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Jaime B's Blog

Scent Esthetics: Thoughts on Subtlety

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Sometimes when I read posts in Basenotes, or on other sites and blogs, or even in advertising, I am forced to confront the meaning of "subtlety" as it is used by other writers.

The first impression I get is that many people mean "light" or "ephemeral" when they use the term. Sometimes I think it is used to mean "fresh" or "clean." Of course I don't have any contexts handy to illustrate this, but it is the feeling I get from the overall tone of some of the messages I read and hear.

To my nose, though, subtlety is about art; it isn't about faint, ephemeral, or hard-to-detect scents. When I encounter subtlety, I must be in awe of the perfumer's knowledge of materials, creativity, innovation, or respect for tradition (and yes, the ability and taste to twist it just enough). An unexpected note, a slow impression of growing heart notes that blend so seamlessly into the top that I can barely begin to detect the shift, yet feel its power: that is subtlety to me.

Subtlety is often there among powerful notes, in leathers, orientals and big florals. It is powerful precisely because the more powerful cannot overwhelm it. It can be in the blending or in the contrasts, or in true art, in the amazing tour de force of successfully blending disparate notes and accords.

Subtlety is never in predictability. It thrives on a vivid impression: surprise, amazement, curiosity, even contradiction. Some of the weak, "fresh," "clean," copy-cat scents guaranteed to be popular for a few months and then fade from memory may be faint, but they are not truly subtle. True subtlety will always be memorable; it will continually bring joy to the spirit; it does not die, but rather confers immortality on the one who achieves it in perfumery.

It cannot be all that common. It will be one of the hallmarks of masterworks. Other scents may be pretty and attractive in a less satisfying way, but the subtle ones will live on as some of the highest examples of how the art of scent should be done.


  1. fredricktoo's Avatar
    Hi Jaime,
    Enjoying your posts a lot.

    But I have a question. As I understand the word subtle I know of no qualifiers for it. For instance I may describe my son's jacket to his mother of reeking of beer and a hint of Brut that's so subtle as to possibly be my imagination.

    If we use sight (that other sense that's difficult to put into words) we can say subtle colors or understated, muted, subdued; delicate, faint, pale, soft, indistinct and probably a lot more.

    Looking forward to your insights sir. I know you've been experiencing fine scents a lot longer than I have and I enjoy discovering new ideas.

    Have a good one
  2. JaimeB's Avatar

    Thanks for your comment. I guess what I meant (and perhaps I wasn't explicit enough) is that a perfumer's subtlety is mainly in the art of making a scent, and not in the ingredients themselves or their attributes. The perfumer's hand is subtle, nearly undetectable, but definitely there; the iron hand in the velvet glove, perhaps? Firmly in control but appearing to act by sleight of hand. Even when dealing with prominent or powerful materials, the perfumer's handling of them can be subtle: in their balance; in their juxtaposition; in their relation to the history of their olfactory genre.

    Does that make my meaning any clearer? I hope so...
    Updated 2nd February 2008 at 06:22 AM by JaimeB
  3. echerub's Avatar
    Perhaps another way of putting it is to contrast "subtlety in strength" versus "subtlety in presentation"? The former being subtle as in faint or weak, and the latter being subtle as in artful, controlled or nuanced.


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