Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Speaking Perfume

The Speaking Perfume is like the Speaking Portrait – so alive that it seems to have paused mid remark.  It’s telling you something and you have to be a dolt not to catch the conversational drift.

It’s an odd concept, I admit it, and synesthetes are prone to this type of observation, or maybe this is just the Pathetic Fallacy all over again – but I don’t think so.

Perfumers are in the business of evocation, of conjuring up worlds lost or strayed. The speaking perfume is merely the most successful at this kind of image herding.

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Lavender Land

Snobbism, like crime, doesn’t pay.  If something works, and works well, why avoid it?

The answer is, you don’t, and the reason, as far as lavender in fine perfumery goes, is probably familiarity.  There are fields full of the plants all over Provence and you can’t suggest much exoticism with good old lavender, he’s been around for far too long.  So, if we posit that all the world of scent is like a corner bar, then lavender is the garrulous old regular.

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Less is More, More or Less

“Well, less is more, Lucrezia”

Robert Browning

In the Financial Times the other day a small piece appeared entitled  Retail Groups Tackle Consumer Overload. It was all about efforts by such giants as the Dutch/English company Unilever to weed out some of their products.  The French cosmetics behemoth L’Oreal is engaged in a similar process.

The reason?  “People are going through life dissatisfied with the incredible overload of choice they are experiencing,” says Barry Schwartz a professor of psychology and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.

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What Do They Know That We Don’t?

My Shih Tzu of sainted memory was a fusspot.  To be fair to Mr. Tang, aka, Tang Dog, Mr. T, and sometimes even, I blush to say it, Tang-Tang, he was born to fusspottery.  If you and your race had been bred in the Forbidden City by Imperial concubines, you would have refined tastes too.

So it was with Mr. Tang.  He loved minced chicken, grilled beef, scratches behind the ears, walks on sidewalks only, and Guerlain.  He abominated dog food, cats and Bellodgia.

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Smell The Glove

“Lady, I would descend to kiss thy hand
But that ‘tis gloved, and civet makes  me sick”

Philip Massinger (1583 – 1640)

You can see his point.  They laid it on thick back in the day, and in civet we are talking about a fixative taken from the anal glands of a feral cat.

Why gloves, though?  Why did the French royal warrant establish the guild of glovers and perfumers in 1656 (late in the game, but evidence of a long standing relationship)?  They make an odd pairing on the face of it, these two.  But there’s a reason for everything, and there was a very good reason that tanneries were not located near the nice parts of town.

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Adoption versus Selection

The great perfumer Jean Carles once wrote that all scents are adopted, never selected.  It’s a startling statement and  has the resonance of truth, though I wish it didn’t.

The implication is that there’s a tremendous gap between what is habitually on our bodies and what’s on our shelves.  Do we really wear the perfume that we collect or do we have it because we’ve read that it’s a masterpiece and we should therefore own a bottle, or feel that we acquire a reputation (wholly undeserved) for taste by having a Chanel something or other around, or conversely, some niche scent that marks us as cutting edge?

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The Season of Mellow Cakiness

When summer’s over you begin to search through your piles of samples for something challenging to wear but something that is also seasonal.  To me, autumn is the time of year when the fruit crop comes in.  It isn’t, please note, the season of the fruity floral because those generally are too light.  You need something that goes potentially with orange and gold and firelight and the taste of pumpkins in the US or persimmons in Europe.

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A Curious Succession

Everyone remembers their mother’s perfume, and my mother’s favorite was Tabu.  It was very popular – musky and heavy and not at all what you would expect from a clergyman’s wife.  These days the scent reminds me of something that doesn’t generally happen in perfume: the gradual upscale progression of a singular idea.

Tabu was the creation of the great perfumer Jean Carles.  He used an enormous patchouli note as the modifier in that perfume.  In fact, in these days of focus groups and test marketing, it is doubtful that any such product would have been released at all.  Tabu was strong, it was the sort of thing that people dislike now.

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Caron vs Guerlain (with an aside from Jean Patou)

Vulgarity is a word tossed about like a live grenade by perfumers.  After all, what is more intimate than scent and if (heaven forbid) other people use that word about your perfume, then it takes some major strength of character to ignore them and carry on using it.

So which of the two great French perfume houses is more vulgar, Caron or Guerlain?  The answer partially supplied by Luca Turin, and subsequently reneged upon, is that Guerlain was “for cocottes and Caron for duchesses”. He did some backtracking on those belletristic tippy toes of his in order to ask the rhetorical question, which duchess,  the choice being between two Proustian ones.

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The Powdering Gown

“Another day I will do the same; I will sit in my library, in my nightcap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can….”

Mr. Bennet,  Pride and Prejudice


What is it that the elite in rising powers crave?  Is it artwork, or fast cars, or precious stones?  It may be all of these things but if history is anything to go by, what they also crave is – powder.

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