Scents and Sensitivity: What’s Behind the Rise of Extreme Smells? | Fragrance

On evening of last week, I sat in my kitchen with my eyes closed, inhaling the rich, earthy smell of tomatoes. I felt transported: I was in an Italian garden, the sun-dappled leaves swaying as I picked the ripe, plump fruit for a late pasta dinner with my large, beautiful family. I was, in essence, one of the puppets of the Dolmio advertisements. But the smell didn’t come from a tomato. It came from a candle.

How did they make it feel so real? I called my boyfriend to share this miracle. He put his face right above the flame, said it smelled like burnt nose hair, and quickly lost interest. But I remained tickled by this magic trick. A candle smells like tomatoes!

There’s something in the air right now, and it’s not just vine tomato candles: increasingly eclectic scents – from uplifting to downright bizarre – have made their way into perfumes and candles. Is this a consequence of being so hungry for smells, so downright bored during the pandemic? An increased desire that the things we buy provide us with experiences beyond mere pleasure? And why do people want to smell weird stuff?

Our interest in these smells has now spread outside our homes and into our cultural public spaces. The past year alone has seen: an exhibition of floating machines scented with the smell of coal, sea life and vegetation at the Tate Modern; a gallery in The Hague infused with the fishy smell of a 17th-century Dutch canal; and a space dedicated to olfactory art launched in New York.

Olfactory art is far from new. Coffee beans were roasted behind a folding screen to create “the smell of Brazil” at the 1938 Surrealist International Exposition. And let’s not forget the experiential dining experience at places like El Bulli and the Fat Duck at the start of this century. But the fact that we still regard it as a novelty suggests that we still regard smell as a lesser sense.

Novelty scents have been around for a while. In the United States, Demeter Fragrance Library was established in 1996 and sells fragrances based on everyday scents. It started with Dirt, Grass and Tomato, and has since expanded to more unusual smells like Play-Doh, New Car and Funeral Home. Quirky options at Yankee Candles include bacon, schnitzel with noodles, and something pretty edgy called Man Town.

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Anya Hindmarch sells candles that smell of pencil shavings and chewing gum. DS and Durga make several weird scents, including one called Burning Barbershop, which is supposed to smell like a specific barbershop in upstate New York that has caught fire. I’ve never been there, but the pleasant woody smell made me want to.

Recent years have seen an increase in avant-garde fragrances and more down-to-earth scents, says fragrance author Lizzie Ostrom. In the past, scented products were about beauty and vanity, she says. “But now we’re thinking, ooh, what can a perfume do? And what kinds of scents might I like that aren’t just the usual scents I thought I wanted to wear? »

Surprisingly, it seems that the pandemic has only increased our olfactory desire. We didn’t have nights out to smell good, yet the perfume industry didn’t suffer at all – perfume sales were up 45% in the first quarter of this year. “I think people have discovered that perfume isn’t just for someone else to smell and admire, but it’s first and foremost a personal experience, with the power to make you feel good about yourself. “said public relations specialist Daniel Williams.

Anya Hindmarch sells candles that smell like pencil shavings. Photography: Rizky Panuntun/Getty Images

Scented candles also saw a huge increase in sales. Deprived of many kinds of stimulation – including smells other than those of our own homes or our breath inside a face mask, it’s no wonder we’ve turned to scented candles. If we were to be stuck in our homes 23 hours a day, we might as well make home a nice place. One of the many messy habits I developed during the winter lockdown was sitting up in bed holding a scented candle in both hands, breathing deeply from the flame and thinking, “What I do ? Looking back, I think my nose was hungry.

Loss of smell as a side effect of Covid has been a common experience for the past 18 months, and people who regain their sense of smell often report that it comes back patchy and faulty – smelling things that don’t aren’t there, or favorite foods now smell like sewage. Doctors recommended “smell training”: buying essential oils and sniffing them repeatedly like a kind of nose physio to try to re-educate the body to sense the aromas. Remedies for trending smell loss on social media include eating burnt oranges. “Recovering their sense of smell is a real source of relief and joy for millions of people — and maybe now they really want to explore,” Ostrom said.

Vegetables are on the rise – in addition to the Daylesford vine tomato candle that impressed me so much, I could have a Loewe air freshener that smells of coriander or beetroot – but there are also candles that smell of chlorine, and perfumes with a base note of asphalt. If I really wanted my bathroom to smell like beets, I would put beets in it. And all the talk about everyday smells magically reproduced by the light of a wick or the pump of an atomizer has a touch of 1999, scratch-and-sniff cards and silly experiments with Smell-o- vision.

Last year, a lingerie brand released a range of “pillow mists”, which were supposed to help you sleep, that smelled of celebrities such as Harry Styles and Maya Jama. Hotels, cars, sports stadiums have “signature scents”. McDonald’s launched a line of Quarter Pounder scented candles in February 2020.

The products are also increasingly inspired, although we hope not by the ingredients, by the human body. There’s the infamous Goop Vaginal Candle, of course, but that’s nothing compared to a scent called Vulva Original. The Amazon listing promises “the intense smell of a vagina,” and it has some of the most disturbing reviews I’ve read in my time, including: “I’ve met several girls and I know what it smells like. ..”

But for something truly out there, Orange Free State’s Magnificent Secretions is just the ticket. The scent claims to smell of blood, sweat, semen and saliva, and reviewers describe it as “shattering”, “completely unwearable” and “a sweaty debauchery in the locker room of an indoor swimming pool with metal ladders rust”.

Woman eyes closed
Why should smell remain such a neglected sense? Photograph: Getty Images

How is this all just a gimmick, just another way to sell us stuff? Professor David Howes, director of the Center for Sensory Studies in Montreal and co-author of Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, is rightly skeptical of this type of marketing strategy, which relies on a dubious science of smell appealing to a primitive part of the sense of smell. our brain: “The idea is that marketers can get under the conscious defenses of the cerebral cortex by using smell to market things, which I think is hogwash. That kind of physiological reductionism is not in reality than another marketing ploy.

Still, we should be wary of crying stuff at any unusual olfactory experience — and perfumes in art galleries — because we’re not trained to take smell seriously.

Because of the moment of Proust’s madeleine, we in the West tend to link smells to memories and emotions. We are not thinking of, say, communication or knowledge. The philosophers Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel believed that smell should be considered inferior to sight and hearing, and Freud almost abhorred smell, referring to it as something we needed to move beyond now that we we weren’t walking anymore. on all fours like dogs.

Howes goes so far as to say that we live in a smell-phobic society. “Witness all our deodorizing then reodorizing rituals: the morning shower followed by the addition of all these artificial scents.”

Why should smell remain such a neglected sense? Why should people wear a perfume but have a wardrobe full of clothes, multiple Spotify playlists, and eat different meals every night but be reluctant to fill their living room with different scents? Just as we can learn to love good whiskey and coffee, we can learn to appreciate foreign smells – and maybe we should. “Our noses are terribly uncultivated now,” Howes told me, “and I’m all for the nose being freed. It’s been held down for too long.

Last week I came across a perfume called Stercus. Made by perfumer Allessandro Gualtieri, Stercus means manure in Latin. “He [Gualtieri] is quirky to say the least,” said the PR agency’s Daniel Williams. “You sit there during a press release and when you ask him what the smell is based on, he tells you it’s his anus.”

When this bottle — which I’m sorry to have to tell you is brown — arrived at my house, I interrupted my roommate watching a space documentary and asked him to smell it with me. I gave her a few spritzes and waited.

“It’s like using a leather bag to steal a load of vanilla candles,” he said, confusion on his face. I told him what the special note was, and we both sat there sniffing the air and thinking about the assholes. “I like that,” he said. If you didn’t know where the smell was coming from, you wouldn’t necessarily suspect it, although there’s an undeniable barnyard note to it.

Maybe all of this is just the beginning. Maybe 50 years from now, when we’re reeking of all sorts of futuristic smells yet unimaginable, we’ll look back and think, “Candle gum? Anus scent? It’s nothing.”

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