Perfume 101: 225 posts

Here you can find how to guides to selecting, testing and enjoying scents. Also includes are the lists of our top favorite perfumes for different occasions and articles covering all range of topics related to fragrance. If you’re curious to step inside a perfume lab (or even become an industry professional), this group of essays will be of interest.

What Does The Word Mitsouko Mean?

Of the legendary fragrances, Guerlain classics have some of the most beautiful names and stories to go with them. Shalimar and Shah Jahan’s gardens in Lahore. L’Heure Bleue and the streets of Paris at dusk. Après L’Ondée and a sudden May downpour. And there is Mitsouko. The fragrance created in 1919 was inspired by two extraordinary successes of its time–a perfume and a novel, Coty’s Chypre and Claude Farrère’s La Bataille. Farrère was a close friend of Jacques Guerlain, and a few years earlier Farrère mentioned Jicky in his novel Opium Smoke–“Jicky poured drop by drop onto the hands blackened by the drug.” This image delighted Guerlain enough to return the favor by baptizing a new creation after Mitsouko Yorisaka, a character in La Bataille (The Battle).

Farrère’s novel sold more than a million copies in its day, but the perfume inspired by it survived the test of time better. Much of Farrère’s work, La Bataille included, doesn’t excite. It’s a novel of conventional value and somewhat stuffy, nostalgic style inspired by Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème, Farrère’s commander during his stint with the French navy. To Farrère’s credit, unlike Loti, he attempted to present Japan as an evolving modern society, rather than a place of ikebana and geishas. The background for the story is the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, in which Japan wiped out the Russian fleet and demonstrated that the Meiji era reforms put it on equal footing with the Western powers. Farrère had spent three days in Nagasaki and had done his own research, but in the end, the plot suffers too much from melodrama and clichés borrowed from Loti, without Loti’s refined style.

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Modern Classics Gourmands and Lolita Lempicka

Among some perfume lovers gourmand fragrances are the equivalent of chick lit, somehow seen as pleasant, entertaining but a guilty pleasure nonetheless. Although the fragrance shops are full of boring blends that smell like candy factories, this genre is far from dull and embarrassing. Not only do the sweet accords have a long tradition–visit the Osmothèque and ask to smell Parfums de Rosine’s Le Fruit Défendu, a banana sundae extravaganza from 1916, they also can be as complicated or as simple as a perfumer’s imagination allows. To defend this maligned genre, I bring to you the next installment in the Modern Classics series, Gourmands and Lolita Lempicka. My new FT column is all about indulgence and pleasure, without a shade of guilt.

Lolita Lempicka arrived in the wake of Angel in 1997. It is a perfume for those who want to avoid the jejune prettiness and cloying sweetness of many gourmand fragrances, while offering an indulgence. The heart of Lolita Lempicka is a clever pairing of patchouli (a nod to Angel) and iris. In a brilliant twist, the cool character of iris inflects all layers of the composition, rising like a soft mist over the confection of liquorice, Amarena cherries and praline. To continue, please click here.

The previous fragrance in the Modern Classic series was Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois.

Please let me know about your favorite gourmand perfumes. Do you have any sweet fragrances that are appropriate for the warm weather?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin.

Searching for a Beautiful Scent, A Conversation with Maurice Roucel

Maurice Roucel is one of the best people to talk perfume. For one thing, the rarefied, quasi-mystical approach to fragrance so common among many perfumers is entirely foreign to him. He sees the role of a fragrance creator in need of a clear definition and classification afforded to other artists, but he doesn’t comport himself as a savant of subjects too refined for the understanding of mere mortals. If anything, his down-to-earth attitude and candid manner make him a refreshing presence and a great conversation partner on topics that range from perfume to wine and life in general.

One winter Roucel and I met at a café in Paris and I posed a slightly provocative question to him: what makes a perfume beautiful? His answer and our subsequent conversation that lasted for several hours is the inspiration for my latest FT piece, Striking Accord.

“The idea of perfume making as an art form, however, can be hard to champion. While scents are related to other kinds of intangible Unesco-listed cultural heritage such as cuisine, they don’t benefit from the same recognition or documentation (the Osmothèque, a scent archive based in Versailles, is the main institution studying and preserving historical fragrances), and are generally seen as too subjective to analyse or even describe, making definitions of artistic worth complicated.” To continue reading, please click here.

What is your personal definition of a beautiful perfume?

Photography via WPC

Top 10 Summer Picnic Scents

Elisa takes us on a picnic with her selection of favorite summer perfumes.

When thinking about my seasonal favorites, I always create a kind of moodboard in my mind. This summer, the moodboard says PICNIC. I’m picturing a gingham tablecloth or a worn-in patchwork blanket thrown out on the grass, sunlight dappling through leaves, bare feet and painted toes. You can smell sunscreen and blooming linden trees, and, of course, the spread: rosé and sparkling wine, cheese and crackers, something fresh (might I suggest caprese skewers?), a giant bowl of fruit salad (my friend Sommer makes an amazing one with blueberries, watermelon, and halved cherries).

Here are some summer favorites to match my picnic mood.

Demeter Tomato

What is there to say about Demeter Tomato, except that it smells exactly like tomato vines? Just smelling it seems to conjure up actual heat, like you’re standing in a sunny garden. In truth I almost never wear it, but I often spray it into the air, especially in my kitchen, to build summery picnic ambiance.

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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.

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