Author and artist Zoe Vayssières has published All About Scents (adapted from the French original version L’Odorat Dans Tous Ses Etats) with Anne de Marnhac, a splendid art book that explores the history of smell through a selection of quotes and images that present the ability of scents to evoke memory, desire, and imagination. Interview.   

Michel Temman : What was the original idea of ​​All About Scents?

Zoé Vayssières : The book is part of a collection. After The Title, published in 2013, I wanted to tackle the role of scent in many creative fields. I wasn’t exclusively interested in perfumers and their products. I also wanted to show how creatives in very different fields interact with scents in their industries. I really wanted to create the sense of taking an olfactory stroll with smell enthusiasts: a fragrance historian, a landscaper, a fragrance designer, a wine specialist, a philosopher, a plastic artist, and a travel writer. In the book, Jean-Claude Carrière, a playwright and screenwriter, explains how film makers sometimes use images to influence an audience’s sense of smell. Plastic artist Sissel Tolaas creates olfactory art installations of smells both good and bad to provoke strong reactions from viewers or, in this case, “sniffers.”  

I worked with historian of beauty Anne de Marnhac who created a literary ramble featuring prominent figures’ descriptions of fragrances in literature. Authors like Marcel Proust, Albert Cohen, Donna Tartt, and Casanova, often explored disturbing odours in their works. In antiquity the sense of smell was considered animalistic and set aside from art and literature until authors like Emile Zola wrote about what he called “the odour of the people.”

The book also features many anecdotes that convey the power of smell. One interesting story recounts a visit to experimental restaurant Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, which creates a transcendent dining experience by simultaneously engaging the senses of taste, sight and smell.

M.T. : What were your priorities in building your summary?

Zoé Vayssières : In the very first pages, I wanted to convey how other senses connect to the one of smell. I wanted to plunge the reader into moments with a dynamic image, and appeal to the olfactory imagination with words. There were initially two concepts to be addressed: the nose and history. Next, I wanted to investigate the links that connect us to the smells we encounter and remember. Sensuality is another important concept: how often do we fall for a woman because of her perfume? Or fall for a man because of the smell of his skin? Scent is inextricably linked to charm and seduction..

M.T. : You also explored the idea of sensorial memories... 

Zoé Vayssières : : Smell is directly and ineffably linked to our emotional memories, without analysis, and almost without any words. Even as an adult, the scent of your mother’s perfume can instantly evoke a memory of your childhood and even provoke the childhood emotions attached to that memory. The rapidity with which smell can evoke emotional memories is quite powerful..

M.T. : In France when do we really go from the smell to the perfume?L’Odorat dans tous ses états

Zoé Vayssières : I’m not an expert, but Elisabeth de Feydeau, a fragrance historian, sheds light on this question in the book. In the time of Louis XIV, perfuming took off with the appearance of the guild of glove perfumers in the mid-17th century. They developed perfumes for men and women; consequently, perfumes and cosmetics become omnipresent in Versailles. Marie-Antoinette, deeply in love with flowers, asked her perfumer to put Trianon in a bottle. This became the Le Bouquet aux mille fleurs. The city of Grasse produced the raw materials for fragrances and began to manufacture perfumes, including small bottles that contained strong aromas believed to help women relieve discomfort. In my opinion, the difference between smell and perfume is that smell is what your nose naturally captures at any moment. Perfume is something that needs processing and is concocted with different smell associations.

M.T. : What are, in your opinion, the most unusual features of the perfume?

Zoé Vayssières : One surprising fact is that there isn’t any intellectual property in perfume. When a laboratory is commissioned to compose a perfume, the product is sold by the liter. Today, scent creation has little market value, except for perfumer-editors. However, the design of the perfume bottle, name, and logo are protected as intellectual property.

M.T. : Does the perfume definitely belong to the world of dreams?

Zoé Vayssières :The perfume itself is absolutely immaterial. The word comes from latin per fumum, literally “through the smoke”. Perfume interacts and evolves based on its environment and its wearer’s body chemistry. Perfume is a real mystery. Perfumers say the nose first recognizes the head notes, then the hidden notes, but we don’t completely understand why we love one perfume over another.  Regarding smell, there is often a gap between what we think we love and what truly seduces us. Sometimes to finalize the creation of a feminine scent, masculine scents like iron or dust are added. These notes are undetectable to the nose, but they contribute to our enjoyment of the fragrance and our purchase. Because the nostrils are directly connected to the brain, smell is the sense which is the most directly linked to the reptilian brain. When we take in a smell, there is no intellectual filter.

M.T. : The perfume industry is estimated today at nearly 28 billion US dollars per year. Is it something that surprises you?

Zoé Vayssières : One breakthrough I am really intrigued by is olfactotherapy. Pioneered in France, the therapy uses smell, in conjunction with traditional medical treatment, to help patients work through medical challenges. These therapeutic olfactory workshops offer personalized scent sessions that can help patients work through eating disorders, cancer treatments and even emotional traumas. It’s a fascinating emerging field with the potential to use smell to improve lives.

M.T. : Do you understand that a fashion school, IFA Paris in this case, launches a MBA of Perfumes and Cosmetics?

Zoé Vayssières : Yes, because the perfume industry is huge and growing rapidly. There are quite a few perfumery schools, and every new perfumer learns under the instruction of a master. There aren’t magic, ready-made formulas. Perfumer remains one of the most creative occupations. Beyond the love of fragrance, there is its marketing, from the flacon to the image, and even more recently, the use of olfactory signatures in shops. One year is hardly enough for studying all these questions!

To learn more on our MBA Perfume and Cosmetics Management