Take A Deep Breath … And Read This New Book About The Science Of Scent

BARNEY SHAW’s book looks at the history, biology and PSYCHOLOGY OF SMELL, and how to CREATE A LANGUAGE for it …


Trying out new perfume launches and meeting the perfumers who are capturing the zeitgeist in a bottle is one of the great perks of working in beauty. A spritz of something in the office causes immediate reactions: we have to ban some perfumes from the room as they’re so overpowering, while others draw you in like a magnet – Jo Loves’ Pomelo, for one, and more recently Lola James Harper’s 27, a gorgeous light iris (available online at www.colette.fr). Our reactions are instantaneous, and yet we find it hard to explain what it is we like about a certain smell. Shining a bit of light on the subject is Barney Shaw’s new book, The Smell of Fresh Rain, which looks at the history, biology and psychology of smell, and how to create a language for it. We spoke to him about his journey of exploration into scent ….


The most surprising thing I learnt while researching this book was to discover that smells are full of meanings – of personal memories, of social clues, of places we have been, of cross-references from smell to smell.

On getting our noses in training … Most of us think we have a poor sense of smell, but we don’t. We have a subtle sense of smell that gives us instant information with every breath. The problem is that we usually only have one breath to interpret a smell. There are two tricks for giving yourself more time. First, don’t try for instant recognition; try instead to think what varied layers there are in an aroma. So, don’t just think ‘coffee’; think smokiness and nuttiness and vanilla and roasting. Second, third or fourth short sharp sniffs, with gaps in between to clear your head, gives your brain more chances to spot the complexity of an aroma, the memories and references it evokes.

On looking for a “story” when you buy a perfume … Inside the brain, our sense of smell is wired in to emotion and to long term memory. It’s no surprise therefore that this is the most evocative and emotional of our senses. The strange thing is that the connection between smell and emotion goes both ways – you perceive fishy smells and so you become suspicious; you are a naturally suspicious person, so you are sensitive to fishy smells.

On the fashion for “gourmand” or edible scents … Why just gourmand smells? What about all the delightful smells of the natural world – mown grass, fresh cut timber, babies, woodsmoke, seaside, fresh rain in summer, and so on. The list is almost infinite, and our noses, which seem so dumb, are really brilliant at distinguishing between smells.

On steering clear … I am very suspicious of perfumes that blare at me. It’s as if the wearer were trying to warn us off. We use smell naturally as one clue to a suitable mate, but it is the natural smell of people that attracts, not the artificial. Perfumes ought to enhance nature, not give a synthetic experience.

On the connection between fashion and scent … Two millennia ago, scent was a matter of religion; the gods were invoked through incense and perfumes. One millennium ago, scent was a medical matter, a way of staving off disease or a carrier of disease. Only in the last century has scent become a matter of personal display, and of creative playfulness as perfumers have made use of a huge palette of synthetic molecules.

On scent preferences … We are born with no smell preferences, and no one teaches us about smell. We acquire our smell preferences from personal experience from birth onwards. So there are huge cultural differences. Some cattle-rearing tribes in Africa think cow dung is the most delightful smell. Japanese people, on the other hand, think that Europeans stink of butter. My own smell preferences include many childhood things that have now disappeared – coal smoke, drying apples, my father’s pipe, the vinegar that my mother used to wash her hair, model airplane paint. Children today will also have fond memories of smells that are current now but will be extinct when they grow old.

Required reading … Ulysses by James Joyce is brilliant on smells. He is a rare writer for capturing smells in words, and you will find the smells of a Dublin pub, of frying kidneys, of soap, of horses, of Leopold Bloom’s waistcoat in Ulysses.

The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw, published September 7 by Icon Books.

Sarah Halliwell

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