Art / Perfumes / Reviews / Writing

The challenge of writing about smells

In, Rishidev Chaudhuri writes a brilliant review of the now classic book on perfumes, “Perfumes: The A-Z Guide” by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. Turin and Sanchez review 1,800 fragrances from both niche and mainstream companies and weigh their merits in some of the most exhilarating and witty writing I have read in a long while about anything.  Chaudhuri discusses the near impossibility of writing about smells because of the paucity of vocabulary to describe olfactory sensations. Most of the describing happens through metaphors and similes, but how can we account for how a “fecal” note might smell from one person to another?

This difficulty is precisely why I’ve shied away from writing about perfume. I am an art critic, but I find it impossible to write about abstract painting because it taps into my visual world yet frustrates my access to language to adequately write about it. As I come upon each thought or phrase, the next one escapes me in a puff of smoke. Perhaps this is the wonderful thing about good art: it transcends comprehension, makes you believe you know what you are seeing (or smelling) but it is beyond our linguistic skills to categorize it in any way.


11 thoughts on “The challenge of writing about smells

  1. Your post is spot on true. I suffer from being linguistically challenged in the first place. Then try to add the sense to something that cannot be described is incredibly frustrating. It’s not so much that we want others to smell what we smell, but instead we want others to feel and experience the same olfactory journey that we are on. Words simply don’t suffice.

  2. I know I bring him up a lot on this blog, but I often think of Christopher Brosius and how he thinks outside the box when it comes to perfume. He creates smells that tap into your experience and memory–each one is a little Proustian epiphany. You can tell the story of your memory, i.e., my grandfather’s leather chair smelled like this, or this reminds me of being on the beach when I was a child. In the end, it’s about making your personal world universal, which is difficult to do. That is where good writing comes into play. Hemingway was a master at conveying a lot without many words, and therein lies his genius as a writer. This is also why I like The Guide so much–Turin and Sanchez don’t take it all so utterly seriously, and their playfulness comes through in a really enjoyable read.

  3. I love this book. It was recommended to me when it first came out in 2008 by a friend who said that she would read the reviews in it randomly before bed. Some of them are hilarious, and almost all are very well written. Check out Sanchez’s review of Sex Appeal for Men — it’s one of my favorites. I don’t think you have to be a perfume nut to enjoy this book.

    I think to truly develop our vocabularies, we have to smell everything, and do it critically. We know in our minds that lemons and grapefruits smell very different, but how? Maybe that would be a good exercise, not necessarily for posting on our blogs, but for ourselves: smelling the notes that make up perfumes and comparing them, and then writing as much as we can. There are many different kinds of roses, but somehow, they mostly all are identifiable as roses. How do they differ?

    I tell you, in writing about whiskey and other spirits, particularly gin, tasting a number of the same type of spirit side-by-side really helps you figure out how to articulate what you’re tasting.


    • Harry,

      I’ve often thought of ordering the kit from the Perfumer’s Apprentice. Perhaps that is what I really need to do.

      The Guide has been invaluable to me as I am slowly embarking on my journey through the world of perfume. I even have The Little Book of Perfumes that I carry around with me in my handbag in case I stumble across a Sephora or another perfume shop and want to test out the five star scents. I adore the writing–irreverent, snarky, but well informed. My favorites are Sanchez’s reviews of CK perfumes. Laugh. Out. Loud. And you are right, I think it would be a great read even if you didn’t give two hoots about perfume.

      I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of tasting spirits and wines. I know what I like–Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. And I am a huge foodie. But I couldn’t for the life of me tell you WHY I like something that I taste. My sense of smell, however, is way more sensitive and I seem to be learning to identify notes quickly. Funny, that.

      Most of what I have learned in my own profession in the arts is from reading criticism. From it, I have learned a vocabulary, but there are still things after all of these years that escape my ability to articulate. It’s frustrating, but it’s also rather beautiful. There’s no need to talk about some things in life; you just need to be able to enjoy them.

      • I’ll definitely look into that kit you mentioned. I have the kit that Le Labo sells, the Olfactionary — it’s amazing. Also, I’m still kicking myself for not buying one Osmoz’s perfume accords kits when I saw them marked down tremendously at Henri Bendel last year. Here’s a link:

        If you like bourbon (and it sounds like you have some expensive taste if you’re drinking Pappy Van Winkle), I’d encourage you to give rye a try too. If bourbon is mostly corn–it must be at least 51%–then rye is more than 51%…rye. The flavor is a bit spicier and to me a little less sweet. In the affordable but very good category, try Rittenhouse. A next step, in the $40 range is Templeton. It’s excellent. And after that, in the $70 range is Whistle Pig, which is exceptional.

        Back to fragraances, I’ve been meaning to check out the Little Book of Perfumes…even though I have Perfumes: The Guide in hardcover and the revised version in paperback. Hey, things get updated! Might be worth it to have the Little Book too.

        • I actually asked if the Olfactionary was for sale at Le Labo, and the sales person said, “No, but you can use it here.” Bummer. Apparently the kit from Perfumer’s Apprentice is just as good and only a fraction of the price.

          I do like my Pappy, but the good stuff has become impossible to find lately and the price has gone way up, so I haven’t had any in a while. But it’s become my standard for judging good bourbon, and so I am a bit spoiled. I will look up the rye ones you mention; thanks for the tips!

          The Little Book is good because you can forgo all of the bad ones. The negative reviews are super fun to read, but when it comes to trying new things, I prefer the more concise version.

  4. Pingback: Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez (Book Review) « Perfumed Letters

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