What can Auntie Bertha’s radiator tell us about scent appreciation?

This is a quasi follow-up to my last post. I thought that one was long enough so I decided to create a new one. A few months back, I visited an older relative. She doesn’t do housework as she used to, due to advanced age. Moreover, on this day the heat in her house “came up” for the first time of the season. As you might expect, there was a strong musty smell, but what’s interesting is that it smelled like a complex “masculine” scent from the 1980s! To be sure, it clearly was not an old designer scent, but rather smelled like someone wearing that kind of scent, and perhaps some clothing that had been in a closet for a long time (and possibly some kind of mild “body odor” as well).

I didn’t find it to be pleasant nor unpleasant, as it was fairly well balanced, other than for the dry, particulate, musty texture. However, nothing really “stood out,” and my guess is that it was too muddled will all kinds of things one finds in house dust. A few days ago, I came across the claim the house dust is composed of perhaps 75% (or more) human skin particles. I then did some research and it seems like this is a more accurate claim (I selected this quotation out of several similar ones because I liked the way it was stated):

There’s no evidence to suggest that dust is mostly made up of any one ingredient; rather, it is a delightful salmagundi or potpourri of everything that is likely to be drifting around your house.

The precise ingredients and proportions present will presumably depend in part on where you live, as well as how.


And this prompted me to think about the recent report about humans being able to distinguish a trillion or more different odors. Whatever the possible capabilities, clearly most people can’t detect many notes in a complex scent concoction. After reading several reports of this paper, I came across one that seemed to explain it best (I couldn’t find the paper itself online):

The human nose can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odours, a resolution orders of magnitude beyond the previous estimate of just 10,000 scents, researchers report today in Science…

To investigate the limits of humans’ sense of smell, Keller and his colleagues prepared scent mixtures with 10, 20 or 30 components selected from a collection of 128 odorous molecules. Then they asked 26 study participants to identify the mixture that smelled differently in a sample set where two of three scents were the same. When the two scents contained components that overlapped by more than about 51%, most participants struggled to discriminate between them. The authors then calculated the number of possible mixtures that overlap by less than 51% to arrive at their estimate of how many smells a human nose can detect: at least 1 trillion.


Too bad they did not do this experiment with various perfumes, and also, why not get some perfumers to participate, and not use just “naive noses?” In any case, this leads me back to pondering why I enjoy certain scents so much, while disliking some intensely. Natural smells can be wonderful, as rich as any, but they tend to be too simple for long-term (several hours) enjoyment, and many are unbalanced (and so tend to get cloying after a short while). What we can detect is one subject, but why some of us appreciate scents in a certain way does not seem to be of much interest to research scientists. For example, I don’t know of any functional MRI studies of people exposed to scents they like and ones they don’t (along with a bunch of other odors, presumably).

And this leads me to consider the latest post at the FromPyrgos blog. Mr. Ross wants to “have it both ways” yet again. In this latest incarnation, people who, in his opinion apparently, he used to claim have some sort of “chemical sensitivity” issue (and thus are super-sensitive to certain notes or aroma chemicals), which must mean me (and I would be the first to admit that I seem to get sensitized to certain molecules once in a while), are now on the other side of the spectrum:

…their noses are not astute enough to detect imbalances and degradation caused by age.

At least he keeps us entertained (I hope nobody takes this sort of silliness seriously!). And he may be right to some degree, at least about top notes, but I’ve found vintage drydowns to be very good, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try every formulation, so I can’t always say how they compare to each other. Recently, I was able to sample the 2012 release of Derby, and the base was similar to several vintage scents I own (and that are well over ten years old), including Fendi Uomo, Lauder for Men, and Mitsouko EdP (Derby changes quite a bit over time, beyond the top notes, so there is no one drydown for it). Thus, my “mind’s nose” is not calibrated to enjoy only scents that have “turned.”

Even the graphic Mr. Ross chose for his post makes little sense. There are two pictures, one of a woman in bathing attire from perhaps the 1920s (with a caption that says “Sexy”) and one of a woman in bathing attire from recent years (with a caption that says “Begs to differ”). Clearly, vintage aficionados are not concerned about others thinking that the scent they wear is “old” (or he or she doesn’t wear the scent in public). We wear them because we enjoy them personally, for hours. Is this the same reason why people wear bathing suits? I’ve never heard this claim. But if Mr. Ross wants to continue to tilt at windmills, I support his right to bloviate to his hearts content !

But let us assume he is 100% correct here – how does that change anything? It certainly would be interesting to study the brains of such non-astute noses with at least functional MRIs, but if there is a percentage of the population who enjoy vintage scents (that those with obvious conflicts of interest tell us have “turned to dreck”), why should that be a problem for anyone? These folks will buy up old bottles, “stimulating” the economy and engaging in “harmless fun.” If Mr. Ross wants to think that people who sit around for hours studying vintage scents are delusional fools, I couldn’t care less; my only concern is that he might mislead people, because it’s possible if not probable that I would no longer be involved in this “hobby” if I could only choose from designer releases of the last five years or so (I do like a few but I don’t think those would be enough to sustain my interest). The fact that I do like a few new ones suggests that “vintage derangement syndrome” (or whatever Mr. Ross might like to call it) is a figment of his imagination. At the very least, Mr. Ross might want to consider proposing an experimental design that would validate his claim – not doing so comes across simply as “sour grapes,” IMO.

Overall, I largely agree with the Luca Turin quote with which I began the last post (and my disagreements with him usually involve style rather than substance):

Perfumes for the last ten years have been made for people who don’t like perfumes… ten, fifteen years.

And while “mainstream” perfumers have more materials with which to work than ever before (though not always in reasonable amounts), they seem to have been so restricted (for one reason or another) that Auntie Bertha’s radiator can generate odors that smell richer and deeper (and certainly less “synthetic”) than most if not the overwhelming majority of designer scents released in recent years. Those who feel the same way can still buy vintage scents, often at prices no higher than one finds for recent designers at the “higher end” department stores. To me, those who don’t understand our appreciation of vintage are the ones with “broken noses,” and from what I’ve read, it is common among to use many sprays with each application, which is something I wouldn’t dream of doing (in many cases I try to do a “half spritz” a couple of inches above the navel because otherwise the “nose” gets overwhelmed). In fact, it’s quite clear that many of them would complain that they couldn’t smell anything if they applied scents the way I do !


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