Perfumers don’t compose perfumes, instead they “write” them. It’s an interesting choice of verb. If you are one of those people who regard perfume as rather like cooking, then this idea will probably not appeal to you, but it is part of the industry, especially in France where fairly or unfairly, the metaphor for “cooking” in perfumery also exists but in a pejorative sense. A chemical brew is known as a “soup” and these comprise the majority of releases on the mass market. Something may be cooking or stewing at the big oil production houses , but isn’t being conceptualized, most product has no discernible plot beyond, “Make the sale!”
However perfumers themselves who are concerned with more than the fiendish difficulties of scenting detergent or soap, have a little more leeway, and for them the idea of ideas becomes feasible, even defensible. You get Frederic Malle’s “Editions” de Parfums, for all the world like Hachette or Gallimard.
“There is no frigate like a book, To take us lands away” Emily Dickinson once wrote about the ability to travel via imagination, she might as well have observed that there isn’t one like a smell either. To the end of her long life, carbon monoxide and garbage were dear to my mother in law as the iconic smells of New York.
Smells transport us, sometimes in space, introducing us to the odor of a place we have never been, and sometimes in time, sending us back to our pasts, sometimes they simply move us, and we are not even sure why. All of this is rather like poetry and novels. The difference is that the diction is molecular rather than verbal, still you can get whole stories out of certain perfumes, or descriptions, and sometimes poetry-of a sort.
The first of these “writing” perfumers was certainly Francois Coty. He was forever trying to match the perfume with the woman, selling psychological perfumes it was said at the time. However he was also interested in conjuring up places. Both L’Origan and Chypre are separate attempts to recreate the Corsian chaparral. One is soft and evening blue, alluding faintly to the smell of wild oregano, and the other blows the sharp, woody and herbal winds of the island. It’s dry, the scent of the water deprived landscape of Corsica in summer.
Other perfumers are novelists, Pierre Bourdon is the master of the sublimated phrase in perfume writing. His formulas are so complex that they invite deconstruction, as in the case of Feminite du Bois.or Tuscan Soul * which these days has all sorts of flankers. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he is also a reader of Proust. Anyone who has ever followed all the twists and turns of a Proustian sentence, may recognize the seemingly hopeless search for a main clause, which of course is often the point. What Bourdon has learned how to say with those half hidden accords seems to fascinate noses. He certainly entranced a generation with Cool Water.
Some modern perfume writers are romantics, Yann Vasnier is for sure. No one does big white flowered Dr. Zhivago scents the way he does them, consider Delrae’s Wit, or Divine’s L’Ame Soeur. Pasternak would approve, and wouldn’t they suit Lara?
One of the epic story tellers in perfumes today is certainly Bertrand Duchaufour, consider the episodic nature of the Enchanted Forest or Seville a l”Aube. Here is a writer whose narratives can go on nearly as long as Dumas Pere’s. There are all sorts of plot twists and turns, and the scent can really change as the day progresses. Wearing some of his perfumes is like reading the second part of The Three Musketeers, or The Count of Monte Cristo.
Then you get perfume writers who are more compact, poets or short story writers like Olivia Giacobetti with her olfactory odes to fig trees or lilac bushes in bloom.
So who’s your favorite perfume writer?
*Ironically based on a simple hair conditioner made for Ferragamo. The humble origin doesn’t seem to matter.
To my readers I apologize, but this summer I am moving, and therefore have to go to one post a week. I’ll try to be here every Monday, as always thank you for spending some time with me!