Smell is a word, perfume is literature.
- Jean-Claude Ellena's
The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur
Although perfumers are traditionally compared to musical composers, I have always felt like a writer of smells.
- as above
For one year, French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena kept a diary of his life as 'parfumeur exclusif' (exclusive perfumer) for Hermès. In this book, Ellena shares his thoughts on the art of perfumery and the relationships between fragrances and emotions. He provides a unique perspective on the role of the perfumer in creating fragrances and the challenges of working with raw materials to create accords.
When I came across his writing, I couldn't help but wonder: What makes perfumers comparable to composers, and what makes Ellena describe himself differently, as a writer using olfactory signs?
Scent creation, apparently, can be seen as an art form, requiring creativity, knowledge, and technical skill. What kind of creative language does it use, and how does it compare to other disciplines of arts?
Chords and Harmony
For those who know the basics of western music theory, it is not difficult to notice the parallels between the disciplines of scent and sound.
In the typical fragrance pyramid, a framework used to describe the structure of a fragrance, a perfume is composed of three main elements: top notes, middle notes, and base notes. The top notes are the initial scents that are sensed when the fragrance is first applied, and they typically evaporate quickly, typically within 30 minutes. The middle notes, also known as the ‘heart’ of the fragrance, emerge after the top notes have evaporated and provide the fragrance with its dominant scent in the 20-60 minutes after the first application. The base notes are the final scents that are sensed after the fragrance has dried down, and they provide the fragrance with its lasting impression, some can last overnight.
In this sense, all the perfumes have to work in the dimension of time. By carefully arranging -or ‘composing’ - different ingredients and stimulus, the user is able to ‘hear’ different notes of a perfume over time and be evoked of different emotions through the journey.
Moreover, modern perfumery has adopted the idea of ‘accord’, the same way as the ancient Greeks who identified the concept of harmony and the relationships between musical notes, which later developed into the modern theory of music chords.
Perfume accords are similar to music chords in that they are combinations of fragrances that create a specific harmony or scent. Just as a musician combines notes to create a chord, a perfumer blends fragrant raw materials to create a perfume accord. Just as musical chords can be combined in various ways to create different melodies and harmonies, perfume accords can be combined in different ways to create different fragrances.
The different notes in a chord or the different raw materials in a fragrance can be combined in different ways to create an infinite number of unique combinations. Like a chord progression in music, a perfume accord can be used to evoke specific emotions, taking the wearer on a sensory journey.
Word for word, note for note? (standard method)
Words, on the other hand, can also be combined and arranged to create harmony and evoke emotions. The question is, how do words mean what they mean?
Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist and philosopher, famously stated that meaning in language is conveyed through the relationship between signs and their referents, and not by the signs themselves. In other words, the meaning of a sign is determined not by its intrinsic properties, but by its relationship to other signs.
According to Saussure, a sign is made up of two parts: the signifier, which is the physical form of the sign, and the signified, which is the concept it represents. The relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, meaning that there is no inherent connection between the form of a sign and the concept it represents.
For example, the word ‘tree’ is a sign. The sound or written form of the word ‘tree’ is the signifier, while the concept of a tree is the signified. The relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, as there is no inherent reason why the sound or written form of the word "tree" should represent the concept of a tree.
The relationship between signs and their referents are not exclusive. No words point to one absolute truth, and in the same way, scent ingredients do not take you on a direct path to what they come from. ‘Fig’ scents do not contain figs - which have no smells - and a fragrance named ‘poison’ is unlikely to be extracted from toxic material.
Scent making is not just a combination of ingredients, but also what they mean and suggests. This makes Ellena’s practice a form of ‘writing’, and with this knowledge, his writing in The Diary of a Nose makes more sense:
Scents are signs. Perfume users make their own interpretation of these signs as they experience them.
As a perfumer, when I want to evoke a smell, I use signs that - taken separately - have no connection with the thing I'm expressing: there has never been any tea in BVLGARI’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, mango in Un Jardin Sur Le Nil by Hermès, or flint in Terre d’Hermès, yet the public 'feels' they are there.
- The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur
Changing aesthetics and zeitgeists
In the mainstream practice of fragrance making, the dominant styles are rather classical and literal. The creation of a fragrance is often led by marketing, not by creativity. Along with ads and packaging, most perfumes are aiming to serve the consumer’s need for self-expression and image projection.
People often use perfume to represent the life they desire by choosing fragrances that align with their personal preferences, style, and aspirations. For example, someone who is drawn to fresh, clean scents might choose a light, citrus-based fragrance that conveys a sense of energy and confidence. On the other hand, someone who wants to convey a sense of sophistication and elegance might choose a rich, floral fragrance that is more suited to special occasions. Both the perfume, and the particular lifestyle that it represents, are people’s objects of desire in a capitalist world.
However, we may be witnessing a turn from representational to abstract in fragrance making, the same way the art world made a significant shift in the 20th century.
Prior to the shift, representational art depicts recognisable objects or scenes; and with abstract art, it is characterised by a lack of recognisable objects and a focus on form, colour, and texture.
One of the key reasons for the turn towards abstraction was a growing dissatisfaction with the limitations of representational art. As Pablo Picasso famously stated, ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.’ Abstract art offered a new way of seeing the world, free from the constraints of literal representation. This allowed artists to explore new ideas and emotions in a more abstract and symbolic way.
This shift continues to influence the art world today, as artists continue to push the boundaries of representation and interpretation in their work. Will new trends in fragrance making reflect this new zeitgeist? We may be surprised before too soon.
Aequill members said…
This article is written after Aequill’s scent symposium in January. Aequill Symposium is a monthly, internal gathering of thoughts, each session focusing on a particular idea about scent.
During the discussion, Aequill members have shared their opinions:
‘I wonder if scents can be stored to represent time.’ - Jintana
‘Perfuming making will eventually, like art, head to an abstract way.’ - Kate
‘Perhaps, perfumers like to compare them to composers because that makes it sound more scientific and technical.’ - Jintana