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.

The Chanel also had the snap together assembly that I sometimes associate with French perfumes.  For good or for bad, French perfumers seem very conscious of each other’s work and frequently allude to it, the result being this kind of scent; its allusive modularity provoking long sequences of déjà vu (or P.U.) in the consumer. It might constitute olfactory wit.

You noticed the same thing in de Nicolai’s No 1 which was: No5, and then Fracas, and only in the dry down something proprietary of de Nicolai’s own.

Which observation brings me to Thierry Wasser’s Shalimar Parfum Initial for Guerlain.  He was treading on a frayed old rope bridge swaying perilously over the cavernous gorge of consumer expectation. His employers seem to want an update of Shalimar and commission a new one every few years.

This same uncomfortable rite of passage between historical Shalimar and a modern Shalimar has given way under Guerlain perfumers inching across it before.  Mathilde Laurent was one of them, though her perfume was in fact a minor masterpiece of its own and should have bridged the dreadful gap. Perhaps it is a way of hazing new head perfumers at Guerlain.

Anyway, now it is M. Wasser’s turn and he has been getting mixed reviews.  Octavian Coifan of 1000 fragrances abominated Initial.  I suppose I can see why.  It is a pale imitation of original Shalimar, but whereas Octavian found it a knock off of limited value or complexity, I suspect quite a lot of work went into it, work of a complicated,  modular sort, because Wasser did not simplify Shalimar.

To my nose, he retro-engineered it using today’s materials and quoting from passages of other successful perfumes.  The iris is the modern kind you can smell in the Infusions of Prada,  there is an aoud note in it,( though I cannot find this listed. It is merely my impression after working my way through two samples.) The vanilla is from popular recent Guerlains, indeed, the dry down insists on vanilla playing a leading role.

Nothing about this perfume is crude, but it is all derivative and up close you can identify bits and pieces you may have smelt somewhere else doing something else in someone else’s perfume.  From a distance, however, it coalesces into a modern pointillist’s portrait of… Shalimar.  The complexity is in the detail, not in the overall picture.

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