Whats that gorgeous scent in the air? Its the smell of change, as fragrance lovers educate themselves and become proper perfume connoisseurs, says Lucia van der Post
What’s that gorgeous scent in the air? It’s the smell of change, as fragrance lovers educate themselves and become proper perfume connoisseurs, says Lucia van der Post
THE PROBLEM WITH the world of perfume, as anybody trying to wend their way through the myriad bottles on the big department stores’ shelves will find, is that there are simply too many of them. Most years around 600 new perfumes are launched. Until fairly recently the ones that brought smiles to the boffins in the counting houses were the ones with the big names, the huge budgets, all produced to a carefully crafted marketing brief. What was once an artisanal craft, reliant on the skills and creativity of a talented ‘nose’, had become a ‘product’ dreamed up by the great soap-powder manufacturers.
As Frédéric Malle, founder of Editions de Parfums, which is entirely given over to beautifully made, complex, very fine scents, puts it: ‘The name of the game is usually to make a nice pretty-pretty bottle, put the smallest common denominator into that bottle and have a big ad campaign.’ Altogether it is more a marketing exercise than a creative one. No wonder the magic appeared to have gone.
However, there’s a blessed change wafting gently through. There’s a growing band of what I suppose we must call ‘perfume connoisseurs’, sophisticated fans who are as knowledgeable about their subject as any art or music critic. Frequently they share their enthusiasm online, in the growing band of perfume blogs where they chat endlessly about their favourite passion. They know their bergamot from their patchouli, their top notes from their base, and it is they who have helped fuel a demand for very, very fine fragrances.
They’ve learned that a fine perfume is as much a ‘work of art’ as a beautiful canvas, and that you pay for creativity and top-notch ingredients in a perfume just as much as for a touch of the late Alexander McQueen’s genius. They understand the difference between the olfactory style of, for instance, a Jean-Claude Ellena (Hermès’s perfume genius) and a Dominique Ropion, rather in the way fashionistas align themselves with John Galliano or Karl Lagerfeld. So now that we have a sophisticated consumer who understands that creativity and innovation are at the heart of fine perfumes, we find that there is a growing number of small houses concentrating on producing perfumes the old-fashioned way — that is, by making the finest eau they can, from the very best materials around.
Here in the UK we have Lyn Harris of Miller Harris, who learned her craft at Robertet, the world-famous Grasse institution devoted to all things olfactory, and makes her perfumes with passion. They’re subtle, complex and fine, and though you’ll like some better than others (my own favourite is l’Air de Rien, originally made only for Parisian icon Jane Birkin, though I’m also fond of Figue Amère), the wonderful thing about them is that they’re not everywhere and you know that if you buy one you’ll be one of an insider elite. Just to add to the gathering interest around the brand, Sam Cameron chose Miller Harris scented candles to give as a present to Michelle Obama.
Then we have Linda Pilkington of Ormonde Jayne, who has developed a distinctive, voluptuous olfactory handwriting of her own. She first used hemlock, champaca, Ta’is (an Arabian rose) and other exotic ingredients from the East, which is no doubt why her perfumes are most often described as ‘elegant yet opulent’. Luca Turin and his wife Tania Sanchez, co-authors of Perfumes: The Guide, every serious perfume lover’s bible, give two of her scents their coveted five stars. Ormonde Woman, says Tania, is ‘a full-fledged perfume with all the sophistication of Bois des Iles’ (a Chanel perfume that Tania rates as ‘perfect’), and of Ormonde Man Luca says: ‘Hear it once and you’ll want it again.’ Isfarkand, her all-time best-seller, has pink pepper from Provence and cedarwood to give it an Ormonde Jayne twist and add an ‘addictive’ note. She’s innovative, too.
Then we come to two great French perfumers, Serge Lutens and Frédéric Malle, whose creations are eagerly awaited by every sophisticated follower of fragrance, though they work in entirely different ways. Lutens made his name as the creative director for Shiseido and started on his new career as a perfumer when he came up with one of the world’s most famous scents: Shiseido’s Feminité du Bois. It was the first woody perfume for women and it took the perfume world by storm.
What appeals to fans of Lutens is his way of injecting something dark, unexpected and almost jarring into the more predictable essences. Not being a trained nose, he often works with Christopher Sheldrake (now at Chanel), but he has managed to combine a Japanese sense of refinement and elegance with the sensuality of Morocco, where he now lives. His Iris Silver Mist, for instance, was inspired by the smell of a Moroccan bookshop and it is today thought of as the defining Iris perfume, which Luca Turin gives five stars and calls ‘the powderiest, rootiest, most sinister iris imaginable, a huge grey ostrich-feather boa to wear with purple devore velvet at a poet’s funeral’.
MALLE TAKES A very different approach. He himself is not a nose but, distressed by the plight of genuinely creative parfumiers who were always obliged to work to bland marketing briefs and seldom had a chance to create the perfumes of their dreams, he decided to seek out the finest in the field (Ellena, Ropion, Maurice Roucel, to name just a few) and give them a very simple brief: create the perfumes that they really wanted to make. He gave them no limitations on cost (‘Perfumes without compromise’ is his slogan) or materials, no instructions about target markets or ‘branding’.
Malle was allowed by the widow of Edmond Roudnitska, whom Luca Turin calls the Mozart of postwar French perfumery (he came up with Dior’s Eau Sauvage and Diorissimo, the archetypal muguet, and Femme for Rochas), to make the perfume that Roudnitska created for his wife and which only she ever wore. It’s called Le Parfum de Thérèse, its water fruit accord was some 40 years ahead of its time, and it’s one of my all-time favourites. His perfumes arouse intense passions — you’ll absolutely love them or you’ll know immediately that they are not for you.
Newer on the block is Kilian Hennessy, part of the Hennessy family of Moët Hennessy fame, whose L’oeuvre Noir collection was strongly inspired by Baudelaire. Hennessy ‘wanted to cast a spell, like those that darkened Rimbaud’s spirit or conjured up the witches in Macbeth’. He loves names like Liaisons Dangereuses, Prelude to Love: Invitation, Straight to Heaven, Beyond Love and Cruel Intentions, all of which echo the dark and passionate worlds that so intrigue him. But key to everything he does is that he considers great perfume to be an art, and ‘once you think of it that way it changes how you work’.
WHAT IS ENCOURAGING is that interest taken in these niche players has encouraged some of the big players to make a bit more fuss over some of their finest perfumes, and to realise that there is a highly sophisticated market out there. Chanel, for instance, besides its world-famous Chanel No 5, had some fabulous perfumes that were created by the great nose Ernest Beaux and were only ever available in its own boutiques — Cuir de Russie (rich and leathery, my own favourite), Gardenia (a green floral), Bois des Iles (spicy) and No 22.
For those who knew they were there and loved them, they were a chance to wear something that you scarcely ever met on anybody else. Since then it has gone to build on this and got its in-house nose Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake to come up with more truly lovely scents in their Les Exclusifs range. Though it’s hard to choose, I’d say Coromandel is my favourite. They’re only available in Chanel stores and selected boutiques.
Finally, it’s worth saying that simply because something is ‘niche’ doesn’t automatically make it great. Almost no other product is as hard to define in words as scent or smell, and few arouse such passion. If you want to find the scent you dream about, the one that’s really ‘you’, then there’s no substitute for a really good sniff.
Illustration by Sonia Hensler