We Weren’t Designed to Appreciate Good Perfume

Every day, we inhabit a vast and complex brew of odors. Take a walk in New York City, and you’ll pass through aromas of car exhaust, garbage, coffee, baking pizza, flowers, damp soil, cleaning fluid, and urine—all in the space of a few blocks. At worst, the city reeks. At best, all of the scents blend together into something barely noticeable, with the occasional whiff of something delicious. We each live in a world of scents that go unnoticed in the backgrounds of our lives; they hum at the edges of our ability to perceive them. It can be a “big blur,” says Christophe Laudamiel, a French master perfumer who is based in New York and Berlin. It doesn’t have to be. “If you are trained, if you are an expert, you can discern things in the noise that you don’t discern if you haven’t practiced before.”

When Laudamiel walks around New York City, he says, the city’s many aromas don’t just blend together into something inscrutable. He smells hints of wood and green bell peppers in a cup of coffee, tuna cans in a glass of bad cabernet, spinach in fine green teas at the market, and notes of freesia and mushrooms in Central Park in the morning. “Once the brain has seen something, it can recognize it in other places,” he says.

That’s a phenomenon I can attest to: As a perfume lover who has spent the past few years smelling hundreds of different fragrances, I can now identify and understand odors that would have barely registered before. It’s led me to see perfumers—and the fragrances they create—as a window into learning about the olfactory system, our least understood sense. They show how our sense of smell is capable of much more than we typically ask of it.

Master Perfumer: Christophe Laudamiel is preparing to launch his own line of perfumes, which will be called The Zoo. Jost

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