When The Perfume Society launched back in May 2014 I couldn’t wait to sign up. The Perfume Society is the world’s first appreciation society for all things fragrant and for a fragrance fanatic like myself it was like stumbling into paradise. This was a place where I could indulge my every fragrant whim but even better, meet up with other perfumistas to attend events, talk scents and totally immerse myself in this magical world.
One of the things that The Perfume Society offers is a workshop called How to Improve Your Sense of Smell. The workshops are held all over the country so I was delighted to see that a couple were being held in my home town of Brighton. Thus, on a sunny Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago I rocked up at a little art gallery called 35 North Contemporary Fine Art, in the heart of Brighton’s North Laine, to attend one of the sessions. We were greeted by Josephine Fairley, one of the co-founders of The Perfume Society, who made us all feel very welcome as we settled into our seats and got to know one another. Intriguingly there was a little bar of dark chocolate and a notebook in front of each of us and as tempting as it was to tuck in, we were asked to wait while Jo explained a little bit about what the workshop would entail.
It turns out that our sense of smell is now one of our most under-utilised senses. In fact Helen Keller called it ‘the fallen angel of our senses’. Keller, who was both blind and deaf, had a highly developed sense of smell – something that often happens when one or more of our other senses is denied us. Historically our sense of smell would have been essential to help us avoid predators, detect our prey, know whether things were safe to eat and drink etc. These days, in our highly sanitised world, we no longer need to be able to do these things and as a result our sense of smell is nothing like what it was.
Jo assured us that we could improve our sense of smell by effectively retraining it. Jo is fascinated by the way in which perfumers learn all the thousands of ingredients that they have to be able to identify by smell and, after talking to many perfumers in the course of her work, it is this knowledge that she shares in the workshop. She assured us that by practising smelling things we can effectively reawaken dormant neural pathways in the brain. Our homework would be to give our sense of smell a daily workout… but more of that later.
Now for the chocolate! In order to demonstrate just what a powerful thing the sense of smell is, Jo asked each of us to hold our noses before putting a square of chocolate into our mouths (it was Green & Blacks Maya Gold – my favourite!) and chewing. It was a strange feeling and while I was aware of certain taste sensations, it wasn’t until I let go that there was a taste and smell explosion! Think heavy head cold when you can’t smell a thing and then a sudden moment of clarity and a rush of the most delicious warm, sweet, orangey, chocolatey gorgeousness… you get the picture!! This really helped to focus our minds and we did a quick poll of the things we felt we could all smell / taste.
This was perfect preparation for what was to come… Jo explained that we were going to blind smell four very different fragrances. We were each given a blotter that had been pre-sprayed with the same fragrance and after taking our time to smell it we all wrote down key emotions, colours, images, ingredients that has been triggered by what we were smelling. Again we went around the table and it was extraordinary how often we had all written the same thing – turns out we were better at smelling than we thought and it was great to see the look of incredulity on peoples faces as they discovered that they had had exactly the same reaction to a fragrance as someone else.
I absolutely loved the blind smelling as it really encouraged me to let my imagination run riot, was a huge conversation starter and actually really made me think about exactly what I was smelling. In fact this is what the homework Jo sets is all about, thinking about what you are smelling. She suggests dipping or spraying a few blotters in the evening before you go to bed. It doesn’t really matter what you smell – it’s the act of smelling that’s important. So it could be fragrances, essential oils, things that you swap with your friends……
First thing next morning, when your nose is fresh, spend a few minutes smelling each blotter and simply write down everything that comes into your mind, when you are smelling. Emotions, colours, words, images: there are no ‘rights’ and no ‘wrongs’, because our associations with smells are so personal.
Like any form of exercise, the more you put in, the more you will get out of it so its entirely up to you how long you keep practising. One thing is for sure – the better you are able to smell, the more you will enjoy the world around you. I’m planning to keep it up for as long as I can!
The final part of the event gave everyone the opportunity to share their favourite fragrances (we had been encouraged to bring some with us). It was extraordinary to see some of the things people had brought with them including rare and, in some cases, discontinued scents. There were so many interesting stories attached to individual fragrance choices but the most heart-warming story of the afternoon came from a couple who attended the event together. The two of them had worked for the same company but didn’t know one another at all. However, whenever she walked past her now husband, he was just intoxicated by her smell. He completely fell in love with her based on her scent and finally plucked up the courage to talk to her. Now that they are married, she is introducing him to the world of fragrance so that it is something they can enjoy together! Wonderful!
I would thoroughly recommend one of these workshops to anyone with a serious interest in fragrance. To find out more about the Perfume Society, VIP subscriptions and the How to Improve Your Sense of Smell Workshops click here.