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The Scent Seller



(image: Pietro Longhi, The Scent Seller, ca. 1741. Ca' Rezzonico, Venice)


When it comes to words and perfume, generally the words are devised around strictly hedonic terms, to "like" and to "not like", and a rainbow of positive, market-driven descriptors. Is it possible to reconsider and add new dimensions to the seductive act of artifically scenting ourselves? Absolutely. Below, and in Installation 17, are three playful words created and contributed to the Odorbet by art historian and museum professional Jessica Murphy. Among many essays and lectures she has done on fragrance appreciation, she has done some terrific projects including educational programming at the Brooklyn Museum "Making Scents of Studio 54", and "Frida Kahlo: A Perfumed Portrait".


Besides the new words, Jessica also shared what smells she was missing during this unique time. Below are the words she coined and her descriptions. Thank you Jessica for this playful addition to the Odorbet!


  1. Doppelspritzer: A person, often a stranger, who is wearing "your" perfume when you encounter them. From the German word "doppelganger" meaning "a double or lookalike of a living person." Similarly, the presence of a doppelspritzer can be deeply unsettling.

  2. Pentiscenti: From the Italian term "pentimenti," denoting the underlying marks or images that emerge and become visible in a finished painting over time. Similarly, pentiscenti are traces of previously worn perfumes that unexpectedly emanate from cuffs, collars, sweaters, etc.

  3. Silfage: Have you ever caught yourself wondering, "Who smells so good? What perfume are they wearing?" and then realized you're smelling...yourself? From the French word "sillage," literally a "trail" or "wake," often applied to the trail of scent a perfume-wearing person leaves behind them.


I wish a scent-seller could bring me bottled versions of these smells that I'm currently missing...


Every May I make a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Bluebell Wood and I stand and softly inhale the scent of thousands of bluebell flowers. The Garden was closed in May, and I wasn't leaving the house much anyway, so I missed this annual treat. Another yearly event deferred until 2021 (fingers crossed): in very early summer, my husband and I normally spend a few days at our favorite beach, where I can sniff the mingled smells of the tangy sea air, dune roses in bloom, and the new wood of the freshly repaired boardwalk. High summer in New York City is a less pleasant time of year for olfactory experiences, but I do miss that that abrupt moment of sensory transition from the subway platform's aura of sweat, overflowing trash cans, and exhaust fumes into the artificial (but blissful) chill of a well air-conditioned train car. Jumping ahead to winter, there's a smell I always associate with December's early nightfalls and pre-Christmas anticipation: the way some New York City food carts perfume their street corners with the aromas of roasted chestnuts and slightly burnt hot pretzels. And, speaking of holidays, I really miss in-store shopping. I'm even nostalgic for the fragrance aisle at Sephora, with that constant vaporous potpourri of a dozen ordinary perfumes all blending together and hovering in the air, invisible traces of the curious or hopeful shoppers who were there just before me. This pandemic is really making me scent-imental!


(image of Jessica Murphy courtesy Jeffrey Vock Photography)


Jessica Murphy is an art historian and museum professional with a longtime passion for perfume. She writes about fragrance online at Now Smell This and her own blog, Perfume Professor. Since 2015 she has taught and lectured about fragrance through organizations including the Brooklyn Brainery, Think Olio, The Institute for Art and Olfaction, and the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Her recent projects include two presentations for the Brooklyn Museum: “Frida Kahlo: A Perfumed Portrait” (2019) and “Making Scents of Studio 54” (2020), both of which considered fragrance as an element of personal identity and cultural history. Her approach is interdisciplinary and multi-sensory, combining perfume history, visual art, and popular culture. You may follow her on Instagram at @tinselcreation.


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