"An Alternative Approach To Describing Perfume"

In a recent post, a fellow fragrance blogger named Sigrun asked if she could talk a little about my Scent Prisms on her blog, Riktig Parfym. She describes the prisms as "An alternative approach to describing perfume," and I couldn't have said it better myself - the use of colors on a spectrum to convey notes and impressions is quite an alternative to the norm, which is generally limited to written and verbal descriptions. Is my method anything other than superfluous? I like to think so, but I believe that using my Scent Prisms leaves some people a little confused, because deciphering each color strip, its placement on a scent's "color bar," and the hardness or softness of its edges requires a significant initial comprehension of the visual language I'm using.

Sigrun seemed to wonder whether these Scent Prisms are painted, or digital. Painting them would be a fine way to go about creating them, but it is very time consuming. To create this alternative approach to verbal descriptions, simply jump into Photoshop and create rectangular selections on a blank canvas. Then, using the brush tool, swipe across the selection with whatever color you've chosen from the palette. Some of my prisms have color keys on them; other comparisons are simply self-guided. It doesn't matter if your prisms have straight color strips, or if they're vertical or horizontal. Whatever works for you.

Describing perfume, and even just understanding perfume, is a sophisticated endeavor. There is really no fast track or easy-street here. I've read some fragrance bloggers over the years who are quite content with literal note descriptions, and others who resort to more Turin-esque narrations that deviate from addressing notes and accords altogether. Either way is correct and incorrect in equal measure. For some, the literal approach works best. For others, abstract expositions on culture and life fit better. Still others are not interested in reading or listening at all, and wish only to smell for themselves. A sizable number of us are visual people, the kind of folks who appreciate color systems like the H&R Genealogie charts, and perhaps something like a Scent Prism.

I've never been one to really believe in "newbies" or "aficionados" in the perfume world. When we segregate people by their supposed experience, a tricky kind of relativism creeps into the dialogue. People who are new to the interest of fragrance may not have the vocabulary or the frames of reference to describe what they smell, but the fact that they are interested automatically positions them to better comprehend odors. Their noses have been smelling and processing olfactory information from the day they were born, just like everyone else's. What separates them from more veteran sniffers is only their ability to notice the inherent subtleties of certain odors, and to ascribe words and labels to their experience of smelling them. As Avery Gilbert once pointed out, human beings possess a sense of smell that can rival that of drug-sniffing police dogs, and we don't even realize it. The fact that dogs are more likely to want to ferret out strange odors than a person would be gets rationalized as the idea that dogs must do the sniffing because their noses are better. Those who believe in the default existence of inferior and superior human noses carry this sort of bad logic around with them when they approach the community as something divided into "newbies" and "aficionados."

"Aficionados" have vocabulary and labeling at their disposal, but often lack objectivity (too much internalized experience), because they're jaded, or they feel they've smelled it all already (just another angle on jaded). Their understanding is limited to what they think they know, rather than what they really know. What separates them from "newbies" is enjoyment of fragrance. Things that may once have intrigued them now disappoint and bore them. But in terms of knowledge and cognition, they are identical to their more enthusiastic "newbie" brethren.

My goal in using Scent Prisms is to bridge the divide between the fragrance newcomer and his experienced "aficionado" neighbor by providing something everyone can grasp on their own terms: a visual cue. Some of us feel that Monday is red, while Friday is blue. Others believe Monday is blue, Friday is red, and the weekends are black holes. Individual perspectives need a universal language, and color is a language of association; some may not align perfumes to the same colors I do, but they can at least recognize color palettes as something they can customize for themselves. If rose smells red to you, fine. My use of pink and red speaks to you. If rose is green to you instead, then congratulations! By disagreeing with me and seeing the smell in your own color, you have picked up my Scent Prism language in a few seconds flat, and can now proceed with your own dialect, to be read and interpreted by others in similar fashion.


  1. As someone who struggles to know what the heck I am smelling, never mind find any form of language to describe it - literal, cultural, colourful or otherwise - I was very interested to read your post on the subject of conveying scent impressions. I do find I relate to perfumes quite strongly in textural terms at least - fuggy, scratchy, muzzy, silken etc. And Monday (in my colour coded 'to do list' marker pen schema) would indeed be red, but my pen is pink, then Tuesday is yellow, Wednesday green, Thursday blue, and Friday should be orange but I haven't got a pen remotely that colour.

    1. I also experience textural associations with perfume. "scratchy" and "smooth" are two terms I use frequently. But I think I also make color associations to many things in life - like the days of the week - in much the same way you do, although I'm not nearly as organized as to label them with pens! I've always felt Monday is reddish pink, Tuesday ivory with hints of slate grey, Wednesday pale amber, Thursday mauve, and Friday royal blue.


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