Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Modular Perfume

Ever have the feeling that you’ve smelled something before?  Not the oh-I-recognize-this feeling,  no,  I’m referring to the quotation of passages from already existing perfumes.

Take the case of 31 Rue Cambon from the Chanel Exclusifs line.  The scent quoted two Guerlain perfumes – Attrape Coeur, and Shalimar Eau Legere – at length so that at first I assumed it was an homage to Mathilde Laurent, who composed both of them.

Now I doubt that.  It may simply have been another one of those instances in which one perfumer’s ideas become the basis of another’s creation.  31 (named, incidentally, for Chanel’s shop/atelier address) contained much more iris than either Attrape or Eau Legere, and is much more delicate and ephemeral than either.

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The Tenth

Sometimes a me-too perfume turns out to be as interesting as the perfume it was playing catch-up with. The various attempts to compete with Chanel’s blockbuster are a case in point. Competitors made various efforts to produce an echo success of Chanel No5 in the years after its release in 1921: there was Lanvin’s Arpege from 1927, also from that year Coty’s version of a  floral aldehyde, L’Aimant.

Then, in 1929,  unable to stand watching an undersized dress-maker rake in outsized  profits any longer, Guerlain got in on the act with Liu.

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A Verdian Opacity

Green fragrances as I’ve had occasion to remark before are not easy to wear.  This probably explains why it is that they have a very uneven track record with the public.  Something there is that doesn’t love a Green, and that something is human skin.

Skin is pink or beige or brown or bronze or black, but it seems to sense instinctively that it is not malachite or lime and shouldn’t smell like it is.  If you’re grass camouflaged, you’re amphibian or reptilian or possibly not in the animal kingdom at all, but something wandering about on roots, which is an inherently creepy idea.  Seriously, if you don’t think so, try reading Kingsley Amis’s ghost story, The Green Man.

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A Vial Full of Dust

For some years now, the historically curious have been following the work of German science as it went about deciphering the remains of a perfume vial that once belonged to the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut.  The story has all the best elements of schlock fiction.  What could be more thrillingly romantic than to smell the faint lingering perfumes of ancient Egypt?  To have the last fleeting whiff of a bottle last opened over three thousand five hundred years ago?  The answer might lie in the vial, which by good fortune had been left with its stopper intact.

Scientific examination began in 2009 and has been done with admirable thoroughness.  X-rays and cat scans and positron colliders – all sorts of high tech gadgetry was applied to the vial, its contents long since dried out but still present in trace amounts.  (Pause for a moment and imagine scientists 3,500 years from now taking a similar interest in, say, an old bottle of Queen Elizabeth’s  favorites Fleurissimo, Blue Grass, L’Heure Bleue, or even Joy.)

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The Smell of a Big Idea

What does brilliance smell of?  A recent piece by Neal Gabler in the NYTimes  brought up the trivialization of U.S. thought.  We seem to have been miniaturized by each SUV, each McMansion, each vacation at Disney World, until we’ve become intellectual pygmies.  Could someone in a position to know, say an educated Frenchman (not DSK, for preference) tell he was downwind of a bunch of dummies?  Do we smell stupid? Continue reading


Not the name of a beautiful Italian girl as you may have thought, but the name of a  humble plant whose branches dried and lashed around stout sticks used to sweep out kitchens and yards.  We’re talking about Broom.

Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum) is the most common sort and it is the inhabitant of dry hillsides throughout the Mediterranean.  The flowers, which appear from May ’til September smell like coconut, and have been used in perfumery for centuries.  They can be large plants getting as high as ten feet.  I’ve seen bushes of it I don’t know how many times driving through southern Italy.  It was the subject of one of Giacomo Leopardi‘s long poems, and is a common plant near Naples.

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Rich as Sin

The title is a little dramatic and I’m not encouraging anyone to go and buy perfumes that cost more than $US 200 per 50 mls.

But let’s amuse ourselves for a while and assume that money is no object.  If it weren’t, what would we wear? Would we go for limited edition Guerlains?  Urn Carons meant for the Middle Eastern market, private collection Montales, high end Estee Lauders in perfume strength only?  Would we alert hoi polloi to our presence because, like Marie Antoinette on the lam with her necessaire, normal people just don’t smell like that?

Anyway, this post begins a series for  the financially stretched about no price restriction perfumery,  and about the perfumes that we’d all like to be able to wear but simply can’t budget for right now.  Down the line I’ll also do a series about what is good in the $US 50 and under category.

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Summer in Amber

A large number of niche firms have probably constructed whole business plans on  a foundation of amber.  The big sellers at I Profumi di Firenze, Serge Lutens and Maitre Parfumier et Gantier, are all ambers.  We just love them.  They smell gourmand, but not specifically so.  They are unctuous but not stickily so. They are warm, but not stifling.

Well, actually, maybe we’d better back edit that statement.  In summer, ambers can be stifling.

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Perfume: The Series

In case you missed this brilliant documentary done by BBC 4, it can now be seen on Youtube.

The series is really everything a documentary should be – highly informative,  very engaging, and, not least of all, beautifully photographed.   It shares much of the high style cinematography of Top Gear (UK version, not US, and my personal guilty pleasure),  the sort of thing you would sit and watch even with the sound turned off.

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The Cranky White Flowered Perfume


It’s axiomatic that flower perfumes sell.  No matter what else happens in the strange, smelly world of perfume, you know that the public will always love white flowered numbers.  There’s no point in asking why.  Maybe women understand instinctively that they share the same reproductive strategy as a flower and therefore instinctively try to mimic them.

What’s a bit harder to understand is what you might call the dry floral.  Flowers, after all, trade in nectar, and that’s a precursor to honey, so why the insistence by some perfumers on fermenting the sugar?  Maybe they feel that too much sweetness is in poor taste?  If so, they needn’t worry.  Buyers love Fracas, Amarige, La Chasse aux Papillions et al. So why do we sometimes get the paradoxically unsweet floral?

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