The Sweet Breath of Horses

Horse and Hay

Horse and Hay

My sister as a teenager spent some time working in stables, and says that what she misses most from that period is the smell.  Actually I’m pretty sure she meant something specific, not for instance the smell of mucking out- which is never the best odor in stables-and in fact she was thinking of the scent of the horses.  Horses while they were being groomed.  She liked the brushes, and the whiff of a healthy horse, and their sweet breath, and also she loved to clean tack.  Murphy’s Oil Soap was what they often used, and she enjoyed the smell of that too.  Murphy’s made her downright nostalgic. Continue reading

En Avion : What Airplanes Smell Like

An early advert for En Avion

An early advert for En Avion

Air travel used to be sort of glamorous. No really, before you fall over laughing, it truly was. Clean airplanes, cocktails, pretty stewardesses in un-stained uniforms. I barely remember this, my younger sister doesn’t remember anything of the sort, and no one conceived after 1975 can even imagine it.

All we can recall now is how awful our last flight was and how we swore that next time no matter what it cost, we were definitely going to bid on a seat in business class. Yeah, right.

In the 1930’s things were not only glamorous they were dangerous.  That was still the era of long distance solo flights by those impossibly thin entities Lindbergh and  Earhart.  A large number of people swear by Vol de Nuit as evocative of this adventurous airbourne history, but I just don’t think that smells anything like airplanes. Lovely perfume, nothing to do with airplanes even though it’s named after the St. Exupery novel.  En Avion though, the Caron perfume from 1932 actually does. Continue reading

The Smells You Hate to Love

Cumin in the garden

Cumin in the garden

Every perfume enthusiast has them, scents that really ruin a fragrance.  Sometimes it’s the dreaded melon note, other times it’s the oceanic note ( no less a perfumer than Jacques Polge has kept that out of Chanel perfumes.  He says it never actually smells like the seaside.)* Others can’t bear the animalics, the stinky civet or sweaty palmed musk notes, and then there are people who really detest woods like cedar or vetiver.

One of my worst aversions and for years was cumin.  I thought it smelled like sweat, and not clean sweat either, but coming off a three day bender sweat, the sort you whiffed inadvertently on the New York Subway, usually on the local No 1, generally below 14th street.  When I ran across perfumes simply crammed with cumin- like Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom- I would practically hold my nose.  I knew it was interesting and had something to say for itself but that cumin! The stuff just knocked you sideways.  It was Eau de Grit. Continue reading

Antique Oleanders

Oleanders in bloom

Oleanders in bloom

One final thought on the smells of Italy, and that concerns the scent of oleanders.  Oleanders do well in dry heat. They sprout into huge sprawling bushes all over Rome and because of their size, often grow near the ruins, especially around the Palatine and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, or wave in the desiccated wind off the autostradas.  The reason is space. Conditions in Rome are too cramped for oleanders and their expansive growth habits.

Their perfume, though, is one of the most recognizable ones of the city.  It’s heady, and  heavy, there’s a sweetness underwritten with toxicity. The toxicity is fair comment, because in fact oleanders are quite poisonous.  Somehow it’s fitting that oleanders with their narcotic scent of almonds (similar some say to arsenic) should drift about the Palatine.  The Roman emperors and their wives knew a thing or two about poison.

The smell, however, was very familiar to me.  As in nearer in time to me than my last stay in Rome.  This was a scent I had been on intimate terms with, and since perfumes are rather like old lovers, apt to bring up inconvenient memories at inopportune moments, this was one I had to re-visit. Continue reading

Parisian Atmospheres

Dalloyao Paris from tripadviser.uk

Dalloyao Paris from tripadviser.uk

So I did very little perfume shopping in Paris!  What!  Really?

Well yes.  For starters I was with my daughter and at fifteen you tend not to care about perfume, and Guerlain, and so forth. You care about food.  One aspect of French culture my daughter understood at once: eating.  French bread, and gallettes, and quiches and eclairs, and butter and cheese, and chocolate croissants for breakfast and no one saying, ” Shouldn’t you really be downing a power fruit frappe with seaweed and kale?” the way they often do in the States. (There’s a term for this in France “rabat joie”)  Plus the beefsteaks with Bearnaise sauce.  Oh, and did I mention the frites?

We therefore spent a good deal of time eating. What can I say?  French food is good. You should have some! Continue reading

Confederate Jasmine and Garbage

Current Roman Garbage

Current Roman Garbage

Rome has a problem with garbage.  I used to live there quite a long time ago and recall that the garbage problem existed back then too-from time to  time.  It’s nothing like this though.  Garbage piles up even in the more famous locales like Piazza del Popolo where the tourists collect every day, sit on the lions surrounding the obelisk fountain, and  leave behind plastic water bottles and candy wrappers…

The Romans are mortified.  Worse, they can’t seem to strike a deal with the sanitation people, who show up in snazzy jump suits in the civil colors of Rome: orange and  dark crimson, driving the smallest and most stylish garbage trucks ever seen, but they never seem to pick up more than a sack or two of garbage (well OK that’s about what they can fit in those adorable trucks) but this leaves behind la maggioranza of the problema on the sidewalks. Continue reading

Versailles, Chinese Tourists, and the Short Goodbye

XXIst Century Versailles from the palace website

XXIst Century Versailles from the palace website

Ah, Versailles! All the French kings from Louis the XIII th onward seem to have loved it.  Louis had a little hunting lodge there and his son decided to enlarge the hunting lodge until they got… Versailles.

It would be nice to think of the process as organic, similar to that of expanding flowers in water, but the evolution was actually long drawn out, involving casts of thousands. Very impressive are the results: a huge, golden palace radiating avenues like rays of the sun, and these days radiating half mile long lines of Chinese tourists waiting patiently to visit  this monument to the glory of France, and in the mean time trailing selfie sticks while posing in front.

As a piece of absurdity on a very grand scale, you can hardly improve upon the palace, and since these days the gilding has been re-done, the blinding bling is enough to attract a good deal of out of town custom.  But what do I know?  This time out, I never even went inside.  My whole reason for visiting Versailles was to donate two rare old bottles of perfume to the Osmotheque Continue reading

The Emperor’s New Scent

It was Mrs. Bonaparte, aka Josephine, who turned the general on to scent.  Left to his own devices, Napoleon might have preferred the smell of gunpowder in the morning, but he was besotted by Josephine and perfume was – civilizing.

It is something of a stretch to say that he brought perfume back into fashion.  Those who survived the Terror needed some cheering up, and if that meant champagne and perfume,  so be it.  He certainly did nothing to stop it, as a more dour sort of dictator might have done.  The coast was officially clear, the old royal perfume house of Houbigant returned to Paris, and the good times began to roll once more.

Continue reading

English Air Male

Penhaligon's Hammam Bouquet from 1872

Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet from 1872

Catherine Donzel writing about national preferences in Le Parfum puts it like this: “Industrial perfumery must take into account cultural habits.  Therefore in Britain detergents are often scented with patchouli: it’s a fragrance that the English have appreciated for a long time….In France it’s another matter: since forever cleanliness is associated with the odor of lavender.”

This statement surprised me somewhat since quite frankly I would have guessed it to be the other way around. That perception might have been different had I been able to visit men’s clubs. The greatest perfumes that came out of England – and there have been several – are for men.  Ladies may be getting more attention these days because of niche perfumery, but in the past, the very best English perfumery was masculine. Continue reading

The Glamorous Scent of Peonies

Festiva Maxima from hiddenhillsgardens.comf

Festiva Maxima from hiddenhillsgardens.comf

In the heart of the big white peony known as Festiva Maxima there’s a very subtle scent.  You simply poke your nose in among the petals and you get many fragrances rolled together in the circumference of a single flower.  This is ready made perfume, perfection and not so many other plants produce fragrance so rounded and so complete.  Festiva Maxima does though.  I can only think of the Silk Tree as competition for another fine female fragrance finished down to the last molecules; an entirety of organic perfume.

Pink peonies have a similarly sophisticated scent but it’s  just a bit more pronounced and carries further.  Pink peonies have a sillage, and one of my  Mother’s dogs used to adore their perfume.  She was the only dog I ever knew who would literally go and smell the flowers.  A German Shepherd labrador mix, she had an acute nose, but a delicate, almost feminine sense of what smelled respectively good or bad, peonies were her clear favorites.  She never was too much into my dog’s preferred scent Eau de Dead Squirrel. Continue reading