Sunday, 4 May 2014

Sally Blake on Perfume - Part 2

If you have picked up this book, you probably love perfume, and if you love perfume, it’s more than probable you feel guilty. 

You have been conditioned that way.

Collect antiques – you have a discerning eye, a love of good workmanship, a nose for a good investment. Collect stamps – you’ll be respected. Collect beer mats, butterflies, bottles, pot-lids, prints, song-sheets, 78 records, egg-cups, bobbins, glass or china shoes, fans, thimbles, postcards, programmes, cigarette cards, matchboxes, Dinky cars, dolls, teddy bears, or souvenir spoons, and there will be a society that caters for you and other fanatics.

Collect theatre memorabilia – posters, playbills – absolutely fascinating! Spend every last farthing on model trains and vintage cars, fill the garden with model gnomes and your house with Toby jugs, and people will say: “Oh, how interesting! It must give you so much pleasure!”

Eat out every night of your life, buy clothes every day, spend a King’s ransom at the hairdresser or Bingo, get drunk every day of your life, bet your child’s piggy bank on the ponies, and people will sigh, but they will understand.

Collect perfume, however, and be damned as profligate.

Even if you wash and set your own hair, dress at Oxfam, bake your own bread, paint your own ceiling, paper your own walls, lay your own lino, [make your daughter’s dresses] cut your own carpets, darn, sew, mend, cook and clean –

- and buy perfume?

You’re a wanton – an extravagant fool.

“What do you do with it?”
“But you haven’t used what you had!”
“Not more perfume! What do you want it all for?”

Don’t try to explain. Anyone who has to ask wouldn’t understand. They won’t understand the importance of shape, of curve or line, the satisfaction of the weight of a crystal flacon in the palm of your hand, the way it catches the light, shining by day, glowing by night. The pleasure of a ground-glass stopper that fits one bottle only and no other.

They won’t know about the signals sent out by first one scent, and then another, making their presence felt.

Yet take heart, you are a soul under the skin, and kin to all those spellbound by scent for more than 5000 years.

Perfume always was expensive. When Mary Magdalen bathed Christ’s feet in scented oil, she was rebuked by all but Christ himself for her extravagance.

Tracing the origins of perfume, seeing first one civilisation and then another become its willing slave; watching people who had never bothered with it – the Romans, the Hebrews, Western Europeans, fall helplessly victim, it is like watching a sandstorm or a rolling fog. Spreading like a plague, silent, unseen, unstoppable.

If perfume had shape it would be that of an octopus, with tentacles spread wide. Its embrace that of the python, swift, deadly, with no possible escape.

More absolute even than religious mania, for as an addiction it has never been conquered. Alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, all can and have been rejected and discouraged. Perfume, never.

Perhaps the only public figure truly to recognise the terrifying power of perfume was Oliver Cromwell, who banned it. Furthermore, he decreed that any woman using perfume as a means to ensnare a man would be found guilty of witchcraft.

Witchcraft? Yes, I suppose I’ll settle for that.

The trouble with perfume is you can’t see it. You can’t hang it on a coat-hanger and look at it. You can’t eat it (although the Romans did their best), and you can’t drink it – officially. Unofficially, alcoholics in extremis are not that choosy.

Therefore, perfume cannot be said to serve any useful purpose whatsoever, which is why it is, and always has been, the ultimate luxury.

As it is my firm conviction that the Art of Perfumery – if not actually stone-dead, is in its final death throes – and as it is not the intention of this exercise to be a token framework via which to plug present day “perfumes” – more numerous than the fleas on a hyena’s back – it will be obvious that assistance has not been sought, and therefore, not provided by those “houses” most culpable of hastening the death.

The age of the Master Perfumer has passed, and like Shakespeare’s “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”, the Master Perfumer has passed into history, leaving a lone survivor in Jean-Paul Guerlain, with no sign of a successor. Jean-Paul Guerlain has claimed that Guerlain is “The Vatican of the Perfume World”, and few would dispute his claim.

Great assistance has been rendered by Guerlain, one of the few remaining houses to retain standards and keep faith with their past and their public.

[I found the following sentence angrily scored through:]

The fifth generation of Guerlains to follow in the family trade, JPG took over the reins in 1963, and although all he has managed to produce since then have been ‘safe’ florals, he is at least still continuing the family tradition.


[At the time of writing] The owner of a rather swish French bistro is offering a free dinner for two to anyone who can tell her where she can find a bottle of Robert Piguet’s Visa.

Shall I wait until my next trip to Paris, bring some back and claim the dinner, or just tell her where she can find it? The snag is that apart from the fare, it will cost her £40 for just a ¼ of an ounce. Mind you, with Giorgio costing £52.50 per ¼ ounce, Visa is a snip.

What she seeks is currently keeping company with Carven’s Vert et Blanc, and Chasse Gardée, Raphael’s Réplique and Plaisir; Lanvin’s L’Âme Perdue, and Caron’s Coup de Fouet along with many others including some early Schiaparellis, some discontinued Molinards and Revillons, the odd Arys, Viville, Grenoville, Ybry, Vigny, Corday, Lucien Lelong, Pacquin, etc and all on the shelves of a boutique run by a sharp little Parisien.[i]

For although we live in a time when new scents are launched every five minutes and tumble into the shops with unseemly haste at ever more astronomical prices, there are still some people left with long memories who are not taken in by slick advertising and can tell the difference between real scent and insect-spray. In my opinion, compared to pre-1950’s perfumes, that is all modern scent deserves to be called.

The companies who produce them and who have taken over all but a handful of the French perfume houses, are mostly chemical, pharmaceutical and pesticide conglomerates, so perhaps it would be naïve to expect them to know the difference.

But before Estée Lauder launched Youth Dew in 1953 and the perfume world said goodbye to subtlety forever, perfume was an Art. The perfumer spent many painstaking months orchestrating the ingredients of a new creation, ensuring that each would sing in turn before reaching a crescendo, which would then gradually fade to a gentle murmur.

It is the function of a great fragrance to suggest - not to kick you in the stomach, clout you over the head, bring tears to your eyes or your last meal back into your throat.

A great fragrance drifts like a cloud; it is not a suffocating fog or a poisonous gas. It is a slight haze on a summer afternoon, a balmy breeze on a velvet evening. Elusive as a wisp of smoke or a falling leaf: tantalising, suggestive. As impossible to catch as a soap-bubble. The great perfumers created potions designed to react with individual body chemicals and ensured that no fragrance smelled exactly the same on any two people. The first “top note” gave way to the “heart” which developed into the longer lasting “base”. [ii]

Sadly, the other major contribution to the demise of the art of perfume was the part played by everybody’s High Street favourite: Boots the Chemist.

Boot’s are one, if not the most influential and powerful market world-wide for perfume and toiletries, and the conditions they place on potential orders must be obeyed. Part of those conditions is that any product they agree to buy must be extensively advertised. If it is not, they will not carry it. The smaller perfume houses simply could not afford to meet these conditions, so they either went out of business or were acquired in take-overs by larger companies – which in a great many cases amounted to the same thing. The net result was an inevitable drop in standards and a reduction of choice.

The situation has produced a desperate nostalgia and yearning in those who can remember when it was otherwise, and who would willingly wear sack-cloth, walk bare-foot, eat dry crusts and drink pond-water – or offer free meals at their restaurants – if they could only find their favourite scents again.

Recently hearts lifted when rumours flew that Worth was bringing back their legendary Dans la Nuit, only to sink again in despair when it proved to be with a new formula.

Similarly, Weil’s re-issue of Bambou proved a sad disappointment to hopeful afficionados of the original, when they realised it was not their Bambou, but a new version.

For whilst “a rose by any other name” may smell as sweet, nothing else can expect to call itself “rose” and get away with it: as devotees of Coty’s Chypre found to their shock when Coty reissued something masquerading under that name in the USA last year.

While most of these beloved old scents have disappeared into legend, some just can’t be bothered to travel and can be found sitting smugly on the shelves at home. Carven’s evocation of first nights and taxis: Robe d’un Soir is one. Weil de Weil is another, and there are many more.

To Caron’s eternal credit, all their past triumphs are available at their salon in the Avenue Montaigne (except Adastra and a very few early creations, e.g., London-Paris) and in a select few stores in London and New York.

But now D’Orsay make only two, and neither are available in the United Kingdom. Rigaud make candles. Corday went into Max Factor and never came out. Houbigant went Stateside. Lubin went bust. Piver sells only to Africa.

It would be absurd to pretend that this has any hope of being a rational treatise on 20th Century perfume. Besotted and bewitched as I am by the sorcerer’s art, rationality is impossible.

Still reeling from the experience of Kalispera, I have fallen into a swoon with Sous le Vent; before that it was Vert et Blanc, before that N, and long before that, and what started all this in the first place? It was Diorama.

Sally Blake
Date unknown

[i] Sadly, the identity of this shop and its owner went with my mother to the grave, although I suspect the shop itself may have beaten her to it.
[ii] This of course, posed an inevitable threat to sales and would seem to have been perhaps the chief concern of the large, target-driven companies who took over the old firms from the 1960’s onwards. If only a certain amount of customers could wear a particular scent, then it stood to reason that such a product was not economically viable. The solution was to ensure that every scent smelled the same on everyone, and thus artificial “fixatives” were added to every new fragrance invented that guaranteed the emergence of the “base” note right away, and did not permit any individual “development”. Penhaligons’ Bluebell is still the best evocation of Hyacinth one will ever smell, but it’s poisonous on me. To their eternal credit, they have actually made this its USP – if it works on you, you’re one of the chosen few. If it doesn’t, buy something else! EWB.