What Makes a Perfume Beautiful?

“What makes a perfume beautiful?” I pose a question to Maurice Roucel knowing fully well that it is a complicated question to answer. Roucel is a perfumer with more than 40 years of experience in creating exquisite perfumes, such as Hermès 24 Faubourg, Donna Karan Be Delicious, Frédéric Malle Dans Tes Bras, and Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist, and he’s devoted much effort to promoting the notion of perfumer as an artist, rather than a mere “nose.” “We use our imagination and our brains more than noses,” he says.

Perfumery as an intangible art can be hard to champion. Although scents are related to the intangible cultural heritage protected by UNESCO such as cuisine and certain arts, they don’t benefit from the recognition or documentation. (The Osmothèque, a scent archive based in Versailles, is the main institution studying and preserving the historical fragrances today.) Perfume is generally seen as too subjective to define or even describe, which makes definitions of artistic worth complicated.

Roucel, however, isn’t pausing with his answer, because he doesn’t know how to define “a beautiful perfume,” but rather because he’s trying to give me a concise explanation. “A perfume has to have harmony and balance,” he notes, and I think of one of my favorite fragrances, Chanel No 19. It’s an elegant combination of iris, vetiver and moss, and its dramatic effect is achieved through a delicate balance of accords. Roucel started his apprenticeship in perfume industry under Henri Robert, the creator of No 19, and a similar pursuit of harmony is evident in his creations.

At the same time, Roucel knows that a beautiful perfume needs a jolt at some point of its development, and in Frédéric Malle’s Musc Ravageur, he achieves it by adding a fresh, zesty note of citrus to the bitter chocolate-like musk. “A fragrance without character is a fragrance without soul,” used to say my mentor Sophia Grojsman, the creator of such vivid olfactory personalities like Yves Saint Laurent Paris and Calvin Klein Obsession.

“Finally, a perfume should provoke a reaction,” continues Roucel, reminding me that like all art, fragrance isn’t only about aesthetics. It should evoke memories, inspire dreams and stimulate emotions. Quality of ingredients and technical details are important, and they can contribute a great deal to making a perfume memorable and original, but there is something, a perfumer’s own fingerprint, if you will, that gives the quality of beauty.  Perfume is a story told in aromatic molecules, and when we are able to divine the creator’s intent, the experience is especially moving.

With this conversation in mind, I reach for a bottle of Serge Lutens’s Tubéreuse Criminelle. It’s a paradoxical blend of white flowers and dark balsams. It takes me on a whirlwind journey that includes an Indian flower market, incense temple offerings and Shalimar gardens. I realize that though Tubéreuse Criminelle is expertly crafted, when I wear it, I don’t think of technique or ingredients. It takes me out of the routine. It makes me fall into a reverie. It makes my day more colorful. It is my definition of a beautiful perfume.

Painting: Paysage bleu (Blue landscape), 1958 by Marc Chagall.

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6 Comments

  • Lauren: I love this topic. I have been trying to figure out how to describe what makes a perfume great and this really articulates it. Now the hard part as a perfumer is how to achieve these characteristics. November 17, 2023 at 9:26am Reply

  • Lauren: I just remembered reading that another perfumer (I think Michel Roudnitska?) emphasized the importance of good taste in creating a beautiful perfume. I would be very interested in hearing what more of the greats have to say about this topic. November 17, 2023 at 9:37am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Maurice Roucel created beautiful perfumes snd I am happy that I have many of them. November 17, 2023 at 10:24am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you for sharing what Maurice Roucel said, Victoria and your thoughts. I’ll add what Edmond Roudnitska wrote on beautiful perfumes that they should produce a shock. November 17, 2023 at 3:26pm Reply

  • Fazal Cheema: Whenever you mention SL Tubereuse Criminella, I think of the narrative you told of your mother’s encounter with a traffic cop. I think perfumery could be considered an art because, just like art, it can move us and it can stir our imagination, as does happen when we smell some perfume for the first time and it immediately blows us away. November 17, 2023 at 10:28pm Reply

  • Julia: Thank you. I agree completely. I own many, many perfumes but yes, the best ones stand out as “beautiful” and have that otherworldly quality to me. They bring up emotion and it is absolutely an art. November 21, 2023 at 11:28am Reply

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