Last week, nested in a gray winter apartment as half my Instagram feed collectively convalesced, I found myself charmed by Harold McGee. Back in December of 2020, the wizard science writer appeared on the video podcast Modern Wisdom to talk about his latest book, Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells. McGee, beamed in from his home in San Francisco, had the look of a kindly sage, with a close-cropped gray beard and white AirPods. He delighted in strange phenomena, be it John Waters’s Odorama scratch-and-sniff cards for the 1981 film Polyester (embedded with whiffs of skunk and dirty shoes) or a perfumer-favorite note called petrichor (the smell of rain hitting stone). But it was his description of olfaction, as distinct from other senses, that got my attention. “It’s really intimate: That receptor in the nose that’s detecting what’s out there, in order to make its report to the brain, actually binds to the molecule, grabs onto it,” said McGee, with a genial sense of awe. “So for a moment, a split second, that thing that you’re smelling is part of you.” The host, Chris Williamson, immediately pointed out the downside of an unsavory match—a consequence, perhaps, of his experience as a onetime Love Island contestant. But to me, it sounded like chemical romance.
It has been a strange couple years for scent, and for attraction. The pandemic has upended the usual rhythms around fragrance: the date-night spritz, the misted cloud before a work day; the heady little vial packed along for vacation. Mask-wearing muffles the chance encounters with someone else’s doused cologne: waxy tuberose at the opera, department-store lumberjack on the train. And a virus known to impair one’s sense of smell has notably gotten in the way. According to a study published in November, olfactory dysfunction has been shown to linger beyond six months for an estimated 700,000 to 1.6 million people, if not more. It’s far from a trivial matter, as the authors point out. That loss, known as anosmia, has been connected to quality of life, safety around spoiled foods and noxious fumes, and the creeping onset of depression. The tandem pleasure of eating is also at stake. As the New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Raowrote last January of her bout with COVID-19, “Cutting up garlic and ginger was like working in a toy kitchen—as if everything was plastic and had to go back in the box when I was done.”
Is it a stretch to imagine that a disrupted sense of smell might hamper earthly appetites as well? The late psychologist Piet Vroon, whose book Smell: The Secret Seducer was first published in Dutch in 1994, described a “naso-genital alliance” present in mammalian species—a network of nerves and neurotransmitters that link nether and nose. (The book also quotes Zola on the matter: “With the aid of a piece of musk she abandons herself to forbidden delights. She is in the habit of surreptitiously sniffing it. She drugs herself with it until orgiastic convulsions overwhelm her.” Hyperbole the perfume industry could only wish for.) A study published last year, which involved older adults, found that a diminished sense of smell is associated with tamped-down sexual motivation and emotional satisfaction. Without the eyes-closed thrill of ripe skin against your face, an intimate experience edges toward make-believe, like a Barbie doll romp with smoothed-over loins.
But in truth, you don’t need a mucked-up sense of smell to experience stagnation—alone or in ever-present company. You’re unlikely to bury your nose in a lover’s perfume-tinged scarf (or armpit) if you’ve eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner with her. This flattening of the sensory landscape might add to a feeling of monotony, a dullness of desire. As McGee pointed out in the interview, his nose doesn’t prick to the surrounding smells in his home. “The brain has kind of tuned them out because it’s a constant,” he said. What intrigues him about the olfactory sense is its episodic nature: Unlike the eyes and ears, awash in a constant stream of pixels and podcast drones, the nasal receptors perk up only when something summons our attention—often to striking effect. “The way the brain is wired, the sense of smell goes much more directly to the emotional centers,” McGee said, referring to a more primitive, hard-coded pathway. Whatever the feeling—revulsion or allure or the serene calm of a woodsy candle—it arrives in an instant.
This past September, standing in the sun-dappled courtyard of Les Fontaines Parfumées—what Louis Vuitton calls its laboratory for scent creation, in the French Riviera town of Grasse—perfumer Jacques Cavallier Belletrud acknowledged his good fortune amid a wave of return-to-cubicle ambivalence. “I must say, I have the most beautiful office in the world,” he remarked, his salt-and-pepper hair ruffling in the breeze. Nearby, a potted calamondin tree flashed its golf ball–size ornaments; a mature fig shaded the far side of the terrace. Jasmine bloomed in tidy rows along the hillside, a quick jog of steps below. Belletrud, wearing white LV cross trainers and a black suit, carried off the mix of polish and sensible ease you’d expect from the master nose of a fancy-monogram luxury house, whose fragrance portfolio he has shepherded since its relaunch in 2016. Morning walks might take him past cedar trees or lily of the valley, layered with windborne marine notes by way of Cannes—catnip for a third-generation perfumer. “I wanted an inspiration garden,” he said.
Spell on You, his latest marquee women’s scent, has an unsubtle name that calls to mind a witch’s brew of aphrodisiacs, heavy and animalic. But Cavallier Belletrud took a different tack. “I try to avoid caricature. I try to avoid what is too evident,” he explained, sitting down for mid-afternoon dessert in the garden. Instead of borrowing from the scentscape of, say, Courbet, he leaned powdery and delicate. Orris, the prized iris root used to perfume Catherine de Medici’s gloves, lends a dusky grandeur; there are twin takes on rose (Turkish, Bulgarian) and honey-like acacia. “For me, it was evident to start with flowers, just because flowers are the best love messengers,” said the perfumer, who mentioned he is quite pleased to receive a bouquet himself. “I love the soft seduction.”
What qualities make for a seductive fragrance? “Like a coup de foudre, it’s something difficult to explain. You don’t explain love,” Cavallier Belletrud said, using the French phrase for love at first sight—a lightning bolt. (Incidentally, McGee traces the smell of lightning to ozone, “which is experienced as fresh and pungent,” the research collective Odeuropa points out.) “I love the idea that I’m just at the beginning of a love story, when a woman is choosing, or man is choosing, one of my perfumes and it’s the souvenir of the first date. So it has to be, of course, very charming, but there’s no real words to express.”
Perfume is difficult to pin down. In the case of Spell on You, my imperfect nose, only recently liberated from chronic allergies, catches a hint of Haribo peach that softens into a moody rose—practically begging for a hotel bathrobe. My boyfriend, after sniffing unbidden at my head, told me I smelled “as if a fancy lady sent you a note card.” The comments section on the fragrance website Fragrantica swings from pronouncing it a “summery nonchalant chef d’oeuvre” to something surprisingly demure, given the name. “You could easily wear this at the office or as a clerk wanting to smell well-groomed, but nothing too noticeable,” the person writes, with a twinge of disappointment. But isn’t there subversion in cosplaying a prim stereotype, rule-abiding here, something-something there? I think of Maggie Gyllenhaal slow-licking an envelope in Secretary. Office-appropriate? Every bit.
“Simple, direct, elegant”—that’s how Cavallier Belletrud describes Spell on You. “For me, iris is the eternal femininity, with rose.” He sees modern womanhood defined by a sense of freedom, of being oneself; at the same time, as a long-married father (“My wife, she is my living blotter since 34 years,” he told me over profiteroles), he sees how often unequal responsibilities are baked into the family structure. “Life is unfair with women,” he said. “Even if the man—I was this kind of man—was helping a lot at home.” Over the past two years especially, such a pileup of worries has never felt more relatable, whether it’s kids or a leeching work life or frustration at name-the-current-stressor. When one part of the brain is overproducing, it seems measurably harder to be receptive.
“That’s why the perfume is a good solution to become yourself again,” Cavallier Belletrud suggested. The spell, then, is not cast on some archetypal lover, present or in the wings. Its subject and object are the same: the wearer. It could be someone ordinarily drawn to feminine, pink-hued scents; perhaps it’s emphatically not—merely slipping into character for an hour or six. (The scent lingers, tucking you into bed.)
This mirror reflection of the spell recalls Esther Perel’s thoughts on eroticism as a form of self-care. “We carry the responsibility of our desire. Why? Because desire is an expression of our free will. Nobody can force us to want,” the relationship therapist writes. Even in a time when there are so many places to lay blame—an invisible virus, a log-jammed bureaucracy, the partner who definitely picked the last fight—there is in fact agency in this one realm. “We can enliven ourselves and we can numb ourselves,” says Perel, sounding like a fairytale spirit at the fork in the road. This kind of inward reboot, as much as any renewed exercise plan, feels like something worthy of a resolution, even if resolution-making itself is a kind of do-gooder cosplay. “When we widen the realm of the senses, we invite the world in,” she says—and for her, that extends to the warmth of sun on your neck or a cup of coffee slowly savored.
Perfume, steadily evolving on skin if you manage to tune in, could well aid in triggering a shift—coupled with some alone time to refresh the senses. “When I come home and she’s not there, I smell her perfume,” Cavallier Belletrud says of his wife’s sillage. “That, I love.”