Perfume: A Sensory Journey

This is a fascinating exhibition at London’s Somerset House, which encourages participants to re-think how they engage with perfumes and scents.

The display is made up of 10 rooms, each with different scents,presented in displays from bowling balls in black sand to a colourful chaise loungue draped in scented fabric. We are given a card and are encouraged to describe each scent as we proceed through the various rooms.

I have to admit I struggled to find words My card has terms like dark, sweet, warm, young, wood, even paper. I often struggled to smell anything, though some were intriguing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find suitable words, but than I was rather tired. In one room, we were presented with tiny sets of watercolour paint and encouraged to paint the smell. I just couldn’t do it. The show ended with posing with a scented tiger for a photo for their gallery.

Then we had a talk by a perfumier which was fascinating, and helped make sense of what we’d been through. Each room had a dominant smell, so we were able to smell it in isolation, with a history of scents.

One of the most expensive ingredients is Purple Iris, distilled from 30 year old roots. It takes 16 tons to make 1 litre of oil, worth 50,000 Euros. We were allowed to – nervously – handle a small bottle of this. Nice.

Another ingredient is Labdanum, made from resin. another one I didn’t like.

Oud is resin from bacteria, and pink pepper – pimento – smells like cloves.

Vin Vert claims to smell like cut grass, but I thought it smelt more like petrol. Ambergris is intriguing – a bit dusty

Perhaps the most intriguing is the shift in style and use for perfumes. For centuries they were used to cover bad smells, and to preserve bodies. Traditionally, we think of flowers – rose, jasmine, lavender, but often when we smell them there are other ‘notes’ to enhance them. but what I found strange was Perfumes that smell of smoke or charcoal, which we were told might be worn to enhance a smoke-coloured outfit.     

Molecule is – as the name suggests – a single molecule, patented in 1974 and is unique in being a single smell, as opposed to rose, made up of some 500 ingredients.

I’m afraid I din’t much like any of the new scents. In the final room was a selection of new perfumes and scents, some of which were interesting, but none of which I would want, even without the high prices.

To me, perfumes and scents, by their nature, are expensive, so you wear them when you want to feel special, when you’re dressed up for a night out so the scent makes you feel good, they lift your spirits. I don’t really see the point in smelling like moss or smoke. Which makes me wonder, do people who buy these scents not need their spirits lifted? Or am I missing something here? At the end there were tiny samples of CKOne and Boss. I like both of them. Maybe I’m just a spotty teenager at heart.

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