Ever strode into a room and been completely blindsided by someone’s fragrance? Maybe you have a co-worker who douses themselves daily in a nostril-twitching amount of Drakkar Noir or too much Tabu? Or perhaps you are that hapless office mate who’s a little heavy handed with your bottle of Issey Miyake Pleats Please?
While we’re sure this kind of scented assault is mostly unintentional, scientists have discovered our biological make-up dictates that some fragrances are guaranteed to delight some and offend others. The new study, released by the Monell Chemical Senses Centre, has discovered that not every rose smells as sweet, with the way scents are interpreted differing from nose to nose.
Researchers found that up to 30 per cent of human olfactory receptors differ between individuals. Like taste buds for your nose, these olfactory receptors process and identify different odours as they enter the nostril. They then decide if it’s pleasant or odious, with this message reaching your central nervous system within seconds and aiding in the sector of your brain that forms first impressions.
“Understanding how this huge array of receptors encodes odours is a challenging task,” says the study’s lead author, molecular biologist Joel Mainland. “The activation pattern of these 400 receptors encodes both the intensity of an odour and the quality – for example, whether it smells like vanilla or smoke – for the tens of thousands of different odours that represent everything we smell.”
Mainland predicts for any two randomly chosen individuals, approximately 140 of their 400 olfactory receptors will differ in how they respond to odour molecules. “For different items, there is a big gap between what you smell and what I smell,” he acknowledges.
The bottom line? Chances are your favourite fragrance will be repugnant to at least one person in your vicinity, with popular perfume notes like woods and white florals some of the scents sidelined by tetchy nostrils. Have a job interview or first date? It could pay to skip your usual spray of scent to avoid a negative connection being cemented before you’ve even introduced yourself.
Need an alarming example? For participants in the Monell study, a molecule used to replicate the sweet scent of sandalwood, a popular base note used in aromatic woody scents, was found to instead bring to mind the less pleasant aroma of cat urine. Not so sensual now, is it?
These differences in how individuals interpret and process scents can present a moral dilemma for both the casual wearer and the self-professed perfumnista. Being so, well, out in the air, fragrance is both a deeply personal choice and publicly displayed taste.
Obviously you shouldn’t ditch your beloved bottles of Chanel No5, but with the revelation that a simple spritz could turn you into a rose-scented leper, how can fragrance fans pre-empt their favourite perfume going from Dior to disaster?
The experts suggest sticking with what’s popular in the best-seller list to avoid clashes in the office, and using your downtime to road test more offbeat fragrances privately. The Arabic market is relatively open to strong scents, with smoky oud bases a favourite from both designer and smaller niche brands. However, in a community that welcomes expats, heavy hitting traditional perfumes can be a shock to the nasal passages of Gulf newcomers.
Christopher Chong, creative director for Oman’s renowned Amouage perfumery, agrees that heavy perfumes like its traditionally oud-based scents can be challenging for the uninitiated.
“It’s not for everyone,” he says. “What I always tell people is that Amouage is not love at first sight. It is a long courtship but once you fall in love, that love is forever.”
Chong is quick to point out that it is possible to learn to love a previously unappealing fragrance. “I get a lot of customers who say, ‘I hate it’ and then two years later they say, ‘I cannot live without it!’” he laughs.
Perfume expert and Fragrances of the World author, Michael Edwards, also celebrates the drama of the classic Arabic fragrance. “[They are] single-minded deep, heady, rich accords of oud, saffron and rose.”
However, as traditional Middle Eastern fragrances bridge the gap to inclusion in mainstream and designer name releases, ingredients like incense and dark tree resins like oud are being softened and refined, producing a more subtle effect and allowing their stand-offish smokiness to better blend and entangle with complementary notes like Turkish rose, leathers and vanilla.
“Oud is big right now in all sectors, as it has been for several years,” says Robin Krug, perfume critic and blogger for Now Smell This (nstperfume.com). However, she acknowledges the difficulty brands have in unleashing the note at full strength. “It’s being toned down in nearly all fragrances, niche and designer, feminine and masculine.”
Edwards agrees that oud will continue to make strides into the mainstream market this year, along with similar heady notes such as patchouli, cedar and leather.
Still, the rest of the world is less thrill-seeking than the Arabic markets, and as the interpretation of fragrance varies from nose to nose, so do personal tastes shift between countries and cultures, with sales figures showing a definite lean to less complex notes over in Western markets. There, fragrance trends are heavily reflected in the success of celebrity scents, with 31 of the top 100 most popular perfumes (by sales) licensed by a celebrity, with Britney Spears and Justin Bieber heading some of the biggest hits.
To the east, the Asian markets prefer a lighter citrus or aquatic fragrance, although Sung Kim, regional director for the Asia Pacific Region for Kenzo Parfums, notes that marketing fragrance to Asian consumers is trickier that the size of the market would suggest; “The Chinese cannot accept strong fragrances. They prefer the scent to be more floral for women and more fresh for men.”
So what is a perfume lover to do in a world of critical noses and cultural preferences? Find scented success by knowing your audience. Try a clean and light scent by day, like Calvin Klein’s Beauty for Women (Dh430, Bloomingdale’s), then branch out into something more heady at night to blend into an evening of dining and shisha, like Amouage’s commanding new release, Fate (from Dh1,200, Amouage boutiques).