The British Society of Perfumers celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and their calendar of events is full of interesting items. I attended "Scentsory Question Time", modelled on the popular BBC Question Time format, on the 10th of January 2013.
The panel (left to right):
The event was held at the Royal Society of Chemistry and open to the general public. Many members of the BSP were present and the topic seemed to have attracted people from a range of backgrounds, judging by the questions from the audience.
The sense of smell remains the least understood of the 5 senses and the evening was mainly presented as an opportunity to delve deeper into its mysteries. Some questions had been gathered in advance via the BSP's LinkedIn page and audience participation was encouraged throughout the evening. Later on the discussion turned to perfumery and the industry itself.
Scent, memory and attraction
After an initial introduction to the topic by John Bailey, he asked the panel why it is that smells evoke unusually strong reactions and memories. Will Andrews explained that our sense of smell hasn't really changed throughout our evolution and is still linked to the reptilian limbic system. Our reaction to smells is very primal and immediate. If there is a smell that has left a bad memory, it will always have that association for you.
Penny Williams added that although we are born with somewhat of a blank canvas as far as scent associations go, the mother's diet during pregnancy affects our scent preferences. Steve Pearce commented that vanilla is so popular because it reminds us of the flavour of our mothers' milk. Penny also pointed out that our smell has primarily developed to detect differences in our environment.
The discussion inevitably turned into whether it's possible to design a scent to attract the opposite sex.
Grant Osborne mentioned the long-running Which scents do women dig... -thread on Basenotes and how it's very clear from the answers is that there is no conclusive answer. Scent and sexuality relate so much to personal body odour, memories and preferences that scour as you might for the most given answers in that thread, the one you go with could still be the wrong choice for you.
Steve Pearce reminded us that research into human pheromones hasn't really produced anything concrete and usable by the industry yet, and had they truly been harnessed, "we'd all be millionaires by now", so he encouraged us to remain sceptical when encountering allegedly pheromone-enhanced perfumes.
Will Andrews made us all consider how the "scent landscape" of recent years differs from that of even ten years ago and how this might influence perfume trends and how much and what kind of perfume people wear when they go out. Going to a bar used to involve getting covered in cigarette smoke and now, in the absence of it, there's a whole new fug of sweaty bodies and spilled booze.
Indie, mainstream and IFRA
It's lovely to be able to explore increasingly unusual compositions, occasionally drench oneself in an indulgent blend of expensive ingredients or find a perfume that is reminiscent of vintage themes, but equally, some of the widely available mainstream perfumes might be just the thing on a different day. There may be many perfume collecting purists who shun anything classed as mainstream but most perfume enthusiasts embrace scents in many guises. The sheer variety and the increased consumer interest can only be good for business, both indie and mainstream.
When Lisa Hiprgrave was asked: "Can IFRA truly monitor what the indie perfumers are up to?", her response was a very safe statement of how IFRA members must adhere to their code of practice, but completely avoided the actual point of the question. If an indie perfumer isn't an IFRA member, then what? Membership isn't compulsory.
There is a good reason IFRA is keen to be seen as an all-encompassing organisation within the industry. If it's not, perfume safety matters might suddenly end up solely in the hands of governments. Would that be a bad thing? Isn't an industry-run organisation regulating itself rather like the fox guarding the hens?
Unfortunately, the issue of perfume safety is more complex than that, largely due to the traditional secrecy and competitive nature of the industry. NGOs, consumer groups and EU regulators are now keen to make perfumes "completely safe" and as much as perfumistas may protest, the industry's efforts to halt this process may seem like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Depending on your view on the matter, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is either a suspicious entity, out to kill perfumery, or a well-meaning but ultimately somewhat flawed attempt by the industry to keep perfumery off the hands of overzealous government regulators who aren't subject matter experts and would demand 100% "allergen free fragrance" (which would lead to kissing goodbye to all natural ingredients for starters).
IFRA's approach, according to Hipgrave, is to reduce the allergens to a save level, at which they are no longer capable of inducing an allergic reaction. As to why we can't simply provide warning labels for perfumes, Hipgrave pointed out that allergies develop over time so one wouldn't necessarily be aware of it until one day there'd be a problem.
Due of the traditional secrecy of the industry, concepts like safety and honesty were not the first ones to come to mind when consumers started getting more interested in what actually goes into their perfumes. The media-fuelled cosmetic ingredient scares have not helped. The fact that some of the old fashioned perfumery ingredients did sometimes have adverse effects (nitro musks; bergaptene in bergamot oil), and the fact that perfume sales copy has always been somewhat fictitious, hasn't made it easy to convince consumers that All Is Well And Perfectly Safe in the world of perfumery.
Add to this, the general public's common misconception that safety is a binary condition (it's not), and it is easy to see how people would have grown increasingly confused and mistrustful from the diet of mixed messages they've being fed.
In a perverse way, the rise of small independent perfume brands may lead to alarm bells going off in the EU, and to subsequent laws about perfume which aren't based on industry recommendations. These laws would inevitably be stricter than what the industry set itself. So it may actually be in the best interest of the whole industry for small manufacturers to follow IFRA's recommendations.
Ruth Mastenbroek pointed out that a shift in industry insider attitudes is needed, "to change our view of each other from competitors to allies".
Perfume and the internet
"It has brought together a lot of people with a similar passion. It's been a relief for many to be able to hang out in likeminded company and not be that perfume weirdo," replied Grant Osborne.
Will Andrews wistfully added "if only we could smell through the internet! Many of Grant's contributors are extraordinarily eloquent but there is really nothing quite like being able to smell the perfume."
According to Osborne, this is also why sampling is so important for online perfume retailers unless they wish to rely on the custom of people already familiar with their selection. Online communities like Basenotes have enabled people to arrange their own swaps and decants, enabling smaller brands to get off the ground and get a lot of free exposure.
Lisa Hipgrave pointed out that although it is not possible to smell the perfume online, the medium is allowing people to develop their perfume vocabulary, "so now there are a lot more people who might understand and agree on what a "light green" fragrance is, for example." Penny Williams agreed: "There's a growing number of people who don't need pictures or advertisements to understand a fragrance."
Hipgrave was lukewarm about the idea of decanting perfumes into generic containers and selling or swapping them that way: "In the same way an e-reader de-personalises the book, decanting perfumes might end up de-personalising perfumes. The book cover and the bottle are an important part of the experience."
When the panel was asked: "Is perfume an art or a science", every participant replied in one voice: "Both." It was the only unanimous answer of the evening.
The Scentsory Question Time was a lively, informative discussion and could have probably gone on all night and well into the next day. I only hope that similar events will be added to the calendar in the future. Most of the events arranged by the BSP are open to the general public and the current president, John Bailey, is very keen to make the society's 50th anniversary a memorable one. He is also producing a commemorative book for the occasion, which you can read more about on the BSP website.
Pia Long is a perfumery student, freelance writer, cosmetics industry professional and bit of a geek. She lives in Surrey with her husband and approximately five thousand books. Pia blogs at http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk, tweets as @Nukapai and writes the Study Notes column about her perfumery studies for Basenotes