Adventures in Smelling Good

When I was at DragonCon last year, I picked up a bunch of ampoules of perfume from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (because Alyc and I were trying to work out scents for different characters in Rook and Rose — a project that would have gone more smoothly if either of us were a perfume aficionado). Recently, inspired by a friend’s explorations of their own stash, I decided I should actually experiment with these: not just smelling them in the vial, but putting them on, seeing what they were like initially vs. later on. (I have learned the term “drydown,” and the fact that I didn’t know it before is a measure of my ignorance in this realm.)

This is an interesting experiment because I have a very sensitive nose. I can smell alcohol on my husband’s breath hours after he drank it — not in a “hah, I caught his secret alcoholism” way, just in a “hmmm, I smell something; did you have a gin and tonic?” way. I take chicken packaging out to the trash bin immediately after prepping the raw chicken for dinner, because I will pick up the stench from it long before anybody else here thinks the kitchen smells funky. I refuse to smell the milk to see if it’s gone bad because if it has, I’m going to be having flashbacks to that for the rest of the day.

What I don’t have is the ability to parse what I’m smelling.

I think the musical equivalent here would be if I could pick up tiny whispers of sound, but couldn’t tell you what instruments are playing if you paid me. I recognize individual scents, but blend them together and it frequently becomes indistinguishable. I can listen “into” a piece of orchestral music to find what the French horns or the oboes are doing and follow along with them; the first BPAL ampoule I tried theoretically had sage in it, and even after going to my spice cabinet and huffing a container of sage for orientation, I still couldn’t find any trace of that in the perfume. The reviews commented on the pleasant mintiness or the warmth of the caramel: all I got was musk. (A gentle musk, probably because it was being mitigated by all those things I couldn’t pick out. But still.)

Of course, there’s an extra twist in this game, which is that (again, I am told; I know so little about this) individual skin chemistry can play all kinds of idiosyncratic games with the source material. Going back to music, it would be as if some audience members are sitting there going “holy crap, composer, enough with the trombones already” while others are grumbling that their ears never seem to be able to hear clarinets. So maybe the mint and the caramel and the sage just . . . weren’t actually there for me? I really don’t know.

Which means that this particular experiment is less about “let me explore random bits of the BPAL catalogue!” and more about “let me try to train my nose!” I have less than perfect hearing but a well-trained ear; the reverse is true when it comes to scent. But if one can learn to pick out the French horns and the oboes, I imagine one can also be taught to find mint in a cloud of musk.

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