Perfume

The curious scents of colour

A perfumer works with smells to create luxury cosmetics. But sometimes she must be more like a doctor, or a neurologist.

I’ve had a woman make an appointment to see me because she lost her sense of smell in a car accident. She craved having an expert describe smells – the notes of perfume – to her. In fact, she started a business where she educates other women on perfume!

When she first discovered her affliction, her greatest personal concern was to take multiple showers a day to ensure she herself had no smell – because she just couldn’t tell. She now relies heavily on her husband for his olfactory sense.

When consulting on fragrance, I talk through each raw material with the client, explaining the plant, its distillation and origin and then, most importantly, its odour description … whether it is a green smell (mint), waxy (basil), balsamic (resinous) or amber (coumarin notes found in an accord of vanilla, almond, tonka bean and cinnamon).

The smell journey is by its nature personalised. During this process with another client, I realised that he was assigning a colour, quite adamantly, and a shape or halo to each of the scents. “Juniper has this light outer circle of mauve with a deep purple inner circle.” The more raw materials I introduced him to the more firm he was about each one’s colour and shape.

Synaesthesia is defined as “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense … by stimulation of another sense”, from ancient Greek roots “together” (syn) and “sensation” (aesthesis). Norman Mailer wrote in his biography of Marilyn Monroe that she had synaesthesia.

Artists Vincent van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky were said to be synaesthetes, and so too David Hockney; musicians Billy Joel, Duke Ellington and Tori Amos; and composers Liszt, Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov.

It is a neurological condition often found in artists and musicians – a blending of the senses, where a trigger – like the smell of juniper in the case of my client – induces an experience of colour and shape.

Each person affected by this involuntary and often adamant mindfulness experiences it in their own way: one might see smells or even hear smells.

Although I don’t have this creative condition, I do assign certain images to notes, accords and perfumes.

Giorgio Beverley Hills, a childhood memory of my mother’s perfume, will always be canary yellow, here echoing the colour of the juice and a promotional pool towel.

Some of my other associations come from the trade: when customers ask me for a “blue” fragrance – something fresh and ozonic – they are, more often than not, blonde women! When we talk about a “white” smell, associated with an orchid, it is in reference to vanilla.

What is clear is that our relationship to smell and describing it is intensely intimate.

We might all smell the same organic chemical compounds but, when experiencing a perfume, the effect it has is only between the wearer and the juice itself.