It all started with the quest to find the perfect perfume for my daughter’s bridal shower a few months ago. I wanted something intimate and earthy, something that would literally become her. A signature scent that would be all her own, by which she and others would identify her. It had to be perfect, like her–warm and rich and exciting, and deeply satisfying. Something that made you want more. That you would never forget and never forget wanting.
And in this quest I tumbled down a rabbit hole into a rich and sensual world where one single sense seldom privileged—smell—was given full rein to romp and roam and sate itself in scent.
We humans rarely give ourselves that pleasure. We privilege sight, touch, sound, taste, and the feel of things. Poor scent is a step-child to the other senses, neglected, forgotten. Not so for other species where the sense of smell is primary with a full palette of colors and a symphony of sounds.
Often when I sit on our front patio overlooking the surrounding hills and valley below, my little dog sits with me, looking out as if as mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape as I am. She seems totally enraptured, her nose raised, nostrils quivering, her whole body trembling in delight. But she’s reveling in smell not sight. She’s drinking in that delicious flood of scents flowing uphill from the valley below.
I imagine her savoring each scent the way we savor each note when listening to a symphony, carried away by the trill of arpeggios, deep thundering drums, long sweet notes like violin strings, the soft low moans of cellos, blasting trumpets, cascading piano keys, all washing over her, tumbling together, fading away, like movements in a symphony of scent that I am deaf to. How I envy her!
We’ve long known how smell and taste are intricately connected—in fact, we can distinguish far more flavors through smell alone—inhaling and exhaling—than we can by our tongues.
What’s new and interesting is how scientists are discovering a similar interconnection between smell and sound that gives rise to a new sensory perception quaintly coined “smound.” If this new science bears out it will only confirm the old science. In 1862, the perfumer G. W. Septimus Piesse noted how “Scents, like sounds, appear to influence the olfactory nerve in certain definite degrees,” and he developed an “octave of odour” to measure those scents.
Musical metaphors are used in describing perfumes, which are said to have three sets of “notes” that unfold over time, each interacting with the others to create a “harmonious scent accord.”
As I wandered along countless cosmetic counters in the search for the perfect perfume for my daughter, spraying sample scents on slips of paper and waving them in the air, or daubing them on my wrists and forearms and inner elbow, knowing how scents change when applied to skin, mixing with our natural pheromones and warm pulses, I was savoring those musical notes: light florals steeped with sandalwood floating on a musky base. Amber and lotus blossoms with a hint of peach. Cardamom married to rosewood. Lavender and rosemary. Vanilla and violets dampened by oak moss.
But there was more to the whole process than scent–the name had to be perfect too, evocative and mysterious, lyrical and alluring. The shape of the bottle had to be sensual or simple, daring or dreamy, as fitted the fragrance and the name. It all had to flow together.
I finally found it, amazingly. The perfect perfume for my perfect daughter. She loves it, and her lover loves her in it. So I’m happy. But still hungry.
Still wanting more. More of my own to daub on earlobe and wrist, to line along the window sill like colored glass or exotic orchids. Scents to soothe and stir, arouse and savor.
I want to collect scents the way I do books. To sit quietly, alluringly, on my shelf, its richness and beauty and promise in full display, just waiting, waiting, waiting, for the perfect moment when I take it in my hands and lift the stopper and let the initial scent rise, and all its sweet layering, lingering notes play over me again and again.
I want, I want to be. Sated in scent.