The Secret of Scent or Adventures in Provence

If you were to pick the ultimate scent destination, it would have to be Provence. This region in the south of France has been the cradle of the modern perfume industry since the end of the 18th century, but even before that it was known for its aromatics–lavender, mimosa, rosemary, genet, and other perfumed plants. Although today Provence’s days as the center of rose and jasmine cultivation are long gone, it’s still a place for a fragrance lover when the air is perfumed with the salty-green scent of lavender and garrigue, a distinctly Provencal medley of herbs.

provence-herbs

In October, when I arrived in Luberon, the first thing I smelled was the fallen leaves and briny breeze. The mistral, a cold northwesterly wind, denuded the tall plantain trees, but it cleared the sky of clouds and it looked so blue that even the air felt turquoise. I arrived at the hotel Moulin de Vernègues, the venue for The Secret of Scent.

The Secret of Scent is a three-day course by Science & Vacation, a company that specializes in events combining sensory explorations–vacation, in other words–with an educational angle. I was to lecture for three days about the history and art of perfumery, while Luca Turin had a similar task, but with a focus on the science. To be honest, I was a little bit nervous.  While I give perfumery courses on a regular basis, my audience is usually industry folk–marketing, sales people and perfumers. While they’re not necessarily experts on all of the subjects I cover, I at least know the rough outlines of their knowledge. The Secret of Scent was open to everyone, and I wasn’t sure what our participants would be interested to learn.

As it turned out, they were curious about everything! Luca and I asked Sergey Kuznetsov, the event organizer, to limit the group size in order for us to give as much attention as possible to each participant and make the class experience more comfortable. There were about fifteen people total, and they included a chef, a chemist, a wine maker, a fragrance boutique owner, an art expert, and even an indie perfumer. Many people came from the US–Seattle, Wyoming, Oregon. There was also a visitor from Canada. One lady flew in from Bangkok. It was a variegated, diverse group, and the one thing we had in common is our passion for scent.

blotters

Perfumery as a subject of serious study is hampered by a number of misunderstandings. For one thing, it has the reputation of being a frivolous pursuit. However, it’s also seen as a complex, esoteric field where people don’t even speak normal human language. What’s aldehydic? Why is it that aromatic means “having an aroma” in the English language and “smells like camphorous herbs” in perfume speak? On the first subject, I have little to say, other than to quote the great Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “The pleasure of perfume [is] among the most elegant and also most honorable enjoyments in life.”

As for the complexity of perfumery, it’s true to the extent that, like all fields of art and science–and perfumery is the distillation of the two–it requires specialized knowledge. But anyone can learn how fragrances are put together, how to smell them, how to understand their messages. It’s up to the teacher to make the subject accessible.

Of course, it’s for my group to judge my success in conveying all of these nuances. For my part, I was impressed with how interested people were to learn and how much more precise and vivid their descriptions of aromas became over the three days we studied together. I prepared several exercises on connecting words and scents and showed certain techniques that perfumers use when smelling.  Although I didn’t expect any prior knowledge of perfumery, my goal was nevertheless to offer a professional class. I was fortunate to learn from some of the greatest perfumers in the industry like Sophia Grojsman, Dominic Ropion, Calice Becker, and Maurice Roucel, and I wanted to share as generously as they shared with me.  I envisioned a class covering both the technical aspects of perfumery and the enjoyment of scents in one’s daily life. After all, the stuff in the bottle is only one aspect of this fascinating pursuit.

perfume-oils

But we certainly smelled plenty of stuff in the bottle, starting from legends like Coty Chypre, Guerlain Rue de la Paix, the original formula Shalimar, Mitsouko, Jicky, Après L’Ondée, Chanels, Carons, Diors and moving through the whole 20th century of perfumery. We also had fine Givaudan essences to explore–their tuberose, jasmine, ylang ylang, vetiver, and benzoin are veritable gems. We also tried our hand at making a classical accord. Talking to my group and smelling its creations made me wonder how much richer our world would have been had we learned the basics of aromas from an early age, the way we learn painting or music.

Blind tasting, blind smelling

Blind tasting, blind smelling!

After giving my classes, I had a chance to become a student myself for the second part of the program. Luca’s lectures on the science of olfaction and the properties of aromatics were both interesting  and thought-provoking. As someone commented, if chemistry were taught with this kind of passion at schools, how different would the lay understanding of this science be.

There was also wine tasting, lots of good food and evening trips into the neighboring small towns. We even had an impromptu calissons tasting in Aix-en-Provence, lozenge shaped sweets fashioned out of candied melon, orange peel and almonds. The best part of all for me, however, was meeting so many passionate, interesting people. I thank Luca, Sergey–and also Katerina and Zhenia, the other S&V organizers–for this experience, and of course, a big thank you to all of you who joined us on our Provencal adventures. You made for one of the best experiences of 2016 for me.

victoria

Because I was completely focused on teaching, I took few photographs during the event. Sergey Kuznetsov was kind enough to send me the images above (the photographs of the Provencal herbs and perfume oils are by me, however).

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85 Comments

  • Caroline: Hear, hear Pliny the Elder! Sounds like this was both an entertaining and educational exercise for all involved. Hope your presenters continue to offer the sessions–what a fabulous setting, subject matter and knowledgeable presenters. December 5, 2016 at 8:21am Reply

    • Victoria: The time of the year was also good for explorations and we were lucky to avoid rain. December 5, 2016 at 10:36am Reply

  •  Diane: It sounds as wonderful as I expected – congratulations! I am only sorry that I wasn’t able to attend as I had just returned from my own sensory experience (Alba truffles and Barolo/Barbaresco wines in Piemonte) a day or two earlier. December 5, 2016 at 9:53am Reply

    • Victoria: That sounds like an incredible experience. My husband went last year, while I was in Iran, and he certainly enjoyed it. December 5, 2016 at 10:37am Reply

  • Olivia: Do you think you’d offer a workshop like this in the US or Canada? December 5, 2016 at 10:04am Reply

    • Victoria: I suppose, it’s up to the organizers. I’m happy to offer a workshop anywhere. December 5, 2016 at 10:38am Reply

  • looloolooweez: This is absolutely amazing. What a cool experience, both for you as teacher and for the participants as learners. I’m daydreaming about doing this someday! December 5, 2016 at 10:23am Reply

    • Victoria: It definitely was a special experience. Everyone was so passionate, curious, eager to learn and to share. December 5, 2016 at 10:41am Reply

  • spe: What an exquisite experience that must have been for the participants. The blindfolded photo emphasizes how focused the training was. Your photo is gorgeous! The diversity of backgrounds is not surprising to me as I’ve learned it’s difficult to predict whether another person shares a love of scents. I’ve identified no predominant age, gender, socioeconomic class, or ethnicity that defines us (marketers might disagree with me). December 5, 2016 at 10:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, you’re right. The only thing in common perhaps is a certain aesthetic sensibility, being able to notice nuances and slow down a little. It certainly makes for a very interesting group and experiences. Plus, one always learns better with other people. December 5, 2016 at 10:46am Reply

  • Lilly M.: Victoria, thank you so much for all you gave during this course. It was wonderful in so many ways. I loved the focus on the various aspects of perfumery – the history, the science, the industry itself and the esthetics. I love the way you guided us in the art of smelling and putting words to what we were smelling. Personally, I went away feeling that I had made a lot of progress in my ability to focus on a scent and to describe what I was experiencing in a much more precise way than before. Another great aspect was meeting, connecting and enjoying the company of the other participants – all through our shared love of perfume! And of course, our little excursions to nearby towns, delicious meals and wine tasting were all the icing on the cake. It was a memorable experience. Many thanks to you, Luca, Sergey and Zhana for making it so. December 5, 2016 at 11:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Lilly, thank you so much for sharing about your experience and for such kind words. For me, the new friendships were definitely among the highlights of the events. I also loved our afternoon explorations. 🙂 December 6, 2016 at 11:49am Reply

  • Andrea: Reading this post left me smiling all afternoon. You mentioned, how much richer the world could be, if we had the opportunity to learn about enjoying and creating scents from an early age. The same is true for composing music, by the way. That was the topic of my exams in 2004. There are a lot more aspects, that children should have the opportunity to learn. I wished, society would care more for an education, that could be a base for a healthy soul. And what could be healthier than to learn, how much sense there is in enjoyment, creativity and sharing with others? December 5, 2016 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: I think that my music appreciation class was one of the best (and most useful) high school courses I’ve taken! December 6, 2016 at 11:50am Reply

  • epapsiou: Please New York next time. December 5, 2016 at 1:27pm Reply

  • Karen A: What a wonderful time it must have been for everyone! Fingers crossed, the course will be offered again at a time when I can attend!! December 5, 2016 at 1:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: I hope so! It would be great to meet you at last. December 6, 2016 at 11:52am Reply

  • Alicia: It is so evident that you very much enjoyed your teaching and learning in Provence, that just to read read of your experiences is a delight.
    I can well imagine that Luca Turin’s classes were absorbing, since he not only knows his chemistry, has original if controversial theories on scents and the sense of smell, but also masters language superbly. We all know his reviews. Unlike yours he doesn’t always convey a verbal description of the scent he reviews, but he knows how to transmit his emotion, disgust or disregard in a style that is all his. No boredom in a Turin’s class if he teaches as he writes. I know Provence well, it is so lovely, and so are you. December 5, 2016 at 1:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Absolutely! And that’s a special talent too. December 6, 2016 at 11:53am Reply

  • Tijana: Wow, would love to be a part of something like this if it ever makes its way to North America!

    Congrats Victoria, sounds like a great event! December 5, 2016 at 2:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that it would be a good idea. December 6, 2016 at 11:53am Reply

  • Austenfan: October is a great month for visiting Provence. I spent a very formative year there back in the eighties, I’ll fortunately never be able to forget the smell of the market in Aix, the garrigue in the incredible heat of summer and last, but not least the miracle that is the plateau de Valensole in June. I’m sure it ignited my love for all things lavender.

    Glad you had a good time, and gladder even that the course was such a success! December 5, 2016 at 2:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: There is nothing quite like the smell of the garrigue! December 6, 2016 at 11:54am Reply

  • Joy: What a wonderful experience! I enjoyed the description of the event and the photos. Education can be so many things, but sensory education seems often left out except for very specific fields such as cooking, perfumery, wine-making.

    My husband and I hiked in the Luberon valley a few years ago. It was amazing to trod upon thyme, rosemary, and lavender plants growing on the trails. At first I tried to avoid stepping on them, but finally realized they were everywhere and I just had to walk normally. The fragrance followed us everywhere.
    What a wonderful place to hold this training workshop! December 5, 2016 at 2:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: I know exactly what you mean, and I felt the same way when my husband I hiked in the area. Here were these precious herbs that back home came in small, expensive packet–and here they were growing like weeds. I loved the experience. December 6, 2016 at 11:55am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Wow, I wish I could attend something like that. Thank you for sharing your experiences. December 5, 2016 at 2:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I would love to meet all of you. December 6, 2016 at 11:55am Reply

  • Notturno7: Dear Victoria,
    Thank you for sharing about your wonderful scent filled adventure.
    What a great trip in so many ways!
    I loved reading your post and other comments.
    May there be many more successful and inspiring trips like this for you, in the soon future.😍😘 December 5, 2016 at 2:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! December 6, 2016 at 11:56am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: How wonderful! The perfumes of the Provence and the sharing of knowledge with others. Teaching and learning are such marvellous experiences.
    You look happy (and beautiful as always) on the photo.
    This will be a happy memory in years to come! December 5, 2016 at 3:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! Yes, it definitely will be a very happy memory. December 6, 2016 at 11:56am Reply

  • Sandra: Congrats on this workshop!
    What an amazing opportunity for you and for the students.
    I love this photo to you. You must tell me about that lipstick on you, gorgeous December 5, 2016 at 3:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: It was YSL Glossy Stain #31. I know, because it’s a staple in my travel bag. It last forever and it brightens up my face without being too vivid. December 6, 2016 at 11:57am Reply

  • Marion Niedringhaus: This trip was a high point for my year. I have always wanted to just hang with Luca and Victoria, but as a fantasy, like, “who would you invite to dinner” kind of thing. So when I heard that these two favorite people were going to be in Provence, I about fainted!
    Everything was a delight: the incredible scents from yore, the chemistry (no pun) between Luca and Victoria, the breadth of knowledge, bith dovetailing and divergent, between the two teachers, the food! The French were so accomodating and patient with my fumbling language. The town outings to Aix en Provence and other villages were enchanting. I had to deal with, of all things, an ironic head cold which snatched my sense of smell temporarily, but I used that time to bask in the fall beauty, and remind myself of the importance of scent! Perfumistas are simply the best people in the world: smart, curious, generous, so well read, and open. Loved this!! Deep thank you to all involved! I keep my scent strips and notes to take me back there. December 5, 2016 at 3:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Marion! I’m touched that you made such a journey, and of course, I hope that it was all that you wanted it to be (minus, the cold, of course). It was a pleasure to meet you and to have you in my class! December 6, 2016 at 11:59am Reply

  • Solanace: Everything sounds wonderful. Wish I could attend. Congratulations, Victoria! And Provence calissons are serious contenders for best candy out there. Is there a calisson perfume, btw? December 5, 2016 at 6:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Hmm, I think that there was something by Givenchy, but I’d need to check. December 6, 2016 at 12:00pm Reply

    • Austenfan: I’ve actually never tried Calissons, but isn’t Kiss me Tender supposed to be inspired by them? December 7, 2016 at 8:56am Reply

      • Solanace: Very refined candy. I heartly recommed you get yourself a few if you like nougat style sweets, Austenfan. And this is another Nicolai that sounds great! December 7, 2016 at 2:25pm Reply

        • Austenfan: Kiss Me Tender is gorgeous, so do try. I’ve just checked and it wasn’t calissons, but candied almonds (dragées). I’m not great with most sweets apart from dropjes of course, but it seems silly to have lived in the city of the calisson for a year without ever having tried any. December 7, 2016 at 4:44pm Reply

          • Solanace: Well, I’m a Brazilian and last year I went to Carnaval for the first time as a grown up. So I understand you! December 8, 2016 at 2:30am Reply

            • Austenfan: Important question; Can you Samba? December 9, 2016 at 4:02pm Reply

        • Victoria: They also sell the calisson spread, which should be classified as a drug. 🙂 December 9, 2016 at 10:02am Reply

          • Austenfan: 🙂 It should. When I lived in Aix there used to be this gorgeous shop called “à la Reine Jeanne” which I think was located on the Cours Mirabeau. I don’t believe it still exists but it was this little bijou shop. I never entered it of course but I did a lot of gazing through the shop window. December 9, 2016 at 12:59pm Reply

            • Victoria: I wonder. Aix has become overwhelmed with the same chains as elsewhere, and it unfortunately forced many smaller places to close. December 9, 2016 at 2:55pm Reply

              • Austenfan: I revisited in 2007. Most of the bookshops, and there used to be plenty, had disappeared. Did you know that in Holland books are sold at a fixed price to keep smaller shops in business, although with the internet they are struggling now. Fortunately for me, I was always much fonder of the countryside north-east of Aix, and that hasn’t changed nearly as much. The market though was something else. I remember the sounds and the smells of it so vividly. It was one of my greatest pleasures to go shopping there. December 9, 2016 at 4:01pm Reply

                • Victoria: No, I didn’t know it, but I approve (on principle; from an economic perspective, I don’t know if it makes sense.) There are small bookstores around Brussels, but they’re very few. December 9, 2016 at 4:43pm Reply

                  • Austenfan: Thank god for Tropismes! December 11, 2016 at 10:54am Reply

                    • Victoria: Yes! One of the best bookstores ever. December 12, 2016 at 11:11am

  • Melissa Blumer: Oh, I wish I had been there! I’m actually in England once every fall…maybe next year?

    Is this event conducted in English or French? December 5, 2016 at 6:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: It was conducted entirely in English. December 6, 2016 at 12:01pm Reply

  • Gayle: One question: You have beautiful skin. Would you tell us how you have achieved/maintain this quality? Thank you. December 5, 2016 at 7:21pm Reply

    • Lisa: Seconding this! Also I’d love to know what makeup you’re wearing. I hope that I’m not being too nosey. 🙂 December 6, 2016 at 3:15am Reply

      • Sandra: I asked the same thing in comment above!
        After reading her blogs for a bit I am sure she is going to just say sun block! HA! December 6, 2016 at 8:02am Reply

        • Victoria: I’m like a broken record with this sunscreen thing, no? 🙂 December 6, 2016 at 2:10pm Reply

      • Victoria: Sandra is right, it’s just sunscreen. I’m fairly certain I used Sunplay sunblock that day, since it’s a small package, and it’s easy for travel. The rest is YSL Glossy Stain #31, Kate eyeliner and mascara. December 6, 2016 at 2:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Gayle. I’m rather obsessed with protecting my skin from the sun, which I think is the most important thing one can do. I also layer my products, which is the best way to keep my combination skin moisturized and free from breakouts. I’m happy to write a bit about it, if anyone is interested. December 6, 2016 at 2:03pm Reply

      • Sandra: I am interested!
        If you write, I will read it 😊 December 6, 2016 at 2:26pm Reply

      • Gayle: Thank you, Victoria. I hope you do not think I’m too nosey. Your skin is so beautiful and healthy. I had bad acne in my teenage years which means scars and lackluster skin in my 60’s. I am trying out different exfoliators and moisturizers but haven’t yet found the best for me. I so admire clear, healthy complexions. If you wouldn’t mind, I’m sure there’s a lot of us that would be interested in your skin regime. December 6, 2016 at 2:43pm Reply

        • Victoria: I find that the best exfoliators are the BHA and AHA ones. I love Paula’s Choice products, and I use her BHA 2% exfoliator almost every other day. But if you haven’t tried it before, I’d recommend starting out with it slowly, maybe once a week at most for a couple of weeks and then increase if you skin adjusts ok. For a moisturizer, I prefer to start with a moisturizing toner, and then add serum and a light moisturizer (instead of using one heavy cream.) Then I use a sunscreen on top, and I’ve written in the past about my favorites.

          Anyway, if you have specific questions, don’t hesitate to ask. I can’t easily go without makeup–and even perfume, but no matter how tired I am, I always enjoy doing my short skincare routine. December 7, 2016 at 6:37am Reply

      • Solanace: Me too! December 8, 2016 at 2:32am Reply

  • Sarah: I would love to attend one of these workshops. Victoria, do you let people know via your boisdejasmin.com website when and where you will be giving one of these “science and vacation” seminars? December 5, 2016 at 8:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: There will be more, and once I know the details I will post the details on this blog. December 6, 2016 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Jillie: What a lovely occasion – fun and informative. Thank you for sharing a little of it with us. How I wish I had been there!

    Perfume (love of/obsession with) is truly an international language.

    Seconding Gayle on the comment on your complexion – you look luminous! But I suspect that this is mostly down to your good genes …. December 6, 2016 at 12:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it truly is! And it draws so many interesting people together. And thank you, that’s very kind of you. I just try to protect my skin from the sun. I really think that it makes the biggest difference. December 6, 2016 at 2:06pm Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you so much for sharing, Victoria. The class sounds fascinating and what a treat for the people who participated. If it happens again I would definitely tried to attend: and smelling all these wonderful perfumes in their original glory must be quite something. I have a small collection of vintage scents (got bigger this year). My most treasured is a pristine bottle of Crepe de Chine. December 6, 2016 at 7:53am Reply

    • Victoria: Crepe de Chine is one of my favorite vintages, especially since it’s not even available in any other form anymore, unlike Shalimar or Mitsouko. Have you ever tried Tom Ford Fleur de Chine? I swear I notice a whisper of Crepe de Chine in it. December 6, 2016 at 2:09pm Reply

      • Aurora: Yes, I have Fleur de Chine (because of your review) and have been neglecting it, lately. You make me want to try them side by side. My bottle has a plastic cap underneath the regular cap and this must have been the reason for it staying so fresh. December 7, 2016 at 7:30am Reply

        • Victoria: Do try them! They’re very different on one level, but there are some curious overlaps. December 7, 2016 at 8:46am Reply

  • Michaela: Wonderful experience, Victoria! Thank you very much for sharing. Your face shines with happiness! I’m so happy it proved to be a big success. December 6, 2016 at 9:48am Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 Or maybe I just forgot the powder. Thank you for your kind words. It was definitely a fun event. December 6, 2016 at 2:11pm Reply

  • Liliane: By this I will also thank you for your sharing from this article and great news!
    I have reading that there where parfums from the end from the 18 the siècle.May I ask what where the parfums smell from that time?
    It must be a wonderful time! December 6, 2016 at 5:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: They used to do floral and fruity distillations. December 7, 2016 at 6:38am Reply

  • Figuier: Hi Victoria, what a great course it must have been! I haven’t been able to comment on your blog as often I would like recently, so I should also say that I am still reading, & savouring, your wonderful articles & all the fascinating conversations in the comments section. Having that kind of dialogue “in real life” must have been fabulous; I do hope the course is run again. December 7, 2016 at 4:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. This means a lot to me. December 9, 2016 at 10:05am Reply

  • Aida Hashemi: Lovely Victoria
    I am starting my thought process about planning a fragrance filled journey to Provence & Grasse, God willing in 2017. When is the best time of the year for that? In my mind I envision being able to see all the lavender before they are harvested. My love affair with fragrance began in Paris at 11, long long ago, when at a perfume shop, watching my mom smell all different scents, felt like what I imagined heaven to be like. Much love & I look forward to your reply or the replies of your lovely readers. December 8, 2016 at 2:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Science and Vacation is hosting another course in April in Grasse. I will share the details later or you can take a look at their website:
      http://scienceandvacation.com/
      If you want to go to Provence specifically for lavender, you should visit in the summer. I don’t remember the exact dates they had the harvest last year, but generally the summer months are the lavender season. But it’s beautiful all year around–mimosa, violets, roses, jasmine… December 9, 2016 at 10:08am Reply

  • Liliane: Dear Victoria, thanks for your respons.
    Maybe 1 day you will give some class about parfums.
    I will come than, if it’s possibel.
    Thanks a lot December 9, 2016 at 2:15pm Reply

  • Aida: Thanks so much lovely Victoria for your reply. I’m so excited to begin planning my French fragrance adventure.
    Also if you need anything Persian, let me know, whatever it may be, help with translations, anything you might need from my lovely native country, etc. Please consider me your new Persian connection 🙂
    Much love December 9, 2016 at 7:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: ممنونم عايده جان خيلى لطف داريد
      اگر از بيشتر اطلاعت نياز داريد از من بپرسيد December 10, 2016 at 7:50am Reply

  • Julie: Victoria, thank you for posting this and bringing back fond memories of Provence and your wonderful courses. I was both excited and nervous to sign up initially for the Art and Science event. I have only recently discovered the world of fragrance, and I wasn’t sure how advanced the lectures would be or what level of expertise the other attendees might have. Turns out, there was a lot to learn! I couldn’t have asked for a better way to discover the secrets of scent. You and Luca are so generous with your knowledge and passion for perfumes, and I really enjoyed smelling notable vintage scents that I had previously only heard about. What I value most was getting to meet everyone who participated – such a great group! Interesting, opinionated, and so gracious in sharing what they know and love about fragrance (and life). The opportunity to connect, eat good food and drink good wine together was the best. Big thanks to you, Luca, Sergey, Katya and Genya for putting together such a nice experience for us lucky attendees. I’m glad to hear you are continuing the series so more people can enjoy it. December 14, 2016 at 3:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Julie! I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed it and that you got a lot from the class. And I agree, the group itself was the highlight. Hope that all of us can keep in touch. December 15, 2016 at 9:10pm Reply

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