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The Virgin Suicides (1999) perfume scent fragrance
The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Science or magic? How perfume became a tool for manifestation

Combining scientific research, energetic healing and a pinch of AI, perfumers are increasingly finding new ways to manipulate people’s emotions and moods through functional fragrances

Naomi Campbell smells incredibly good, like a dewy, spring morning in the woods. Fresh, floral and feminine notes hit first, offset with undertones of sandalwood and musk; an intoxicating balance of sweetness and spice. I know this because, by some beautiful twist of fate, when she arrived at a fashion show in Paris last week, she was ushered into one of the last remaining empty seats, directly back-to-back on an intimately thin bench with me. As any other scent obsessive would, I instinctively inhaled deeply. The unrelenting heat of the afternoon sun briefly dissipated, and I felt a sense of calm wash over me.  

The power of scent on our emotions can be traced throughout history: holistic medicine, aromatherapy and incense date back to ancient civilisations. In Ancient Egypt, for example, essential oils were used for not only medicine, massage and cosmetics, but also in their highly refined process of embalming the dead. Perfume was so closely linked with religion that each Egyptian god was assigned their own unique scent, which was often used to anoint their statues. 

Perfume has always used the magical, mystical qualities of scent to create sellable stories in marketing campaigns that mirrored the trends of the time. And with the ever-booming wellness industrial complex showing no signs of slowing, it only makes sense that today fragrances are increasingly being shown as self-care tools, promising to enhance everything from mood to mental clarity. Some, such as the blend of ingredients in wellbeing brand Vyrao’s latest addition, Sun Ræ, are so specific the brand claims the fragrance has been scientifically proven by the IFF’s proprietary Science of Wellness programme to amplify self-confidence by 67 per cent and joy by 25 per cent.

This shift is an extreme example of a rise in emotionally-charged beauty, or ‘emo-beauty’, as coined by Cult Beauty founder Alexia Inge. But unlike many of the industry’s money-making schemes, this latest self-care sell is scientifically backed: of the five senses, scent is the only one with a direct line to three of the most important areas of the brain, including the limbic system, which processes feelings, emotions and memory. Research shows 75 per cent of our emotions are reactions to scent, it affects both concentration and memory recall, and people experience a 40 per cent improvement in mood after being exposed to pleasant smells. Wood and musk have been proven to promote calm and the scent of rose and jasmine to promote happiness. As it turns out, my response to smelling a supermodel’s scent wasn’t strange, it was scientific. 

Functional fragrances, such as The Nue Co’s Mind Energy, formulated to improve focus, and Edeniste’s Relaxation Lifeboost to enhance relaxation, are created using aromachology principles: a unique scientific field that studies the olfactory effects after inhaling aromatic compounds on mood, cognition, memory, and overall sensory experiences. This is done through the likes of brain scans, saliva and hormone tests and studies conducted by neuroscientists, and, because it’s 2023, naturally, AI is also involved. Last year the Swiss company Firmenich launched an Artificial Intelligence program to create fragrances to increase concentration, during which perfumers analysed 1.9 million consumer responses to more than 34,000 fragrances to develop scents that trigger emotions associated with enhanced focus.  

Givaudan, the world’s largest creator of fragrance, has been investigating the impact of scent on emotions for 30 years. As Julia Brooks, the company’s fragrance technology manager, explains, it’s not the scent itself that makes us feel happy or relaxed, it’s the subconscious connection we have to the smell that impacts our emotions. “Scent brings back a whole realm of associations, thoughts, feelings, connections to things that you perhaps didn’t even realise you were registering when you first smelt it.” There are consistent odour areas that are common to everybody. But a lot of the time, our response will have to do with our surroundings, culture and the trends we’ve been exposed to. Lavender, for example, is big in Europe and Brazil. “But for a client in Asia, it has no resonance, it doesn’t automatically mean relaxing.” 

Givaudan’s latest technology, MoodScentz+, combines brain imaging with in sitchu scans to measure how consumers respond to fragrance, both at the brain level and at the consumer product level when they use it. “Our sense of smell is working all the time. When you use a product regularly, you’re getting a little signal every time you use it to make an association.” Brooks uses a different shower gel during the week – when she’s getting ready for work – as she does on the weekend when she wants to relax and switch off. “It’s about thinking, ‘how can you use fragrance to help cue positive experiences?’”

While science does play a part in the crafting of these fragrances, there has always been a sense of the magical possibilities of scent. In Ancient Greece it was believed that the Oracle of Delphi could channel the divine by breathing in scented vapour and entering into a trance, while in the third-century BC epic poem Argonautica, the sorceress Medea uses a scented potion to lull a dragon to sleep. 

Today, this unknowable, magical quality of perfume still holds a grip on people’s imaginations – particularly on TikTok, where it is claimed scent can do everything from make people fall in love with you (pheromone perfumes) to transforming into the smell of the person you miss the most (Phlur’s Missing Person). Like the mainstream TikTokification of manifestation – from Lucky Girl syndrome to the orgasm method – many of us seem to believe that fragrance can be used as a hack to achieve whatever we need, whether that’s happiness, calmness or concentration. There’s an element of wish fulfilment present in the marketing of a lot of these perfumes; like a spell, just one spritz will make all your dreams come true.

Vyrao, dubbed by founder Yasmin Sewell as a brand “built of vibes” was founded with the “belief is that our energetic, spiritual and emotional wellbeing alters our lives, physical bodies and pretty much day to day existence more than anything.” In 2021, after two decades of working in the fashion industry, Sewell created Vyrao to channel the principles of energetic healing into scent: the brand’s fragrances, candles, and incense are formulated spirit and emotion first, smell second. The science comes after the fact. Each of Vyrao’s seven perfumes serves a specific purpose: The Sixth for Mindfulness and Intuition, Witchy Woo, Sewell’s go-to, for courage and creativity, and I am Verdant for transformation and illumination. 

This shift in the way we buy and wear fragrances means in certain circles the signature scent is dead. Most of Vyrao’s customers don’t wear one perfume, Sewell says. Rather, they “connect with what they feel or want to feel at the time”, often layering one on top of the other to create their own magic potion. “Scent is so magical, and healing and connecting through the senses. Yes, it takes you somewhere, but also takes you back to yourself.” Sewell says. 

When I posit the potential of a potion that could make your unrequited crush notice you to Brooks she says there are certainly key odour areas that are universally loved and highly attractive, such as vanilla. “But we’re too complex as human beings to kind of have that simple response. There isn’t a single ingredient that will do that. It’s a context issue.” If you knew exactly which scents the specific person you had your eye on was drawn to – or managed to convince them into a brain scan – though? “Technically, yes.”

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