The dichotomy of taste

Since fairly recently I have embarked on a journey of fragrance dégustation, so much so that I bought my very first fragrance and then became somewhat of a snob in this discipline. To me, this had come about as a rather pleasant surprise, and an interesting turn of event too. I was one to scoff at people who would spend two digits, if not three, on tiny bottles of synthetic scents, especially when they perish so rapidly that one could argue natural body scent would be more utilitarian—that is, if one does not reek of course. Now, it was my turn to spend the premium price on those liquids bottled with extravagance, and people who resemble my old self may very well scoff at me.

At first, I thought my obsession with fragrance was just pure happenstance, but this explanation does not seem to hold up under scrutiny. First, I have known people who wear fragrances long before and I was not intrigued whatsoever, so now suddenly being immensely interested seems least likely in timing. Second, happenstance in this case has an air of incredulity since it can explain almost everything and at the same time nothing. Stamp collection could have happened upon me, wine tasting could have happened upon me; the point is, everything and anything could have happened upon me, and yet, it was fragrance.

It was not until when I started to look at fragrance as a “taste” with a pinch of happenstance that I had a more plausible explanation for my most recent fascination.

I remember going to the parfumerie and dazed by the sheer multitude of fragrances. With a bundle of test strips in my hand, I went through shelf after shelf after shelf of fragrances with my eyes closed, forcing my nose to discern the minute differences between them. It was then I discovered that certain scents would evoke certain mental images; I was on the beach, I was by the fireplace, I was in a vintage racing car, I was in the forest, I was on a snowy mountain, I was in a greenhouse, I was in the desert, I was on the morning tram to work. This realization that fragrance—strictly speaking an olfactory stimulant—had so much suggestive spatial undertone packed within clearly indicates that “taste” is almost inevitably involved.

Some fragrances are made to resemble the scents found in nature: Bvlgari Aqva, Giorgio Armani Cèdre, Dior Fahrenheit, Tom Ford Oud Tobacco, Tom Ford Café Rose, the list goes on. I like this type of fragrance simply because they are nature in a bottle; however, it is the other fragrances that resemble no apparent natural phenomenon that bug me—I did not know why I liked one over the other.

People wear fragrances, which begs the question: Does one develop their liking toward a certain fragrance because of the person who wears it, or does one like it purely for the way it smells? I tend to believe it is the former, at least for myself. Those mental images, déjà vu(or are they déjà senti ?), certainly do not present themselves out of nowhere.

I reckon fragrance is an acquired taste, since so many scents are mass appealing and similar to the uninitiated, developing a personal preference would be just as probable as picking one’s favorite wine (unless of course one is French, in which case they are born with divine taste buds). In the past when I smelt fragrances in department stores or in long queues or on a crammed bus, I could not, for the most part, distinguish one scent from another. They just smelt nice and I did not pay much attention after the initial whiffs. The idea that fragrances are season-specific and target-specific and occasion-specific never crossed my mind while I had been consciously indifferent to their nuances, which when appreciated, open up a whole new world of sensation.

I became infatuated with fragrance the same way I am with my existing infatuations: Variations precede personal taste, which then sets myself apart from others—for better or worse. With years of immersion in the things I like, I have come to develop an odd taste in music, movies and books; however, with fragrances, I do not yet have a personal taste while so many different scent signatures are stacked against me, waiting to be explored.

If all music sounded the same (or if I was tone-deaf), then I would have very little reason to browse through iTunes for songs that stand out; if fact, I wouldn’t be subscribed to iTunes in the first place in such a hypothetical case. Retracing this logic, I had been anosmic to fragrance until I didn’t, which is analogous to a tone-deaf person suddenly regaining their perception of pitch for the very first time. Imagine that person becoming ecstatic to the new-found possibilities of great music, just as I have become quite engrossed in fragrance.

What is a good fragrance? Subjectively speaking, I guess the question is as vacuous as asking what constitute a good piece of music. I may not like the most celebrated music, and others may consider my cup of tea noise. Like the saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so do I think “Fragrance is in the nose of the smeller”. However, the dichotomy of taste also dictates there exists, to some extent, an objective standard for the appreciation of anything—fragrance included. Many of the best-selling fragrances across time contain similar notes, which are simply mass appealing; outside synthetic fragrances, people naturally gravitate toward the smell of the field after rain, the freshly cut grass, the newly baked bread…… Though hard to pinpoint the common denominator among these pleasing notes, which is especially true if we include the peculiar smell of gasoline to few, their mere existence and consistency suggest there must be a number of objective criteria based on which we critique scents.

Which division of the dichotomy is it then, the duality of objectivity and subjectivity? What is a good fragrance and, what is a good fragrance for me? I find myself asking the same set of questions when I forayed into music, films, books, hell, even fashion style.

A good fragrance? I don’t know. A good fragrance for me? Tom Ford Café Rose, and I do not mind what opinions others may have on it, because for me, it is the best fragrance. It is the dichotomy of taste that bestows upon me the authority, for myself, to declare the best of anything.

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