Chanel No. 19. Serge Lutens Chergui. Robert Piguet Bandit. Guerlain Mitsouko. Oud. White florals! What these fragrances or perfume notes have in common is that they all are things I have spent time pursuing, trying to understand their appeal.
Perfume lovers know the quandary well. It seems as if everyone but you “gets” a fragrance, but to your nose the scent in question smells like a wet dog, a stable that needs to be mucked out, or a rotten cantaloupe. You can’t join in the raves and you hate to be the lone naysayer. What does everyone else smell that you do not?
You put your sample aside to revisit at an unspecified future date. Perhaps its glory will be revealed at the next sniffing. A month later—a year later—you try again. No. Oud still smells like band-aids to you.
Should you give up or should you continue trying?
In nearly any discussion of Guerlain Mitsouko, there will be someone who says she keeps trying, but it just doesn’t work. The pursuit of the fable keeps them going, fueled by the lyricism writers have woven into the perfume’s story (sun-ripened peaches, glittering jewels, rivers of gold). Whether you keep going with a scent depends on how badly you want it to succeed for you, and it seems to me that people are more apt to pursue a legend than they are a generic juice that has no buzz.
Consider Robert Piguet Bandit. No doubt about it, Bandit is a tough scent to pull off. It’s a sharp, green-tinged leather of a sort that to this day still smells more or less experimental. It’s not polite. It’s tough. It’s an icon. It’s great stuff for a signature scent, if only…
I pursued Bandit up until vintage parfum, and it still didn’t smell good to me. What’s the point of wearing something you don’t like? I put Bandit aside and moved to my next perfume nemesis, white florals.
I used to be someone who wore a lot of Anne Pliska and perfumes like it; orientals with rich, ambery bases. White florals never appealed to me, but they were attention-getters on perfume boards. I felt self-conscious wearing them, like a walking wedding dress. And then one spring day in St. Augustine, I smelled something incredible. Sweet, honeyed nectar shimmered in the air and I followed my nose around the corner to a massive bank of jasmine at the height of its bloom. I was stunned–how had I not noticed its beauty in perfumes?
That experience led to Serge Lutens A la Nuit, which led to Nasomatto Nuda, which led to more complex white florals involving jasmine, and then to gardenia and to tuberose. Perfumes with these notes are now some of my favorites.
I realized later that my discovery of the beauty of white florals was not the same as my negative reaction to Bandit. In the first instance, I was so immersed in amber Orientals that I wasn’t receptive to anything else; Chanel No. 22 didn’t smell like Must de Cartier and therefore I rejected it. In the second case, nothing was going to make a heavy leather scent like Bandit work for me, but in rejecting it I tried many other leather scents before finding a match in Chanel’s Cuir de Russie from Les Exclusifs. This very lightweight treatment of leather worked wonderfully for me and I have gone through an enormous bottle.
Should you or shouldn’t you chase a fragrance? Over time, and with the multitude of perfumes out there, the pursuit for me became less important. Chasing a fragrance and trying to make it into something it might not be is different than smelling something as a reference or as a historical antecedent. That you should do. Smell the great perfume classics, try them on your skin, and understand why they were considered revolutionary, shocking, innovative, and beautiful. This is what perfume appreciation is all about, and my guess is that your horizons may broaden enough to lead you on new scented adventures. That is the time to pull out that sample of Mitsouko again.
What fragrances took you a long time to appreciate and why? What perfume did you give up trying to court?
Image: Berthe Morisot, Chasing Butterflies, 1874, France