A sensory adventure

There was a time a few of decades ago when embedding samples of perfumes onto the actual pages of magazines was almost revolutionary for perfume companies.

All of a sudden, instead of taking a detour through the nearest perfume department for a quick spritz of your favourite YSL or Calvin Klein, there it was as a peel off sticker you could keep on standby in your handbag. Good times.

But times move on, and now the innovation is more firmly focused on the broader sphere of scent we can access, rather than how.

So, there will be more than a few olfactory surprises in store this summer when Somerset House launches an exhibition dedicated to ten extraordinary perfumes and their pioneering creators; perfumers who have been challenging fragrance conventions for over twenty years.

The multi-sensory showcase will even include ‘bad-taste’ perfumes, evoking smells such as smoke and sweat to demonstrate the changing face of the industry.

Starting with an overview of modern perfumery and the historical innovators who paved the way for today’s industry, the exhibition also features an interactive, fully functioning perfume laboratory, where the public will be able to see and smell the science that goes into making scent, with featured perfumers offering insight and industry knowledge.

Curator Claire Catterall is convinced that the time is nigh for the sensory exhibition.

“Today is the most exciting time for perfume, and the perfume industry as a whole,” she says.  “With the rise of niche and indie perfume brands, the perfumers themselves are coming to the fore, either being asked to create extraordinary scents based on their own skill and tastes, or creating perfume for their own independent brands.

“This is something that has never happened before – previously the perfumer has always been treated as little more than a ghost-writer, the anonymous and uncelebrated author of the scent. We wanted to position the perfumers as artists in their own right, and to showcase some of their most extraordinary work.”

Curating the exhibition has presented certain challenges. “Firstly, choosing which perfumes to show – there are so many extraordinary perfumes out there, and hugely talented perfumers. And secondly, figuring out the best way to allow visitors to actually experience the scents.”

Claire is confident visitors will be intrigued by the perfume laboratory. “It’s one of the most fascinating things about modern perfumery! How perfumes come together, how they are mixed, what the ingredients are.

“Most of the ingredients are synthetic, and many don’t smell like anything other than themselves (others have been developed to smell like ‘natural’ ingredients – especially ingredients such as ambergris which is the product of the endangered sperm whale and as such no longer available). It’s these special molecules that have been chemically constructed to create a smell unlike any other that are particularly fascinating, and we wanted to show how they are used in modern perfumery. “

Claire’s curating choice was further inspired by how the internet has been such a game-changer for fragrance.

“It’s the rise of niche and indie perfumes that have the most significant impact, allowing for scents that break all the rules to come to the fore.

“Today, we want to smell different– of hot tarmac, cold metal, ink, blood, dust and sweat. While these strange new perfumes are still in the minority (mainly as their price point is often so high), they’ve had a huge impact on more mainstream perfumes too. We’ve all become much more interested in scent and much braver in our choices of what we want to smell like.

“This renewed sense of energy and interest in perfumery has been spurred on by the blogosphere which has built an entire new industry around the appreciation of perfume. Websites devoted to writing about and reviewing perfumes have proliferated –  some attracting as many as 1m hits per month – offering a much more accessible approach to and understanding of perfume that hasn’t been seen before.”

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is at Somerset House from June 21 to September 17.