On Basenotes.net, a member started a thread recently, apparently in response to a comment I had made a few times in the past, which is that these concoctions are just smells. He is the same person who thinks I’m a “niche hater,” or something along those lines, so his claim that these are not just smells is at least consistent. Now I wouldn’t have written up this post from a scientific perspective, because there is no question these are just smells, if we are talking about the liquid portion of what we get when we purchase a “personal fragrance.” Of course some might be carcinogenic if used in large amounts relative to others, or some may cause a rash on some people, but not others, etc. That sort of thing is clearly not the point he apparently was trying to make.
Instead of addressing any one person in particular, with one exception (see below), I want to address the argument that these are more than smells. First of all, there is marketing, which is often clearly designed to prompt strong emotional responses from at least some people. By contrast, I am the kind of person who gets mildly irritated (for a very short period of time) and then goes into mockery mode when someone tells me that one of these concoctions really does capture an emotion, a specific landscape, a memory, a time period (Victorian seems to be one of if not the most popular in this context), etc. You may think it does that for you, and you might be willing to pay a few hundred dollars for a 50 ml bottle because of this, but it doesn’t work that way for me, so keep in mind that not everyone has the same personality, background, etc. (and even if a scent could be evocative in one of these ways, why should it be worth that much to others? – this brings up differing priorities/value systems, yet another factor).
There are of course memories that might be associated with a scent. For me, it’s my grandfather’s Brut (he passed away several years ago), but I still assess the scent as a scent. I’m not going to wear it or not wear it because he did. When I apply it I might think of him, but then I’ll move along with other things I want to do, and the scent will be assessed based upon how much I enjoy it. So, does that mean that Brut is more than just a smell to me? Well, I wouldn’t keep a bottle around if I didn’t like it; if I didn’t, I might recognize it on someone else and that would remind me of him, but how could I know if it wasn’t another scent that smelled similar? When I first blind bought Sung Homme, for example, I thought to myself, “that smells exactly like my third grade teacher,” so he must have been using it. The problem? It wasn’t released until two or three years later!
So what do we then say, to keep this argument from sinking? That a certain type of olfactory formula concocted by a major fragrance company is more than a smell? Well, to them it is, meaning profits (if they get it right), but it certainly isn’t to anyone else, unless that person wants it to be. I knew one woman who had a doll that she more or less viewed as her child. It got lost during a move and she was really upset, and still thinks about it from time to time (as if it’s a child who died!). Anyone can “cathect” to an object – this has been known for quite some time, and you don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to realize this occurs with some people, if not most. But to tell someone else they should cathect one particular scent because you do strikes me as absurd because it suggests the person doesn’t understand that not everyone feels the same way about all the objects in this world of ours!
How many new releases are there each year? Should I be required to sample all of them, year after year, just so someone I don’t know can say that I have cathected with it, even if I have not? One person on that BN thread said that scents are like food, so they must be more than smells. Again, scientifically this is not true, because if you ate certain diets that you enjoy you might become nutritionally deficient and even die, whereas if you never use one of these olfactory concoctions you might be healthier than if you do! And just because you are wealthy doesn’t mean you will prefer the “finest” caviar to a Big Mac. Saying such things just shows how much some people have been influenced by socially constructed values. Undeniably, more “care” or “quality” has been put into some scents, but we can only guess about which ones, because even some niche scents can smell like “chemical nightmares!” However, some people really seem to buy into marketing campaigns aimed at getting more than a few people to cathect their scents, and so what can one say to such people?
NOTE: Some like to argue that there is “art” involved with some scents but not others, though that is basically a philosophical claim, and as those of you with philosophical backgrounds know, philosophers have argued with other philosophers for their entire adults live without resolution, nor with hardly anyone else in the world being interested in their debates. Of course, when one begins to learn about the industry and samples a large number of scents, one may get the idea that some are crafted or designed in a more thoughtful or unique way than most others, but how does that change the fact that these are just smells, unless for one reason or another a particular type of concoction gets cathected in our minds? Obviously, we wouldn’t be talking about these scents if they were all literal; how many people argue that cedar essential oil is “better” than eucalyptus essential oil? Clearly, that would be outright ridiculous! It’s all about context, and your context is not likely to be exactly like mine, and it may not even be all that close.