my smellnifesto: or, now I know how the vegans feel

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At a party, or a job interview, or on a dating app, or any random venue for perfunctory small talk, someone will ask me what I do for fun. I mumble something about biking and swimming (both true), about reading and writing (true-ish), but when pressed I’m forced to admit that my real gig is perfume. Who knows exactly what people think when I say that. Maybe they imagine something untoward, like this silly movie (Ben Whishaw’s contributions to hotness and acting, notwithstanding). Or something just plain creepy, like a besotted Mark McGrath having nosegasms in the aisles of Sephora.

Occasionally, I’ll get a pitying look that says, “oh bless your heart, but couldn’t you have picked a more impressive hobby?” More often, people just get plain confused, and behave like my mother would if you mentioned that you just got really into BDSM. (For the record she’d be really polite, and stiffly but sweetly say things like, “Wow, you make it sound so fulfilling!” and “It sounds like a very supportive community!”)

It can get a little lonely. Not only do so few people care one jot about perfume, fewer still want to talk about it. Among that handful probably two or three really can jam. To be fair, I’m super picky. I don’t get too far into the weeds picking out notes*. I don’t care about silly gimmicks or stories that some overeager PR intern shoehorned into the press release. I don’t care where the ingredients were sourced. I don’t necessarily care who composed it. I’m a tough crowd. A tough crowd of one.

What I do care about is the ideas. Luca Turin (who should really be considered more a cultural theorist than a perfume critic, at this point) refers to it as a “message in a bottle”: the full piece and what it ultimately means. Every smell has a meaning. When you smell a blooming flower or a rotting apple that smell is a message, encoded into what we perceive as smell, telling us to come closer or stay away**. When you add up a bunch of smells you either get incomprehensible mud or something that means more than its parts. Only decent perfumers, working with evaluators and artistic directors, can create a cogent story. Far fewer can create something important, let alone something that moves you.

That’s why I get so excited when I smell something great. Not only is it rare, but it’ll set me alight like nothing else can. Unlike music or books or even traditional art, perfume rides the highway straight past my brain and into my heart***. The best stuff illuminates and awakens. (Take Sarrasins, which, with no intended overstatement, is like an ancient poem transcribed by modern means.)

It can get awkward. You’re not going to make any friends bugging out in the aisles of Neiman Marcus. (Or I haven’t yet at least. I don’t know who hires their sales associates, but I never quite feel welcome there.) Not long ago, a friend and I breezed into a Cartier store, and inquired after L’Heure Perdue. The sales associate looked shocked. As we holed up in the cramped back corner where they chucked some of Mathilde Laurent’s finest, we were watched over by a bewildered security guard, who I caught casting us glances as we geeked and proclaimed.

But looking back, I don’t think I’d change a thing. Those of us who get it are like astronauts. And so few people have been to space. A few lonely hours on earth are certainly worth it to touch the veil. And that’s what this life is like.


*Most perfume geeks love digging around for individual notes the way that turtlenecked oenophiles do with wine. It’s not the same. Perfume is designed to be perceived as a single voice, in the way that a painting or a really good burger is a single entity, containing–in the best cases–multitudes.
**Yes, I’m the guy walking around working my nose like a dog. Every smell has something to say.
*** Contrary to what Tania Sanchez would have us believe, connecting our nose to our brain is not the problem. Who ever wanted to “think” more about art? Blech.
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