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.
These perfumes actually are storytellers, or to be more precise, they are garrulous olfactory button-holers. They have an emotional impact absent in most scents. They are usually not terribly popular since popularity requires wide appeal and these creations habitually look for individual connections; rather in the manner of the Ancient Mariner they way lay- at best- one in three.
Guerlains- I’m sure some of you have referenced them at once. Really though, Guerlains are too formalized to be narrative. They can be evocative, but they’re impressionistically so for commercial reasons. Something which is out of focus becomes something universal and therefore universally acceptable. (It turns out that Jacques Guerlain (1874-1963) collected impressionist paintings and may have tried to translate them into perfume.)
So whether you are dealing with the gardens of Shalimar, or hawthorns after rain, or Paris at dusk, the vignette is as widely appealing as side walk art. Other commercial ranges can contain speaking perfumes but they are usually the oddball scents in the line, sometimes the result of a personal perfume subsequently put into production.
This was the case with Angelique Encens at Creed said to have been Marlene Dietrich’s scent. It was so much more specific than the rest of the house’s production that it stood out. When I first smelt it the impression was of a ruin. Literally an overgrown ruin, and it was therefore a very melancholy- if lovely- perfume and impossibly perfect for an aging beauty. It will do though as an example of the speaking perfume. Condition number one is specificity.
This leads me to wonder which perfume houses specialize in the speaking perfume. I think most do not for the previously cited Guerlain reasoning. Too much specifity can kill sales and that is why commercial perfumes like real estate cannot be too individual.
Nevertheless, there are examples of it. Diptyque is one of the first niche ranges and they probably traded on the individuality of their creations as a young firm. Consider a perfume like L’Ombre dans L’Eau. It is such a perfect name for the cool smell of cassis and rose that once you’ve read the title and smelt the perfume you can never forget them. It is all about shadowy, aqueous coolness, all about paddling under the trailing willows. It should never have passed muster with the public and yet it has.
Diptyque was less successful with the now discontinued Virgilio. That perfume was an overgrown Sicilian garden attached to a crumbling villa. Everyone who put it on smelt of that garden whether or not they wanted to. It was like being in The Leopard every day in life. I for one, couldn’t pull it off.
Point number two is emotional intensity. Only one perfumer comes to mind in this connection and it’s Andy Tauer. I only know his Incense Rose, but that is enough. It is less an impassioned preacher in full spate at a tent revival than a choir in full chorus in a cathedral. Not being a bishop by profession, I couldn’t see wearing it.
I suspect that all his work tends to have this level of emotional resonance. No one who did not would have produced a perfume called Lonestar Memories, and no one who wasn’t sincere could have made a success of it, and by all accounts he has. It probably cuts down on the wearability of his scents but I hate to tell anyone whose motives are so obviously artistic to tone it down.
The contemporary master of the speaking perfume though is Pierre Guillaume at Parfumerie Generale. All of his scents seem to have an emotional impact, in fact they do so regularly on me that I regard myself as a sort of Pavlovian dog in this regard. How does he do it?
Well, to begin with, there’s business acumen involved in his success. He’s a quoter as all canny perfumers are, but his ability lies in knowing what to quote and how to edit his quotations.
Take for example his limited edition Corps et Ames. He was referencing Givenchy III of course, but he had re-edited the perfume for the XXIst century and the result was both more moving than the original and more wearable, and I know because I was wearing Givenchy III at the time I smelled Corps et Ames and had known the Givenchy well since the 1970’s.
Or there was his L’Oiseau de Nuit, an amber perfume rather than a tobacco one as advertised, but still so much more personal than, say, Ambre Sultan. There was Cadjmere to which my picky daughter took at once, a proper smell for mothers she said. How did she know? Or more precisely, how does M. Guillaume know?
Then he has perfumes which seem really original like Aomassai or Bois Blond clearly related to it, and not particularly to anything else , and yet without the benefit of an old perfume quotation it still speaks, in the one case of the African veldt, and in the other, of a hoedown in a hayfield in late August. Is this merely cleverness or is it intrinsic ability?
There are perfumes that break ranks in otherwise elegant but mute ranges. The best example I can think of is Nicolai Pour Homme which smells like a walk on an autumn afternoon when the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing. But it’s alone in the Nicolai line up. They’re usually too discreet to be talkers but that one is and it is affecting. Go figure.
I should remark that the explosion in niche perfumes ought be turning up more speaking perfumes but I’m not finding that to be the case. Perhaps it’s a matter of subjectivity here. Possibly I merely fail to smell what is immediately and intensely recognizable to someone else, but I think people tend to pick up on the intentions of perfumers.
Fendi’s Theorema, for instance, was the smell of an Italian Christmas Fair. Really, it was, and you could smell the mandarin oranges and the candy and the cashmeres and the whiff of incense from a nearby church and if I smelt it long enough I could smell porchetta sandwiches in there as well although there weren’t any, though there invariably were at the fairs. It was much better than the Guerlain Delice d’Hiver, which merely smelt like an expensive toy shop at Christmas time. Once again it was much more imprecise in its evocation, a sort of Childe Hassam painting if you like.
I wonder what the future of such smells will be? I’m not sure people want to go about smelling too precisely of their memories or dominant emotional images, but there is surely a place for them. It’s a matter of choosing the right scent for the right person and the right time.
But then, it always is.