What is a perfume? Perfume is a mix of scented materials we perceive as a unified complex. Apart from the fact that the perfume has to fulfill certain aesthetic identity (or it hasn’t, but we’ll discuss that later), a perfume has to meet certain technical demands: lastingness, recognizability, projection. Perfume can be perceived in numerous ways: chemically, artistically, socially or through culture, but in this text, we’ll approach it from the psychological point of view and in a very specific way – metaphorically. Welcome to the second part of my Perfume psychology.

Perfume, just like a person, can be seen individually, through its parts or as a whole with all parts. But at the same time, it is also more than the sum of its parts. And that is what gives the perfume identity, what makes it special – because even though we know all the ingredient, we cannot imagine how it will actually smell. Just like with people, we can know all their characteristics, personality traits but how we’ll perceive them and how will they react when in contact with us, well, that is something completely different.

When we smell a perfume, we tend to perceive that the perfume master wanted us to feel. Be that a complex that has a specific smell without  strong individual notes (Estee Lauder White Linen, Chanel no 5) or parts with floral, gourmand, spicy chords (Guerlain Black Perfecto, Etat Libre d’Orange Jasmin et Cigarette) or soliflore compositions or compositions with one dominant note (Givenchy Pi, Reminiscence Heliotrope).  However, the truth is completely different. In order to understand the way we experience perfume, an illustration of the conscious and unconscious mind Sigmund Freud used in his psychoanalysis can help.

Freud presented the mind, psychic life and personality as an iceberg floating in the water with only a small portion of it above the water (level of consciousness) while the biggest, a huge part is underwater. The part that is above water is the conscious part of our personality while the submerged part is the unconscious part of our personality. We perceive with our consciousness while the unconscious part is below the surface of awareness and is difficult if not even impossible to reach and only through special methods.

perfume psychology

Just like a man, a perfume also consists of the conscious and unconscious part. Conscious part, the part “above the water” is the one we can feel, whether we’re talking about fragrance notesaccords or the overall composition. The unconscious part, the one we cannot see, that lies beneath the water beneath the awareness those are all those aroma chemicals that form a perfume and are known only to the perfume makers. The parts that make perfume formula. We can understand this best through the example of fig scent note used often in perfumes. We all know how a fig smells but from its fruit you cannot extract the scent like you can with lemon. Therefore, all perfume makers use a mixture of substances such as gamma octalacton, iso e super, stemon, hedion in order to get that recognizable scent of fig.

When we smell a perfume with dominant fig note like Diptyque Philosykos, we perceive only the conscious part, the one above the water, fig scent note. White lies beneath are all those substances we mentioned before. They make up the large, massive iceberg under the awareness. Just like psychoanalysis uses certain techniques to get to the elements of the unconsciousness, perfumers use methods that make unconscious parts of the perfume conscious – through chemical analysis, gas chromatography and a mass spectrometer or through exercising olfactive perception (or by using techniques that will be presented in future chapters of Perfume psychology).

So, the next time you smell a perfume, do not forget that what you smell is only a small part of the perfume. I hope that will give you new trust and admiration of the skills of perfume makers because, in order to get the knowledge you need to create a perfume that is not only original but also meets all chemical and artistic criteria and qualities, you need years of learning and experimenting. Also, do not forget that what you perceive is only a small part of who you are, of what makes your personality. I hope that by realizing that you will appreciate yourselves and others and the maker whoever that may be (god, nature, something else) more than before. The complexity of the perfume, just like the human psyche is immense and will remain the subject of meditation and inspiration until the end of times.

READ NEXT: Part III – The Structure of Perfumes