Once a year National Fragrance day rolls around - designed to put the spotlight on the myriad joys of scent. But Sue Kim wonders, when did perfumery become the poor relation of artistic and personal expression? And what can we do to put it back in the spotlight every day of the week?
Scent and smelling are one of our oldest primal instincts. Historically, essential oils have been used in many cultures for religious, ritualistic, and medicinal purposes. Humans have scented their homes, their bodies and communal religious areas as a form of elevating mind, body, and soul. Yet, when we discuss the role of oils and perfumes in modern life, some may perceive them as an extravagance or worse, not care enough to give the subject a second thought.
So I have been asking myself, how did perfumery disappear from our modern lives?
I think that as the earth becomes more populated, we are more aware of personal versus public spaces. How often do people make a point of coughing or sneering when someone else’s fragrance impinges on their personal space? How many times have I heard some people say that a Lush shop, for example, is too fragrant for their liking? (Many others, of course, really love the ‘What’s That Smell?’ aroma of a Lush shop).
Since when did our personal expression through perfumery become so offensive to others? Do we get like that over what clothing someone is wearing? I think some do, but why don’t embrace the someone else’s ‘scented expression’ and why shy away from our own personal expression of perfumery? I really enjoy catching a whiff of the sillage of someone as they walk past or when I hug a friend and I catch a scent of a fragrance that I associate with that person and which always reminds me of them?
Catching someone else’s scent gives me an overall impression of them as a person and reveals what they want to express about themselves. Do we turn our noses at singers when they sing? No, we usually stop to listen or at least appreciate their art. I feel that perfumers offer us the same kind of opportunity to express ourselves and appreciate that expression in others via their perfumed creations.
The other reason why I think perfumes are pushed to the background of other art forms lies in the way perfumes are marketed to the general public. Fragrancing our lives was once an integral part of our lives and then, became a symbol of the elite and aristocracy when the move from religious to secular changed the way perfumery was perceived. In the 20th Century, perfume became a commodity and with that creates the arena for perfumes to become less of an exceptional product to something with mass-market appeal. As perfumery became a money-making product, it became subject to low costs and faster launches into the market and so the illusion of the art of perfumery began to diminish.
This is a shame and not least because the creation of perfumes is still a painstakingly creative process, with so much love, care, and soul poured into a perfume that a perfumer creates. After speaking to many perfumers, every one of them will tell you they pour themselves into their bottled creations which are their artistic expression for the world to enjoy. To me, there is no difference between them and a musician.
The gender marketing of perfumes has also created an obstacle to view perfumery as an art. Art is not subjective to gender and as soon as perfumes are marketed to us as male or female, they are stripped of the status of an art form that transcends boundaries. Why are certain notes and certain scents considered masculine and others feminine? I believe we all have both those qualities and that fragrances should always be a personal choice and not one foisted on us by marketeers.
Unfair market prices is another reason why perfumes began to be viewed as luxury items instead of necessary items, but I am hoping this is changing. I believe with the rise of niche and artisan fragrances, the consumer understands that certain materials cost a bit more than others and with that extra awareness, perhaps the big brands will stop charging obscene amounts of money for packaging and bottles and focus more on the juice that sits inside. It’s not to say that cheaper-made fragrances should have a less impact on someone’s life compared with more expensive perfumes, I just hope that the leveling of fragrance costs will make the enjoyment of perfume available to everyone from all income levels.
The creation of any fragrance is an artistic undertaking and I have enjoyed experiencing perfumes and being moved by a scented strip as much as I would enjoy my favourite song or a favourite painting. I have learned to appreciate that perfumers have a trademark scent that carries through their entire portfolio of fragrances and it’s beautiful to enjoy them.
Navigating through the busy perfume market is daunting, but the beauty is that if you research enough and invest your time, you will find something at any cost you can afford that stirs something so innate in you that’s unexplainable and it will become a part of you.
So beyond the marketing and the social constraints, this week, as we celebrate National Fragrance Day, I hope everyone takes time to just smell something - whether it’s their favourite perfume, a new perfume, a scented oil burner in your home or the scent of the sweater of someone you love - and breath in the art