Classics & Vintages: 123 posts

Vintage treasures, iconic perfumes

On Italo Calvino’s Classics and Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois

What makes a classic? “In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum,” he says, noting that nevertheless the classics cannot exist without this hum. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.”

This topic is the subject of my latest FT column on modern classics. The article, How Serge Lutens reinvented the idea of feminine perfume, is the first of a series that will cover fragrances I consider outstanding and important. Modern classics, in other words. My first essay is on Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois, a composition that challenged conventions and remade wood accords as we know them in perfumery. To read the article, please click here.

Italo Calvino’s essay is worth reading, whether your interest is perfumery or literature, because it’s witty and through-provoking. “Classic” is the most overused word, but unpacking its layers of meaning makes one appreciate the richness of allusions and references that each great work contains. The essay is part of the compilation “Why Read the Classics?” (public library) that includes Calvino’s observations on his favorite writers and novels. I can’t recommend it enough for your summer reading lists.

Of course, I would love to hear what a classical perfume means to you and which fragrances you count among the modern classics.

To read all articles in my column, please click on my name in the byline.

The Art of Perfume : Perfume Techniques and Stories

I already wrote about my most recent perfumery course, covering the first day of our activities, visiting the Edmond Roudnitska garden and exploring the International Perfume Museum in Grasse. Today I’m continuing with our second day, which covered perfume history and professional smelling techniques.

Whenever I hear the phrase “perfume history,” I think of the typical introductory chapter in books on fragrance that start with the Egyptians and the stuff researchers still find in the pyramids. Then a writer might continue with a short homage to the Romans, include a remark on the use of perfume by the bath fearing Europeans in the Middle Ages and with a clear conscience they skip to the brave new world of the 20th century and its Chanels and Guerlains. Perfume history is fascinating stuff, but why is it presented in such a dull manner? I want to do something different.

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Chanel, Caron and Guerlain in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

“The first time I encountered a perfume that beguiled me was in the pages of a book. The sultry red-haired witch in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita enticed women with the promise of “Guerlain, Chanel No 5, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, evening gowns, cocktail dresses…” It would be some years before I smelled these perfumes, yet their names left a “baffling but seductive” imprint, just as the novel suggested.”

In my recent FT column, Revisiting Three Perfume Classics, I write about the three legendary perfumes that left their “baffling but seductive” trace in literature and history. They are Chanel No 5, Guerlain Mitsouko and Caron Narcisse Noir. Bulgakov started writing his novel in 1928 and worked on it until his death in 1940. The reason he selected these three perfumes as the lure for the black magic show was because they embodied glamour.

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Three Ultimate Iris Perfumes

Once, as I was telling Maurice Roucel how much I loved his Iris Silver Mist, a perfume he created for Serge Lutens, he laughed and explained that Lutens kept asking again and again for more iris, so he ended up using all the iris aromatics in the catalogue of his company and essentially “mixing them together.” Roucel can be refreshingly self-deprecating about his work, but I knew that achieving the precise harmony of Iris Silver Mist took much more than just blending all irises in sight. For me, it evokes the cool, frozen beauty of this complex note in a way that few other iris perfumes can.

In my recent FT column, I examine three iris classics, describing what makes them compelling and memorable. Above all, iris as an ingredient deserves attention because it’s one of the most layered, rich but difficult materials available to perfumers.

The first time I smelled iris essence, I stood for a few minutes with a perfume blotter under my nose before I regained my senses. In an instant it conjured up frozen petals and snow-covered trees, and while this image of a winter garden was vivid, I couldn’t easily describe the fragrance. It was like nothing I had encountered before, and pinning down its radiant but surprisingly potent scent proved difficult. To continue, please click here.

What are your ultimate iris perfumes?

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.

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