One of the paradoxes of perfumery is that to create a good smell, you need a bit of funk. A strawberry accord won’t smell convincing without a sulphurous accent. Recreating a dewy white blossom requires the same substances that are present in horse sweat. There is even a space in every perfume lab devoted to materials with strong, reeking odours, and it’s appropriately called “the stinky room”. Next to the roses and vanillas in a perfumer’s palette, notes reminiscent of dirty hair, musty fur, burnt toast or decaying fruit have their place of honour – costus, musks, civet, pyrazines and many other pungent ingredients. They may be used in small quantities, but they’re important enhancers, giving vibrancy, texture and spice to an otherwise conventional fragrance.
Traditionally, the raunchy notes in classical perfumery were of animalic origin — musk, civet and ambergris. Today they have been replaced by their synthetic analogues, but they play the same role, warming up a composition and giving it a lush character. Chanel No 5 (£79 for 100ml EDT) wouldn’t be the marvel that it is without a cocktail of musk that lingers under the layer of champagne-like aldehydes, rose and jasmine. In Hermès’ Calèche (£101 for 100ml EDT, fifth and sixth pictures), a whisper of sun-warmed skin keeps this refined blend from becoming icy and aloof. Even more unexpected is Cartier Déclaration (£72 for 100ml EDT, second picture), a citrus cologne with a shot of cumin and cardamom, a spice with a distinctly sweaty odour. For a proper bombshell you might have turned to Schiaparelli Shocking (£50 for 100ml EDP), which transforms musk, honey and civet into a symphony of ripeness.
Why do we enjoy such smells? Déclaration, for instance, has been a success since its release in 1998, and Shocking is included in the pantheon of perfume legends. One of the reasons is that living things are rarely well scrubbed and sterile, and a hint of something pungent reminds us of our own humanity. Such effects are as memorable as they are seductive, because our sensory perceptions are complex and like being stimulated. It’s the same reason why some people enjoy ripe camembert, aged steak and dark chocolate — we like to be jolted out of our comfort zone.
In addition, some pungency may not just be pleasing, but also necessary. White flowers like jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom contain indole, a compound that in its pure state smells of mothballs. Any attempt to make a gardenia or tuberose scent without even a modicum of indole will be dull and flat. Ormonde Jayne Sampaquita (£90 for 50ml EDP, seventh picture), Annick Goutal Songes (£87 for 100ml EDT, third picture) and Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower (€165 for 50ml EDT, fourth picture) use indoles judiciously to evoke the scent of white blossoms and a texture of soft petals covered with pollen.
A perfumer’s genius lies in the careful balance of ingredients and an understanding of which combinations will produce the desired sensation and touch the wearer on an emotional level. So, if your fantasy is for the jasmine-festooned gardens of the Alhambra, you might have to get there by way of a mothball.