I’m going to end this where I began it with a scent of my childhood. In the South Florida neighborhood I grew up in we had a small citrus orchard nearby. It was run by Mr. Meeks who would hire us as his pickers when the fruit was ready to be harvested. It was the first money I would earn for myself. After a day of work I got a crisp dollar bill for my effort. When we took a break for lunch, we would sit in one of the trees and pick an orange for dessert.
The scent of those days was beautiful. The sun slanted down through the green leaves as we picked the fruit and placed it in a crate. Mr. Meeks would come by and pick it up. The green woodiness of the trees and the leaves combined with the citrus for a scent which can take me back to those days over fifty years later.
Citrus within modern perfumery has become synonymous with warm weather. I have a natural attraction to the best of them especially when they connect with my memory.
When it comes to orange there is no perfume which has ever found that place for me better than Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine. This was the star of creative director Sylvie Ganter’s debut cologne absolue collection. Ten years on it is probably the flagship of this very successful line.
For lemon it also is from Mme Ganter’s brand with Atelier Cologne Citron d’Erable. This is the definition of a cooler weather citrus perfume. Adding maple syrup as the sweet counterweight to the lemon is a brilliant choice. This is the chill of sunset sitting at the top of the lemon tree watching for the flash of green.
Chantecaille Vetyver has my favorite grapefruit paired with the other warm weather perfume ingredient, vetiver. In this case the sulfurous nature of the rind is allowed to find harmony with the sharp green facet of vetiver. In between is the tart pulp of the fruit. There was a study that wearing grapefruit makes people seeing you as younger than you are. I wonder if they see my inner ten-year-old when I wear this?
I’ll have some closing thoughts about the whole challenge tomorrow to bring this to a close.
If there is anything I associate as the scent of luxury it is leather. Leather always seems like an upgrade. Ricardo Montalban would tell me soft Corinthian leather was part of the luxury of the automobile he was hawking. The pieces of leather I’ve owned all seem like some of the most high-end things I own. Part of that is the smell of leather. There is something primal and opulent about it.
Leather has been a staple of modern perfumery since the 1927 release of Chanel Cuir de Russie by perfumer Ernest Beaux. Here is the thing there is no such thing as leather essential oil. When you smell leather in a perfume it has to be a created accord by the perfumer to smell like leather. When I learned this I realized whenever I smelt leather in a perfume, I was encountering a perfumer’s signature.
Because there is no one recipe every perfumer creates their own version of the accord. M. Beaux would use one of the materials used to tan leather, birch tar, as the foundation for the one in Cuir de Russie. Ever since, each perfumer has had the opportunity to evolve the making of their accord as more and more ingredients became available.
This has resulted in perfume with differing leather effects. They can be subtle as a driving glove to as robust as that original saddle leather. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour would make different leather accords for different compositions. He combined styrax and birch tar for the classic leather vibe. Frankincense, davana, cistus, and saffron form a piquant version. Angelica seed, blackcurrant bud, and tomato leaf form a raw untanned scent. My favorite is his combination of castoreum and ambergris. There is just the right balance of refined and animalic that is near perfect.
Quentin Bisch (l.) and Marc-Antoine Barrois
A recent pair of releases shows the difference ways a leather accord can be tuned to very different styles of perfume. Perfumer Quentin Bisch working with Marc-Antoine Barrois. Released their first perfume based on a leather accord called Marc-Antoine Barrois B683. This is that luxurious leather accord I spoke of at the beginning. This leather caresses and envelops me in all the things which make leather great. They would return a year later with Marc-Antoine Barrois Ganymede. This time the leather accord is used in a near transparent way allowing immortelle to tease out the ambergris I am pretty sure is there. This makes it that kind of salty animalic that I enjoyed so much by M. Duchaufour.
Leather is one of the most important accords in all of perfumery. It also allows the perfumers an opportunity to append a scented signature to their works. This is why I adore it.
There isn’t a great movie about perfume; yet. There is a great movie which features perfume prominently. As of now 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the best depiction of fragrance on the silver screen.
The movie was the eighth directed and written by Wes Anderson. Mr. Anderson has become one of the most reliable stylist auteurs working in movies. All his movies are multi-layered delights. The Grand Budapest Hotel works as a fractured non-linear tale told via time jumping.
It opens with a reporter meeting the owner of the titular edifice, Zero, in 1968. He wants to know how he went from lobby boy to owner. Zero tells the story beginning with his hiring in 1932. The man who hires him is Monsieur Gustave H. He is the majordomo of the hotel in its heyday. In control of everything from his appearance to his guests needs.
The important part of his appearance is his own signature perfume L’Air de Panache. People know where he has been if they smell it in the air. After one harrowing experience in the movie the first thing he asks for is some L’Air de Panache.
This is the depiction of the concept of the “signature scent”. It has never been depicted in a movie as well. For Gustave H it is part of who he is. He allows fragrance a piece of his personality to present to the world. When he has been deprived of it, he wants it.
For most who wear perfume this concept is what draws them to it. To have a scent which speaks to the world around you. I would say it is a piece of the popularity of artisanal and niche perfumery. That desire to find a scent which presents the way you see yourself to others.
While I don’t have any single perfume which I would consider a signature. I do have perfumes which fit specific occasions communicating the way I am feeling.
For weekend outings Thierry Mugler Cologne or Beth Terry Mare are the fragrance equivalent of jeans and t-shirt. When I am asked to something more formal Clive Christian C or Tom Ford Noir de Noir always seem perfect underneath a tux. I can’t reduce the wide world of perfume down to one single choice. It is too wonderful to me for that.
What The Grand Budapest Hotel does is depict how the right scent makes the person.
Postscript: In the movie L’Air de Panache did not exist. The bottles were filled with water. By the time of the World Premiere Mr. Anderson turned to perfumer Mark Buxton to create an actual version. It was given out as gifts to the cast and crew at the premiere.
I’m going a little bit outside the boundaries of the challenge for today. Part of what has made me want to do this is it encouraged me to look perfume as part of a wider experience in my life. Which brings me to adding “prose” to the direction of “posting ten smells, perfumes or posters”. There is one book which is part of my fragrance experience. Especially when I re-read it years after the first time; the perfume part of it really resonated.
One of my favorite authors is Tom Robbins. Ever since I read “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” in 1976 I was hooked on his unique comedic style of storytelling. Which meant that in 1984 when his fourth novel was released called “Jitterbug Perfume” I was there on the first day it was published. At this point in time I was interested in the author while having little knowledge of the perfume industry. I was treated to another time-spanning story of memorable characters with perfume at the center of it all. It was the characters which I remembered.
I picked it up again eight years ago and it was an entirely different experience. This time my knowledge of perfumery gave even greater life to the characters. Three of the protagonists represent the three levels of modern perfumery. As I read the novel, I was reading things which rang true within the contexts of a novel and liberties being taken.
It is difficult to encapsulate a Tom Robbins story, but I am going to try.
The titular fragrance is an ancient perfume created by King Alobar and Kudra. The lovers were searching for the secret to immortality. Along the way they succeed and open a perfume shop in 17th century Paris.
In the present day, the remains of the last bottle of Jitterbug Perfume reside with Seattle waitress and aspiring perfumer Priscilla. Her stepmother, based in New Orleans, Madame Devalier is also trying to re-create the perfume for a competition in Paris. Claude and Marcel LeFever are the heads of the large commercial LaFever Parfumerie.
It was easy for me to see the small independent perfumer in Priscilla. Wanting to understand the perfume she has as a gateway to creating her own. Madame Devalier has a different tack as she sources a unique variety of Jamaican jasmine delivered by a man covered in live bees. This is that indie way of finding or making unique ingredients to make a singular perfume. The LaFever’s are a family business with a precocious talent in Marcel. They are developing the synthetic equivalent of Jitterbug Perfume.
This is the perspective of the large perfume brand. Can you still be creative even while forgoing the natural inspirations?
Our perfumers each receive a beet through mysterious circumstances at the beginning. By the end all the stories will come together in Paris. The final piece of wisdom comes from Alobar as she reveals the secret to immortality is to, “lighten up”.
I know many think “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Suskind is the novel which represents perfumery. I find the overall depiction of perfumery much more appealing in Jitterbug Perfume. Especially the reminder to lighten up which seems more important these days.
As I was thinking about the scents which have made an impact on me I realized I had a resource right in front of me. In the same way I use my iTunes most played list to give me insight into music I love. The perfume vault has the same ability. I can just look over the shelves and see what trends there are to be seen.
As I did this it became apparent, almost immediately, what the perfume ingredient I own the most of. There isn’t a shelf which doesn’t have a few incense perfumes on them. I’m not talking about perfumes which feature incense I’m talking about the ones where it is the star.
I spent some time thinking about why that is so. I’ve written in a Christmas article that when I attended my first Midnight Mass the smell of the censers is one of the ingrained memories.
I also remember walking though a Hippie encampment in a local park during the Summer of Love. Incense burned throughout the impromptu community. My memory of that is entwined with incense and patchouli. I remember thinking there was something exotic about it. Which at nine years old there was.
I’ve been trying to remember what the first incense perfume was that I purchased. I don’t think I can put my finger on it. I have many of the great incense perfumes to enjoy. There are also versions which run from austere to opulent. My mood tells me if I want Midnight Mass or Hippie Camp. I have plenty of both.
When I’m in a religious mood and want church-like incense I turn to Comme des Garcons Avignon, Heeley Cardinal, or Juozas Stakevicius. All three are the scent of that ceremonial censer leaving a fragrant cloud of smoke at the end of each precession. This kind of incense has a metallic sheen to it that increases my enjoyment.
At the other end of the scale is Amouage Jubilation XXV which is the richest incense perfume I own. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour created a perfume meant to luxuriate in.
There are also smoky versions of incense which capture the intersection of resin and campfire. The one I wear when craving that experience is Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure.
I think the reason I own, and enjoy, so many is there is something spiritual. I can feel like I am speaking to something outside of myself when I wear these perfumes for enjoyment. All good perfume makes me happy. My incense perfumes also make me content.
Art has many reasons for being. One of them is to provoke. There are pieces of art which cause the viewer to confront their beliefs. In every form of art you can name a critical piece which has provocation as one of its aims. Through the emotional response generated it allows for the person to ask themselves where their boundaries lie for the art form. It can also ask you to look more closely at something you would normally avoid.
Etienne de Swardt
If you believe perfume is an art form, then it can’t just be about smelling pretty. It must be about more than that. When Creative Director Etienne de Swardt created his brand Etat Libre d’Orange he decided to give modern perfumery that opportunity.
The perfume is called Secretions Magnifiques. M. de Swardt and perfumer Antoine Lie set out to make a perfume few would like. That doesn’t mean this is a poorly made chaotic mess. It is the opposite. Secretions Magnifique is one of the most precisely created perfumes I own. What makes it potentially unlikeable is what it chooses to focus on, bodily fluids. Not just bodily fluids but the ones which do not smell pretty. As all perfume it was meant to mimic something real. It succeeds brilliantly even if you might want to avoid it.
The perfume opens with a mixture of aldehydes, iodine, and seaweed. This is a harsh opening which asks the wearer from the first second to evaluate their idea of perfume. This turns out to represent the salty base which exists at the foundation of all the fluids they want to capture. Combined with some ozonic notes you get the spine-chilling buzz of adrenaline. Copper scents the blood oozing out. A sour milk accord is followed by a stale sperm. It all is regurgitated in a spill of bile. It is as if you have been accosted by your perfume. You ask yourself questions about fragrance you never thought you would ask. Brilliantly over the final stages powdery iris and sandalwood bring you back to where many other perfumes end. This time the journey asked more of you.
Trying Secretions Magnifiques is a ritual for many. There are numerous online videos full of people making faces as they try it for the first time. I was no different. Except I realized I needed to own a bottle because this was perfume which asked me to look beyond smelling good. It asked me to consider the potential of perfume to exist in the same way as any other art form.
One of the reasons I love perfume is because I am a chemist. I have been fascinated with the structure and scent of the molecules which make up my favorite perfumes. As much as the early years of this century unmasked the perfumers it also revealed the ingredients. As I wanted to know more about fragrance, I definitely wanted to know more about the molecules.
The entry point was through a molecule which is considered one of the most influential in all of perfumery; Iso E Super. I became aware of it through two perfume releases in 2006. The first was Terre D’Hermes. That was a revolutionary men’s perfume where perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena employed an overdose of 55% of it. It would make for one of the best perfumes of this century. There was a kaleidoscopic effect as it moved from dried mineralic earth to austere woody. I remember someone telling me on one of the forums it was due to this chemical called Iso E Super. I started educating myself on it through the scientific literature.
Almost contemporaneously fellow chemist and perfumer Geza Schoen would assist in my study. In the end of 2006 he would release Escentric Molecule 01. It wasn’t an overdose of Iso E Super it was only Iso E Super. Right about the time I was wanting to try and find a way to source some to smell it. Hr. Schoen provided that opportunity to me. It showed that it could be a perfume all its own. It also helped to illustrate the brilliance of M. Ellena now that I knew what had been amplified in Terre D’Hermes.
It made me accelerate my desire for knowledge of the ingredients that make up my favorite perfumes. Over the past years I have had the opportunity to speak with chemists who make new ingredients. I’ve been fascinated with the similarity to my job in drug discovery and their job of fragrance and flavor discovery.
It hasn’t just been the chemistry it has also been other scientific breakthroughs. Things like supercritical fluid extraction where organic material is exposed to extremely cold liquid and then extracted. Giving significantly different scent profiles then the traditional organic solvent thermal ways. The ability to distil small fractions within a greater distillation has led to fractions of well-known ingredients where a particular facet is enhanced. The biological digestion of patchouli to give Akigalawood.
All of this has expanded the palette of my favorite perfumers. It is one of the reasons perfumery remains so vital. An ever-changing roster of new materials allows for new ways to tell scented stories.
As much as I love perfume for the beauty, I am also deeply invested in the science behind it. It all started with Iso E Super.
Part of this challenge is also to think of visual art which is associated with scent. The painting “Fumee d’ambre gris” by artist John Singer Sargent does that.
Living in Boston for 18 years I first learned of Mr. Sargent through the murals that seemed to be all over the area. I was surprised to learn that he wasn’t a New Englander. That even though he was born to American parents he spent most of his life overseas. I first ran into this specific piece of art when I was living in Connecticut. I had a good friend who loved taking day trips to The Clark Art Institute Museum just a short drive north from us. I tagged along one day on his trip to The Clark only to be drawn to this painting.
john Singer Sargent
In the hush of the museum I appreciated the skill of using different shades of white to create most of the effect. I would later learn the technique is to add just a tiny bit of color to create the shading. At the time I first saw this I was just getting into perfume. I was probably wearing either Calvin Klein Obsession for Men or Estee Lauder Metropolis. I didn’t make the connection to the ambergris in the brazier and the scent I was wearing. The next time I would be standing in front of it that was almost all I could think of.
My appreciation of the scent connection came through my association with Editor-in-Chief of CaFleureBon, Michelyn Camen. One thing that blog is known for is her exquisite art direction. On a near daily basis she adds art to the words. She used “Fumee d’ambre gris” as an illustration of an Oriental perfume. Almost thirty years later I looked again with my nose and eyes in concert. I needed to visit it again.
I convinced Mrs. C we should go for a drive one summer day. I suggested visiting The Clark might be a fun time. She agreed and off we went. This time I was drawn more deeply into the subject of the painting over the technique.
I have always enjoyed the etymology of the word perfume. it comes from the Latin phrase “per fumus” which translates to “through smoke”. Here was a depiction of scent through smoke. A literal version of per fumus.
I was also drawn into who is the person in the paining. When I first saw it, I thought this was a nun of some religious order. Upon returning to it I realized this was a woman applying her scent of the day. As she stands above it the swirls of smoking ambergris are captured within her clothing. It is a person who wants to smell different. Which is what all of us who love perfume desire. The idea of standing close by as fragrant smoke envelops me sounds great.
This time I know exactly what perfume I was wearing. It was its acquisition which sent me on this trip because it reminded me of the painting. I had just received a bottle of Amouage Amber Attar. This is one of the treasured attars of the brand I own. It smells like nothing else. Even the liquid clings to the stopper with a noticeable viscosity.
This time I stood in front of this masterpiece fully engaged through sight and scent. Standing at a sensory intersection where life is at its most beautiful.
Instead of reading or binge watching I’ve been spending some of my quarantine time in the perfume vault. One of the things I wanted to do was spend some time with my favorite perfume house, Jean Patou. I learned of Jean Patou early in my internet lurking on the perfume groups. When the nonsensical query of what the best men’s perfume is, I didn’t hear the names I knew. Instead this knowledgeable group asserted it was Patou pour Homme. I would hunt down a bottle soon after. It would begin my adoration of the perfumes as I began to acquire all of them I could. This collection of perfume has probably done more to shape the way I view perfume than any other.
Jean Patou was a fashion designer throughout the 1910’s and 20’s. His clothing was found on many of the women of the Lost Generation. He provided alternatives to the popular flapper style. In the mid-1920’s he branched out into fragrance. Hiring perfumer Henri Almeras they would make fourteen perfumes from 1925-1946.
Over these releases a distinct aesthetic formed. This is where I learned what it meant to have a single perfumer along with a single creative director form a tapestry perfume by perfume. The perfume Patou is known for, Joy, came out right in the middle. It remains one of the great floral perfumes ninety years on.
I came to know the other perfumes of the early Jean Patou when I purchased a still sealed set called Ma Collection. Inside were 12 X 2ml minis of almost all the early Henri Almeras Jean Patou perfumes. I would never get the opportunity to experience an entire collection in this way. As I worked my way through them each one spoke to me. There were subtle variations on a theme as the first three releases gave different carnation-based constructs. I think one of the reasons I adore carnation perfumes is because of Adieu Sagesse, Amour Amour, and Qui Sais-Je?.
Patou would have another period of greatness from 1972-1998 under the creative perfumer Jean Kerleo. The first perfume he did, 1000, would sear my love for another floral ingredient. He placed osmanthus atop a classic chypre base, If Joy was a floral which came out of its era the same was true of 1000.
Patou pour Homme does live up to its reputation as one of the best masculine perfumes ever. For all of that, it is the re-invention of the fougere in Ma Liberte that I think is the masterpiece of the Kerleo years. Adding a fresh floral heart amidst the spices and woods it remains my favorite modern fougere.
As I spent time over the last few weeks, I was struck by how similar M. Almeras and M. Kerleo were at pushing the edges. So many of the perfumes they made for Jean Patou would be the first of their kind. It is why the loss of this great house of perfume is so tragic.
If I had one perfume wish it would be for Jean Patou to be given the chance to be seen again in all of its glory.
One of the things about this challenge is it caused me to think back. To identify the first memory I have associated with scent. Being born in South Florida that memory should be the Florida Water which probably scented my crib. I don’t remember that. It turns out it is tied to another major event in a child’s life, the removal of training wheels from my bicycle.
It probably happened sometime in the mid 1960’s. I had convinced my father that I was ready to have the training wheels taken off my bicycle. I wanted to ride on two wheels like the big kids. It also was a freedom thing. With the wheels on I was confined to traveling only the sidewalk around my block. Once I was on two wheels there was more of the world I could see.
The first task was straying upright on the bike. It took us some time for me to get the hang of keeping my balance. I had a couple of decent scrapes on knees and elbows by the time I could keep myself going. Once that was accomplished, I had to go beyond the single block I had been seeing. I looked up at my father and asked if we could go to my grandmother’s house.
It was only one block over and one block up. It was like traveling to the moon. Undiscovered Country awaited. My dad smiled and said, “Sure, sport”. It was work to pedal my small bike with my child’s legs by the time we were close I was exhausted. The thing which helped was the scent of the gardenias in the yard of Grammy’s house. As we got close it was the smell of those flowers that let me know I was near my destination.
My grandfather had built this house from Florida pine with an understanding of the airflow. There was no air conditioning just a number of windows which could be opened to capture any breeze. It would be given some help by overhead fans lazily spinning in the ceilings. Completely surrounding the house were gardenia bushes. Within the house there were bowls of water with a fresh gardenia bloom floating there gently scenting the air. Gardenias slowly begin to turn brown after they have been removed from the bush. I knew what time of the day it was just by looking at the condition of the blooms in the bowls.
I believe it is one of the reasons I enjoy gardenia in perfume because it has been the alpha scent. Gardenia fragrances have been part of the white flower style of perfume since they became a thing in the first half of the 1900’s. Most of the time they are lush over the top styles. One example I have of that is 1932’s Tuvache Jungle Gardenia. It is a prime example of the gardenia and tuberose pairing which defines the white flower genre of perfume. Gardenia would go out of style because it had become too strongly associated with what has recently been dubbed “old lady perfume”.
The two most recent versions where that concept was modernized are Estee Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia and Tom Ford Velvet Gardenia. Then there are two which capture the raw scent of the soil along with the gardenia; JAR Jarling and Van Cleef & Arpels Gardania Petale.
I am not sure any of those have fully shaken off the undesired sobriquet of perfume for senior citizens. I don’t care because they all find that place where gardenia lives in my memory. A young child venturing out into the world beyond the front door. Destination: the gardenia scented yard of my grandmother.