Monday, February 11, 2013

In Pursuit of Olfaction: Life Lessons in Perfumery

Whenever I am asked to speak publicly about the sense of smell, and why I find olfaction so compelling, I return to four elementary truths related to my experience in perfumery. Colored by alchemy, science and mystery they reappear with a self-affirming quality that provides comfort and inspiration.

I hope you will take the time to explore the role of the sense of smell in your life. Whether you are drawn to it as an art or a science, it's hard not to fall in love with it.
You Are the Vessel
How we organize our memories, even the ones we prefer to ignore or suppress, defines who we are. The sense of smell and one’s identity are very closely linked. When you practice smelling, via your environment or perfume, you are sculpting the clay of identity.

Olfaction is about experience versus the kind of judgment that colors attachments to likes and dislikes. That is what makes the study of perfumes so compelling; it is a source of discovery every time you open the bottle. You may discover happiness or despair, but it's not about which feeling you experience; it is the experience itself that counts. The magic lies in the fact that the genie is not in the perfume; it is in you.

Difficult fragrances test our memories, our notions of balance between complements and contrasts, and truly, our very souls. If we allow some space to understand what might repel us or cause confusion, we open our minds to possibility. Even if we don't fall in love with what we find strange or different, we come to terms with a different way of relating to life through our senses. This is the diamond in perfumery; or any other art for that matter.

A scent comes and goes whether it is a single molecule or a more complex structure. As human beings our bodies are not subject to the kind of volatility that aroma molecules are, but that does not give us license to squander our time in the mortal world. Whether we believe we are here only once or for many lifetimes, a life well-lived is like a well-formulated perfume. We must refine our spirit to the point that we can transcend ourselves. It’s not about conquering the world “out there”; it is about conquering the world inside so we can shape the world around us and leave this world a better place.

Trusting the Invisible
You cannot see a smell. You may see an object responsible for an aroma and be influenced by its shape and color, but evaluating a scent is dependent on the mechanics of olfaction. The brain processes odor as feelings and memories first. This is why it is difficult to come up with words to describe smells. You have to trust the invisible when you are smell something; neurologically and molecularly. We are creatures of habit that demand proof. Olfaction requires patience and a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.

Suggested Reading:
What Does Your Sense of Smell Mean to You?
The Case for the Connoisseurship of Smell 
The Magic of Smell and Taste
The Olfactory Diary: A Tool for Developing Your Sense of Smell
Smell and Tell: Olfactory Writing Workshops
Anosmia Matters: Whether You Can Smell or Not

The image that accompanies this article was created by Seymour List. The woman in the painting is his wife Mae. List is 80+ and has been married to Mae for over 50 years. List is retired and uses his computer to make art. Rights revert back to Seymour List.

The day after this post was published The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting story about the importance of smell calisthenics. You can read about it here.