Alyssa Harad has a passion for perfume

In her new book, Alyssa Harad describes her transformation from a mild-mannered grad student to a woman obsessed — with scent.

How would you describe the scent of your favorite flower to someone who had never smelled it? Go ahead, try it. You may find yourself borrowing language from outside the realm of scent. Are marigolds “sunny”? Lilacs “cool”? Magnolias “voluptuous”?

The language of perfume is an inexact and highly subjective science. Scent triggers very specific memories and as many descriptions as there are noses. But Alyssa Harad writes about perfume with flowering, hypnotic prose that doesn’t leave you gasping for air. In her first book, “Coming to My Senses,” she recounts her sudden intoxication by the perfume world after stumbling across a community of scent-obsessed bloggers. The 36 year-old Harad, beguiled by the descriptions that she reads online, falls under the spell of classic perfumes before even smelling them.

Perfume, she learns (and, in turn, convinces her readers), is to the nose what painting is to the eyes or music is to the ear. We spoke to Harad about her transformation from “serious, Birkenstock-wearing” grad student to woman obsessed — with scent.

Is perfume more profound or intellectual than fashion or clothing or hairstyle?

I think each of these things has their own rich and underappreciated history, and they’re all things that get dismissed because they’re super feminine. This is a typical gender politics thing where the kind of architecture that goes into a couture gown is considered to be frivolous frippery and the kind of architecture that goes into a great, big building is considered to be really important and permanent. It’s not an accident that one belongs to this kind of domestic, feminine realm and the other is a big part of the business world, a predominantly male profession.

But I will say that, for me, perfume was something that I could become obsessed with because it had such a rich interdisciplinary history. There was all this history, all these stories that I had never heard before or thought about because the profession has kept itself deliberately under the radar for thousands of years.

Why is that?

Because you didn’t want anyone else copying your perfume! Now anybody can run a perfume through a special machine that analyzes the compounds and the molecules in it and figure out what’s in it, but it used to be that if you were a king, you had a perfumer, and your job depended on being able to keep your formula secret. … Formulas were deliberately written down the wrong way, so that if anybody got ahold of them, it would be impossible to recreate the perfume, and people protected the sources of their materials so that nobody would go and buy up all the ambergris that they were going to use that year…

Amber-what?

The ambergris. There’s actually a whole book about it now called “Floating Gold.” Ambergris is one of the weirder and more famous materials in classic perfumery — we don’t really use it much now, because it’s very rare and extremely expensive. When a sperm whale eats lots of cuttlefish, which is its main diet, the beaks of the cuttlefish are indigestible and sharp. And so the whale coats them in its stomach with this material, and then it ejects the coated cuttlefish in this big mass of stuff, this big gray lump, which smells horrendous, floats in the ocean for a long time. Eventually it washes up to shore, and it’s been mellowed out by the sun and the salt and the time of its journey to the beach. And then it’s found by humans and it still smells kind of bad, but when you take a small amount of it and you tincture it and you use it in a perfume blend, it almost acts like salt does to food; it gives this kind of salty, fleshy veil to the rest of the ingredients and gives them depth and makes them glow and makes them blend together. It’s also a marvelous fixative, so in the old days, when we didn’t have synthetics to make our perfumes last longer, it was highly valued as a way to make the scents stick around.

I’m always amazed by how these materials can start in the digestive system of a whale and end up behind a wealthy woman’s ear.

For someone like me, who has thought a lot about the way that people come to value or devalue things, it’s this totally fascinating history of people being willing to interact with these disgusting animal substances in order to capture and extend these beautiful smells that they found in their gardens. That’s a lot of what it’s about. It’s about our passion for the scent in the world around us, and this is the art form that humans have created to be able to capture those smells, to be able to extend them, to riff on them, to paint portraits of them. Chanel No. 5, you can think of as the first piece of modern art, of abstract perfumery. It has a lot of jasmine and roses in it, but it’s not meant to smell like jasmine and roses. It’s meant to smell like a modern woman.

Is wearing perfume, especially when starting later/when you didn’t grow up with it, sometimes a psychological leap for women?

Oh sure, I mean we’re accustomed to thinking about pleasure in general as something that you have to earn or sneak or indulge in or steal. I think also, for our generation, we worry — I know I do — about getting too soft. We want to be smart and ambitious and working hard, and [perfume] feels like something “the pampered lady” has. It speaks to a desire to hang out in bed all day in your fluffy marabou robe and your mules –  which I, personally, think we should all have a little bit of in our lives. I’m all for it. [laughs] I’m not afraid of it anymore.

How can a perfume novice who isn’t lucky enough to have a perfume-obsessed friend find a scent that works for them?

Well, of course, now you all have a friend…in me! [laughs] So, you could start by reading the book and exploring the appendix in the back and looking at some of the blogs. But if you’re just dying to get out and start sniffing, I would go to someplace like Sephora or Nordstrom, where they are set up to make samples for you and they’re accustomed to letting you take your time and sniff.

I really can’t overemphasize how helpful it is to have a scent vocabulary. I think that we all have a private scent vocabulary that we carry around in our heads — scent memories — but we sometimes don’t even know that we have them until someone like me starts to ask you about them. And when you read people describe a scent, it spurs you to remember what you love and what you want to explore. And then once you start to have that vocabulary you can start to identify what you think you want. Now, what you think you want might not be what you really want, so that’s why it’s good to have samples — you don’t want to commit right away. I just think people should explore and enjoy themselves and enjoy the process and not worry so much about finding something right away.

In NYC:

Coming to My Senses Book Launch Party
Thursday, July 19, 7 p.m.
BookCourt, 163 Court St., Brooklyn

During the reading, guests will sip two cocktails created by perfumer Julianne Zaleta of Herbal Alchemy and inspired by perfumer Maria McElroy’s Aroma M perfumes, Geisha Blanc and Geisha Green, samples of which will be free with the first twenty books sold.


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