What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


A famous psychology experiment on implicit peer pressure and conformity conducted by Solomon Asch back in the 1950s not only has major implications for human social behavior, but is also relevant to perfume. In the Asch experiments, subjects were asked to judge the length of a line, a task that humans are alarmingly accurate at doing. However, a single test subject was unwittingly surrounded by other people posing as subjects, all of whom stated their answers verbally, with some or all intentionally giving wrong answers. The result was that subjects almost never gave a wrong answer when alone, but a high percentage gave wrong answers when they heard other people do so, following their lead. Presumably people fear being “wrong” in their opinions, so will follow the lead of others even when they really do not agree with the majority. The implications for political manipulation are obvious.

The implications for perfume evaluation hit home this morning when I sampled Santa Maria Novella’s Nostalgia. Every review I have read, without exception, mentions racing cars, mechanics, garages, leather, petroleum products, rubber, and all of the general grunge associated with auto mechanics and their shops, and I was looking forward to smelling all of this. However, when I sniffed my sample, I was blown away by the smell of prickly green tea and sweet, clean musks. Believe me, I was trying hard to conjure up the leather-oil-and-rubber image, but it just didn’t happen no matter how hard I tried. Yes, there are trace amounts of leather and what might be myrrh, but they’re mostly masked by the other super-strong notes.

There are two possible explanations that I can think of right away for why I didn’t smell what everyone else does. One is that many people are anosmic to the prickly green tea note (there’s some evidence for that in other reviews, by the way) and/or they’re anosmic to the sweet, fruity musks like celestolide, so what are actually minor notes come to the fore for them. The other explanation is the Asch phenomenon. If the hype put out by the manufacturer says “racing car-leather-motor oil-rubber” and at least one or two reviewers repeat this interpretation, everyone else will jump on the bandwagon for fear of deviating from the majority opinion. Now that I think of it, there’s a third explanation, which is that smells are just so ambiguous that people are intrinsically highly suggestible and can be directed in just about any way given the right pattern of guidance. If there's a picture of a car steering wheel on the bottle, that's what they'll smell. Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors.

This experience gives me new respect for those perfumers who refuse to release a list of notes, letting consumers make up their own minds about what it is they perceive.

[Nostalgia bottle photo is the stock one that appears on numerous commercial websites]


  1. That is one of the reasons why I try my best not to read reviews of something I am about to review, in order not to get influenced.
    Also, I noticed many people don't seem to smell that shrilling, pervasive, I believe, some kind of synthetic musk note that seems to be quite popular these days (for instance I can smell it in Clinique Happy & 5th Avenue and many others). And that's all I can smell, nothing else comes through.

  2. Ines, Like you, I try not to read reviews before sampling, but sometimes it's unavoidable, as in the case of Nostalgia. If possible, I write down all my notes before reading any published descriptions or reviews. Then if there are discrepancies between my perceptions and those of others (which there usually are), I often comment on them in my review.

    I know exactly what you mean by the "shrilling", loud synthetic note in Clinique Happy and many other commercial perfumes. You must be right that many people are anosmic to it, otherwise I don't understand how they can wear anything that contains it.

    I hope you're enjoying your vacation!

  3. I do not think too many people who write reviews/impressions of perfumes are afraid to deviate from the majority opinion. For almost any perfume, even iconic ones, we can find a wide range of opinions. I think that your other explanations are closer to the reality: either being highly suggestible (especially in combination with being new to Perfumeland and not rebelious enough) or being a part of the majority that can/cannot smell particular scents' elements, reviewers "smell" the same notes.

    ~ Undina ~

  4. Birgit and I did an interesting experiment where we each sent the other two unmarked samples: it was interesting because I described, identified notes, identified perfumer, and eventually even the scent (which I had never tested before), yet had a totally different experience of the fragrance than she did. She said something like, "that's not at all what I smell, but you're right!"

    So she and I smell and interpret the same notes in a totally different way! It was a lot of fun, but it was also stressful, because, as you said, I didn't want to be wrong, or to be perceived by her as not having a good "nose."

    I always knew that we sometimes experience fragrances very differently, but this experiment really drove the idea home for me. :)

  5. Undina, you're right that people are suggestible, have different degrees of sensitivity to different materials, and have different ways of describing things.

    Dee, that was an interesting experiment! The anxiety about being "wrong" is exactly what I was talking about in the original post. With enough experience, you realize that there is no "right" or "wrong, there's only every individual's unique perception and way of describing smells. Soon I'm going to write about the feedback that I've had on the samples that I sent out. It's another very good example of people having very different perceptions of the same thing.