Once you’ve smelled a lot of perfumes you start to realise when a scent is cheap and nasty – even on the occasions when it’s got a huge advertising budget and everyone seems to be buying it. (Why? Well, a lot of people still get swept up by advertising, but you can be fairly sure they’ll only buy it once.)
But even among the most brilliantly put-together perfumes each person’s individual reaction counts for a lot. Smell taps in to such deeply rooted – and often subconscious – memories and associations for each of us that two people can have completely different gut-reactions to the same scent.
And not only that: it actually smells completely different to each of them, even though their brain is presumably processing the same elements in a fairly similar way. Most scientists seem to agree that, unless we suffer from particularly severe sight problems, the way I see Hèrmes orange is almost certainly the same as the way you see it.
Smell, though, appears to work in a rather different manner. We may well smell the same scents in the same objective way, but the personal associations that specific scents have for us seem to be more powerful than what we actually smell – conceivably for the simple reason that we have such trouble describing them in words.
Here’s a perfect example. Sables was first launched by the late, great French perfumer Annick Goutal in 1985, and though it was withdrawn from the UK market some time ago in one of those mysterious overnight disappearances that give the perfume industry its faint whiff of Stalinism, it can still be bought online and abroad.
Sables is one of my all-time favourite fragrances. Though its name is meant to evoke the high-summer sexiness of sun-baked sand, this fantastically rich, sweetly luxurious scent smells, to me, of all the best things about Christmas – vintage oloroso sherry, mince pies, the delicious heat of an applewood log fire, flaming brandy, Christmas pudding… All very positive associations, as far as I’m concerned.
I’d be the first to admit that Sables is strong stuff, best suited to opulent winter evenings; apply it too liberally and, like Guerlain’s L’heure bleue or Chanel’s No22, it can easily become overpowering. But while I can imagine choking on No22 in too high a concentration, to be overcome by Sables would, for me at least, be like drowning in a butt of Malmsey – frankly not a bad way to go.
To a friend who knows at least as much about perfume as I do, though, Sables has an unattractively medicinal smell with none of the enchanting connotations that give it such a deep and lasting appeal for me. I can (kind of) see what he’s getting at, and if I try hard I can just about identify a hint of cough-mixture about it, but for some reason that association, in my mind, is completely drowned out by all the good stuff I’ve already mentioned.
The moral? I’m not sure there is one, but I guess it’s always good to remember there’s no guarantee that everyone is going to share your passion for a particular perfume, no matter how wonderful it smells to you.