Friday, December 2, 2011
My journey through perfume, a universe unto itself, began rather late in life: as a freshman in college, I had taken to wearing a heavily rose-laden scent received from someone (whose name I forget or repress) as a gift, to which my boyfriend at the time swiftly retaliated with a 3.4 ounce bottle of Oscar de la Renta eau de toilette. He nearly begged me to abandon the octogenarian rose water (its name, A Rose is a Rose, exemplified truth in advertising) for his offering, a far more sophisticated and olfactorily complex scent. I immediately grasped the superior quality of Oscar, though I was entirely ignorant as to the how and the why. Little did I know that Oscar’s own rose and tuberose components were deeply ensconced in a layer of jasmine, ylang-ylang, and broom; and fixed from below with a sweet spiciness comprising patchouli, lavender, opopanax, cloves, vetiver, castoreum, myrrh, and sandalwood. I did not even know the general category under which this perfume was subsumed: floral oriental. I only knew that it smelled good.
By the bottom of the first bottle, I was already addicted. Oscar had become my scent, and everyone knew, above all my family, who literally showered me with eau de toilette, eau de parfum, and sundry bath products for years to come. Oscar was so much my signature, that when I smelled it on others, I thought of myself. I was hypnotized by Oscar to the point where other widely worn fragrances at the time—the loud fruity-fresh floral Lauren comes immediately to mind—elicited from me an immediate attitude of disdain toward the wearer. Only a sorority girl would sport such a scent, while I, a GDI, had transcended the ranks of la foule. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that my total devotion to Oscar was not so different from the Christianity of those who happen to have been born in Christian, as opposed to Muslim nations.
Like the middle ages, my Oscar period was devoid of the type of critical analysis that might lead one to apostasy. No, none of the details mattered to me. Why Oscar smelled so delectable, and inspired a smile each time I lifted the collar of my shirt to take a sniff, was as irrelevant in my view as the rules of tonal counterpoint to the synoptic perfection of the music of J. S. Bach. Dissecting Oscar into its tripartite components held no interest for me—-my love of the scent had as much to do with the precise identity of the top notes (orange flower, basil, cilantro, and cascarilla), as the key (E major) in which Beethoven happened to have composed the divine Opus 109. Looking back, such a comparison seems particularly apt, for the perfumes of Oscar de la Renta have proven, as a group, to be as uneven to my nose as is the oeuvre of the great creator of Opus 109 to my mind. But, at the time, I was living in Oscar’s heaven on earth, and no one, it seemed, was capable of shaking my faith.
That I came at last to abandon Oscar, like my fortuitous introduction to the perfume, was the result of a man. This time, my new beau harbored a deep-seated rancor toward not a particular scent, whether grandmotherly or cloyingly sweet, but any scent at all that did not emanate naturally from my own cells. There was no use putting up resistance, I could no longer wear Oscar—-or any perfume-—during this relationship, which somehow lasted a few years. Eventually we parted ways, which clearly demonstrates a fundamental metaphysical truth. While some would say that the rupture had more to do with our divergent views on the importance of building a family, on whether it would be appropriate for an agnostic to convert to Judaism, or whether a woman should trade her name for that of her husband, I, on the contrary, attribute the end of the relationship to our differences regarding a far more weighty matter: perfume.
Like a child with a large bag in a candy store with no clerk or surveillance camera, I made the most of my liberation from the olfactory ascetic formerly known as my fiancé. It would be difficult to re-create or trace the precise trajectory of what transpired, given the panoply of perfumes I now face, the dozens of geometrically unique bottles that grace my boudoir, stored in what from the outside might appear to be a clothing armoire. In a deep, dark corner, hidden in the very back, is a bottle of Oscar, which I have not worn in years, but whose sight still induces a deep feeling of reverence and gratitude for the role that it played in my awakening. No, I no longer wear it—-and it took years to call a halt to the barrage of Oscar bottles with which I was bombarded by my family on the slightest pretext, in their persistent belief that I was still enamored of the scent and that theirs were benevolent interventions. (At one point, I gathered up the unopened gifts and returned them to a department store, offering what must have been a plausible explanation for why I needed to trade them for some other, indeed, any other perfumes.) Today I find Oscar syrupy sweet and viscous, though the mere thought of the scent, etched indelibly in the incredibly resilient receptors in some wondrous part of my brain, still reminds me of the person I once was.
I do not discount sweet viscous perfumes altogether, and indeed am quite fond of some which I believe on some level that I should not like: Amarige, by Givenchy; Mahora, by Guerlain; Il Bacio, by Borghese; Casmir, by Chôpard, and Trésor, by Lancôme, number among the perfumes that I want not to like, generally prefer not to wear, and yet find luscious all the same. This is perhaps easiest to explain in the case of Trésor, with its heady floral top notes of lilac, lily of the valley, and rose; its supporting middle notes of iris and heliotrope; and its solid foundation of sandalwood, musk, amber, vanilla, apricot, and peach. Of the sweet viscous perfumes, only Trésor has enjoyed such enormous popular success that I actually detect it wafting by me on a fairly regular basis, happy for the women whose signature scent it has become—-and that I know why. These are perfumes which, in all of their sweetness, transport me back to my Oscar days, the days of benighted bliss before I discovered the perfection embodied in the floral aldehyde.
The journey was not direct, however, and I tried ever so diligently to become the woman who could and would, indeed should, wear L’heure bleue or Shalimar. These are two of Guerlain’s great solo stars, accompanied of course by an admirable chorus that includes Mitsouko, Nahéma, Jicky, and more. The Guerlain creation of which I have emptied the most bottles is Samsara, a relatively new (1989) fragrance (for this venerable old perfumery to royal Europe), whose vanilla base moves it dangerously close to the sweet viscous category, but which is saved by the purity of its top tier (jasmine); the floral simplicity of its middle notes (jasmine, rose, narcissus, violet, orris-—obtained from the roots of the iris); and its foundational complements of sandalwood, tonka, and iris (encore). Samsara is an eminently wearable perfume, to which I return again and again, seeking reprieve from my problematic relationships with L’heure bleue and Shalimar, which I want so ardently to wear, deeply believe deserve to be worn, but tend to reserve for weekends home alone, where their intoxicating seriousness will be shocking to no one but me.
Not all perfumes “serious” in this sense are made by Guerlain, of course. Eau du Soir, by Sisley; Madame Rochas, by Rochas; and Cabochard, by Grès; in addition to Guerlain’s Mitsouko number among those which I admire and occasionally wear, but regard as strictly wintry evening affairs. (Ah, but winters are long and winter days short where I happen to live…) At the other end of the spectrum lies a seeming infinity of “blue” perfumes—inspired by oceans or waterfalls, it seems, and characterized by their weak and insubstantial, flimsy-—literally watery—-nature. The list goes on and on, so there’s no real point in attempting to name them all here. I will say that they often are tinged blue, come in blue bottles, and/or have the word blue or water in their name (for ready identification?), and I infer from the fact that they continue to be produced for mass consumption, that hordes of women prefer scents that do not linger and have very little, if anything, to say. I do not claim that the blues are evil elixirs, but rather that they are not elixirs at all. These are insipid liquids, and, while of a generally innocuous and in some cases even likeable nature, they do not merit the accolade contained within the name perfume. These are fragrances, pure and simple, nothing more and nothing less. (Blue scents are sometimes classified as hesperidic, which is to say, fruity, which is only partly misleading, since fruits contain a very high percentage of water indeed—perhaps even more than human beings.)
As for my own experience with mass-marketed scents, the ones featured in advertisements with tear out “testers” in fashion magazines, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been around the block. I never actually buy bottles of perfume on the basis of the magazine “testers”, not so much because I doubt the capacity of paper to convey its essence-—I always rip open the testers and sniff them out of curiosity, and I may have definitively vetoed some on this basis—-but, rather, because the sorts of scents advertised in magazines are reaching out to a broad swath of consumers who cluster around the midpoint of the bellcurve representing all of the people who appreciate and purchase perfume, and my tastes obviously diverge rather radically from theirs. Scents that scream out “grapefruit” or “baby powder,” for example, are simply not for me. Indeed, I often prefer the men’s versions of the perfumes advertised in magazines. And, no, I have no qualms whatsoever about wearing a great men’s scent, Guerlain’s Vetiver, to name but one.
In thinking about people whose concepts of perfume are determined by extremely vague and inchoate ideas, traces from a more or less incoherent pastiche of cultural influences, I reach naturally for one of my own: the woman in Scorsese’s film Goodfellas (1990), who upon sniffing the bottle of perfume in her friend Janice’s bedroom (Janice is the concubine of the character played by Ray Liotta), nods approvingly and remarks, “French.” I am equally tickled by allusions to perfume when they reveal the identifier’s familiarity with a scent that truly deserves to be remembered and worn in order to be remembered again. Take Al Pacino’s reference to Fleurs de Rocaille, in Scent of a Woman (1992). I admire people in real life who are capable of identifying scents, even if it is only because their significant other has adopted it as her own. I recall with great fondness the day in Home Depot (I was buying new light switch plates for my apartment) when the man in front of me at the check-out line turned around and smiled knowingly as he whispered, “Eternity.”
While they are not my favorites, I will say that Calvin Klein’s works are distinctive creations, which cannot be confused with the run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen, throw-away fragrances whose names evaporate from one’s memory as quickly as their scent from the skin. There is a great virtue to memorable perfumes, those which manage to carve out their own unique niche in the infinitely amorphous olfactory Ur-sphere. I am confident that some among them have endured not for the diligence of their marketers, but for the throngs of fans who have formed with them sacred trysts, to love and cherish ‘til death or divorce do they part.
In reflecting upon truly original scents, which cannot be mistaken for anything but precisely what they are, my mind gravitates naturally toward Chanel’s Allure. This linear perfume-—which flouts the reigning tripartite regime with a veritable burst of citrus, mandarin, jasmine, magnolia, honeysuckle, waterlily, vetiver, and vanilla—-is a recent revelation (1996) which I find compelling, though I wish that I did not. Stated starkly: I want not to love a perfume which has been and continues to be marketed into my brain. Still, Chanel’s Allure has a similar effect upon me to that of Peet’s French roast coffee: I keep going back for more. I suspect that the people at Peet’s accomplish their aim with the aid of beakers of white crystalline caffeine sitting in the backroom and ready to shovel into each freshly brewed vat. (Or is it simply that they use robusta in their mix?) As for Allure, I suppose that, beyond its admirable consistency—-as a linear creation, it can be counted upon always and everywhere to deliver the same-—there’s not much to say: Against empty eau de parfum bottles, there can be no defense. Still, the deepest loves are fickle and unpredictable. The objects of such passion are all the more endearing for their defiance of any reasonable expectation. For comfort and stability, Allure will always be there. For profundity and richness that wax and wane in undulating waves, you’re better off with Lanvin Arpège.
Although I naturally believe myself to have arrived at the family of floral aldehydes through a veridical path leading directly to the ineffable olfactory Truth, in my more pensive moments, I recognize that I have been seduced anew by a range of scents united by what is perhaps most accurately characterized as the sharp scent of soap. Stripping all differences away, this is my reading of the most salient element in Calèche, by Hermès; Arpège, by Lanvin; First, by Van Cleef & Arpels; and, of course, Chanel No. 5. But now a small confession: because of its unfortunate pop-culture associations with Marilyn Monroe and Zsa-Zsa Gabor—-among many others—-I do not in fact wear Chanel No. 5. This is obviously as a good a reason as it would be to avoid Beethoven’s Ninth because of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But there it is, in the arbitrary constellation of associations that constitutes my mind: Green Acres and Chanel No. 5. (A subliminally mortal fear of becoming an Almodóvar protagonist may also drive me away.)
Thanks to the internet, even a woman trapped on a farm can today buy her favorite scents from around the globe. Thanks to modern aviation, it is even possible to travel swiftly to faraway lands, to visit the blessed artists who continue to create ever anew what has become the universe of perfume, a world sadly enjoyed, or even known to exist, by all too few. How many people know that amber is short for ambergris, which in times past was derived from concretions formed in the intestines of sperm whales, but today is primarily produced synthetically? How many have any idea that eau de parfum contains from 15% to 18% of perfume oil, while what is labeled “perfume” contains between 15% and 30%? Perhaps these facts seem as irrelevant to most people as the provenance of civet (a butter-like secretion taken from a pouch under the tail of the civet cat, found in Ethiopia, Burma, and Thailand), castoreum (a creamy, reddish-brown secretion taken from sacs on the beaver), or musk (grains or seeds from a walnut-sized pod removed harmlessly(?) from the male musk deer of the Himalayas) once seemed to me. But times have changed. No longer do I labor under the false belief that the primary, indeed the only, use for bergamot (a citrus which no one dares to eat) is to flavor Earl Gray tea. Today I number among the few who recognize and appreciate bergamot’s true raison d’être: as an essential component in 33% of perfumes.
My ever-deepening love has led me on new adventures in my insatiable quest to learn more and more about the object of my fascination, including a visit to Grasse, France, where I met with real live perfumers, who mix and bottle in-house and sell their creations in small quantities to strange people like me whose lives and armoires have become filled with perfume. I visited the house of Galimard, where I sat at a perfumist’s “organ” stocked with hundreds of glistening glass vials of pure extraits, which I, guided by a professional, combined through a series of stages into my own perfume: Samanthe.
While in Grasse, I also participated in the Concours du Nez, an annual contest to choose the best “nose” for perfume. The competition was more than challenging; it was demoralizing. Could I discern something as subtle as coriander when mixed in with several other elements? In a word: No. I found that identifying a single note in a complex mixture was as difficult for my nose as would be hearing a single voice in a fugue for someone who had never played the piano. Humbled, I returned home, happy in my knowledge of my ignorance, and sure, if of nothing else, that I know what I like. Samanthe now shares the armoire with the stars, and I do own that I derived no small consolation from my discovery, sometime after having returned home, that my creation bears a striking similarity to Bvlgari’s Bvlgari pour Femme, which, no, I had never tried before.
Only time will tell how long this floral aldehyde/soap penchant will last, though today it is hard to imagine how anything might shake my faith. But I felt that way for years about Oscar, now firmly woven into the fabric of my past. Will another fortuitous encounter determine a new and profounder object of my affection? These mysteries confound the shrewdest scientist, defy the keenest powers of deduction. Still, one thing is clear: any person who wishes to determine what perfume path I’ll next take will have to begin in my boudoir, replete with beautiful bottles of secret scents, the experience of which gave rise to the traces of base notes that cling to this page.
The world is a temple where slender spirits
Emit streams of ambiguous signals.
Man there traverses thickets of symbols,
Finding himself, without seeing that he does.
Just as myriad distant echoes merge
To form a single sound, indivisible
As blinding sunlight or the dark of night,
The revelations of the senses become one.
There are simple scents, soft as a baby's bottom,
Verdant as a lush meadow, sonorous as an oboe.
Others are complex, deep intoxicants,
Harboring within them
Amber, chypre, fougère,
The songs of awakened souls.
(sherapop’s translation of Correspondances by Charles Baudelaire,
from Les Fleurs du Mal)editorial note: the above essay was written in January 2007...