyeliner on a cat
beauty, scent & style scrutinized for pleasure

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Failing to smell The Big Picture

I had a conversation with my husband recently that got me thinking. I often ask him to sniff the perfume that I'm wearing in order to get his impression; he's not really a perfume person, but he's very creative and he usually says something interesting and/or funny. Here's how the conversation started:

Me: "What does this smell like?" [offers wrist for a sniff]
Husband: "Powder."
Me: "Hmm. Okay. What else?"
Husband: "Nothin'. Just powder."
Me: "There's no powder in this."
Husband: [shrugs]

Despite this discrepancy in initial opinion, we both actually liked the scent quite a bit (for those interested, it was one of Haus of Gloi's new scents for Spring, Milk Maid). But my rude awakening came about an hour later, when I went to sniff again. There it was, sticking its tongue out at me: POWDER. I wondered, is my husband's nose more sensitive than mine? Or am I extrapolating so heavily when I analyze a fragrance that I fail to get the overall impression, or "The Big Picture"? Admitting to either option is not very appealing to my sense of vanity, but I think I will (as humbly as possible) cop to the latter. I am analytical by nature, and when I smell a fragrance that is new to me, I pick out the dominating notes from each stage of wear and tend to focus on exploring those, and comparing them to similar (or identical) notes in other fragrances. This is sort of how I get my jollies. 

What I'd like to know from you, dear readers, is what breed of perfume-lover are you? Are you able to glean the individual characteristics of a fragrance well, or do you mainly focus on the overall impression? Or, are you lucky enough to have a broad sense of fragrance that allows you to interpret both with ease? 

[photo credit: www.personalbrandingblog.com]


  1. I'm probably closer to your husband than you when it comes to ability to decipher scents. (I used to have a terrible sense of smell in general, which was good when I was nose-to-armpit with strangers in a crowded subway car.) For example, with Hanae Mori's Butterfly, I sniffed it and thought it was vanilla without knowing anything about it. Upon reading, it turned out the combination of strawberry and almond somehow creates the vanilla-like scent. So I wasn't completely off base but clearly no expert. I also need to learn the perfume terminology at some point but your blog will get me on the right track eventually. ;)

  2. I am so envious of people that can pick out distinct ingredients. I can not. It's very frustrating. I even struggle to describe a scent. Nice. Sweet. Floral. Sometimes that's as far as I can go.

    I'm trying to learn. To train my nose. I usually have a good sense of whether or not a home fragrance is well balanced and if the individual notes complement or compete with each other. That's important to me.

    With home fragrance what usually grabs me first is whether the scent is cheap/junky or made with quality fragrances. That's the most important to me. The rest is personal preference as long as the fragrance is well constructed and well balanced.

  3. A good question.
    And I'm not really sure how to answer. Sometimes, no matter how much I try, I can't seem to pick out notes, only figure out what they might be by the picture they create. And sometimes, I definitely lose the big picture by getting lost in the play of notes. So much so, that then when wearing a perfume for the umpteenth time, I'm surprised by the picture it presents.
    I guess this wasn't much help. :)

  4. That depends very much on the fragrance for me. Some are like a story that unfolds before my nose, some are like a symphonic accord where everything plays at once and melds into something new and unique.
    I had to laugh about the conversation with your husband - when I aks mine what he thinks about something in nine out of ten cases he will say powder, whether it is in there or not. ;)

  5. That's a hard question, but as a general rule, I'll start with the general impression, and then try - not always successfully - to pick out the notes. This usually takes more than one wearing, unless it's one of those select few that swipe me sideways on impact, in which case, all bets are off! Usually, the more complex, constructed scents are the ones I have to wear a few times to understand. And there are others where a few notes in particular just jump out of the bottle and grab me by the nose - for good or ill. Then, there are those where I think...'C'mon. This is supposed to be the (insert epithet of superlativity here), so what is it I'm too stupid to understand - or even smell?'

    I don't think I've ever met a man who didn't smell in impression, rather than picking a scent apart by components. 'Sexy', 'fresh', 'yummy', 'oooooh!', or 'OMG!!! WHAT IS THAT BEAST YOU*RE WEARING?' (I've known a few of those, too!)

    I've never come across a guy who said 'powder'. Then again, maybe I tend to avoid the ones who do?

    The scents or the guys - take your pick! ;)

  6. I am striving to be more olfactory gifted at this moment I am still learning.

  7. Sue: I trust your nose when it comes to home fragrance. I do think it takes a bit of a different approach than perfume. There are not as many subtleties or layers with home fragrance, so the overall impression is key. If you can't get it right, it will be obvious within a few minutes of, say, burning a candle.

  8. Birgit: When you say that for you, it depends on the fragrance, do you think quality of the materials comes into play? For instance, will a higher quality fragrance allow you to pick out the individual notes more clearly, or do you not think that quality is a factor?

    What is it with some guys and powder? :)

  9. Tarleisio: I have some favorite scents that I have yet to fully comprehend. I don't understand them, despite my tireless efforts, and now it's a matter of acceptance. These are the fragrances I wish I could say are "me", but they are not. This does not stop me from slipping on some Tom Ford Black Orchid and pretending that I'm Greta Garbo, but really, I'm not fooling myself.

  10. Carrie, I'm going to have to agree with Birgit on this one---it totally depends on the fragrance! You asked whether it was easier with higher quality fragrance, but I think that many times it's the opposite of that. I keep going on and on about Memoir (sorry!), but when I smelled it for the first time, for the first minute or two I was trying to pick out notes, but then I gave up, and felt silly! To break it down seemed, in that moment, like the most asinine exercise in the world.

    SO it depends... maybe the ones that I find most beautiful, I find beautiful because they smell seamless to me?

  11. I think I see just what you mean, Dee. To some, the hallmark of a successful (and often pricey) scent is the absence of distinct notes or stages. I suppose if I closely followed the work of a particular talented nose, let's say, I would see this for myself.

  12. Or you're just better at detecting notes than I am! LOL :)

  13. For a single perfume testing I usually concentrate on the overall impression ("like it", "love it", "OMG!", "what was that?..", etc.) and on finding references ("it reminds me of <...> but..."). When I'm trying to run a side-by-side comparison or if I'm searching for a perfect rendition of a specific note - that's where I will try (!) to decipher the composition.

  14. Sorry I didn't see this earlier!
    But my other half Dee (;)) stepped in already with what I would have said too, the high qualitiy fragrances I love the most are often seemless, so well blended they are a complete entity, something new and greater than the sum of its parts.
    The Amouages come to mind or my new great love Frapin 1697.
    But there can also be "ride" perfumes that are high quality like the Tauers, where you can follow the development like a movie.

  15. I have natural tendency to not see the forest because of the trees. So, I'm a note picker and I'm trying to get better and better at "impressions" of the entire fragrance. I'm so respectful of those that can sum up a fragrance in abstract "scenes of scent".

  16. Okay, so you're like me, Victoria. That makes me feel a little better.

    I used to take copious notes when testing perfumes, and I would record my initial impressions during each stage of wear, and then the second time I wore the scent, I went back and picked out the notes and compared them to the quality or quantity of those notes in other perfumes. Now, I just follow my whims when I write. My dream is still to have samples of individual essences for reference, I feel like that would be so helpful in educating myself about individual notes. It will happen one day.

  17. Haha, I read my comment again & thought I said "nose picker". Oh, dear!
    I write the notes I pick up and I guess those notes give me an impression an overall feel.
    I have samples of essences and all it did was ruin me. I'm like this "amber smells like an amber oil" and then I can't pick up on the subtle nuances.