When people find out about my interest in perfume, sometimes they lean in and say knowingly, “Perfume smells different on different people.” It seems to be the one fact about fragrance that they know.
Last night I went to a coffee “cupping.” A cupping is where you experience the full profile of a coffee bean by pouring hot water over the grounds, breaking its “crust,” smelling it, and eventually doing a lot of embarrassing slurping to mix air with the coffee and spread it over the tongue. When the host asked us what we tasted, answers came from all over the board: cherries, pecan pie filling, tobacco. All for the same coffee.
What’s going on? Why does a spritz of the same perfume smell different on my friend, Meredith, than it does on me or her husband? For that matter, why does the perfume smell different on me on different days?
I’m not a scientist, so I can’t give any hard answers. But over the years, I’ve done some speculating, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
Bad experiences. One unseasonably hot May in eighth grade I sat on a school bus next to a girl cloaked in a cloud of Calvin Klein Obsession. Honestly, it’s a miracle I lived to tell you about it. For the next ten years, I could smell vanilla and musk at 50 yards. Similarly, if you’ve had a bad encounter with patchouli, you might home right in on a perfume’s patch. I have a friend who detests cilantro, and she’ll isolate it in a curry in seconds, where to me the cilantro is part of the larger flavor experience.
Vocabulary. Sometimes I think two people might actually be smelling something similar, but they describe it differently. One person’s “aldehydic, heliotrope-tinged rose-violet floral” is another person’s “smells like old lady.” (Where is this mythical pack of highly perfumed senior gals, anyway? We hear about them often enough.) Here’s another example: If I say “musk,” what do you think of? It could be anything from fresh-from-the-dryer towels to the truffled-sweet smell of a dirty body.
Anosmia: Some people can’t smell certain notes. Their experience of a fragrance may miss a slot that you might pick up.
Suggestion. I’m a huge sucker for suggestion — a marketer’s dream. Tell me something smells like angels rollicking in a bathtub, and I’ll smell Epsom salts and hot water. In her review of L’Artisan Parfumeur Nuit de Tubéreuse, Robin noted a hint of Juicy Fruit gum. Now I can’t smell it without my mouth watering. If a review focuses on violet or incense or orange blossom, my brain will place that note front and center when I sample the perfume.
Environment. Perfume seems to expand with heat and contract with cold, and the same perfume might evolve differently on a crisp winter morning’s walk than it does on the dance floor of a crowded nightclub.
Just plain different skin. Sometimes it’s got to be skin chemistry. What it is about different skin that changes fragrance, I have no idea. But I’ve smelled it often enough to know it’s a fact, and that it can skew a fragrance significantly. It makes sense. After all, people do smell different. Think about the crook of a neck of a baby, lover, parent. No two smell exactly the same.
What about you? Why do you think perfume can smell so different on or to different people?