perfume classics: 5 posts

What Makes a Lasting Perfume Classic?

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In his marvelous 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 which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without,” he says. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.

Inspired by Calvino, I decided to draw up a personal list of perfume classics, creations that reflect their moment and yet have timeless relevance. The first I selected was Serge Lutens’ Féminité du Bois, a fragrance conceived by the artist and photographer for Japanese brand Shiseido in 1992. Lutens wanted a perfume based on the Atlas cedarwood, and he sought to convey the softness of the ingredient that beguiled him ever since he came to Morocco in the 1960s. Initially when Lutens talked to the perfumers about his idea, he encountered a lack of comprehension. Cedarwood was traditionally treated as a sharp, masculine note and few fragrance professionals understood how to reinterpret it in a different guise.

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5 Perfume Masterpieces for Summer

Beautiful fragrances can lift your mood. Over the past few months I have been wearing my most opulent perfumes without being concerned that they might become associated with a dark period in my life. I needed colors, texture, and vibrancy, and my beloved classics satisfied me. Complex fragrances have the benefit of being multifaceted, so that each time you wear them, you discover a new layer or create your own story to match the mood. Perfume may be a dispensable luxury, but like all beautiful things, it serves to elicit positive emotions and boost the spirits.

For my summer-themed selection, I’ve settled on a list of five masterpieces. These are the perfume equivalents of novels by Tolstoy and George Eliot because of their layers, nuances, and twists. Some are elegant colognes; others are lush florals and bittersweet chypres (mossy-woody blends.) The list is personal, but I think that you will agree that these are among the classical perfumes to try. Some of them might be ideal as an introduction to classics.

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Three Classics and One Great Novel

The first time I encountered a perfume that beguiled me was on 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, but their names left a “baffling but seductive” imprint, just as suggested by the novel.

It is no accident that Bulgakov selected Chanel No 5, Guerlain Mitsouko and Caron Narcisse Noir. Those were the fragrances worn by his wife, Elena Bulgakova, the muse for Margarita in the novel. Elena Bulgakova’s granddaughter from her first marriage used to be part of my family. She often mentioned how much her grandmother loved fragrance, especially the three perfumes mentioned in the novel. Chanel No 5 evoked elegance for her. Mitsouko conveyed sophistication. And Caron was pure magic in its opulent glamour.

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Classical Perfumes For Those Who Don’t Like Classics

The more I delve into perfumery, the more the subject of fragrance classics fascinates me. Although when it comes to my day-to-day choices I still wear many fragrances from niche brands, I reach for classics when I want to experience the scent of another time, a glimpse of another era or simply to take myself out of my routine. For this reason, classics remain among my staples. What’s more, all of the recent top-selling fragrances lists from the US, France, Germany and Italy feature classical fragrances like Guerlain Shalimar, Chanel No 5, and Christian Dior Eau Sauvage.

Not everyone, however, is enamored with classics. Some people find them old-fashioned. Some think that they are too demanding or that they don’t fit their lifestyle. Can you wear Chanel No 19 while cleaning your flat? Or don Mitsouko for a supermarket run? While as I’ve said many times before, you need not like the classics, giving them a chance will benefit your understanding of perfumery. Another important consideration is that classical ideas are often reused in niche fragrances, so instead of paying the niche prices, you can find the same thing–and often of much better quality–from the original source.

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Classical Challenge

“I have no luck with classical perfumes,” confessed a friend. “My grandmother wore Jean Patou Joy, my mother loved Chanel No. 5, but when I wear these fragrances, I feel like I’m playing dress up.” She wondered why she completely missed the allure of fragrances widely considered iconic.  It is easy to attribute it to personal tastes and associations, but I decided to embark on a classical challenge.

The French use the phrase “grand parfum” to describe fragrances that not only have symphonic complexity but also a distinguished heritage. Chanel No. 5 is a quintessential example—created in a remarkable collaboration between Coco Chanel and perfumer Ernest Beaux, it revolutionized the ‘20s with its daring blend of aldehydes, manmade materials that smell starchy and metallic, and opulent floral essences. It is voluptuous, rich and heady. Today, on the other hand, we are no longer used to the strong burst of aldehydes, and the curves in perfumes—as on Hollywood actresses—are toned down.

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