I am obsessed, obsessed, obsessed with perfume right now, as only I can be – to the exclusion of everything else, like unpacking boxes, paying bills, fixing dinner. Since I can think of little else, I’m going to rant about the world of perfume and the even more amazing world of perfume writing. Ever been in a restaurant with a fantastic wine list, or read a poetic label and thought, “Okay, I can’t even taste these aspects of chocolate-lavender-supple tannins, but it is good,” as you poured a glass? The world of perfume is like that, only more so.
Ever since reading Denyse Beaulieu’s The Perfume Lover, I’ve been learning about a whole new way of knowing, of linking your personal experience, body chemistry, and memories with some technical terms like “accord,” “top notes,” and “dry down.” It’s a form of Proustian indulgence and expertise. The writing is so seductive that I won’t even waste more time. See for yourself:
“But what kept me interested were the film-noirish twists and turns of Bandit’s plot: a languid, jasmine, tuberose and gardenia heart, caught up between the earthy green galbanum and bitter artemisia of the top notes and the dark, smoky-leathery base notes . . . a crawl through a garden, wet earth and grass sticking to her stockings; a tar-roof shed where she shares black-market American cigarettes with a hunted man ….” (Denyse Beaulieu on Robert Piguet’s 1947 Bandit perfume).
Or, Luca Turin writing about the same perfume’s reissue of the 1947 original, comparing it to a “vintage” aircraft that has lots of reconstructed parts:
“This version of the 1947 original is a bit like a reconstructed Bell X-1 supersonic aircraft: sleek, beautifully done, and a mite too clean, as if ready for a movie shoot. But the magic is all there: bitter, dark yet fresh, beguiling without any softness, and still several unlit streets ahead of of every other leather chypre around.” (Perfumes: The Guide)
Film noir, mid century planes, tar . . . sign me UP! Even without my laptop for a week, I snuck onto my dad’s computer, whipped out my credit card, and ordered my first 1.7 fluid oz of Bandit (thank god they still make it!) that has changed my life. This is a good starter perfume for me, because its appeal explains a whole lot. I hate girly, flowery fragrances, and I can never find anything in a department store, or in magazine samples, that I like. Also, I’ve always been drawn to men’s cologne more than women’s fragrances. Bandit is unisex. It is strong and it stinks (in a good way). The only thing around that I can compare it to in mainstream contemporary perfume experience is Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir, a kickass, smoky stink bomb of a perfume that you would get you thrown out of your allergist’s office asap. At age 47, with a houseful of unusual shit, years of adventure as a single woman, and questionable taste, I’ve earned the right to wear Bandit.
Perfume writing has validated some kinkiness in my sense of smell. It’s okay to like smells of dirt, gasoline, aged cheese, and yes, that whiff of skin-and-sex that perfume writers actually do call “skank.” The original formulation of Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1937 perfume Shocking, says the fearless Denyse Beaulieu, contains notes of unwashed panties. Good lord. I’m learning that many perfumes today are tamed down and lobotomized from their original versions. Anything mass marketed for women nowadays has to appeal to berry smoothie- loving girls who giggle around the mall and would wrinkle their noses at anything like an unwashed XXX (insert gross body part and shrieks here).
Some of the scents I’ve tried lately (before my husband put a temporary stay on my experimentation) are Incense Avignon (think the smoky incense you smelled at mass if you went to Catholic school), and Vanille Absolutement (like old Havana supposedly smelled, with notes of waterfront vanilla, tobacco, and rum). They are not pretty, but they are compelling and interesting. The author of these particular fragrances is Bertrand Duchaufour, a perfumer with cult status (think winemaker Dave Phinney), a mix master who extracts life essences and bottles them. He collaborated with Denyse Beaulieu on Seville a L’Aube, a scent memory of a night she wandered the streets of Seville during a religious festival with her lover, a sensory mix of orange blossom, candle wax, and her lover’s lingering cigarettes. Last time I checked, this new cult-favorite had mixed reviews but was sold out. (God, people, the perfume blogs are astounding!)
I’ve also learned that many of the perfumes I’ve always been drawn to — Halston, Aromatics Elixir, Cristalle Chanel — three very different fragrances, are different faces of a common genre: chypre. Chypre is a citrus and oakmoss blend, often with headier patchouli undernotes, and it’s divided into leather chypres, green chypres, citrus chypres, fruity chypres, and more.
I am taking baby steps down a rabbit hole. I can tell this will be a long, hard addiction for me. Yesterday, my therapist and I spent at least a quarter of an hour, chatting as we often do around my ADD-fueled fixations, about his favorite Creed colognes.
There are some smells that even I don’t want to smell in bottle form. The first day that I finally broke down and got a Brevard County library card, I was accosted by an all-too-familiar stench. The man standing next to me browsing new books looked dapper, but he had alcohol oozing from his pores. This is a Florida retiree smell, or a parent who drunk-drives their kid to the library right after dinner (What?! You didn’t tell me this was due tomorrow!), frustrated because they’ve been working on job applications all day and finally just say “fuck it” at 5 o’clock when the kids are home from school and they think they’re done for the day. What would an artisan perfumer call this smell? “Biblioteque Publiques?” Top notes of bracing gin-and-tonic, poignant undercurrents of sweat and Scope mouthwash, balanced by heady accords of paper and book glue, drying down to a finish of dust, and the hearty combat of air conditioning versus humidity. Hmmmm… come to think of it, that does sound interesting. Go for it, Bertrand!