The power of perfume can be whittled down to how the human body processes smell. Human beings can distinguish anywhere between 5 000 and 10 000 scents, starting when odor molecules pass through the nasal passages, which feature millions of smelling sensors called cilia. The molecules bind to neurons at the top of the nasal passage, which then send messages to the limbic system – the seat of emotion, and where memories are formed. But don’t let the science of it all scare you. This is simply the hidden formula that explains why fragrance is often linked to feelings.
“When a perfume has the ability to trigger an emotion, it becomes part of the wearer’s life,” says journalist and author Claire Bingham. “If you find a fragrance that gives you satisfaction, it’s such a joy.” Rania Naim, creative director for niche perfume house Panouge, believes, “My scent is part of my personality.” Just like taste, we are born with likes and dislikes. From a young age, through experience and genetics, we begin to build up a smell bank. As time moves on, this bank evolves.
“Perfume is one of the strongest – and earliest – senses we have in that, like music, it immediately transports us to a place and time,” explains Bingham. As we grow, and our memory bank expands, smell begins to be associated with both positive and negative experiences. “The beauty of perfume is that it is so intrinsically linked to memory, either conjuring up emotional links to our own past or creating an imagined future,” Bingham continues. When constructing a perfume, many noses – the talented people who develop perfumes – draw upon these links. “Anything can be a source of inspiration or trigger an idea. A landscape, an opera tune, a pattern, a journey, an expression, a state of mind,” Naim says.
Noses are often well traveled, whether it’s to source the finest ingredients or to gain inspiration. Some of the best perfumes in the world have been thought up after stepping through a door into an exotic garden, or experiencing a new culture, perhaps even a new romance. “Traveling around the world, seeing different colors and shapes, and mixing with other cultures stimulate my imagination and enrich the sources of inspiration for new ideas,” Naim states.
With the limbic system so receptive, smells can take you back to an exact location. “Smelling an aquatic note can instantly transport you to your last holiday in the South of France, while another scent will evoke memories of your school,” explains Naim. And remember that specific fragrance that still reminds you of your high school sweetheart? For Bingham, “The heady smell of frangipani flies me right back to Sydney. Specifically, walking down Bourke Street in Surry Hills on a hot summer morning.” For many, finding a perfume that draws upon a particular memory is a journey within itself.
Bingham’s latest book, A Scented World (set to be released in August), delves into how fragrance can be used in a space, for instance a hotel lobby. “A perfume adds to the sensory atmosphere of a hotel – whether the air is suffused with an exotic cedar, date, and citrus scent like that of La Mamounia in Marrakech or a fresh floral scent like that of Fornasetti’s Ortensia fragrance, that adds to the very chicness of Claridge’s,” she says. “It is one of the first things you will notice when you walk into a foyer – and as part of the memory, scent is one of the many reasons to go back.” The Address hotels in Dubai operate the same strategy, as do La Réserve hotels in Paris and Geneva. Some establishments sell their candles and room fragrance diffusers so the memory of the scent can transport the traveler to a place of comfort and leisure.
Memory also plays a part in why perfume is such big business. Euromonitor International predicts that of the US $5.8 billion value increase from 2014 to 2019 in the global fragrance market, the Middle East and Africa will account for 31%. The region has a historic love for fragrance, especially for scents that are rich and bold – think musk, jasmine, rose, saffron and, of course, oud. However, it’s not just any perfume. “Cultural differences create preferences in scents depending on which part of the world you are. In some countries, certain ingredients are simply rejected,” states Naim. People in Japan, for instance, dislike strong aromas and prefer light, airy perfumes, while people living in hot, humid climates tend to choose pungent, fruity, floral scents. With a signature scent being steadily overlooked in favor of building a perfume wardrobe, the market is becoming more open to new fragrances. Euromonitor International also reports that the want for niche fragrances is fast on the rise, with unisex scents at the forefront. “It’s so much more interesting to hear the stories behind the creation of a fragrance than it is to identify with an advertisement image delivered by a massive brand,” explains Bingham of this trend. With more brands entering this realm, one fact rings true to their success, she concludes: “Scents have a dreamlike quality that hangs in the air and adds another dimension to existence. You could say it’s a form of escapism that is very much part of the real world.”
Originally printed in the July/August 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.