Making scents: perfume as portraiture

In Versailles, France, is L’Osmothèque, a scent library holding the world’s largest archive of historical fragrances. When people ask how long perfume lasts, I recount how I smelled perfumes from the 1920s there and, because they had been correctly stored, they retained their integrity.

More and more people are curious about the art behind perfume and scent. In 2012, the Institute of Art and Olfaction was launched in Los Angeles, to host exhibitions, lectures and scent events. It is a space for perfumers, artists and the public to explore perfume – to experiment and gain access to education. 

In that same year in New York, the Museum of Art and Design showed The Art of the Scent, the first major exhibition focused on smell. Curated by author and scent columnist Chandler Burr, it focused on 12 fragrances created between 1889 and 2012 to “illustrate major innovations in scent design”. 

Milestones in perfumery were highlighted, such as the invention of synthetics in the late 19th century (Jicky, 1889), a modernist perfume (Chanel No 5, 1921), and a postmodern scent (Drakkar Noir, 1982). Burr wanted visitors to “move beyond their initial emotional responses and memories … and to think critically about scent”.

Scent is a vibrant medium to work with. When I induct my clients into this layered world by showing them how a perfume is designed, it opens up an awareness like no other. So many elements are drawn on to make a decision about each drop added to a formula. The enormity of the medium is exposed.

It is like a painter considering the colour ochre, and deciding how much to use, what other colours to add to make it lighter or darker, vibrant or muted, or matt or glossy – and that’s just ochre! Imagine then also determining how long the paint needs to dry for: because longevity is another technical consideration in fragrance design.

In 2012, I decided that my fragrance development also required an art exploration. Preserving perfumery in the realm of art, with no commercial gain, I created an exhibition called Skin Portraits. It was inspired by a day at the Lucian Freud portrait exhibition in London where I was blown away by how Freud showed the emotions of his subjects with just the painted colours of skin. I realised that skin is my canvas, and embarked on an educational journey to interview nine South Africans to compose scents inspired by their skin. 

Before Skin Portraits, I had no idea that red-haired alabaster-skinned humans have a fattier oil in their skin with lactone notes, also found in orange blossom and ambrette (musk mallow) or that a brunette’s personal odour with caprylic acid (sweetish-rancid) is more pronounced than a blonde. This exploration of scent portraiture, went on to be catalogued as the first-ever scent “novella” at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

We’ve been fashioned by society to scrub away any sign of ourselves and smell like pine soap or apple washing powder. But we should encourage the observation of who we are as individuals rather than fitting into a “fresh floral” or “woody amber”.

The idea that we observe our own skin and layer it with an extension of its own oils is a new way of looking at fragrance, a way of bringing art back into perfume.

Tammy Frazer wrote a weekly column for the Mail & Guardian. These are her words.

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