I QUITOS is a hard place to get to. Nestled deep in the Peruvian Amazon, the city can only be reached by air or water – no roads connect it to the rest of the world. But for Stéphane Piquart, that remoteness is part of the appeal. An odour prospector for the French fragrance company Behave, Piquart went to Iquitos to search for new aromas. In particular, he was looking for a fragrant plant root that the local Shipibo people use in a love and friendship potion. The root, which the Shipibo call piri-piri, has a remarkable fruity-leathery scent that Piquart has now brought to perfumery.
Visiting isolated places in search of new smells shows just how keen perfumers are on striking olfactory gold. That is driven by the sheer might of the fragrance industry. Always big business, it is now huge, with annual sales of $70 billion worldwide for not just perfumes but everything from soap and shampoo to candles and air fresheners. That is a lot of money to spend on nice smells. But what makes us like the ones we do?
Smell is the least understood of our major senses, making this surprisingly tricky to answer. Neuroscientists, psychologists and even AI researchers are beginning to unpick the mysteries of how we perceive scent, while at the same time, fragrance researchers are devising new ways to tickle our olfactory neurons.
The first clear lesson in what makes a good scent is that different cultures have different ideas about which smells are pleasant. “In Europe, …