Trompe-nez.

Confession: I don't get trompe-l'œil. I know that many people consider this art form the greatest thing since soup in a can (Campbell's OR Warhol's). But for some reason, trompe-l'œil makes me fume like Willem trying to see the sailboat in Mallrats. What do people find in it? I just don't know.

Maybe it's the feeling of being in on a prank, rather than its target. Like Doctor Who, P.D.Q. Bach, Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and punning, trompe-l'œil is a cultural phenomenon that confers intellectual superiority upon its fans (who may have been teased about such tastes in the past). The desire to retreat into connoisseurship -- a realm of preference occupied only by a select few -- is understandable. We all wish for a salon that will admit the likes of us to its inner circle. I've experienced that wish myself, with Monty Python, hardcore punk, the Church of the SubGenius, the Illuminatus! trilogy, and of course fragrance. But the allure of trompe-l'œil remains hidden to both my eye and my mind.

Because I am an artist, I often use visual terminology to get closer to other abstract concepts. In perfumery, for instance, there's the dupe-- a complex note-for-note reconstruction of an extant (or extinct) perfume composition. To my mind, dupes are similar to reproduction artworks. Some are Sistine Chapels carefully and lovingly restored by experts under the behest of the proper legal authorities. Others are classroom exercises, copied out for practice-- clumsy, yet legitimate. Then you have your crass forgeries-- whose perpetrators are to the original perfumer as Han van Meegeren was to Johannes Vermeer.

The perfumery equivalent of trompe-l'œil is the smellalike-- an aromachemical facsimile of a real environmental odor such as rain or funnel cakes or axel grease. Unlike dupes, they are not abstract compositions. For the most part, they're not meant to be blended, layered, or worn (though you can certainly try). Unless incorporated into a candle or room spray, they can't even properly be considered functional. All they do is sit in a bottle and wait to wow you with how "real" they smell. This is their sole charm... if you wish to be charmed.

The best-known purveyor of smellalikes is Christopher Brosius, founder of both Demeter Fragrance Library and CB I Hate Perfume. From the former, I have samples of Rye Bread, Condensed Milk, Fiery Curry, Fireplace, Dirt, Saddle, Pipe Tobacco, Paperback, Thunderstorm, and Hershey's Special Dark. From the latter -- which appears to host Brosius' slightly more fleshed-out conceptual works -- I have samples of November (based on a Tove Jansson children's book), In the Library (vanilla, leather, and paper), and 7 Billion Hearts (vanilla and more vanilla).

I like them all. They're a ton of fun. I never wear them. I hardly ever take them out and smell them. I certainly don't view them as an art form, let alone a point of reference. Why should I, when I can easily find the real thing?

What I find interesting about smellalikes is that they are NOT geared toward perfumistas, who know that the essences used to create fragrance often smell radically different from their real-life sources. Basil essential oil, for instance, smells nothing like a fresh basil leaf in the hand. But then, we're not necessarily looking for the smell of a fresh basil leaf in the hand. Maybe basil essence (which smells like minty candy) combined with rose otto (which smells like black pepper and camphor) and ambergris (which smells like salty mammalian sex fluids with a hint of lightning-strike ozone) creates a wholly original and unexpected scent, and THAT is what we are looking for.

For those who want just the fresh basil leaf, there's Demeter. Or, you know, the farmer's market. À chacun son goût.