THEOne night last week, I sat in my kitchen with my eyes closed, inhaling the rich, earthy scent of tomatoes. I felt transported: I was in an Italian garden, sun-dappled leaves swaying as I picked the plump, ripe fruit for a late dinner of pasta with my large, beautiful family. I was, in essence, one of the puppets in the Dolmio ads. But the smell didn’t come from a tomato. It came from a candle.
How did they make it smell so real? I called my boyfriend to share this miracle. She put her face close to the flame, said it smelled like burning nose hair, and quickly lost interest. But I was tickled by this magic trick. A candle, which smells like tomatoes!
There’s something in the air right now, and it’s not just vine tomato candles: increasingly eclectic scents, from uplifting to downright weird, have made their way into perfumes and candles. Is it a consequence of having been so smell hungry, so frankly bored during the pandemic? A greater desire that the things we buy give us experiences beyond mere enjoyment? And why do people want to smell weird things?
Our interest in these scents has now spread outside of our homes and into our cultural and public spaces. Last year alone saw: an exhibition of floating machines scented with the smell of coal, marine life and vegetation at the Tate Modern; a gallery in The Hague infused with the fishy smell of a 17th-century Dutch canal; and a dedicated Inaugurated olfactory art space in New York.
Olfactory art is far from new. Coffee beans were roasted behind a screen to create “the smell of Brazil” at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition. And let’s not forget the experiential dining experience at places like El Bulli and Fat Duck earlier this century. But the fact that we still see it as a novelty suggests that we still see smell as a lesser sense.
Novelty scents have been around for a while. In the USA, Demeter Fragrance Librarywas established in 1996 selling perfumes based on everyday scents. It started with Dirt, Grass, and Tomato, and has since expanded to more unusual scents like Play-Doh, New Car, and Funeral Home. Quirky Yankee Candles options have included Bacon, Schnitzel with Noodles, and something rather unsettling called Man Town.
Anya Hindmarch sells candles that smell like pencil shavings and gum. DS and Durga create several strange smells, including one called Burning Barbershop, which is supposed to smell like a specific barbershop in upstate New York that caught fire. I’ve never been, but the nice smell of wood made me want to.
Recent years have seen a rise in cutting-edge scents and more prosaic scents, says the fragrance writer, Lizzie Ostrom. Scented products used to be about beauty and vanity, she says. “But now we’re thinking, ooh, what can a fragrance do? And what kind of fragrances might I like other than just the usual scents I thought I wanted to wear?
Surprisingly, it seems that the pandemic only increased our olfactory desire. We didn’t have any nights out to smell good, but somehow the fragrance industry didn’t suffer at all: perfume sales were up 45% in the first quarter of this year. “I think people found that fragrance wasn’t just for someone else to smell and admire, but it’s mostly a personal experience, with the power to make you feel good about yourself,” said public relations specialist Daniel Williams.
Scented candles also saw a big boost in sales. Deprived of many kinds of stimulation, including smells other than those of our own home or our breath inside a face mask, it’s no wonder we turn to scented candles. If we were to be stuck in our homes 23 hours a day, we might as well make our home a nice place to be. One of the many unhinged habits I developed during the winter lockdown was sitting on my bed holding a scented candle in both hands, taking deep breaths from the flame and thinking, “What am I doing?” Looking back, I think my nose was hungry.
Loss of smell as a side effect of Covid has been a common experience over the past 18 months, and people who regain their sense of smell often report that it comes back in irregular, faulty ways: smelling things that aren’t there, or food. favorites now smell like sewage. doctors have recommended “smell training” : buy essential oils and smell them repeatedly as a kind of nasal physiotherapy to try to retrain the body to feel aromas. Remedies for loss of smell that are trending on social media include eating burnt oranges. “Regaining their sense of smell is a real source of relief and joy for millions of people, and maybe now they want to really explore,” Ostrom said.
Vegetables are having their moment – in addition to the Daylesford vine tomato candle that impressed me so much, you could have a Loewe air freshener that smells of coriander or beetroot – but there are also candles that smell of chlorine, and perfumes with a base note of asphalt. If I really wanted my bathroom to smell like beets, I’d put some beets in there. And all the talk of everyday smells magically replicated by wick light or spray pump has a 1999 twist to it, from scratch-and-sniff cards and goofy experiments with Smell-o-vision.
Last year, a lingerie brand launched a range of “pillow sprays,” supposedly designed to help you sleep, that smelled like celebrities like Harry Styles and Maya Jama. Hotels, cars, and sports stadiums all have “characteristic odors.” McDonald’s made a line of Quarter Pounder scented candles in February 2020.
Products are also increasingly taking inspiration from, though one hopes not ingredients, from the human body. There’s the infamous Goop vaginal candle, of course, but that’s nothing compared to a scent called Vulva Original. Amazon’s listing promises “an intense vagina scent,” and has some of the most disturbing reviews I’ve read in my time, including, “I’ve met several girls and I know what that smells like…”
But for something truly out of place, Sécrétions Magnifiques de Etat Libre d’Orange is just what you need. The scent claims to smell like blood, sweat, sperm, and saliva, and is described by reviewers as “disturbing,” “completely unwearable,” and like “sweaty debauchery in an indoor pool locker room with rusty metal ladders.”
How much is all this just a gimmick, just another way to sell us stuff? Prof. David Howes, director of the Montreal Center for Sensory Studies and co-author of Aroma: the cultural history of smell, is rightly skeptical of this kind of marketing strategy, which is based on dubious science about smell appealing to a primitive part of our brain: “The idea is that marketers can slip past the conscious defenses of the cerebral cortex by using smell to market things, which I think is rubbish. That kind of physiological reductionism is really just another marketing ploy.”
Still, we must be careful with the trick of crying at any unusual smell experience, and aromas in art galleries, because we are not trained to take smell seriously.
Due to the Proustian cupcake moment, we in the West tend to connect smells with memories and emotions. We do not think about, say, communication or knowledge. The philosophers Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel believed that the sense of smell should be considered below sight and hearing, and Freud had almost a horror of smell, referring to it as something we needed to get over now that we weren’t around anymore. on all fours like dogs.
Howes goes so far as to say that we live in an odor-phobic society. “Witness all of our deodorizing and then reodorizing rituals: the morning shower followed by the addition of all these artificial scents.”
Why should smell remain such a neglected sense? Why should people wear a perfume but have a wardrobe full of clothes, multiple Spotify playlists, and eat different meals every night but resist filling their living rooms with different scents? Just as we can learn to like good whiskey and coffee, we can learn to appreciate strange smells, and maybe we should. “Our noses are woefully ill-bred now,” Howes told me, “and I’m very much in favor of freeing the nose. It has stayed low for too long.”
Last week, I came across a scent called Stercus. Made by perfumer Allessandro Gualtieri, Stercus is the Latin word for manure. “He [Gualtieri] it’s eccentric to say the least,” said Daniel Williams of the PR agency. “You’re sitting there at a press release and when you ask him what the scent is based on, he tells you it’s his anus.”
When this bottle, which I’m sorry to tell you is brown, arrived at my flat, I interrupted my flatmate watching a documentary about space and asked him to smell it with me. I gave him a couple of sprays and waited.
“It’s like using a leather bag to steal a bunch of vanilla candles,” he said, confusion on his face. I told him what the special note was and we both sat sniffing the air and thinking about assholes. “I kind of like it,” he said. If you didn’t know where the smell came from, you wouldn’t necessarily suspect it, although there’s an unmistakable barnyard note about it.
Perhaps all this is just the beginning. Maybe 50 years from now, when we’re stinking up the sky with all sorts of as yet unimaginable futuristic smells, we’ll look back and think, “Gumball candles? anal perfume? That’s nothing.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism