Thursday, April 11, 2013
The Synaesthesia of Scent
In The Diary of a Nose, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena writes, "Green is the only color that makes sense as a smell," adding that, in his collection of raw materials, he has different kinds of green including gentle, harsh, smooth, sharp, dense, etc. Among these he has greens "that smell of beans, fig leaves, syringa, ivy, seaweed, elder, boxwood, hyacinth, lawns, and peas."
He might be right, in one sense, given that of all the colors green is used maybe most frequently as a descriptive. Green chypre, for instance - or green floral. When I think of any number of fragrances I picture the color green. I can't talk about, or wear, Jean-Louis Scherrer or Givenchy III without seeing the fields of parched summer grass I remember from my childhood vacations in rural Arkansas. Alliage brings to mind bitter snapped stems. Clinique Wrappings is a shock of fir peeking out from under banks of aldehyde snow; Tauer's Cologne du Maghreb, a dish of fresh herbs. Ellena says every perfumer runs the hazard of conjuring mental images of toothpaste when using mint in a composition, but I smell it in many fragrances and think of herb gardens.
It might be more accurate to say that green is the color that gets the most mileage in the scent vocabulary. Red, for instance, is a little trickier, but some rose-centered fragrances do read to me as red. Une Rose has always brought to mind a deep red velvet when I smell it; Agent Provocateur, a drier shade on the spectrum, like something long sitting out in a potpourri dish. Miss Dior Cherie - don't let's get started on exactly which version - reminds me of fresh strawberries; not just their smell but their damp, staining skins. Lipstick Rose evokes the obvious - but even Arden's Red Door recalls the crimson lipstick my grandmother applied with a brush from its tube.
I often think pink, especially with the contemporary spate of fruity florals. Baby Doll is strictly bright fuchsia tutus and tart berry innards. Yellow crops up every so often too - buttery yellow for certain floral compositions, palest yellow for scents whose vibe feels incredibly buttery to me, whether from orris root or otherwise. Daffodils pop up in my head. More often than anything I imagine golden yellow to orange hues, probably because orientals are one of my favorite types of fragrance. Alahine is golden light at dusk, casting everything in a late afternoon glow. Mitsouko is a brassier shade, something like peaches steeped in liquid sun. I even think of white, when I smell White Linen - something scorched of all color, singeing the senses.
Sometimes I wonder if some of us have a rare offshoot of synaesthesia when it comes to scent. The synaesthete cross-pollinates the senses in ways most people don't. She might see a number and hear it as a sound, for instance. She might see a color and experience it as a smell. What about the other way round, I wonder. What about seeing a scent as a color, as a sort of tinted wash that spreads over our senses? Has anyone seen MARNIE, the Hitchcock film, where Tippie Hedren's kleptomaniac goes into fugues, seeing red when an object or a situation triggers certain emotions? During these episodes the whole screen goes blood red. I wonder if scent is like that for some of us.
It's not quite as cinematic with me, but most of the smells I love do filter the images they conjure through some emotionally corresponding colored lens. When I smell Vent Vert, I do see green - my mind goes right to an analogous image - a field, a spring lawn, fresh shoots proliferating on deciduous branches. It's like that in some way with every scent I smell. So I'm not sure I agree with Ellena, whose own Kelly Caleche tints my imagination a specific sort of pale but vibrant metallic pastel.