“The tape of love:” naturals and synthetics.

I watched “Flight of the Conchords” comedy show several years ago on HBO, but for those unfamiliar with it, one of their songs is called “The Tape of Love.” Here are some lyrics (my suggestion, for this post, is to replace the word lives with scents, brown paper with naturals, and white paper with synthetics):

Lives are like retractable pencils

If you push them too hard they’re gonna break…

Brown paper, white paper

Stick it together with tape

The tape of love

The sticky stuff…

I was reminded of this song recently, after wearing some great vintage scents for a few days in a row (Versailles Pour Homme, Vintage Tabarome, O de Lancome, Diva, and Antaeus). These kinds of scents are not “sticky stuff.” By contrast, so many recent designer scents come across as “sticky,” and within a short while take on a very irritating quality. And make no mistake, it’s easy to compose a non-“sticky” scent on a budget, an obvious example being Pino Silvestre. Sure, it’s not complex and has a somewhat crude quality (especially at first), but after several minutes it’s pleasant and at least somewhat dynamic. Overall, I’m partial to the argument that the the “modern” perfumer’s major function is to “stick together” naturals and synthetics in order to produce something more compelling than any scent that is entirely natural or synthetic.

If you are asking yourself what sticky means, I’d say there are at least two kinds. With the first kind, it seems like the notes are sticking together, an example being Deep Blue by Hugo Boss (though I’m not suggesting this is a “bad” scent and I’ll be the first to admit that the stickiness isn’t outrageous in this one). The other kind of stickiness comes about when the scent seems to stick you, and after a while you find it cloying, begin to feel nauseous, start to develop a headache, or feel like you are cleaning up a spill at a chemical factory. Scents with too much iso e super or dihydromyrcenol may be the worst offenders, at least to me.

And this brings me to the lyrics quoted above. I get the sense that most perfumers are trying to “stick things together” that don’t seem to belong together, hoping that they can generate love, in the form of profits. Sometimes the results are somewhat interesting, as in Burberry’s Sport Ice for Men, though this brings me to another point, which is that I wouldn’t consider wearing Sport Ice if I knew I’d be sitting down for most of the day. In this case, it’s not especially “sticky,” but it doesn’t possess much depth. which is where vintage dominates all other kinds of scents.

Niche scents can be rich and natural smelling, but they don’t have the depth of the best of vintage, and my guess is that the complexity of vintage is what generates this sense of depth. What’s interesting is that when I’m not feeling well (I seem to be genetically prone to migraines but it’s more common for me to feel like I’m about to get one than to be afflicted by one), only vintage with the most depth seems to be wearable. And it seems that dry scents, such as Vintage Tabarome, are the least problematic to me. This leads me to this recent scientific report:

Writing today (Sept. 24, 2013) in the Journal of Neuroscience, a team led by Wen Li, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Waisman Center, reports that the brains of human subjects experience anxiety induced by disturbing pictures and text of things like car crashes and war transform neutral odors to distasteful ones, fueling a feedback loop that could heighten distress and lead to clinical issues like anxiety and depression.

The finding is important because it may help scientists understand the dynamic nature of smell perception and the biology of anxiety as the brain rewires itself under stressful circumstances and reinforces negative sensations and feelings…


When I read the above, my thought was that it reflects my experience perfectly. I need to be in a non-stressed state in order to fully appreciate a scent, and when I feel stressed (as when I feel a migraine coming on, regardless of whether it actually occurs) I often find scents to be irritating and have little interest in them. But even if I’m fully prepared for the most aromatic of scents, I have found that with some of them I can’t use my hand to waft the smell towards my nose, lest I may begin to feel ill. The best examples are scents with strong castoreum notes, such as One Man Show (vintage), Salvador Dali Pour Homme, and Vermeil (vintage). This wafting technique helps me detect the notes more clearly, and there seems to be a scientific basis for it:

Scholars have hypothesized that animals may be able to focus sniffing, just as humans focus their sight to detect a target, like the face of a friend, in a crowd. Humans are also known to be able to adjust their ability to detect specific odors with practice when cooking or sampling wine, for instance…

The other finding crucial to the current work was the discovery that changes in the airflow rates of scents entering the nose can change which odors the nose readily detects. Different parts of the nose have different airflows, and classes of receptors suited to detecting specific odors. Researchers had speculated that animals might be able to change airflow to target specific odors in a blend of chemicals, like focusing on smelling a particular scent in a perfume.


It seems that recent designer scents that use too much synthetics inhibit the ability to make these adjustments. With vintage, the complexity and naturalness (meaning synthetics are kept to acceptable levels) allows one to focus on certain aspects and appreciate them, then move on to another aspect. The wafting technique helps to change the focus when one wishes. In my experience, you can maximize your olfactory experience by sitting for long periods, whereas if you are walking around a lot (or perhaps spraying too much) it’s harder to focus on the scent and it comes across more as a kind of blurred picture. I think this is one major reason why preferences can vary so greatly from one wearing to another. Lastly, I want to quote one other scientific report:

When our noses pick up a scent, whether the aroma of a sweet rose or the sweat of a stranger at the gym, two types of sensory neurons are at work in sensing that odor or pheromone. These sensory neurons are particularly interesting because they are the only neurons in our bodies that regenerate throughout adult life — as some of our olfactory neurons die, they are soon replaced by newborns…


Here we have come full circle, with a biological version of brown paper and white paper sticking together to generate the olfactory equivalent of love. I’ll bet you would have never imagined that a post which began with a discussion of a silly song by a “screwball comedy” duo would end with so much science, did you? I guess sometimes things that have little in common find themselves “sticking together” (a decade or so ago I wouldn’t have imagined I would have any interest in the world of scents, and everyone I know has been surprised by the amount of time I spend on this hobby) !

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