Scents are among the most powerful, and the most personal, sensory triggers. Because the olfactory nerve connects directly to areas of the brain that are responsible for processing memory and emotion, aromas activate our individual constellation of associations. Neil Chapman, author of the 2019 book Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent, deeply understands the connections between smells and feelings. A driven, self-taught student of fragrance and its history since childhood who describes scent as “the soundtrack of his life,” Chapman has carved out a distinct niche in the landscape of perfume writing. On his 10-year-old blog, The Black Narcissus—a captivating combination of technical and historical analysis of scents, pop cultural musings, and personal memoir—he illuminates the myriad facets of scent and its powers, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject along the way.
We recently reached Chapman at his home in Kamakura, Japan, and asked him about the factors behind his approach to writing about smell, the ingredients that make a scent a masterpiece, and perfume as a way of building connections with others.
One of the fascinating aspects of your blog is how you make perfume history accessible and engaging. Why is thinking and writing about these scents—some of which are no longer available—important to you?
I like to flit chronologically with perfume, reviewing new releases alongside classics or obscurities from bygone eras, because for me, and I think for the reader as well, it’s more stimulating that way. A lot of current mainstream perfumery is either pleasing and functional—simply a nice smell you spray on before going out to give you odor confidence. Otherwise, especially in more avant-garde, niche worlds, it’s more about performance—a provocation along the lines of, “I smell like a bonfire, or a skunk, or a bowl of popcorn” that’s sometimes just hipster weirdness for weirdness’s sake. Both modes of perfuming can be fun in many ways. But ultimately, for me, most of these products can’t compare to the carefully crafted and often superior masterpieces from perfumery’s golden age, which were years, even decades, in the making, crafted by true artists, and often bottled in incredibly beautiful flacons and elaborate packaging that made the entire process of taking the precious elixir from its box like a magic ritual.
When you take out the exquisite original Guerlain Vol de Nuit from 1933, for example, from its zebra-print velvet case, which is housed within a gold outer box, remove the glass stopper, and apply it to your skin, it is a real experience—all of the aesthetic steps leading up to the intense and very real pleasure of wearing the perfume itself—and one that is multifaceted, nonlinear, and develops gradually over time throughout its duration on the skin like a story. It’s more psychologically complex and multilayered, unlike many current fragrances, which are more about a quick flash of pizzazz at the beginning, and then bland out into something generic.
It’s nice for people to be made aware of just what is out there still, in terms of perfumed perfection, because our culture is visual, and has a far less developed olfactory appreciation. Even if a perfume comes from another era or age, it’s often less dated than you might imagine—and high-quality perfumes deteriorate far less quickly than is commonly believed. You can easily rock up to a party wearing a perfume like Narcisse Noir (1911) from Caron, and smell incredibly edgy.
Your writing style mixes memoir and reportage with more technical evaluations of scent and perfume. What draws you to this writing style? What do you think it offers your readers?
There are different approaches available for writing about fragrance. You can review or critique an olfactory composition in the way a food critic looks at gastronomy: by analyzing a particular dish’s components and proportions, and the overall effect they have on pleasure from a more objective angle for the purpose of enticing the consumer. Some of the best perfume websites give precisely what the perfume-curious are looking for in this regard: an in-depth description of the perfume’s concept and the notes used, what a scent literally smells like and how it develops on the skin, the inspirations of the perfumer who created it, what the best situations are for wearing the perfume in, and so on. Quite straightforward.
On the other hand, I am definitely a person who experiences everything very intensely in general, and find that I’m able to convey my daily life through the emotional portal of scent as it relates to me personally on a day-to-day basis, including what is going on around me in my life, specifically here in Japan, and in the world at any given time. In these more autobiographical stories, perfume is like a portal that leads to other things—real life refracted through the prism of scent. I find many people are often more drawn to these living memoir pieces—and the more vulnerable and honest, the better. Sometimes I don’t hold back in a way that is probably unfashionable, but it can be more gratifying because you can always relate to another person who is giving an honest account of how they are doing in their life.
It has obviously been quite a difficult few years for so many, and while some people want escapism into beauty, they also want to connect with others through shared opinions on perfumes but also on politics, war, and everything else. Sometimes The Black Narcissus is more like a counseling or mutual support group of very interesting, intuitive perfume lovers who often say that, because it is like a safe space of like-minded people who can discuss a wide variety of topics, they find it something of a refuge or haven.
What draws you to a particular perfume? How do you decide what to add to your collection?
I was into perfume from a very young age, so the perfumes I have lived through personally I perhaps have an encyclopedic knowledge of, to a certain extent. But in recent years, no one on earth could possibly keep abreast of every fragrance release out there, as there have just been so many. You could put a room full of perfumistas together now, and they could all be spouting off about things that only they know. It is that overwhelming.
What draws me to a particular perfume is when there’s something about it I can’t entirely grasp. I tend to go for the enigmatic and the unobvious. At the same time, I also like simple beauty. So if something contains the ingredients and templates I tend to go for—white floral, vetiver, vanillic powder, a good citrus —I either receive it in the post and am very happy, or I seek it out and buy it.
In terms of vintage finds, I usually can’t resist old classics in no-longer-available, visually stimulating boxes. You can't beat it. L'Air du Temps, for example—the perfume of Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, which Hannibal Lecter detects on her and mocks when she visits him in his jail cell—is a musky, old-fashioned, carnation-crisp spiced aldehyde that is truly beautiful, but smells ridiculous on me. And yet, it’s one of the most successful perfumes in all history. Therefore, if I find a specimen that I think might be pristine, I can’t resist adding it to the hall of chambers.
What do you think engaging with scents can teach us?
That the sense of smell is massively undervalued. We smell things, but cannot classify them in the way we can the stimuli for the other senses. So in some ways a lot of people are almost afraid of smell.
By developing an appreciation for how perfume works, how it mingles with human skin, and the incredible effects it can have on other people, you become more attuned to them as a whole. This generates empathy and “skinship” between you and them. For me, it’s a real gift that someone can be so associated with, and encapsulated in a scent, that in some ways, they can live forever.
Walking through a museum, you’ll likely consume most artworks using your eyes. Enjoying the output of olfactory artist Maki Ueda, who uses scent as her primary medium, however, requires your nose—and sometimes takes place in spaces with no visual
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Sweaty running clothes. The litter box. That odd funk emanating from the back of the fridge. Unpleasant scents can transMoso Natural, a line of odor-eliminating linen bags filled with an unexpected ingredient: bamboo. The California-based brand is name
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From its over-reliance on packaging to its use of harmful chemicals, the beauty industry is long overdue for a rethink o
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The poster child for the gray-skyed Pacific Northwest, Portland is perhaps America’s most book-loving city. Reading is a
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Six decades ago, researchers at 3M and the NCR Corporation were looking for a more effective way of trapping ink inside functioned with scented oils that, when scratched, burst open, emitting their distinctive smells. The technique has since been used on stickers, stamps, and perfume-peddling magazine inserts. John Waters incorporated it into his 1981 film Polyester, when he distributed large cards that featured ten circular patches, laced with scents such as skunk and old shoes, forwine and whiskey, helps readers understand flavor through the scents of its aromatic pages, while co-authors Seth Matlins and Eve EpsteiThe Scratch and Sniff Book of Weed. Other titles employ the strategy in more subtle ways. Scent in Context, a deep dive into the work of Belgian olfactory artist Peter De Cupere, disperses hidden scratch-and-sniff odors among a journal from the California publisher Knock Knock that pairs scented stickers with writing prompts—a clever way to stimulate users’ emotions, creativity, and memory.
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“Perfume has a wonderful ability to immerse people directly inside of a world,” says David Moltz, the self-taught perfum To be parked on various blocks throughout New York City, with on-the-fly location updates posted to the brand’s social mD.S. & Durga Fume Truck will soon hit the streets. In a city known for its not-so-glamorous sidewalk odors, this is one experiment we’re eager
Smell is a highly individualized sense: The same odor or olfactory stimulus can trigger common, though not identical, reA recent study published in the science journal Nature suggests that our diverse experiences with scent have to do with how they are encoded in the brain. “All of us share a told The Harvard Gazette. “You and I both think lemon and lime smell similar and agree that they smell different from pizza, but until now, we d
Our sense of smell can cast mysteriously large impressions onto our memories—and it’s all by nature’s design. The olfactAccording to Harvard biology professor Venkatesh Murthy, olfactory signals even color other senses, notably taste. Molecules from food “make their way back retro-nasally to yo
“Our sense of smell is entirely shaped by cultural phenomena arising as a result of specific historical processes,” RobeSmells: A Cultural History of Odors in Early Modern Times (Polity). The French historian and professor—who has previously written books on subjects including the devil, violence
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Early August marks the start of planting season for celery. Picked in fall and early winter, it makes for a sweet and crcleansing benefits, or an easy snack on its own—though the scent of celery, curiously, is always much stronger than its taste. As a scent,
What does our sense of smell have to do with philosophy? In her new book, Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind (Harvard University Press), cognitive scientist and sense historian Ann-Sophie Barwich delves into the perceptual dimen
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Short of a vaccine, masks and social distancing measures are here to stay, for the foreseeable future, anyway—and your nmicrobiological auras” were once normally exposed to, in actively out-and-about, pre-pandemic times. Our bodies, hosts to a community of micr
Holiday weekend or not, summertime means grilling time. A waft of burning hickory or charcoal from a smoky barbecue grilonce explained to The Independent, “Most of the flavor of smoke is smell.” Because scent is processed through the limbic system, the sensation also persi
With the summer season come longer days, more time spent outdoors under the sun—and, unfortunately, all of the attendant the arrival of murder hornets to fear, of course (as if this year hadn’t offered enough unwelcome surprises), and store-bought repellants are often l
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April showers bring May flowers, as the age-old saying goes—and with both comes the scent of freshly dampened soil that New Atlas, geosmin is produced by certain bacteria from the genus Streptomyces as a way to attract a specific arthropod, called a springtail, which helps spread its spores. Researchers suggest that ta hand soap and a hand-sanitizer spray (the candle option, sadly, is sold out, at least for the moment), offers a close-to-the-real-thing alternative in a bot
Breu resin, a shiny, white sap extracted from the almécega tree found in the Amazon rain forests, as well as from various reBreuzinho is used to enhance focus and attain peace of mind, and is scientifically shown to have various medicinal properties as breu incense from the Brooklyn-based company Incausa, in stick form, coated in resin and sprinkled with chips of palo santo; as well as in its more natural, raw form, as a hunk of solid oleoresin from Costa Brazil, fashion designer Francisco Costa’s beauty brand, which pairs it with a ceramic tray. To enjoy the ar