The Limits of the Fragrance Wheel

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For visual diagrams, we have traditionally relied on two dimensional forms. Diagrams aren’t direct visual translations, but representations, devices. They are models, and however rudimentary, they are intellectual constructs. They have rules and seek to reduce an object or restrict a concept to a set of identifiers. Diagrams can’t quite be said to have an intention, but by the nature of their rules, they have implicit goals.

Much of the trouble with the wheel, and the genres of fragrance that we discuss, is their premise that ‘notes’ are a mirror reflection of materials. The implication is that a rose note signifies the scent of a rose. Rose is the principal value, the constant and the other materials refer to it. Damascenones and ionones are chemically similar members of a family of aromachemicals but don’t strictly smell alike. Where the chemical system of classification groups them together, the wheel would not. Is only one accurate? If you and I sniff a perfume together and you say that it has a rose note and I say otherwise, is either of us correct? Geranium, palmarosa, rose oxides and damascones all smell rosy. So where does the note lie?

In addition, notes are considered objects rather than experiences. Objectifying a note traps it and limits the possibilities. Take three notes, imagine them as three stones placed on a table. You can place them in many different configurations. You could even place them on different tables so as to suggest three dimensions. But you’re never merging the stones, or putting two or three together to make an entirely new object.

Replace the three stones with three aromatic substances: bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum. In separate containers, they adhere to the ‘stone-model’, remaining apart like objects. Combine the three into one bottle, and all bets are off.  The chypre isn’t simply three things. It isn’t even three things together. The “chypre” is the effect created when three specific things interact. You’ve reached a limit of the ‘object’ model. It doesn’t allow for the interaction of mixing and therefore excludes the outcome of synergy.

One inherent problem with the wheel is that it posits that aromas are experienced like colors in the spectrum of light. The ‘geography’ of the wheel says that notes blend into each other the way light moves along frequencies. It doesn’t account for the fact that fragrant materials follow a chemical-sense model like taste, where some chemically dissimilar materials are perceived as having similar tastes/scents.

The greater problem of the wheel is its relationship of notes to materials. It works with a notion of ‘nature’ that belongs in the 19th century. It supposes a perfumery of mimicry that was sufficient for perfumes that used ethyl-vanillin in lieu of vanilla bean essence and synthesized coumarin by chemical process rather than harvesting it from fermented tonka beans. These chemical were still tethered, albeit tentatively, to a supposition of an essential, irrefutable “nature” as found in botanical and animal-derived materials. The cracks in this ‘natural world’ view of scent were apparent by the time Fougère Royale and Jicky were made, but the fallacy of perfume recreating nature has been recycled over and over in perfumery. A current iteration would be the more naive styles of natural perfumery that work from the premise that synthetic materials are intrinsically bad. This is not to say that botanically-based perfumery is either simplistic or mistaken. There are many artistically deliberate and/or ethics-based perfumers who do sophisticated work.

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This diagram was created by the industry, for the industry. I question its accuracy for perfume producers, but it is their model. Its aim, its implicit goal is to identify scents and pin them down by establishing groups (families) that link them. I imagine there is research that provides evidence of the efficacy of what it does. In fact, it could be argued that it is a viable attempt to help communicate our interactive experience of the olfactory. Still it doesn’t offer the perfume consumer much help in the discussion and supports notes-based marketing that places ‘floral’ and ‘rose’ next to ‘sea-glass’ and ‘serenity’. My experience of perfume has never been found inside a one-size-fits-all diagram and Michael Edwards’s Wheel doesn’t do much to square the circle.

So what do we do with these models? I don’t have an answer for how we use them to communicate, but I do have a working model for myself. I employ them when they’re effective, I disregard them when they’re not, and I look closely to see why they don’t work. Then I try to learn from what I find.

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