Cheap Thrills

Scent Essences Fragrance Oils Les Senteurs Blog Aroma Folio

There has been much talk in the newspapers about a new fragrance stocked by the 99p store chain which costs precisely that. No harm in that. Good for them. As Noel Coward wrote in Private Lives – “Strange how potent cheap music is” – the same can be true of scent, and variety is very much the spice of perfume life and adventure. I think we’ve all bought something inexpensive and fun on the spur of the moment in the airport duty-free, buoyed up by the high spirits and hysteria of being let off the leash for a break. And the cheap treasures you buy at your destination is another story. When I first discovered Tunisia over ten years ago I spent happy hours every evening in the Jasmine Supermarket smelling their enormous range of perfumed oils which retailed at the equivalent of £1.50 a bottle, each little flacon crowned with a tasteful butter yellow plastic lotus. Natural jasmine, lilac, musk, amber, tuberose, osmanthus, lemon flower absolute, waterlily – by the end of the week I had collected more or less the entire set. In the dry July heat wave with nothing to do all day but swim, sleep, paint and gaze at that glorious sapphire sea framed in the ruins of ancient Carthage they smelled absolutely divine; my senses reeled. I thought I had stocked my perfume wardrobe for a lifetime, solved the perfume problem forever. But of course, once back at work in London in a damp grey muggy July, Cinderella’s glittering carriage reverted to a very mouldy pumpkin indeed and unsuitable even for bath oils, the entire lot had to be flushed away, all passion spent.

Nevertheless, although the gilt was well and truly stripped from the gingerbread in short order, those little bottles had served their purpose: a olfactory adventure whose sweetness and sheer amusement enhanced the holiday and broadened the mind. We should not take perfume too seriously: it is meant to be a delight, an adornment of life. Nowadays, rather like food and eating, it is too often presented as something portentous, solemn and dutiful. Also, miracles can and do happen. Last summer I went for an al fresco lunch in a Teddington garden which was filled with the most heavenly scent of roses; yet no roses could I see, merely hollyhocks and sunflowers. Turned out, of course, that my host had dabbed on a few drops of a rose oil picked up in an Indian bazaar, and without breaking the bank at that. Did it smell so divine because I was meeting it for the first time, without the holiday connotations? Or was it a superior blend? Immaterial really: just because a scent is cheap does not mean it will smell inferior or not make an effective statement.

Take another analogy: the movies. Bette Davis in All About Eve, sitting in a snowbound car and skilfully lighting yet another cigarette in lumpy knitted white gloves. “I detest cheap sentiment”, she rasps as she snaps off “Liebestraum” on the radio. The sort of scene that is often disparaged by the careless as cinematic camp: but what is camp if not a knowing manipulation and skilful if flamboyant overplaying of the emotions of the emotions? a staginess that pulls it off; a flagrant demonstration of the emotions that thrills rather than embarrasses; “The Lie That Tells The Truth” as an artful book on the subject calls it. A quickly assembled, economically produced perfume can have exactly the same effect: Ma Griffe and Je Reviens, although reduced to less-than-a-tenner chemist’s shelves still awaken memories and dream dreams; the present formulation of Dana’s Tabu comes in at even less but still hypnotises with its smoky sweet sexy louche allure.

I can think of at least two classics that have gone the other way, and found that their appeal increased as they were priced up: famously, Mrs Lauder’s Youth Dew (in which I smelled Dietrich soaked when I kissed her hand in 1972) began life as a bath oil and thanks to its massive success was rapidly upgraded to a perfume proper. It was always said that Guerlain discontinued their fabulous bath oils of Shalimar, Mitsouko and Co. because they worked so well as perfumes; and, as they were cheaper, tended to undercut the fragrance sales. It was not for nothing that Joy owed so much of its reputation to the inspired tag line “The Most Expensive Perfume In the World” – a selling slogan still quoted as fact today (quite erroneously) and remembered by people who have never even smelled the fragrance. In perfume as in most other things there can be a snobbery attached to the price you pay: “I must have excellent taste,” as people tend to say as they are obliged to fork out top-dollar.

For me the only intrinsic fault of a cheap perfume is that it tends to pall rather quickly on account of the fact that you can bottom it all too easily: it is generally a short-term experience, like watching tv soaps rather than reading an engrossing novel. The ingredients may lack integrity or depth; the product is usually assembled by a few pre-prepared accords rather than a painstaking hand-picked selection of notes. For this is what you SHOULD be paying for in an expensive perfume: artistic expertise from an inspired nose and the best possible quality ingredients. And this does not necessarily imply natural oils – rather indeed the reverse. The skilled perfumer demands quality, not quantity. He works with the very best materials whether they be sourced in Swiss lab or an Indonesian rain forest. He refuses to compromise, following his heart and his instinct as much as his head. He challenges you to follow and interpret his vision. His packaging will usually be chic and appealing but not wantonly expensive: like the eating of oysters, you pay for what is inside.

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HMS Titanic

The Titanic

My eye caught this week by a 1st Class Sunday Luncheon Menu from the Titanic, up for auction shortly and expected to fetch in excess of £100,000. The last lunch before the sinking, and a most extraordinary menu it looks to the fine diner of today: mutton chops, corned beef, beetroot and lettuce, brawn, cockaleekie soup, dumplings,jacket potatoes and custard puddings; lager at 6d a tankard. One might say at best, plain and hearty. I thought of the great Edwardian beauty Diana Cooper and her comment in extreme old age,”no wonder we were all so fat – even the ballerinas.”

So this is what the Astors, the Guggenheims and the Strausses (who owned Macy’s) tucked into. And the exquisite Lady Duff Gordon (sister of best-selling novelist and inventor of the “It” girl, Elinor Glyn). Under the nom de guerre of “Lucile” she was then London’s leading couturiere: later that night as she sat in a lifeboat in a icy sea surrounded by drowning souls, her only comment was to remark to her lady-secretary,”there is your beautiful nightgown gone!”

I discovered the Titanic one Christmas afternoon in the 1960’s when A Night To Remember popped up on tv: it was strong stuff for those days and made my parents (not generally squeamish)feel rather sick. But the disaster and all its attendant myths, legends and factoids cast its heady spell over us as it has done across the world for a century.
So many anecdotes, factoids and theories now encrust the wreck like barnacles: the cursed mummy of an Egyptian princess in the hold, bound for a New York museum; a priceless jewelled copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; the prototype of Creed‘s Erolfa found in a stateroom; the anti-Catholic propaganda encoded on the hull; “Nearer My God To Thee” as the liner finally roared to the bottom of the ocean; and was she in fact after all deliberately scuppered as part of an insurance scam?

I’ve also wondered (as the two tragic anniversaries coincide this spring), whether the news of Scott’s expedition and death in Antarctica was already known to Titanic passengers as they sailed. Did these two sagas of British bravery and (sometimes) heroism burst on the public almost simultaneously? And on a more frivolous note, had those hearty eaters in 1st Class flacons of Quelques Fleurs, L’Heure Bleue and Narcisse Noir tucked in their muffs and Dorothy bags? Not to mention Jicky for the bold, and Apres L’Ondee for the demure. Did they radiate sillage of Phul Nana, Hasu No Hana and other Grossmith perfume spectaculars as they walked off their meals on B deck; or unwound their fur boas and hobble skirts for a massage or Turkish bath?  No doubt Piver’s spicy masculine leather scents and Houbigant‘s innovative Fougere Royale were well known to the valets of Ben Guggenheim and J J Astor: “We are dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen”.

Technically all the above should have been available, tho I cannot yet trace the month in 1912 when L’Heure Bleue and Quelques Fleurs were launched. Perfume archives tend to be rather meagre; but, regular readers, please write in if you can shed more light. Your views on this and any topic always invaluable. Probably you’ve read about Night Star, the fragrance inspired by perfume phials found in the wreck. Maybe some of you are booked for the centenary memorial cruise out of Belfast in April and have already chosen an appropriate scent.

There is something magical and deeply moving to know that you will be smelling a perfume that was in the air on that fatal night of 14/15 April. People often neglect their sense of smell but think! To smell, say, Fougere Royale is the sensory equivalent of hearing Hartley’s band playing ragtime; tasting the corned beef hash or the salt air of the northern Atlantic; seeing the iceberg looming out of the dark….Brings it home to you, doesn’t it? Gives you goose bumps. As it should.

For C. – because it happened on her birthday.

Image from titanicuniverse.com

Snowdrop

Did you see that rare snowdrop bulb up for grabs at around £370 a throw? The papers have been full of it: it’s the “Elizabeth Harrison” (perfect gift if you know a lady of that name) and it’s been discovered in Scotland. Well, this got me out into the garden looking at my beautiful pearly but more economical flowers and I made an interesting discovery. After over a century, I found that snowdrops are not only exquisite to look at but they also have a scent: faint, subtle and very delicate, but there’s definitely a perfume in there. It’s kind of palest leafy green, polleny, ever so slightly reminiscent of lilac or narcissus. Did you ever as a child read the Cicely Barker Flower Fairy books? Well – this is the fragrance of the Snowdrop Fairy, all right. So do pop out, kneel on the wet grass and judge for yourselves!

“Don’t worry Old Man, you smell gorgeous!”

Creed's triumph: Green Irish Tweed
Creed‘s great signature fragrance Green Irish Tweed still breasts the waves of the perfumery world like a great galleon, leaving a wonderful sillage in her swell. Olivier Creed’s first great cult success launched in 1985, this set the standard by which all his subsequent gentlemen’s fragrances have been judged. Men love to wear it, and their women love to smell them. Green Irish Tweed is cherished, almost idolised, as the supreme acheivement of a family business with a pedigree of 250 years. You might look at it as the finest fruit of inherited talent which dressed and perfumed the Courts of Europe for centuries; in many ways Green Irish Tweed may be seen as a portrait of the Creed family in scent. The name refers to their reputed Irish roots back in the mists of time: the tweed is an hommage to their legendary skill as tailors and cutters; the green stands for the Emerald Isle and for the overall freshness of the perfume. If you invert the bottle and look at the elongated tails on the letters “C” and “D” you see a stylised pair of tailor’s shears, framing the date 1760, the year of Creed’s foundation.  What IS that key to its appeal? Most people love it; lots like it; very very few remain immune to its appeal. Interesting that later Creed attempted a feminised version, Green Valley: one of their few scents to be withdrawn. It didn’t do, it didn’t work. We had perfection already. No point in adapting it, tailoring it. This unique scent hits the brain and the nose with a terrific sense of renewal, growth, earthiness, virility and maleness: the formula surprises some by its floral notes – plenty of violet, rose, iris and verbena. But the overall effect is the scent of burgeoning wet earth, the smell of the warm springtime, freshly cut grass, rising sap, meadows after rain,renewed fertility and energy: atavistic in the extreme, but so elegantly crafted (like a beautiful suit) with traditional animalic notes of ambergris and musk that it suits men of any age or circumstance. The mood is always suave and assured with a sexuality that is mellow and underplayed rather than raw and rampant. And all the more persuasive and effective for that: a man’s scent, not a boy’s. Confident, capable, simultaneously youthful in outlook and mature in experience. A real rouser!

If you were a perfume…

Grace Kelly Les Senteurs Blog Aroma Folio

…Who would you be? And as ever please do join us in this fantasy and write in with your own suggestions. Certain fragrances have such definitive personalities of their own that one can instinctively assign a celebrity to them. It is immaterial whether the perfume is contemporary with that person: one just mentally pairs the scent and the individual. For instance, think of Malle‘s Une Rose: who could that be but a portrait of Ingrid Bergman? The luminous beauty, the integrity, the apparent innocence hiding a deep woody earthiness and sensuality. Pure and radiant; but disconcerting and unpredictably erotic.

Then two legendary blondes: when I smell Coudray’s Musc and Freesia and Pierre Guillaume‘s Brulure de Rose I hear the whispery throaty voice of Marilyn Monroe: the early Marilyn of the 1950’s, in a dusky pink angora sweater and black pencil skirt. Sweet, coquettish, effortlessly feminine fragrances that are playfully sexy,kittenishly soft and exquisitely fragile, while their musky bases hint at something a little darker and troublante.

Diana Dors has to be Isabey‘s Fleurs Nocturne: a bewitching bouquet of white animalic hothouse flowers, creamy and slightly fruity with notes of peach flowers and peachy skin…accords of narcotic night-blooming flowers exuding golden nectar and fatal attraction. Opulent, fleshy, exuberant but still retaining a certain innocence and candour.

In the male line-up I thought of Casanova and the trail of ruined maidens and broken hearts he left across 18th century Europe, and so impulsively assigned the rather obvious Secretions Magnifiques, that bizarre and notorious blend of bedroom bodily smells and effluvia. But on thinking it over, I find Heeley‘s Iris de Nuit infinitely more appropriate: mauve + sweet, powdery and faintly sinister, highly intellectual (remember Casanova’s memoirs and his ending up in that terrible library) and snakily seductive. A sexy enigma with a massive amount of panache and elegance. Secretions is a sketch of a far creepier character: maybe Hitler (who loathed scent) with his notoriously impenetrable but reputedly lurid sex life? Or the supremely decadent 19th century writer Huysmans who explores a jaded mind and exhausted senses in his novel “A rebours” : the chapter on perfume experiments is especially fascinating, and the book is readily available in an English translation.

All this whimsy leads to more serious speculation about the way a perfumer creates a bespoke scent for a client, especially if he is painting a portrait of that person in scent. Without knowing the exact circumstances of its birth, Creed‘s Fleurissimo has always had close associations with Grace Kelly and it flawlessly reflects her image: cool, gracious, chic, glowing, poised and immaculate. A work of art to be sure; but, I wonder, who decides whether to capture the public persona or the (often more interesting ) private? For instance, would a perfumer creating for Garbo have evoked the unapproachable goddess of the screen; or the sporty peasant Swede who played with toy trolls and whose favourite topic of conversation was grocery bills? I think we shall return to this theme on another occasion.

Image from newsxu.com

Miss Host and the Ferret Man: A Note on the Animalic

Civet Cat, Animalic Perfumes, A note on the Animalic, Les Senteurs, Blog, London

My late father was a country vet of the old school and a great collector and raconteur of bizarre experience, both animal and human. The eponymous Miss Host was a gentlewoman of some means who in late middle age conceived a passion for the ferret man who controlled the rabbit population on her land. My father said it was the distinctive sour ferrety smell which clung to his person which gave Miss Host’s lover his irresistible appeal.

We might not all of us go to this extreme, but animalic notes in perfumes give them an extremely sexy, carnal and aphrodisiac edge. Animals depend upon smell to avoid danger, find food and to signal a readiness to mate. So (think Darwin!) when we naked apes pick up notes of civet, musk and castoreum in a fragrance we find all our most basic instincts aroused and thrown into turmoil. The animalic scent is all about survival and perpetuation of the species: a heady concoction to keep in pocket or handbag.

Natural animal notes used in Western perfumery have been illegal for some decades now, so we can explore this erotica with a clear conscience. Anyone who still thinks synthetic materials are inferior and ineffectual should spent an evening with a wearer of Musc Ravageur, Cuir Venenum, Knize Ten or Lady Vengeance. The crucial point is of course how the aphrodisiac oils in the fragrance meet, mingle and blend with those of one’s own skin; how they accelerate, develop and take on an individual life of their own so that the wearer appears to be exuding a delicious odour entirely from their own pores.

No wonder that so many perfume fanciers are as Father would have said, “mad for the dumb!” There is a sensual delight in smelling in these scents something akin to the fur of a pet cat or rabbit. Or, of course, a luxurious fur coat: something that Revillon recognised in the 1950’s when they produced Detchemar to wear as a complement to fur. (It is also the scent that Mia Farrow wears in Rosemary’s Baby to drown the reek of witches’ tannis root).

All the dogs of my life have had their own distinctive delicious smell. Dolly the pug was a beautiful ash blonde, with mink-soft fur which smelled delicately of custard creams. If there is indeed a canine Happy Hunting Ground it will be well stocked for her with grated carrot and Marmite toast. Poppy the black lab was redolent of summer hay fields; and Lucy the poodle like a pure white cashmere sweater. They were none of them much meat eaters; a carnivorous diet tends to imbue dogs with a definite meaty odour on hair, skin and breath. Just as vegetarians detect on human consumers of flesh.

So, radiate a little animal magnetism!

Image from Wikipedia

Out + About

Let me recommend a really good comical read; no longer in the shops but undoubtedly out there on Amazon: the works of Betty Macdonald, author of The Egg and I + that anecdotal account of the Great Depression “Anybody Can Do Anything”. In the latter she describes the morning commute on the Seattle street-car: a woman wearing a coat that looked “as though she’d dipped a collie in water + slung it round her neck”; and inhales the “crowded morning smells of wet raincoats, hard-boiled egg sandwiches, bad breath and perfume”.

Anybody Can Do Anything

Some of our most memorable encounters with scent are fleeting olfactory glances in the street: I remember a Nile cruise in 1992 and disembarking at a midnight Luxor to find the wharf in a blue cloud of the scent of the moment, Volupte. Yesterday’s sprint into M + S (I only wanted the loo) was enlivened by a waft of Youth Dew insinuating itself through the main doors: like running into an old childhood friend. And remember poor old Al Pacino bewitched by Caron‘s immortal Fleurs de Rocaille in the movie “Scent of a Woman”?

The moral maze: if you are bewitched by a passing scent, should you stop the wearer and say something? I mean: should you praise, or enquire? Most women ( and men too for that matter) love to be asked: whether they will give you a truthful answer is another matter. My mother was a great ambassador for Serge Lutens‘ pearly jasmine masterpiece A la Nuit, attracting attention with it wherever she went…but she could never remember the name. Others prefer to keep their own secret and will fob off the questioner with temporary memory loss or deliberate misinformation. I love the way that perfume encountered on the wing can spring a surprise and alter your whole perception of a scent. Chance encounters with two very famous but tricky scents metamorphosed for me in a magical and unexpected manner that stays with me still: a beautiful mahagony-haired girl in black fur and Samsara buying postcards at the National Gallery about 12 years ago. And even more distant but just as bewitching, a trail of Chanel No 5 wafting across the stalls at an otherwise uninspired afternoon at the ballet, traced to a pair of honey-tanned shoulders above white linen.

My favourite anecdote is of Frederic Malle‘s pre-launch testing of Musc Ravageur: famously, he sent out his P.A. sprayed with the prototype and found her pursued on the Metro like a vixen by hounds. Paris had voted on her feet: formula confirmed!

Image from Amazon.co.uk