The Power of Perfume

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A lot is talked about the ‘power’ of aromatherapy (even though in reality, only a handful of essential oils have been studied for their therapeutic effect on the mind/body), but nobody ever really discussed the ‘power’ of perfume, which I think can be just as potent. (And no, I’m not talking about the kind of potency we remember from 80s ‘room-rockers’ like Giorgio and Dior Poison; I’m talking about the emotional power that perfume has. I’ve always loved the quote from deaf-and-blind educator Helen Keller that ‘smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.’

I’m always rather amazed when I meet someone who doesn’t wear perfume. And a bit sad, especially if they claim to have ‘no sense of smell’. I would have a hard time getting through life without tapping into perfume’s ability to reconnect me with my senses, in a world in which I live, mostly, inside my head, staring at a screen rather than stopping to smell the roses. It literally grounds me – and at the same time, lifts me up, so my spirits soar.

A few months ago, I finished another new book – The Perfume Bible, which you can of course buy here on VH), and honestly had more pleasure writing it than any other. Ask most writers if they like writing, and they’ll respond: ‘No, but I like HAVING WRITTEN.’ It’s hugely satisfying, putting words to paper – but rarely have I enjoyed the actual process itself – perhaps because in this case, it was an enforced sniffathon, during which I had to wear a different perfume for 100 days to research the 100 Perfumes To Try Before You Die chapter.

Over the years of loving and wearing fragrance, I’ve really come to use it a bit like aromatherapy itself. Perfumes do share many of the same ingredients as aromatherapy products – so why shouldn’t vetiver in a perfume make me feel ‘earthed’ in the same way as it does in, say, This Works Deep Sleep Bath Oil…? I’d love to see research done into this… Here’s what works for me, then.

When I’m frazzled and in need of ‘grounding’. Know that running-around-like-a-headless-chicken feeling? When I’m like that, I need the equivalent of a yoga class in a bottle. Woody notes work brilliantly for this: sandalwood, cedarwood, oudh (I actually love it, when used very sparingly) and most especially vetiver which actually isn’t a wood but a tropical grass with an amazingly earthy smell. (Close your eyes and it’s actually quite ‘sack of potatoes’ – but incredibly calming.) Patchouli has the same effect – an unbelievably frilly-looking plant for something with such a deep, woodsy scent. The fragrance that does this best for me is Chanel Sycomore, but I also have a treasured bottle of a fragrance from Fresh in their 2010 ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ collection, which definitely feels like a meditation in perfume form.

When I need to feel confident. OK, so all perfume’s probably a bit of a confidence-boost – that’s partly why we wear it. But there are some scents that just make me feel a bit more ‘dressy’ and pulled-together: the perfume equivalent of a higher pair of heels or a narrower skirt or a pair of discreet shoulderpads (oh, I can’t tell you how I miss an 80s, Dynasty-esque shoulderpad). For this, I find the ‘Chypre’ fragrances work really well; it’s a family of fragrances which takes its name (slightly incomprehensibly) from the island of Cyprus, where signature ingredients for this fragrance family traditionally grew, including bergamot and oak moss. For me, ‘confidence’ perfumes include Bottega Veneta’s original scent, Hermès Calèche and YSL Rive Gauche. I swear I walk taller after a spritz of these.

When I’m knackered. Oh, even with Sibergin and Daily Energy this sometimes happens! Once upon a time I had an air-powered aromatherapy ‘wafter’ from Tisserand in my office which I added drops of grapefruit and mandarin oil to, in a mid-afternoon slump. Colognes have an amazingly reviving effect when I’m in the energy doldrums – and traditionally, of course, were used for just this. Frankly, I am not sure you can beat good old 4711 as a Cologne choice, though I also love Miller Harris Tangerine Vert (lots of mandarin there), Acqua di Parma Colonia Assoluta and Hermès Eau de Pamplemousse Rose. Elizabeth Arden Green Tea is also almost as refreshing as a pot of Lapsang Souchong, come 4 p.m.

When I want to feel smoochy. Perfume definitely has the power to make me feel a bit more romantic and flirty, to the delight of my husband of (nearly) 23 years. I reach for a fragrance that feels very ‘French’ somehow: elegant and romantic. Roses by the swag, and violets seem to induce romance, for me. (I realise this is all subjective – or is it…?) There’s a scent for Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle which makes me feel all twinkly and swoony called Lipstick Rose (smells rather gorgeously like the inside of a very, very expenisve handbag). It positively begs to be taken out to dinner – as do I, when wearing it. On a man, the smells that have me pouncing like a tiger are patchouli and amber, which are renowned for their sexiness.

When I want to feel warm and snuggly. There are times when you just basically want the perfume equivalent of a hot water bottle: all toasty and cuddly and nuzzleable, a bit like curling up in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and a faux fur blanket. Spices seem to do this best, for me – and not just me, I suspect. (In aromatherapy, spices do indeed have a ‘warming’ effect.) The original Opium’s brilliant for this (just a dot), as well as Estée Lauder Cinnabar and the gorgeous Penhaligon’s Zizonia, with its notes of nutmeg, cardamom and ginger. These are the sort of fragrances you could no more wear on a summer’s day than a pair of Wolford Opaques.

So while my love affair with aromatherapy will never wane, I’m just happy to have fragrances like this at my fingertips – one zoosh, and my mood’s shifted, which is why I’ll never, ever take perfume – and the amazing sense of smell we’ve been blessed to enjoy them with – for granted…

PS You may remember from earlier this year that I also set up www.perfumesociety.org. We’ve now launched a ‘virtual fragrance advisor’ on the site, FR.eD (short for ‘Fragrance Editor’) which can make recommendations for scents to try, if you’re looking for a new one – or to replace a lost perfume love. Find FR.eD under ‘FIND A FRAGRANCE’ – honestly, he’s almost psychic when it comes to suggestions!

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  • Bari

    I’m so inclined to agree with you. We lack romance, fun and sexiness through the use of fragrance…..on the other hand lots of people don’t know how to wear fragrance. It’s over powering and offensive especially if you have to work daily with them.