Septimus Piesse

I've been dragged without prior consent into one of those stilly twitter wars. With a non-scentie, of all folks. I realize this is part of the aftermath of being on national radio, and if you are doing something unusual, there has to be someone out there that is out to get you and direct all sorts of life frustrations towards you without you even triggering anything intentionally.

Consequentially, this turned into an opportunity to educate people about the sense of smell, and break some ridiculous myths that so many uneducated people who either look down at this sense, or erase an entire realm of experiences from their life simply by ignoring this sense. My frustration with this attitude is not new to the perfumer. Here is a quote from Piesse's book, originally published in 1857:

"Of the five sense, that of SMELLING has been treated with comparative indifference. However, as knowledge progresses, the various faculties with which the Creator has thought proper in his wisdom to endow man will become developed, and the faculty of Smelling will meet with its share of tuition as well as Sight, Hearing, Touch and Taste" (G. W. Septimus Piesse, "“The Art of Perfumery”).

Some of the statements and assumptions that came up in that weird twitter dialog:
1) That all perfumes cause "allergic reaction" - which is not actually true. Just because you have a reaction, does not mean it's an "allergy". Sneezing does indicate allergy. Headaches, however, do not. Even respiratory symptoms that sometimes people experience are often emotionally induced. I  truly only wish there was more research done on that. But because perfumes are made from such a vast array of substances, it has become a common practice to just give those reactions an umbrella name such as "allergies" because no one can argue with you when you return something to the store (or the kitchen) claiming it gave you an allergic reaction. Saying that you "didn't like it", however, may not reap the desired results (full refund, or a new dish made for you). The most commonly reported reaction is headaches - which is not an allergic reaction at all, but technically a stress response of the body. If you're overwhelmed by a scent (either because of overdose in your environment, or because you have a negative association with smells in general or a particular scent in particular) -  your scalp muscles may tense up, which in turn creates a headache. That's how most headaches occur - sometimes because of direct life tensions (work deadline, fighting at home, or subconscious tensions that we're not aware of their origin - which is most likely what scent triggers in some people). Migraines are a different thing, but still have more to do with the nervous system rather than anything to do with autoimmune (which is essentially what allergic reactions are). And a lot of people call a very strong headache "migraine" even when it is not.

2) Speaking of negative reaction to scents, tension and psychology: I long argued that the "allergic" claims of antiscenties has more to do with a Pavlovian reaction to smell, rather than the smell itself. If someone is programmed to feel that perfume is dangerous (either by coincidence, i.e.: if they had a negative experience associated with perfume overload; or a stimuli-and-reaction-association with a particular scent tied to a negative emotion) - they will understandably react negatively to perfume - either to particular ones, or in general.  I've mentioned this here in the past, if you want to read more about it. There is even scientific work finally published about the topic (and I hope more will come). I will be also particularly curious to see some somatic healing work done using scents as a tool to overcome trauma. Not just as traditional aromatherapy, using the healing properties and pleasant smells of essential oils, but also going deeper into why someone reacts so negatively to a certain perfumes (or essential oils). Uncoupling those stimuli from the negative outcome (headache, anxiety, etc.) would be a particularly freeing experience for people whose origin for smell-suffering is emotional, and just like in healing traumas in other modalities - can have an incredibly positive effect on many other areas of their life.

3) That perfumes were developed to mask body odour. Now, the concept of body odour as a negative thing is actually a rather new and culturally dependent - mostly Western in nature. Perfume began with burning incense, used in both healing and spiritual practices (the shamans knew all along that the body, mind, spirit and soul are one and operate together), and were utilized in many ways to create a bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. And even the first alcohol-based perfumes in Europe (which the complaining twitterer was maybe referring to, although I doubt they are educated enough on the subject to really know) - although functioned as an ancillary product (instead of bathing) were the cure-all Aqua Mirabillis. They were not only designed for disinfectant/hygienic purposes, but also for healing and tonic taken internally.

4) Questioning my personality and/or morality, because I dared asking that person what smells in real life they like (still waiting for an answer). I think that shows more about the lack of listening/reading skills of that commenter, and also their extreme, automatic bias to the topic. The pattern of thinking here is an illogical series of assumptions: "perfume is bad" and "perfume has a smell", therefore "smell equal perfume", and the conclusion is "anything that has a smell is bad". By "bad" they mean unhealthy, toxic, allergy inducing, unsafe, etc. All of which is putting a very big generic conclusion on a vast number of substances that have different origins, behave differently and have different effect on people, both emotionally, mentally and physically.

Selective Anosmia

The winter holiday season is fast approaching, and that means a lot of holiday markets for me; which in return means unexpected interactions with random market-goers. This can sometimes mean meeting a very surprising perfume-lover that I would never guess are remotely interested in scent - construction workers or lady truck drivers, for example. Or a stay-at-home mom who used to have a fine-tuned nose until she got a very bad sinus infection and lost her sense of smell for a few years. It was actually around Christmas time, and as she was picking a tree, she finally noticed the smell and cried with delight: "I can smell the spruce! I can smell it!". Everyone were of course weirded out by what we mostly take for granted - but for her she was finally able to enjoy food again (and not over-eat), she stopped putting too much garlic in the dishes she made and became all around a happier person.

But touching stories such as this are more of a rarity. More often than never, market-goers simply glance at my booth in polite amusement, and the moment they are offered to come closer to experience the scents, they would mostly decline. "I can't wear scent to work" is one of the most common reactions (then wear it when you don't work! I feel the urge to reply, but don't...); or "I'm allergic to perfume" is the more common reply. How do these allergies manifest is a totally different question, and more often than never you discover that they are allergic to food, not perfume. But the excuse is convenient. Other times, market-goers are more honest: "I'm not interested in scent whatsoever" is a reaction I heard last week at Porotbello West. Whoa! You are simply going to wipe out an entire sense? Seriously?!

That's what I would call "Selective Anosmia". You're choosing to be blind.  Or deaf, for that matter. You're blocking out an entire aspect of your life simply because...? Well, in that case, please don't ruin it to the rest of us mortals who like to stop and smell the roses, and enjoy a dab of perfume from time to time. Please don't ruin my world just because you don't care about it. Let's just go our separate ways, and I will wear my perfumes, and you will just choose not to smell them. Then we can all live happily ever after and I might even be able to make a living out of what I love, because "selective anosmiacs" like you won't be aggressively advocating for scent-free world and forcing everyone else to go by their scentless rules. Amen.

Changing the World, One Nose At A Time

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a lady who is what most perfumistas call a "perfume hater". Her email passionately inquired how can I live with myself being part of an industry so full of toxic, carcinogenic chemicals that threat the well-being of humans and the environment.

As I try to do with all correspondence that lands on desk, I answered her questions patiently and with the least judgment possible for her point of view, trying to educate without being to prissy and preachy... That seemed to be the right thing to do, because about a week later, she took the plunge and against her common sense, she bought perfume - a sample package to share with her friends and family - to make up for lost olfactory time so to speak... Not only that, she even posted about it on her anti-perfume blog, titled You Stink!

Today, I received another email from her, with a link to her review of Rebellius - the one perfume that won her heart from the selection of samples she tried, and I have to say, there couldn't be a better way to start this new year of perfume, with new hopes that perfume will gain better reputation even among its "enemies".
Back to the top