And the winner of the "My Sin" and "Arpege" pure perfume samples is: Send postal details to me at olfactarama at att dot net and I’ll send you the samples posthaste!
Back in June, artisanal perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz graciously sent me a set of nine fragrances she calls the CHROMA Collection. She explores fragrance as a synesthete -- someone who is able to cross sensory fields such as color and scent. I’ve been interested in synesthesia for some time and have finally had the time to evaluate these properly.
The term “Synesthesia,” if you look it up, describes an involuntary brain condition. Sometimes it results from brain injury, while some are born with it. The form I’ve seen mentioned most is “seeing” letters or numbers in color, as in 1234567. There are other forms, too: visual/auditory for example, like “seeing” musical notes.
Studies on olfactory synesthesia are sparse. The sense of smell is still taking the back seat to vision and hearing, pretty much everywhere, but there have been some efforts made. One, from What the Nose Knows author Avery Gilbert and partners, identified a link between superior odor perception and the ability to conjure imagery when presented with an odor. In other words, those of us who are constantly evaluating and identifying “notes” in perfumes should be able to visualize them as colors easily. I can, fairly easily. (This does not make me a synesthete, though. The condition “Synesthesia” is involuntary, whereas I have to think about what color a scent might be.) But do we visualize the same colors as others? Would I “see” the same colors the perfumer saw?
So, in a spectacularly unscientific experiment, I covered the labels on the nine bottles so I could not see the name nor the color of the juice, then mixed them up. I numbered nine scent strips and got to it, applying fragrance to the strips, smelling them twice over a 5 minute period, and writing down my guesses (and the “right” answer, afterward), in real time. Here’s what happened.
# 1. I’ve smelled this before. It smells like cherries, fruit. Red. Cherry Red. (Answer: “Quinacrodone Violet,” based on the very bright and very synthetic artists’ pigment of that name, which is a sort of fuschia.)
#2. Peppery and green, not like leaves, but a warmish blue-green. (Answer: “Celadon.” Very close!)
#3. This is very green, foresty. (Answer: “Blue-Green.”)
#4 . Fresh. Freshness. I can’t see this as a particular color, but I know it’s from the cool end of the spectrum. (Answer: “Viridian,” the pigment being an intensely blue-green pigment that isn’t very strong in mixes. How interesting!
#5. This one’s tough. A yellow? (Answer: no. It’s Cyan, the blue used in printing and in light. Well, I sure got that one wrong.)
#6. Ginger? No, licorice. But something about this reminds me of a natural yellow ochre, a warm earthy yellow. (Answer: it’s “Prince,” which Hurwtiz says in her notes was a textile color from the 17th century, an indigo-blue-black shot through with crimson red.”) I would never have guessed black. Never.
#7. I see purple. A cool, blue-purple. (Answer: Wrong again! It’s “Sienna,” which is a warm, coppery brown.) This is a spice, woody kind of scent. A brown. We’ve already done Sienna. Is it an umber? (Answer: Yes! It is, in fact, “Umber.”)
#8. Okay, this is a citrus. Um, Orange. (Answer: Yes! It’s “The Color Orange.”)
# 9 This is a spice, probably brown. (Answer: Yes! The name is "Umber.")
Category #9 represents a confound (or perhaps just a very badly designed experiment.) I know Hurwitz wouldn’t use the same color twice in a 9-bottle collection. So, if I did this one over again, I’d wait and smell the strips before unveiling the bottles. And I would get a naive subject -- somebody who doesn’t know and/or doesn’t care about perfume -- to test these.
As perfumes, my decidedly non-objective preferences are # 2 -- “Celedon” -- and # 7 -- “Sienna,” but all are interesting and unique.
Do you “see” perfumes as colors? Do you have to think about it first?
(Note: Reference DSH’s descriptions on her website).
The Avery Gilbert reference is from “What The Nose Knows -- The Science of Scent In Everyday Life” by Avery Gilbert, Crown, 2008 (ISBN 978-1-4000-8234-6) p. 132. The original paper appeared in the American Journal of Psychology, 1996 Fall; 109(3):335-51.