We rarely describe scents as easily and accurately as we describe the things that our eyes can see. However, except from the people who suffer from anosmia (disability to smell), we all know how to use our nose in an intuitive way, we are just poorly aware of our capabilities to do so, or worse, we are rarely taught the words of the smells. The good news is, we aren’t blind to smells, we just need the right tools to unlock the vocabulary of odours.
Learn the language of the nose
While we can’t teach our brain how to sniff (it does it on its own), we have to learn the language of the nose to put two and two together, in a similar way to how we learn how to read and describe colours and shapes during our childhood. This is called training your sense of smell, and it is an essential step into the world of fragrance. The same way that you have been taught that this bright, shiny and sunny colour is called yellow, you can learn that this subtle, creamy, white, baby powder-like odour is called musk.
Learning about scents will unlock a new dimension of your world and make it way richer…
The vocabulary of scents
In the olfactory description of a musk – the subtle, creamy, white, baby powder-like odour – the vocabulary borrows from our ordinary everyday life: visual, texture, food and other personal references. One of the difficulties in describing the scent of a musk comes from the fact that we don’t have any visual references for it. Musk is only and simply an odour (synthetically created by chemists).
A scent can be described using the words of food and taste: zesty, bitter, sweet, spicy. Of textures: creamy, sharp, soft, velvety, powdery. With the words of the other senses like touch and feel: warm, cold. The sense of sight with colours: green, blue or shapes like round. The elements: watery, earthy, metallic. Of course, a scent can be described referring to another one, for instance, jasmine can be described as honeysuckle, orange blossom and banana.
Personal references and memories are very important when describing scents, when it reminds you of the smell of a summer, or the smell of your grandma. Write it down! For instance, some will describe the smell of Ionones (synthetic molecules that smell of violet) like the smell of parma violet flavoured sweets.
Do you speak scent?
Very few languages have a specific vocabulary for scents, if they do, we have forgotten about them, or we just don’t know of them. Sadly, our modern world heavily relies on images and sounds and we humans have forgotten about how wonderful and useful our sense of smell is.
The magic of the sense of smell is that it is so intuitive that pretty much all of us can describe a scent instinctively, with its own words and using common descriptors. The difficulty mainly comes when recognising that this zesty, fresh and sweet scent is… lemon! (you might be surprised that not many untrained noses can recognise lemon when smelling it on an unlabelled piece of scent blotter).
Shall we try?
Try to describe the scent of Jasmine… Jasmine is floral, exotic, opulent, creamy, green, fruity and spicy. It sounds difficult but it isn’t, we naturally come up with those words, the essential step is that your brain connects your personal description to naming it: this is jasmine. In the meantime, you’ll have to go through the learning and training process.
Write down anything that comes to your mind when you smell an odour, in perfumery, there are no right or wrong answers…