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My nose is growing

Training My Nose

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For the last seven months I’ve been learning to recognize individual scents. Sometimes I can pick them out of fine fragrances - especially if I have a list of the notes. This is sort of how real perfumers are trained.

In What the Nose Knows, Avery Gilbert describes the Givaudan method of training, developed by Jean Charles. For about nine lessons the student smells one scent from each of a set of fragrance families (“citrus, woody, spicy, and so on”) to learn the differences between families. After that, sessions work within a family, to learn the differences between, for example, “lemon, bergamont, tangerine, mandarin orange, blood orange, grapefruit and lime” within the citrus family. ”The graduate of nasal boot camp must recognize more than 100 natural materials and around 150 synthetics. The professional perfumer eventually becomes familiar with every material in his company’s library – anywhere from 500 to 2,000 items – and is able to recognize every grade of each.”

More detail on the Jean Charles method is available at The Perfumer’s Apprentice website, including his original 1961 articles. There are also suggestions for families and examples within families offered under “Olfactory Exercise: Natural” and “Olfactory Exercise: Commercial.”

I don’t have 2,000 or 500 or even 100 basic materials - yet. I started out buying half ounce (15 ml) bottles of essential oils from the aromatherapy section of our supermarket. From somewhere on the web I’d gotten a recipe for diluting EOs to make colognes. I’d dilute 12 drops of EO with 2 ounces (60 ml) of vodka (regular 80 proof) and 100 ml more of bottled water. I’d open the bottle & smell the fumes a couple of times a day. Next day I’d do the same with another EO. I started with cinnamon, since I was pretty sure I could recognize it. Then I concentrated on scents I didn’t already know – Bergamot, Ylang Ylang, Lavender, … This was before I’d read Avery Gilbert or found The Perfumer’s Apprentice. But I did recognize some natural categories – woods, flowers, citrus, herbs, and incense. I started cutting up coffee filters to make scent strips. By then I had read about top notes, middle notes, and base notes, so I recorded how long different scents lasted on my scent strips.

Later, as I got into fragrances with top, middle and base notes I more and more sprayed onto a paper towel instead of a little scent strip. The paper towel is a bigger target & not much scent gets wasted. The paper towel also gives me alternative ways to smell. I can wave it in front of my face & get just a brief whiff. Or I can hold it closer for a more sustained meditation. Or I can bury my face until my nose adapts and I can’t smell the fragrance at all anymore. This is useful when I am comparing fragrances and want to decide if the same note or key accord is really present in both.

I’ve also experimented a lot with how to smell notes or perfumes. My current method for learning a new note or a new scent is to explore it over at least two days. Each day I try to smell for two minutes at a time, at least three times a day. Usually the two minutes is broken up into multiple smells of 2-5 seconds each with rests between. At least once I’ll really keep smelling longer, to see if some extra aspect pops out. I know I’m more sensitive to some things and less to others. One of my goals is to increase my sensitivity in areas where I’m not very sensitive. At least I’m recognizing some notes and accords now that I had never smelled before.

I soon wanted more notes than the aromatheraphy section carried – especially Lily of the Valley and Jasmine. And as I read more I wanted to learn how more ‘perfum-y’ notes smelled – like oakmoss, amber, marine, oud, benzoin, etc. This is when I found The Perfumer’s Apprentice and started ordering single notes and accords.

Of course I pretty soon started playing Name That Scent with my little collection. I could usually tell one family from another: The woods mostly smelled sharp and resinous, like variations on PineSol. The citrus juices had a more fruity sharpness. The spices smelled sweet. The flowers smelled less sweet. They shared some character but I couldn’t think of a name except floral. And the herbs smelled, well, herbal. Within the flowers, some smelled sharper or rougher, like lavender, and others smelled smoother, like Ylang Ylang. I could recognize Y-Y from other flowers by ‘looking’ for a banana note that I detected in it. But I couldn’t find similar ways to discriminate within most families.

This is when I started seriously looking for more descriptive terms. This led to my May 24, 2009, blog post, Some Vocabularies of Smell. I didn’t discover a magic small set of descriptors. Instead I expanded my list of families. I found two men’s and two women’s fragrances in each of a main set of families and started learning them. Some I could smell for free at Sephora or at Ulta Beauty. I found sale bottles of some at Marshall’s or TJMaxx. I bought some hard-to-get bottles on eBay and from Brielle87 through Basenotes. And I’ve bought samples of some fragrances from The Perfumed Court.

As I started smelling real fragrances I found big differences within families. As an example, within the Green family I found Grey Flannel and Estee Lauder’s Alliage to be very sharp/pungent/strong. I found Creed’s Green Irish Tweed lighter, and more citrus-y. And I found Cacharel’s Eden to be much softer. And yet there is something similar in all of them. While Green is variously described as herbal, leafy and vegetal, these are not like the herbs I cook with.

Investigating the initial ‘family fragrances’ led me further – to examples of some common accords (chypre, fougere, …) and to classic fragrancess (Yatagan, Kouros, L’Heure Bleue, L’Instant, Rive Gauche, …). I’m starting to smell similarities and differences beyond individual notes. For example, I can recognize Green in English Leather and in Kouros. Some fragrances that are called fougeres seem close to Oriental and others seem close to Green. I was happy when I detected a tobacco note in Armani Attitude, even though it wasn’t mentioned in Perfumes The Guide. When I smelled Kouros, I detected a strong green note. I verified this by smelling side-by-side with Grey Flannel. I knew there was a difference. I couldn’t tell what the difference was until I saw cloves in the notes pyramid. Then the smell clicked.

Next I’m going to order some individual aroma chemicals, like the coumarin that’s in fougeres and some of the musks that are difficult to smell. Eventually I’ll go back to playing Name That Scent with a much larger test set.


  1. ECaruthers's Avatar
    Hi, Artist,

    First, apologies for not noticing your question and replying sooner. As I mentioned in a later blog, I've been having a lot of hip pain. I must have been between pain medications when you posted.

    Thanks for the pointer to your site. Wow, great prices on the Hamadryad line of colognes. I want to try them all. But then I saw the quality (and prices) of your jewelry. What if I really love the colognes? I might not be able to resist the jewelry. Then the colognes would turn out to be really expensive! I must proceed cautiously. . .
    Updated 11th November 2009 at 11:40 PM by ECaruthers


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