Be My Valentine?

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What’s one of the very nicest things you can buy your loved one on Valentine’s Day?

“Perfume” I hear you murmur, with quiet confidence. Quite right.

I’ll tell you why.

Perfume smells lovelier than store-boughten flowers which nowadays seem to have sacrificed scent for gorgeousness of colour and immensity of size.

It will smell even more delicious than a fine dining experience or a designer box of chocs; and fragrance carries none the concomitant risks to health and fitness.

And it lasts so much, much longer than either of the above. You always get your money’s worth with scent; besides which, you can personalise it in witty and exquisite ways.

Look, I’ll show you:

To make a successful gift of perfume you have to give a lot of yourself and that is always the best gift of all. You need to plan your purchase to fit your loved one as snugly as a pair of hand-made shoes. Get into his (or her) head – take a tour around his personality and choose a scent accordingly. Staff at Les Senteurs are always happy to help you translate ideas into actions if you need a little assistance.

Think laterally: consider, say, your partner’s favourite movie, colour or flower and pick a perfume to reflect that. If you were going down the cinematic route you might choose a fragrance notably worn or inspired by your inamorata’s favourite star ( Frederic Malle & Dominique Ropion created Carnal Flower with Candice Bergen in mind; Catherine Deneuve was Francis Kurkdjian’s inspiration for Lumiere Noire). Or you could select a perfume worn in a much-loved film. Think of Norma Desmond’s tuberoses in Sunset Boulevard or Caron’s Fleur de Rocaille in The Scent of a Woman. If you wept over Titanic, then track down a scent that was captivating the world in 1912. We have several such treasures – cast your eye and nose over the great Houses of Houbigant, Grossmith and, once again, the inevitable and unique Caron.

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Candice Bergen in Carnal Knowledge

Matching flowers is easy to do, but so romantic and adorable if you take the trouble to discover what she really loves: we have luscious rose perfumes of all types ( dark, dewy, spicy, fruity, innocent, lascivious, smoky, waxy ); but Les Senteurs also holds captive the most beautiful examples of gardenia, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, magnolia and orange blossom. A married gentlemen may like to remember what his wife carried in her bridal bouquet and match those blooms in fragrance. Ladies, you can do the same with your husband’s boutonniere or the favourite plants he cultivates for the garden show. Don’t forget: men love flowers too.

A rose that's perfect for men and women.

A rose that’s perfect for men and women.

Now I mentioned colour which may surprise some of you. I don’t mean the colour of the packaging or the bottle (though this may play its part). I’m talking about a factor that’s rather more subtle. By and large, if a person likes brilliant, strong vibrant hues then that individual will go for expressive rich perfumes too. Contrary wise, admirers of white, beige, cream and pastels will tend to prefer lighter airier fragrances. So consider the colours your beloved wears, the shades your lover paints his rooms and let your instinct guide you like a bee to the honey.

Bette Davis in 'Now, Voyager'

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

Nothing stimulates memory like the sense of smell so another cute idea would be to conjure up thoughts of a special time you have enjoyed together and celebrate it in scent. If the earth moved for you, try Nu_Be’s explosive and elemental dawn-of-the-universe fragrances. Recreate a day at the sea; an ocean voyage; a holiday in Havana, Istanbul, London, China or Morocco; an evening at the ballet. Or, more modestly, an afternoon in the vegetable garden, a shared creamcake, a romantic breakfast – even the wicked intimacy of a shared cigarette. “O Jerry don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.”
Getting the idea? Choosing a romantic gift should and can be such a pleasure: and I think I can promise that the more you enjoy the selection, the more delight the chosen perfume will give to the recipient.

Happy Valentines from all at LES SENTEURS!

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Perfume Shops Pt. 2: Health and Efficiency

Rosalind Russell 'The Women' 1939

Rosalind Russell ‘The Women’ 1939

No one has yet made a movie about the life and times of Les Senteurs but there are numerous examples of perfumeries on film. In British pictures they used to be discreetly referred to as “beauty shops”, maybe to distance them from the dubious sort of apothecary’s which Margaret Lockwood patronises to procure poison – and perhaps other services? – in “The Wicked Lady”. Celia Johnson tells us how much she loves the smell of a chemist’s shop but we also remember the sinister establishment in “Pink String and Sealing Wax”, a hot-house of frustration, vivisection, blackmail and poisoning. No, “Beauty Shop” is preferable – clean within and without: a healthy mind in a healthy body. This has a more reassuring ring about it, especially in the coded symbolism of 1940’s cinema.

But it’s a funny thing: as we have noted in this column before, once a screenwriter brings perfume into a script it usually heralds the advent of some kind of calamity. Diana Dors’s sale of a bottle of “Christmas Rose” in “Yield To the Night” is her first step to the gallows. How inspired it was of Wilder to have Norma Desmond sitting on the sofa in “that grim Sunset castle” smelling of some anonymous tuberose, maybe bought at Schwabs Pharmarcy along with her Egyptian cigarettes. I don’t suppose it was frothy Fracas ( though that was already in the shops in 1950), but rather a dark predatory tuberose with all its folkloric connotations of madness, narcotic stupefaction, obsession and lust: a thumbnail sketch of Norma’s personality that would fit on the bottle’s label. Joe Gillis tells us tuberose is not his favourite scent – not by a long shot. He would do well to heed his animal instinct (as we should all do with scent) and get the hell of there before overtaken by the havoc bred by that voracious and invasive scent.

We never learn the name of Norma’s perfume, not that of the haunting mimosa scent in “The Uninvited”. And when Ann Todd wants to keep her sister on side in “Madeleine” while purchasing arsenic ( “a rat in the cellar” ) she buys her silence with anonymous rosewater. An unexpected and mordant add-on purchase is that! A nameless fragrance makes its reference infinitely more effective, each member of the audience imagining the redolent plot device in his own terms. Naming a scent is a tricky task and, once named, fragrance is forever fixed in certain mould.

Fictional names are usually pretty uninspired: “Persian Rose”, ” Jungle Venom”, “Love Kiss”, “Summer Rain” and of course the ghastly “Seduction” which shop-girl Susan Shaw brings as a gift to slatternly sister Jean Kent in “The Woman in Question”. Here the name is all too obviously matched to the outlandish Kent character who snuffs at the bottle in a piggy kind of way before banging it down on her filthy dressing table. “Seduction” comes from Shaw’s Beauty Shop: has she nicked it, as Jean Kent rudely suggests? It comes unboxed which is odd – maybe a tester? A customer return? Faulty goods? A manufacturer’s sample? The risk here is that the viewer gets carried away with the retail conundrum and consequently misses vital details of plot.

I was once asked to propose a name for a simple floral scent created for a department store. I came up with more than 500 over-elaborate suggestions and none was quite right: in the end they called it just “Rose”: the answer was right under my nose. From the back list of classics, favourite names include “Magie Noire”, “Shalimar”, “Teint de Neige”, “My Sin”, “Moment Supreme”, “Crepe de Chine”, “Shocking”, “Vega” and “Ciao!” My current rave is Tom Daxon’s “Crushing Bloom” – an absolutely inspired title for a glorious green spicy rose weighed down with raindrops, nectar and gorgeous perfume. The first word makes you think of pashes & Schwarmerei & ardent swoonings; it has a wonderful onamatopeic quality and it rhymes with “lush”, a quality it has in abundance. “Crushing”: it’s kind of fun to say the word out loud, rolling it around the tongue, thinking of crush bars, fresh fruit drinks, Imperial Roman revellers crushed under tonnes of petals. Then “bloom”, a great silky flower pinned in one’s hair or in a corsage; or lowering, vast and heavy and outsize in a flower bed: I’m sure if we could hear a huge flower opening it would make a sound like this, a whooshing resonant noise as great velvet petals roll back like theatre curtains or lilies trumpet forth nectar and pollen. Bloom / zoom / va va voom. What’s in a name? Everything.

Fatal Attraction

“Her fingers touched me: she smells all amber!” And once again the intoxication of perfume sets the wheels of murderous mayhem in motion; this time, 500 years ago in Middleton’s stage shocker, The Revenger’s Tragedy. Our sense of smell catches us unawares at our most basely animal; it awakens  our ancestral instincts for escape and survival, the propagation of the species and the catching of a mate.

Many of the problems that perfume wearers experience come from a misunderstanding of our most atavistic sense. Why is it that we cannot smell our signature fragrance, whereas the horror sprayed uninvited by the girl in the Well-Known West End Store seems to accelerate in its awfulness over the next 24 hours? Its the brain, you see: it knows your favourite scent is “safe”; it presents no threat.The brain, via the nose, has passed it as the censor passes a film; and as there’s no more need to worry about it, switches off. Whereas when we are ambushed by a scent in the unpromising surroundings of a crowded store, the circumstances of the encounter take our senses totally by unwelcome surprise: the brain panics, the nose is affronted and both go into overdrive, analysing that perfume for hours afterwards. And like an animal, you remember the location with dread, shying away like a bolting horse “THAT’S where the girl sprayed me with that AWFUL….”

Our sense of smell has atrophied, we don’t really need it much it any more; we use it for the pleasure of perfume and maybe in the garden and leave it at that. But it’s there alright in all its complexity: we’ve just forgotten how to intepret it. It still sets off alarms when it detects smoke, gas, bad food, infection, decay, death: my aunt, in the wilds of her Canadian orchards, is still alert for the smell of bears down by the creek. She needs to be, and so does the dog. Have you ever picked up the smell of fear? Very rancid and foxy; as forbidding and repellent as you’d expect. I smelled it just once: in a crowded lunch-time shop, a few days before Christmas.

And thus to the mysteries of sexual attraction. The person who eventually formulates the perfume that will infallibly promote lust (the fragrance that is so often asked for) will make a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice; it will come in time no doubt but there’s something a mite Satanic about the thought, the manipulation of men’s souls… Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a seductive scent, trust to instinct and pick the perfume that makes YOU feel wanton, lubricious and desirable: like goes to like.

On the movies, in plays and books we see the power, threat, symbolism of perfume as a sinister metaphor and a symbol for sexual and mortal danger.
Lady Macbeth’s blood-reeking murderous hand cannot be sweetened by all the perfumes of Arabia; Cleopatra, bringing havoc, arrives in a ship whose sails are soaked in scent; in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her team are beguiled and stupified by the field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road. Diana Dors in Yield To the Night is working a beauty shop when she meets the homme fatal who will drive her to murder. The perfume she sells him (“5 guineas, please”) is with a pleasing cruel irony named “Christmas Rose”. Joan Crawford is the wicked shop-girl who steals Norma Shearer’s husband in “The Women” while selling him a flacon of “Summer Rain” (“When Stephen doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off…”).

Billy Wilder, master of cynicism, offers us two of the most striking scented images. In Sunset Boulevard, Bill Holden’s two women are characterised by their odour. Norma Desmond, embalmed in her past, smells he tells us of tuberoses, “not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot”. And we somehow know he’s thinking of tuberoses in a funeral parlour, tuberoses faded and decaying in a close shut room. An outre, baroque, macabre scent for a vampiric woman on the brink of madness. Whereas the ingenuous Betty Schaeffer smells of “freshly laundered linen handkerchiefs or a brand new automobile” and doesn’t even know it (“must be my new shampoo”). But Wilder saves his best line for Fred MacMurray, sweatily lusting after Barbara Stanwyck in Double Idemnity and prepared to bump off her husband to have her; he’s already aroused by the perfume in her hair, now walking down the hot sidewalk he smells something else…. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Image from Wikimedia commons