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  • Writer's pictureJord

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO DESCRIBE PERFUME?




Perfumes diffuse chemically through our world, which we experience when they touch our brain. The limits of commercial distribution mean this sensory mechanism complicates the social discourse and language of perfume.

 

Art is generally hard to explain but technology lets most artforms be shared and experienced remotely, worldwide and on demand.

 

Perfume doesn’t get this luxury. Cosmetics compliance restricts international trade. Perfume can’t be smelled from a screen.

 

You can find art from the Louvre on Google. You can play music anytime on Spotify. Perfume can only be truly experienced in person, from a finite supply.

 

The existing language around description of a perfume is designed to help the audience use their other senses to imagine a facsimile. The fragrance wheel and technical terms are in place for this reason.

 

The problem is, perfume language can lack both clarity and consensus. Vague descriptions and baroque jargon are commonplace (we’re guilty of this).

 

Friction around communication of scent can frustrate perfume discovery and community, as well as designers and marketers. It also impacts how perfume is perceived and valued as a whole.

 

Nothing yet seems to exist to describe or deliver perfume in a more intuitive way. The methods that exist are subject to perception bias and a lack of shared, specific sensory reference.

 

How do we better communicate scent, something that must simply be experienced in person?

 

What are the benefits and drawbacks of doing so?

 

How is the language of scent evolving- and does it need to?

 

Why Do We Need to Describe Perfume?

Scent description creates a common frame of reference, making things easier to explain without explaining.

 

From a seller’s perspective, a good perfume description will attract those with natural affinity to a scent. From supply chain, retailers can match your product to this audience.

 

In an ideal world, here are other ways more intuitive scent description may impact the industry.

 

Perfume discovery

Describing perfume in a standard way will help cold audiences find the right perfume more easily, with less risk of disappointment.

 

Accountability

Intuitive scent description would act as a form of buyer protection, enabling perfume shoppers to gauge a scent’s inherent craft value prepurchase.

 

This would reduce buyer’s remorse for a product that’s difficult to return, as well as the perfume industry’s overreliance on aspirational marketing.

 

Inclusivity

Aspirational marketing can be exclusionary in practice. If intuitive scent description reduced this, marginalised groups may feel more welcome in the fan and professional communities.

 

Emotional safety

A clearer idea of sensory experience can help the wearer compare this to their own scent memories. This will reduce the likelihood of an unpleasant or triggering experience when buying a new perfume.

 

Marketing

Similarly, standardised perfume description will help brands find and keep new customers more easily.

 

Business admin

Intuitive scent description may help brands cheaply and quickly convey the USPs of products for financing, wholesaling and white label.

 

How We Currently Describe Perfumes in Writing & Speech:

Describing smells in writing and speech tends to take a technical, categorical, emotional or contextual standpoint. Here are some common methods:

 

Gender

When choosing or recommending perfume, many people set store by gendered convention.

 

This can be a powerful way to convey the tone and use case of a scent, even when compared to a perfume of different gender but identical ingredients.

 

Ingredients & families

Dominant ingredients can be referenced and compared to everyday smells in our lives, allowing us to approximate key aspects of a given perfume.

 

Secondary ingredients (like lemon and lime) can interplay with primary to create classic pairings. When describing a perfume, the listener can compare a description to products with the same pairing.

 

Scent profiles are broadly categorised into four families, a great shorthand for specific ingredients and sensory textures:

Floral (sweet and flowery);

Amber (spicy and warm);

Woody (resinous, deep and astringent)

Fresh (crisp, verdant and aquatic)

 

Performance

Performance is a great way to give a spatial context to a fragrance. Performance can also be used to imply use case, depending on social convention.

 

Scent intensity is strength and perfume projection is sensory range. Comparing these details to whether you’re at work or home, or in a small room or large, helps explain how and where a perfume might be used.

 

Sillage is projection during movement. Longevity affects how often you’ll need to apply your scent.

 

Sensory experience

All senses pass information to the amygdala, helping us transmute one sense to another. Sense can be used with other perfume descriptors or as a standalone method.

 

During perfume discourse, descriptive words for smell can help the listener use their other scents as a proxy for their nose.

 

Colour, flavour, shape and texture are universal sensory experiences we’ve built emotional context around. Terms such as ‘red’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sharp’ may be useful for a strawberry fragrance.

 

When used in perfume language, scent descriptive terms help us know smell through the lens of instinctive like and dislike.

 

Use case

 

Unwritten rules/social codes around perfume

Formalwear

Workwear/casualwear

Dating

 

Use case, like gender, comes with social conventions that impact what scents are worn and made. We can use our navigation of social code in comparison with our own, to interpret perfume language via use case.

 

For example, a perfume for work isn’t always the one you’d choose on your day off. You may not think your nightclub perfume is appropriate for a funeral, even if it happened to be the favourite of the deceased.

 

Cultural reference

Parasocialism has shown we use art and culture to create meaning and identity. We project our own meanings onto these people, periods, places and things.

 

Perfumers use this all the time to both design and communicate of their work. People can interpret perfume through this same lens.

 

What does Taylor Swift mean to you? Or your favourite movie? What about a place like Yorkshire, or a time period like the late 2010s? Where do you go and how do you feel?

 

What Social Factors Impact Perfume Perception & Discussion?

Even with the perfect description, you can’t remove the messy human element from how we experience perfume. Perfume is specifically made to filter through and impact the human experience.

 

Bias

While useful, existing perfume language forces us to create loose approximations of scent.

 

This can be biased by our own scent memories and palette. Your scent palette and scent memories likely differ from the person sat next to you.

 

Existing perfume language also assumes a wide perfume palette. For casual, budget, or misinformed perfume fans this may not be the case. Without this, scent description and perception can miss the mark.

 

Intersectionality also factors into description and perception. For example, the generational divide around the ‘oriental’ perfume descriptor. A younger shopper, or a person of East Asian descent, may be more likely to question the use of this descriptor over amber.

 

Marketing

Marketing can get in the way of accurate scent description.

 

Many perfume houses tend to focus on the brand over the product, in part because the core product can’t be fully explained.

 

This can result in confusing fragrance terms and the use of elevated lexis, in an effort toward increased perceived brand value.

 

Language can (and should) also change. An ‘oriental’ perfume may be viewed in less favourable terms than an amber perfume by a younger perfume shopper than an older one.

 

Psychological

Our mental and emotional state can impact our sense of smell. Reduced odour identification has been reported in patients with depression and schizophrenia.

 

For longtime sufferers of a mental and emotional condition, their sense of smell may differ from a person without this condition. Smell sensitivity and note identification may diverge and impact perfume discourse.

 

A blow to the head can damage the brain or change its chemistry, changing sense of smell or even causing a heritable condition like synesthesia or anosmia.

 

Medical

During our lives, our bodies will drastically change. Whether temporary or permanent, these medical states will influence our perception of scent when the topic is brought up.

 

Common age and hormonal changes, such as puberty and menopause, impact our sense of smell. It’s estimated a quarter of people have a smell dysfunction of some kind.

 

Illness is also a factor. COVID-19 patients have reported unusual, reduced and removed senses of smell. Smell perception can be changed by certain cancers and cancer treatments. Medications can list changes to smell as side effects of their use.

 

Genes and experience both impact our sense of smell. Some people will have more smell receptors than others. Some may be prone to sinus infections, which cause inflammation. Smoking and recreational drug use can also change our sense of smell.

 

Past Attempts to Communicate Scent

Perfumers have noted the communication gap when it comes to scent. Here are ways perfumers have attempted to improve perfume description, each with pros and cons:

 

Perfume discovery sets

The standard method is the perfume set, a way for brands to reduce price resistance and risk for customers.

 

Think of perfume sets as a fitting room for clothes you’re not sure will fit you. Even if you don’t like something you may like something else.

 

While perfume sets lessen the impact of a miscommunicated scent, they’re not a preventative measure.


Companion audio & visual art

The 2010s saw a resurgence of indie perfume and a rise in careful, curated branding. Part of this branding included music and art as part of the perfume experience.

 

This helped indie brands establish a voice in a crowded industry, and gave customers some reference for the unusual scents produced.

 

This was a fun and creative era but much of it took an avoidant approach to the actual description of scent.

 

Glossaries & reference texts

Fragrance glossaries would be dry to the casual buyer but invaluable to a serious perfume fan.

 

The problem, as mentioned earlier, is that these methods assume a well-developed palette when describing perfume expert.

 

Online discourse

Fragrance glossaries (superfans)

 

Perfume workshops & courses

In-person courses and masterclasses are an excellent way to learn to perfume design and interpretation, from real experts in the field.

 

The main issue here is price and intent. Workshops and courses can be too much if your budget is already stretched, and may not appeal to the casual perfume user.

 

Will AI Help Us Describe Perfume?

AI (accurate, scaleable, soon affordable but opaque, commercial, cannibalistic by nature and not explorative, impact on distinctive identity in scents as a whole)

 

Large Language Models (LLMs) are machine learning models used to analyse and interpret data. This is done to create, edit and postulate new data. LLMs perform best with large datasets, to gain access to the full context of a given topic.

 

LLMs are already being used in scent design. The main issue right now is pricing and public, mainstream industry adoption.

 

LLMs could also be used in another way; to standardise the global perfume conversation. Similar to IUPAC, the perfume industry could use AI to develop a universal standard of perfume descriptors.

  

This could be as simple as a standard index of terms on a numbered scale, with specific references for each common note. This could even be done on a numbered scale.

 

For example, you could tell a stranger the exact bitterness and richness of a faint chocolate note. Without any explanation they’d know you meant “A 100g bar of ‘Fin Carré Finest Dark Chocolate’, melted, from Lidl”.

 

There are ethical compunctions to AI. Namely, whether the training data and its labour to create was acquired with compensation and consent.

 

LLMs are also only as good as their training data. They may struggle to synthesise genuinely new ideas, particularly from areas where this data is biased or otherwise flawed.

 

Large language models are only as good as their data, and over time may worsen a scented sameness already noted by some. Particularly where this data is biased or incomplete.

 

Perfume LLMs may contribute to overcommercialisation by bad actors seeking a gold rush, or safety issues in countries where cosmetics compliance is weaker.

 

CONCLUSION

How a perfume smells is tricky to explain due to a range of social, practical and biological factors.

 

No method to deal with this problem is perfect.

 

Even if we solve this problem, we risk removing perfume’s mystery and diversity in the process.

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