What you’ll need: a memory for thousands of scents, a good nose

Songlist: Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit

Further reading: The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr

March is an exhausting month in Minnesota; if it gives any continuing sign of winter, such as adding to snow to the ground instead of melting it away or obstinately staying below 40 degrees F (both of which it seems be doing this week) we throw up our hands in disgust. Yet when that first really warm day comes and reveals what’s been hiding under the snow for the last six months, we suffer a different kind of disgust. Thus in March I find myself longing for good smells.

I felt that way yesterday when I exited my front door and saw two pumpkins in my front yard, soggy and scummy from being left out since Halloween. To combat this distasteful image, my mind immediately went to a 2005 profile I read in the New Yorker of Jean-Claude Ellena, a professional perfumer who had just been hired as Hermes’s first in-house scent designer. In the article he is tasked to create a scent for the 2005 collection that would center around the Nile. To do so, he takes a trip along the Nile and decides that his perfume will be based on the aroma of green mango.

New Yorker articles have provided inspiration for many of my career whims, and this Ellena profile almost convinced me to change my undergraduate major. Not only does he get to take exotic trips, his main goal is to create the illusion of beautiful scents. The science behind smell is fascinating, as well. In a different New Yorker profile, this time of Michelle Hagen, flavorist for Givaudan (the largest flavor and fragrance manufacturer in the world), writer Raffi Khatchadourian describes the sense of smell thus:

Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to the “pre-semantic” part of the brain where cognition does not occur, and where emotions are processed. The bypassing of the thalamus may be one reason why smells can be so hard to describe in detail, and also why aromas stimulate such powerful feelings.”

While difficult for most of us, describing smells in detail is an essential skill for professional perfumers and flavorists. At the beginning of her apprenticeship with Givaudan, Hagen used Benjamin Moore paint chips to help her memorize the scents of approximately one thousand chemicals (“California Lilac was ethyl isovalerate; Mellow Yellow was gamma octalactone” the article tells us). Though it took him a long time to learn the science (“ten years to know, twenty years to master” he says) Ellena is now capable is identifying the country of origin of a specific floral essence as well as whether it was distilled by stainless steel, aluminum, or steel. Ellena says that his nose doesn’t smell any better than anyone else’s, he simply has better means to understand what it is that he’s smelling.

Girlfriend, you wearing "Cleopatra's Secret Perfume," too? What a coincidence!

When I was a kid, I had a perfume making kit that included five bottles of fragrances: jasmine, heliotrope, lily-of-the-valley, peppermint, and apple. One of the “experiments” was to make what the creators of the kit called Cleopatra’s Secret Perfume, which was heavy on the jasmine and included all of the other ingredients, besides peppermint. I remember feeling very grown-up, wearing a scent that was not only “secret” but also the very same one Cleopatra once donned.

Indeed, there is an element of the mysterious in the science of scent. Both Ellena and Hagen reference their jobs as creating illusions. Both of them work with chemical compounds, but both of them must make a consumer completely unaware of those compounds. “With me, one plus one equals three,” Ellena says in his profile. “When I add two things, you get much more than two things.” Perfume itself is used to create an illusion: the concept of a fragrance’s sillage refers to its ability to make people believe that a woman is still in the room once she has left. No wonder, then, that perfumers work so hard to master the art of sillage and women are so interested in wearing such perfumes.

As I look out at the flattened grass of my front yard, yellowed and damp and no doubt covering other decaying material, I wish someone could create an illusion to mask its scent. The kind of sillage, for instance, that would make a person believe spring was still in the air, and had never really left.