Smell is the most intimate of the senses. It touches us from within. A look or gaze might be ‘penetrating’, an unwanted touch a violation, yet such forms of human interaction remain largely external. Scent enters you, physically, through your olfactory receptors – the cilia, the lungs – flooding your smell brain. It is inescapable, involuntary: transcending logic and rationality and eliciting our most primal responses.
We soften in pliant, instinctual attraction to a good smell; or else harden in revulsion, reacting to bad smells before we even have time to think about them logically. And where many of us have become snappily accustomed to processing the visual data around us with carefully constructed social media personae, we are defenceless and made primal in the presence of scent, all posturing dissolved in its truth-serum force. We respond: emotionally, like animals, returning in an instant to our more ancestral selves and ancient olfactory apparatus, the vomeronasal organ that was so much more sensitive – dog-like, and developed in earlier human beings.
Smell is intuition. The prime source of the flight-or- fight response; the sense of survival, a fine-tuned reactivity honed from ancestral, biological impulses. People are naturally able to sniff out the mate that will provide the strongest DNA. A recent experiment even shows that we are often naturally drawn to the smell of others – friends, colleagues, lovers – with similar political and ideological temperaments and philosophies to ourselves, an intriguing insight into the untapped power of the human nose that gives extra credence to the idea that, as friends and lovers, we literally do, sometimes, have “chemistry.”
The ancient art of perfumery consists in the creation of beautiful scents that meld and mingle with this natural body odour (all our human smells unique, each with our own intricate, genetically and environmentally woven aroma), a scent of carefully orchestrated aesthetic complexity to complement and embellish our raw natural scent profile. This exteriorization, and amplification, of our own smell identity, when selected and worn judiciously, can wield great emotional power. For me, perfume is a temporal anchor: a coalescing and distillation of essences in bottled form that become like a time capsule of our lived experience and the people who have touched us. With my cabinets of perfumes, my “library of memories,” I have ready access to vividly retrievable recollections from different parts of my life and the people with whom I have shared it: just one drop on the skin a concentrated essence of lived reality, refracted through the senses, captured and embedded in alcohol.
The great misconception among those who dislike or denigrate perfume – and there are many – is that it is somehow extraneous and alien to the human body, that it compromises, somehow, our natural identity. We must remain unadorned; naked as the day we were born, revelling in our ‘authentic’ scent despite the fact that most of these smells have become socially unacceptable in an increasingly odourless modern landscape.
Admittedly, though I am a perfume collector and scent obsessive, it is quite easy for me to relate to these scent detractors when I think of how cheap, crass and synthetic much high-street commercial perfumery has become over the last few decades, a genuine and very palpable deterioriation in the quality of perfumery due to the cheapening of fragrance formulae. This has reached the point where “perfume” and bathroom cleaning products have become virtually indistinguishable: the brash, unbreathable stench of the gender-segregated Duty Free departure lounge and its disharmonious, citric cacophony of cheap chemical aromas; the characterless, irritating smells of the Saturday night pub. If perfumes such as these were all that existed, I am sure that I myself would also go about unscented.
Unknown to most, however, there is an entire alternative world of beautifully made scent out there – sensual, enigmatic, complex and intelligent – that has nothing to do with this nasal ugliness, but is inspired instead by the original perfuming traditions of antiquity, when the use of perfume was considered to be a noble and spiritually elevated part of human culture. The unadvertised but excitingly word-of- mouth world of artisanal perfumers (with their greater concentration of high-quality, natural essences and emphasis on smell rather than advertising imagery), the exquisite hidden world of discontinued and lost vintage classics, and the exotic depths of Middle Eastern and Asian perfumery all comprise traditions that have lasted for millennia. These are perfumes that will make you realize that you never even knew what perfume really was, or how beautiful it could be, until you experience them.
In a world of one-click communication where people seem to be growing less comfortable with one-on-one physical interaction, perfume becomes a body language, filling the spaces where words fail: a silent, sensual undertow. With its wordless abstraction, a beautifully made scent can encapsulate a whole range of emotions, enabling the wearer to create an aura based on pure sensation that is internalized by others, becoming then, “your smell.” If you get it right and find a scent that truly suits you, one that melds with your skin chemistry and persona, an intuitively chosen fragrance can be almost like an externalization of your essence, an identity card of the spirit that immediately conjures up your presence in the minds and memories of others.
Aside from the pure aesthetic pleasure I derive from perfume, it is this, scent’s inherent ability to transcend the limits of time and mortality in its profound connection to memory, that causes perfume to fascinate me. Unlike the passive Proustian experience of a person helplessly cast into the abyss of memory and the past, though, I use perfume actively as a marker of time as I progress through life, much as one might keep an album of photographs, the difference being that the power of recollection with scent is much more potent and vivid.
Deep within the temporal lobes of the human brain lies the amygdala, regulator of emotional arousal, memory consolidation and olfactory information. It is here that long-term memories are stored, that smells and their sentimental connotations are kept for later retrieval, waiting for that day when we unexpectedly stumble upon them again in another context.
Memory evocation, of course, can come from any smell. Petrol. Freshly turned earth. The head of a baby. Rain. And it can hit us at any moment, no matter what we are doing. Catapulted back to a moment we believed had disappeared forever, we realize that our existence, each experience, has been accruing silently within our brain stems, our souls. We are not simply lost, Pirandellian beings living meaninglessly from one moment to the next; all along, despite our obliviousness to the fact, our noses have been recording our own life stories. For me, a very specific smell of school carrot and beetroot salad is the smell of childhood sadness and anguish, being locked out of the canteen on the first day of school and not knowing whether I could go in or not. Conversely, the scent of Twinings Earl Grey tea (and only that tea) will remind me, forever, of my first taste of freedom and self-acceptance. I sat in my friend’s room at university and felt my adolescence slipping behind me on a smoky, wistful day while drinking this strange new tea, fragrant and beautiful, a scent that seemed to speak of new life.
Given that any smell has this ability to transport us back in time
to our earlier selves, it stands to reason that good perfume – essentially liquid, molecular poetry – is more elevating in terms of recollec-tion. An exquisitely made sensory receptacle worn on the skin waits to be filled with your own experience, in the same way that a beautifully
composed photograph is more evocative than a careless snapshot. Perfumes, despite what some perfume writers contend are designed with seduction and eternity in mind, thus every true scent lover has perfumes that conjure important events in his or her life: perfumes that make you wince with emotional remembrance; jolts of pain or pleasure, or that stand like monuments to your past and the people you have loved, encapsulating whole periods of your existence. With perfume, these memories, smelled once more, can be revived and re-examined.
Like every perfume lover, as a child and budding teenager I was inexorably drawn to the perfumes on my parents’ dressing table: the smell of my mother on the upstairs landing, dressed up and glamorous, about to go out, the impossibly romantic miasma of perfume lingering on the stairwell; the dapper scent of my father in his tux as he bid us goodbye for the evening; their combined scents lingering in the air long after the door had shut and we had settled in with our babysitter. These are cherished moments, the stirrings of the young child’s imagination. The after- shaves on the shelf near my father’s bed. Parents out, or downstairs. The still of the house, carpeting underfoot, the strange allure of the closed-tight flacons and their grown-up, mysterious contents as you opened up what you had been told not to, letting the bottles’ slow exhalations reach your nostrils or else clandestinely perfume your hand, to greedily inhale and wonder at the scent in the safety of your own room.
Looking back now, I can see that there was never a shortage of good scent in our house. My mother would buy many different perfumes, all of which I would try secretly, not especially loyal to any, except perhaps for Van Cleef & Arpel’s beautiful First, a classical jasmine aldehyde with hints of blackcurrant bud and amber from 1976 that is elegant, radiant and suits her skin perfectly, which she still wears to this day. This perfume is my mother for me, embodied, personified, encapsulated, as my sister is Roma by Biagiotti, a grapefruit and mint-touched sensual vanilla floral that she has worn since she was a teenager and which she still leaves hanging in the room like a hint of her soul.
With my father the associations are somewhat trickier, as I wore most of his scents myself during my burgeoning adolescent interest in fragrance, stealing his Eau Sauvage and Givenchy Gentleman of a morning on my way to school and loving the reactions they would elicit from people around me: girls waiting to smell my neck in the corridor, a way of striking up conversation. I still wear them on occasion, particularly Gentleman. Although in some ways it now seems an older man’s scent, a patchouli leather rose that gives off beautifully subdued top notes of lemon and tarragon alongside aromatic vetiver, in the après rasage format of the time, it was lighter, and it fit me like a glove. I loved it. And it was this scent that I can vividly remember wearing on that night of my first real kiss. I can still see myself, on a warm early summer evening, in a white polo shirt and this (he smelled of outside and bonfires); that moment, that June night of stark starry skies and shadows in shrubs, now enshrined for me forever in the glorious aroma of Givenchy.
Up to my mid-teens, although I had experimented with buying different scents for myself, I still had never really had that moment of narcissistic coup de foudre when you recognize yourself so completely in a scent that it seems to encapsulate your identity, much as a pop song can seem like a self-reflecting refuge of salvation to a tortured teenager. I can still remember the moment when my best friend Helen found her “holy grail” scent in a Birmingham department store at eighteen or nineteen, as we excitedly tried the under-the-counter perfumes at Guerlain, the more unusual “cult” fragrances not usually out on display. Mitsouko, Nahéma, Jicky, L’Heure Bleue… Though they all had obvious artistry and beauty, none of them were quite her. It wasn’t until Après L’Ondée (“After the Rainshower”), a wistful and impenetrable anise heliotrope perfume from 1908, with its daunting and crepuscular elements of violets and its eiderdown of orange-blossomed vanilla, soft, mysterious and enigmatic, that she recognized herself so fully in the scent that it brought tears to her eyes. I can still see her, stopped in her tracks, staring transfixed, eyes misted, as the creation brought forth feelings that neither of us could quite articulate, but that we both somehow knew was profoundly right.
Though such potent reactions are certainly not a prerequisite for enjoying perfume, there is no doubt that for a scent to work in the way it was intended – a fragrant aura that subtly surrounds you, gives you pleasure and brings you closer – you have to love it yourself first. Too many people nonchalantly wear fragrances that don’t even suit them, that they didn’t buy for themselves, that they might not even particularly like, and you can immediately sense it. This indicates the low status accorded to smell in modern western societies, where vastly more thought is given to visual appearance than any other aspect of identity.
In contrast, I once had the pleasure of spending an entire afternoon in an Arab incense shop and perfumery in Kuala Lumpur and, watching the customers come and go, I was amazed at the difference in behaviour between the patrons of that trove of elixirs and their western counterparts gingerly trying out fragrances at the department store back home. Here, men and women in robes would enter the premises, discuss in depth what they were looking for with the proprietor, spending hours poring over bottles. They sprayed themselves with various perfumes, analyzed their development (how they melded with their skin), breathed them in and savoured them with great pleasure, much as a whisky connoisseur or sommelier might savour the various stages of a fine single malt or Rioja. These real perfume lovers were eager to have a good overall picture of each perfume, to get to know it properly, before they decided to commit fully – much as you would do with a lover. And this is something that I identify with completely.
A well made, classically structured perfume has different stages in its development on the skin, and ideally you need to appreciate them all: the head, heart and base, all of which are important in the over- all composition and atmosphere of the scent. The head or “top” notes are usually formed by fresh, uplifting notes, “accords” that gain your attention initially but then evaporate as they cede to the heart of the composition, the scent’s main theme – flowers, woods, spices – which usually lasts for a good few hours before the twilight of the perfume comes into play. The base notes form the deeper subconscious of the scent that the wearer is not usually aware of, once the perfume begins to fade, but which remains perceptible to other people, telling its story on the skin to all those who come into contact with it. These are essences with low evaporation rates: usually thick, sexual unguents such as musk, vanilla, sandalwood or labdanum, intimate smells that brush off on your lover’s clothes and sheets and can still be detected the following morning.
A great perfume, one that can stand the test of time, will have been orchestrated to exquisitely calibrated perfection by its creator, a painstaking process of trial and error that can take years to perfect.
Chamade (1969) is one such creation, a soft and extraordinarily emotive hyacinth semi-oriental that apparently took more than 1,500 subtly different formulations until Jean-Paul Guerlain had his eureka moment and a timeless perfume – poetic, romantic, sensual yet vulnerable – was created. A true perfumer is as much a scientist as an artist, an olfactive visionary who will have undergone years of training at specialized
institutions, memorizing thousands of aromatic materials by heart for use in the creative palette, marking the exact evaporation rates and proportions of each ingredient with extreme precision until the time when that alchemical moment occurs and the individual components unify into a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. Like any work of art, a great perfume transcends its own parameters to enter the realm of the universal with the potential to touch anybody, but to find out if this particular creation works on you personally, it is necessary to live with it. For a day, a week, even a month, if necessary. Without letting the perfume tell its entire story from beginning to end you will never know if you have found “the one.”
It is here that the attention deficit disorder nature of modern commercial perfumery makes itself felt. With low concentration spans, the average buyer of a fragrance, making split-second decisions while at the boarding gate or during the Christmas rush, bases his or her impressions of a perfume predominantly on the very first moments of a perfume’s evolution. Consequently the perfumer’s budget is spent on this superficial stage, the heart and base of the perfume collapsing into low-cost banality and trash, the equivalent of a bargain-bin T-shirt whose seams begin unravelling the moment you put it on. The classic perfumes of the Golden Age of Perfumery (from the beginning of the 20th century through the 40s) were quite the opposite. This was a time when perfume really did feel and smell like luxury, as the ingredients used by perfumers were themselves precious, exotic and hard to come by.
It is perfumes like these, perfumes with real soul, that leave a lasting impression and embody whole lives. Audrey Hepburn, for one instance, wore the perfume L’Interdit, which initially had been commissioned for her use alone, a soft and powdery rose jasmine with an underlay of woody musk that was said to emanate from all the clothes in her wardrobe upon her death as if she were still in the room, a spectral presence giving solace to the bereaved.
As well as an original edition of that perfume, in my collection I have a small spray bottle of Robert Piguet’s Fracas, a flamboyant and head-turning mélange of tuberose and sweet white flowers and woods that enters the room before you do and is clearly the domain of the irrepressible diva. My own bottle was given to me by a friend, who in turn was given it by the late Isabella Blow, doyenne of fashion and extravagant headwear, muse of Philip Treacy and socialite of the art and fashion world who drenched herself in Fracas and carried little bottles wherever she went so she could hand out the perfume to party guests like sweets: little scented narcissisms that she shared with others like the most extravagant keepsakes. Wherever Isabella Blow went, so did Fracas, to the extent that for her friends, the smell was her. Years later at her funeral, the air was fully “redolent with the scent of Fracas,” according to those who were there, as her close friend, the late Alexander McQueen, had scented the air lavishly with this reminder of her presence.
The sense of smell in this respect – its resurrection of the flesh and its potent evocation of the people we love – is far more heartrending and visceral than any song or picture could ever be. I can only begin to imagine the effect that the smell of my mother’s vintage First will have on me some day in the future: a disembodied ghost trapped in watery form that will probably break my heart. Or L’Occitane’s Epicée Giroflée, a suave, clove-tinted citrus cologne that my lover wore for a while quite soon after we met, more than twenty years ago, returning me immediately to that tender and beautiful time. Yet the artists, the geniuses, who created such perfume classics as Fracas or L’Interdit remain largely anonymous and obscure to the public in ways that would never befall a celebrity chef, or accomplishments in the worlds of music, art, film or literature: more “legible” art forms where the creator is at the centre of the piece, its originator.
As smell is relegated to the lower tiers of cultural importance and recognition, so perfume is considered inferior, perfumers working in the shadows. What is worse, unlike books, albums or films, whose contents are copyrighted and protected, during the last twenty to thirty years the carefully constructed formulae of the classics of perfumery have been gradually altered by the big perfume conglomerates, reformulated and eviscerated with cheaper ingredients and synthetic substitutes until they become mere imitations of their former glory, pathetic imposters that are almost not worth smelling. For the perfume lover, this is the equivalent of simplistic and truncated Reader’s Digest stories being passed off as the original novels, or cheaply produced pirate cover versions of classic songs. Inconceivable, in other words, except that in the world of perfumery this happens all the time.
As perfume formulae become ever cheaper to cover the costs of advertising and promotion, one after another, perfumes that have been loved by their faithful wearers for many years are being substantially changed, ostensibly the same in appearance but with the tangible sense that something is off . Perfumers are often able to recreate the initial illusion, in the top accords of these treacherous approximations, that you are wearing the same scent, and in fact at first you may feel that you are. Ultimately, though, something does not feel quite right; the scent is a clone of a person you once loved, a shallow facsimile, a bodysnatcher.
The current edition of Obsession, for example, my first perfume love, elicits no emotional response from me despite its superficial similarity; and neither does the contemporary edition of Givenchy Gentleman, which has been polished up and modernized (i.e. desensualized) to fit current more conservative tastes, but which for me personally has gone from an R-rated, erotic and subtly hirsute perfume to a metrosexual and depilated PG. Chanel No19 (1970), probably my favourite perfume of all time in perfume extract (an aloof and very elegant blend of leather, iris, vetiver and sharp green top notes) is still widely available but now comes across like an embarrassed victim of electroconvulsive therapy and plastic surgery compared with the costly original: the expensive orris bulb extract leached out, the formula “cleaned up” to the point where it no longer resembles the perfume I knew and loved.
When you have worn a perfume for any extended period, its complexity melds with your unconscious, your skin, your blood, and even the slightest change in its chemical makeup is immediately apparent to you and the people who loved you in it, no matter how canny the trompe l’oeil, or rather trompe nez, affectations of the reformulator may have been. It is scandalous, in truth, and is the reason that I have become such an avid hunter and collector of vintage classics of the perfumes that I adore. The fakes are robbing me of my memories.
Ironically, and most unexpectedly, though, to my great delight I have found an astonishing source of pristine, vintage perfume, including many of the aforementioned scents, in the place you might least expect it: Japan, my home of twenty years, and a country known for its dislike of strong smells and western perfume. That such a culture – where the wearing of scent is seen as selfish and invasive when space is at such a premium – should yield so many untouched treasures may appear paradoxical at first, until you begin to understand the nation’s complex relationship to western luxury and fashion. Essentially, although a proportion of Japanese people do wear scent (albeit to a far lesser degree than those in the West, particularly in European countries such as France, Italy and Spain where it is an ingrained part of the culture), in Japan it is seen more as a precious foreign item to be used cautiously and sparingly, almost a venerable object to be respectfully placed on the shelf and kept for later.
That souvenir then eventually surfaces after its owner’s death, when such works of perfumed art – perfumes that make my pulse quicken, bottles that would sometimes cost a fortune at online auction sites or at antique fairs in New York or London – appear at flea markets and junk fairs, sometimes at such heart-stoppingly low prices I almost can’t breathe. It is in this way that I have, over the years, been able to reassemble the majority of the perfumes from my past – things I have worn, scents my friends, lovers or family members used to wear – and restituted a large number of perfumes that in essence no longer exist. Side by side, the originals make new versions seem like pale, anaemic jokes.
Living for such a long time in a profoundly different culture has not only presented me with drawerfuls of vintage French classics, but also introduced me to different modes of scent appreciation: beautiful and esoteric practices such as the tradition of kodo, or “listening” to incense, though this is becoming rarer now. (As in western societies, rituals that celebrate the other senses, particularly taste, such as the sado or tea ceremony, predominate here.) Alongside visually oriented arts such as shodo (calligraphy), kabuki, the art of kimono dressing, and the flower arrangement tradition of ikebana, incense appreciation ceremonies are still sometimes held in the city where I live, Kamakura, the ancient samurai former capital of Japan and zen centre.
I was lucky enough once to be invited to an event held at Kamakura’s premier incense establishment. The first floor of the shop sells
exquisite boxes of incense, from soft floral blends (iris, rose) to the finest jinko (agarwood): powdered, musky sandalwoods blended with the strange, dark resins and spices (clove, camphor, frankincense). The second floor houses important perfume artefacts and incense holders. The third floor, however, is reserved exclusively for the kodo ceremony, a meditative act of smell appreciation that is so esoteric and removed from daily life as to be astonishing.
In silence, as the kneeling participants looked on, the incense master gently passed round on a small lacquered plate a tiny, smoul- dering piece of the best kyara (the most prized wood in the world, obtained from semi-decomposed agarwood trees from forests in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia): a mind-altering scent that is part patchouli, part vetiver, part cannabis, part pepper, but drier, more insidious, sinewy and powerful than all – a true opiate.
With eyes closed in deep concentration, each “listener” tried to guess the name of the piece of wood the particular fragment came from: “Moon in the Grove,” “Still Waters at Izu” and so on. Each is subtly different, and particularly prized specimens are in fact priceless, stored as investments by banks and other institutions. Then, the bearer of the kyara, in elegant, calligraphic kanji, composed a haiku, an ode to the incense, while the others looked on, nodding in appreciation when they heard these paeans to the scent of sacred wood. The olfactory and poetic melded in moments of heightened reality as the sounds of the street outside faded to nothing.
The well-to-do ladies in attendance at this kodo ceremony were of course unscented themselves, the smell of the burning wood strictly exterior to the body, to be listened to, internalized and understood: a secret communing with spirits. In Japan, while there has always been a tradition of discreetly concealing sachets of perfume in the folds of a kimono (powdery, soulful emanations that soften the formality of the dress and give an added layer of tantalizing untouchability), usually the body itself should be kept clean and only very delicately scented.
At a Japanese hot spring or onsen, time spent lathering with hinoki soap fills the air with a hale scent of evergreens and human skin: the evocative, smoky cedarwood scent of the forest that seems so quintessentially Japanese rising into the steaming mountain air, before thorough rinsing with water and the lengthy, peaceful immersion in the waters. Some people spend the entire day washing in these places, re-entering the waters, then washing all over again, an act that goes far beyond mere bodily hygiene. It is ritualistic, and has been this way since antiquity. In essence, hot springs are not only a way to relax, but also a form of bonding, purification and spiritual reflection. Having sat in pools under trees in the light of the moon with people you don’t know but are in unspoken sympathy with, listening to the night, you feel cleaner and more serene than you can possibly imagine. You smell of nothing but water.
Tokyo at the end of March and beginning of April is a sea of pale-pink petalled cherry blossom, blankets of softly scented trees under which people gather for hanami, the beloved flower-viewing parties that have been a tradition for centuries. People of all ages and social classes gather on mats under the avenues of abundant owering trees drinking beer, wine and sake, celebrating the sheer beauty of the flowers as they tinge the air with their short-lived colour and scent, a poignant symbol of evanescence and the fleetingness of human life. The light perfume of the cherry trees oats on the air as petals drift down on the picnickers below, the revellers forgetting themselves for a moment of poetic respite.
It is this that makes scent our unspoken link, our unvoiced connection. Perfume, literally “through smoke” (from the Latin per fumum) lets us pass through the mirror of this self-confinement to the other side. Beautiful and transcendent smells can dissolve the hermetic, invisible barriers we erect between ourselves and others, those defensive layers of sociophobic self-preservation that we maintain like membranes and which seem to be founded on the more cerebral and rational side of our psychology.
Scent is an escape. It is a release, plunging us more fully into the lived moment, reinforcing it, heightening its intensity. Walking one night in the jewel of Tokyo, Ginza, amid the rain-soaked neon shimmer reflected in glass buildings, a friend and I came upon the scent trail of a beautifully dressed creature whose elegance was accentuated to amazing effect by her perfume: Jardins de Bagatelle, a brilliant floral bouquet with one of the best sillages, or scent trails, I have ever experienced. I knew the perfume well and had always quite liked it, but on this particular Japanese woman it was incredible: the smell so mesmerising, yet so beautifully taunting in its sly, sensual understatement that, like dogs, we decided to follow her beneath our umbrellas.
We drank in as much as we could of the exquisite scent that floated on the air behind her, before, without warning, she inevitably disappeared around a corner: a trail of beautifully sweet, relucent, silver-tipped flowers invisibly lingering in her wake.