How I think I smell

21st August, 2008

I like the smell of perfume. A simple timeless pleasure of things that smell good. However, like many things, once I start to think about a little, the simplicity has a tendency to evaporate at the speed of citrus top notes.

The complexity starts with a problem of over indulgence; I am fortunate enough to possess many bottles. The catch is that with the rich diversity in my cupboard comes a very modern dilemma: options are too many, criteria too few (or to put it another way: which shall I wear today and why?)

Part of my solution is not to wear them. I like to sniff perfumes direct from the bottle or from a blotter; spraying toilet paper is a favourite method. This allows me to indulge in sensual pleasure without the commitment of a whole day of smelling of it. It also seems to reveal the detail so much more clearly than a remote sniff captured floating up from skin. It allows me to unpick the accords and how they relate to each other, to really absorb the transitions from top through middle to base. I can appreciate the craft, the progression, the depth, the balance, the beauty, the detail and the gestalt.

The scents can be so transporting. I can visit grassy moorlands, frosty mountains, sun-drenched woods as I stand enraptured outside my wardrobe for long minutes sniffing bottles. One leads to another, curiosity pulls me to compare, to contrast, to remind myself of something half forgotten or revisit and reassess something well known in a new context. I may follow a trail of vetivers, or orientals, or compare bergamot or lavender notes in fougeres.

I have also been known to spray into the bath or a sink full of hot water. The heat alters the evaporation speeds of different parts of the fragrance and this can be very revealing. Top notes burn off instantly. It takes me straight to the heart of it. Base notes gain so much more life, their heavier molecules exited into activity by the heat. It is like examining the lower end of the fragrance with a magnifying glass, turning it upside down.

Slightly less commonplace I suspect, I sometimes spray my stripped pine doors and follow the development and silage for a day or two. The wood holds the scents well and I can sniff as I pass many times during a day without my nose getting used to the smell as it would if it were on my body. I can have different fragrances on the doors to the bedrooms, toilet, and bathroom. Those doors promise much which the rooms cannot deliver.

I do also like to wear fragrance. This is different business entirely, so much more complicated, and involving the commitment of my skin for a whole day. If I think about it, I find it somewhat bewildering. The moment I put it on my body (and I do every day), the whole affair is no longer just about my explorations and me. It is about other people too, and how I relate to them. It becomes an aspect of how I present myself to them, which parts of my character I wish to emphasise for them and for me. I have several different pushes and pulls. On the one hand, I have an abhorrence of smelling of cheap synthetics. On the other, I do not want to smell as if I take myself too seriously, aloof and unapproachable. I do not want to smell like everyone else. I also do not wish to stand out and draw attention to myself too much. I want to smell pleasant, fresh and self respecting. I want to smell as if I have gravitas and am not afraid of my masculinity. I want to smell as if I don’t care what others think…and more. At any time one, some or many of these sometimes-contradictory thoughts pass through my mind. Fragrances can help convey all these, some may emphasise one or two, others many. It is, in short, a minefield.

Again, I stand in front of my wardrobe, this time wondering what to spray from the many facing me, not sure whether to go for a bold statement or a subtle aura? What aspect of me do I wish to express today? Do I follow my desire for “integrity” and go with a natural smelling thing like the very Italian Acqua di Colonia by Villoresi or give into the pop culture and spritz on the Opium Pour Homme; a formula from the chemistry set and a victory of composition over ingredient quality. This bestseller from Yves Saint Laurent pulls at me in the same way that a hook in a great pop song does, or the way in which a bag of crisps tastes good to me. An instant impact, easy and very pleasant, ultimately shallow, in contrast to the substance of J.S. Bach or a starred restaurant meal, but sometimes just exactly what I feel like.

Alternatively, I may go French; I may choose Guerlain or Caron for wonderful complexities that express everything all at once, and not quietly. These scents will raise their voices to shout across the café entirely convinced that they have the answers. This may sound like a perfect solution, but sometimes it is not; the problem is that my only involvement in this “expression of knowing everything” is in my selection of the particular version of it. JP Guerlain’s Heritage? Habit Rouge? Vetiver? Caron’s Pour Un Homme? Yatagan? L’Anarchiste? I get the feeling that the French do it all for me; I exist just to carry their creations, as a blank canvas waits for paint. No input required from the wearer, the rich history of French culture wafts away from me, beautifully balanced, superbly engineered and designed, masquerading as art. It does not matter what I smell like underneath.

Then there are the English ones. Sitting stoically in the cupboard, comfortable, reserved, no hearts on sleeves here. These are quiet depths, subdued strengths. The ability to fight like an animal lurks there, but emphatically controlled. Fine materials from around the world are civilised, toned down, blended. Geo F Trumper will bring out the Gentleman that lies in anybody, even in me.

Nowadays, even here in the West, I can also turn to the Arabic world for my olfactory finery, including oud, sandalwood and roses. Big, unashamed, opulent; my Montales call to me…”why wait?”….”take it all now”…but if I spray them, will they make me feel confident or self-conscious? I rarely know until it is too late….

I ask myself whether it matters if the perfume is cheap to produce or very expensive. Can people who I walk past in the street determine this? What about those behind me in the post office queue? Will they think I am cheap, or ostentatious? Do they notice the ingredient quality, the blend or both? What conclusions do others draw from how I smell? I think they may be profound on a subconscious level but I have no idea how they are arrived at or what they are.

Coming back to myself and searching for a way out of the second-guessing mind-games, I remember that what projects to others most is not how I smell but how I feel, and that is greatly affected by how I think I smell.

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About the author: Walker Minton

Walker Minton is a Jasmine award winning freelance writer and jazz musician with a lifelong interest in scent. He lives in North London with his partner and two sons.

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    • Jock_With_Scents | 22nd August 2008 15:14

      A great read. Just wonderful writing and it puts on paper the things that we think of in passing to ourselves everyday. Got my Friday of to a wonderful start.

    • LuciusVorenus | 22nd August 2008 15:19

      You know, I never had the habit of sampling my perfumes without wearing them. But it is a very good idea. I think I will adopt it.


    • Bossa Nova | 22nd August 2008 15:31

      "I like to sniff perfumes direct from the bottle or from a blotter; spraying toilet paper is a favourite method. This allows me to indulge in sensual pleasure without the commitment of a whole day of smelling of it."

      Wow. I do this all the time. Spraying toilet paper, paper towels, & cutting up envelopes for use as blotters. Drives my family nuts.

      It's always amazing to me to find similar behaviour between fragrance fans.

    • afraafra | 22nd August 2008 16:02

      Good article, will try the door spraying thing, sounds good!

    • mrclmind | 22nd August 2008 17:09

      Great article!

      I love that Opium Pour Homme is a Pop song! Maybe the EDP is more of a crossover song, and the Eau d'Orient formulations are "smooth jazz?"

    • Quixotiq | 22nd August 2008 17:33

      Awesome article.

      Now I'm going to run to my bathroom sink to try that steam method...

    • Latch35 | 23rd August 2008 00:52

      What a good read. Very enjoyable and certainly given me a few ideas.

    • MadScientist | 23rd August 2008 01:22

      Very good article :) I've done the toilet paper thing for some time now. I also saturated my vacuum cleaner bag a few months ago with Pi. It's still going strong.

    • mikeperez23 | 23rd August 2008 20:44

      The part about scenting the wood doors of rooms intrigued me. I have pine wood doors in my home. I can't wait to try this!

    • narcus | 23rd August 2008 22:32

      Walker Minton, You really give me the feeling of being one of us. Who else would discover that only toilet paper or a Kleenex won't allow 90% of they fragrant spray being wasted as is the case with scent strips. These little soft squares catch it all! Also, the soft paper under your nose is much more pleasant than the cheap carton of the scent strip. Scent strips are only good for the purpose of testing a chord of several different notes together ( you then hold them like a fan) .

      I am surprised you didn't mention the Monclins * à la Patou Boutique, Paris. I mostly use burgundy glasses to achieve a similar effect: One drops that strip or paper tissue into the glass and covers the class for a little while with anything that serves as a lid, just long enough to allow the fragrance to develop in fill the glass. You then draw the fragrance through your nostrils just as you do before you take a sip of fine Burgundy wine. It works like a magnifier of your scent and the effect is marvelous! The nice little extra: you can preserve most smells for one full day at least in a wineglass (bowl, or vase) : just put the lid back on as soon as you finished sampling the smells. Top notes may be gone, but the heart of the fragrance will still emanate from tissue or strips and reach your nose in bundled form up to six, often many more hours later.

      The raw wood of closet doors or shelves will also soak up colognes and oils. Opening such a closet days and weeks after application always surprises me nicely. I use Millefiori's 'Teck and Tonka' room spray in one of the cabinets, and lavender oil in another. If fate would want me to be blind one day, I am sure I could use fragrances to guide me from one place to the next, and to find the right clothes in a cabinet quickly.

      What conclusions do others draw from how I smell? - After one hour after first application 90% of the people will probably draw no conclusions at all, because they don't smell anything in particular, unless of course I allow them to come a bit closer than usual. And within the first hour? That may coincide with their own first hour in fragrance. Another reason why they may don't notice me smell-wise. ;)

      Thanks for the thoughts of a real insider, and your deeper thoughts on wearing fragrances as a man!


      *Monclin: search BN 2005, threads and posts, or blogtxtweb, Turin pp194 f.

    • Blowe46 | 23rd August 2008 22:35

      really good article. Maybe we should sticky it.

    • Sloan | 24th August 2008 02:59

      Good article. I occasionally spray my lampshades and bulbs to fill a room with a favorite scent.

    • FLCounselor | 1st September 2008 07:56

      Walker Minton wrote: "I ask myself whether it matters if the perfume is cheap to produce or very expensive. Can people who I walk past in the street determine this? What about those behind me in the post office queue? Will they think I am cheap, or ostentatious?"

      I question that this would ever matter. Quite frankly, I have no doubt that any correlation between the cost of the ingredients and production vs. the retail price is very, very weak at best.

      I believe a much stronger correlation exists between the retail prices and the level of snob appeal for which the houses are aiming.

      When I allow my mind to open up, I can find some wonderful inexpensive fragrances, e.g., the Mustang that I paid $10 for at Walgreens and the Lucky 6 for Men that I paid $4.99 for at CVS, both in 1 ounce bottles.

      No one on the street would ever know!