Many a perfume and cologne ad would have the fragrance-buying public believe that love and attraction have everything to do with scent. The way a person smells can attract a sultry woman from all the way across the room, completely deplete her defenses and lure her to your hotel room (they always seem to be in swanky hotel rooms). And, of course, the right perfume can make a woman more seductive, more like the flawless celebrities portrayed as sex goddesses on the screen.
L.A.’s resident scent and fragrance expert, Saskia Wilson-Brown, knows a thing or two about how scent really works. As the founder and executive director of the Institute for Art and Olfaction, she often hosts workshops for those interested in learning more about perfumes and scents “in a way that [is] unpretentious.”
In her sold-out workshop “Aphrodisiacs: Aromas of Desire” — hosted at the always romantic Getty Villa — Wilson-Brown will cover the history of fragrances and perfumes in ancient Greece and Rome. She will focus specifically on the scents associated with seduction and desire. By the end of the workshop, attendees will create their own aphrodisiac fragrance. According to Wilson-Brown, “It’s hard to do any study of scent without aphrodisiacs coming up,” and the ancient Greek and Roman rituals definitely tie in to this study. The word aphrodisiac, after all, takes its origin from Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself. But the history of aphrodisiacs is more than just figuring out which scent will get you laid the fastest.
“They divided their aphrodisiacs into two categories: things that inspired love and things that inspired lust,” Wilson-Brown says. “The lust was quite destructive. … It could almost be revenge — to inspire someone with lust to the point where they’re burning.”
To inspire love meant to spark something “more gentle, more familiar, more calm.” Save for a few more obscure ingredients, ancient Greece and Rome worked with many familiar elements in their aphrodisiac concoctions: saffron, rose, mint, cinnamon and caradamom among them. Each boasted their own benefit — mint, for example, “was meant to trigger an energy burst, to put it in a nice way.”
At the institute’s space in Chinatown, dozens of vials line one wall. Wilson-Brown sits at a table with even more in front of her. In teaching workshops at the space for a variety of levels, she always ends up hearing personal stories from attendees about how scents (molecules that make up some of the perfumes we know today) remind them of a specific person or place.
“I did a session here a couple weeks ago. It was just a beginner’s workshop, so an introduction to scent,” Wilson-Brown says. “There was this one molecule called dihydromyrcenol, which was used a lot in the ’90s in men’s colognes, and one girl — it just completely reminded her of this boyfriend she had. And she got quite emotional about it. It was a molecule that was really, really popular in the ’90s and then kind of fell out of fashion a little bit. … She probably hadn’t smelled it in a while and she had this very ‘Oh my God!’ specific memory of him.”
As a lover of all things fragrance, Wilson-Brown identifies one molecule as her aphrodisiac: cashmeran, which she describes as “a deep musk wood” with “a sweetness to it.” It lives up to its name, which, as she points out, sounds similar to cashmere. The scent “envelopes you like a fuzzy sweater.”
“I’ve actually just put this in a bottle and given it to my husband and been like, ‘Honey, wear this,’” she says.
In her research, Wilson-Brown came across a fresco that shows cherubs at work on what looks like a vat of perfume. Fresco Fragment With Cupids and Psyche Making Perfumes is a Roman piece dating from 50 to 79 A.D. Psyche, goddess of the soul, sits to the side and smells the perfume that the cupids are hard at work making.
Even after so long, jokes about Cupid are relevant. We still make commercials about the power of scent. And we still associate a scent with our ex-lovers. Not much has changed, Wilson-Brown explains, and that has to do with a basic human need for affection.
“We all love, we all want desire, we all want to be desired,” Wilson-Brown says. “I like the idea of bringing the history of the modern times together … the Greeks and us, the Romans and us — we all love and want to be loved.”