Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Perfect Scent

I'm a sucker for journalistic narratives of quirky topics, like Michael Lewis' The Big Short or Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.  Or even not-so-journalistic, such as the fun and flighty Bringing Home the Birkin by Michael Tonello.  Understandably, then, I jumped right in to Chandler Burr's informative and captivating book The Perfect Scent.

Published in 2008, this book kept my interest despite flaunting more chemical compounds than I've seen since my unfortunate encounter with organic chemistry more than 10 years ago. It is actually two stories in parallel - one, Hermes hiring Jean-Claude Ellena as their in-house perfumer and the development of Un Jardin sur le Nil; and two, the creation of Sarah Jessica Parker's fragrance Lovely.  The first story takes place in France, the second in New York.

It is probably not a surprise that I preferred the Jean-Claude Ellena part of the book. One, I already know a bit about him and own one of his perfumes. Two, that part takes place in France and since I'm currently living here, I'm just partial to those parts.  Finally, there is something romantic about the idea of the perfumer sitting in his lab, carefully, purposefully putting specific molecules together, tweaking and finessing until finally capturing the ephemeral idea of whatever challenge has been laid before him.  Chandler Burr not only takes you inside Hermes' meetings and Jean-Claude Ellena's lab, but practically inside Ellena's head.

What I got from the SJP part of the book is that one, SJP has eclectic tastes in perfume and two, SJP was actually involved in making her perfume unlike most celebrity perfumes.  Great.  I haven't smelled Lovely, so maybe that would bring the story full circle.  But it wasn't particularly captivating, not like the journey involved in creating Un Jardin Sur le Nil. It's possible that some of my preference for the Jardin portions of the book is a result of, as Burr points out more than once, Ellena's astounding ability to talk about perfume in a way few people do or can.

Burr gives us some fantastic lines from Ellena. "Picasso said, 'Art is a lie that tells the truth.' That's perfume for me. I lie. I create an illusion that is actually stronger than reality."  Another great one is: "There are two great poles of perfumery. Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Seduction and hygiene. The Latin wants to seduce; he says, 'See how sexy I am, I'm coming to you.' The American says, 'See how clean I am, you can come to me.'" And this last one helps bring some of what attracts to me to perfume into focus: "They say cooking is an art and pastry is a science. Perfume is a math, specifically an algebra."

For the perfume rookie, The Perfect Scent is a wonderful introduction to the industry as well as to the artists.  There is commentary on so many perfumes - while sometimes it made me think, "I get it, Chandler Burr, you know a crazy amount about perfume. So stop showing off!", at other times I appreciated the references as it has helped inform my ever-growing list of perfumes to track down and smell. I also finished the book with a smile on my face, a desire to visit Grasse, and a feeling of anticipation for continuing to learn more about the world of fragrance.

Next up on the reading list: Essence and Alchemy, Mandy Aftel. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Niche Spotlight: L'Artisan Perfumeur

If you're unsure where to start in the niche perfume world, L'Artisan Parfumeur is a good choice.  It is one of the first "niche" houses (which basically means they don't make too many perfumes, and they aren't mass marketed, and the perfumes aren't widely available like Dior or Estee Lauder), started by perfumer-chemist Jean Laporte in 1976. But they are actually bigger than most true niche houses these days, with multiple locations around Paris as well as in other cities.  Their perfumes are also sold at the big Parisian department stores, like Printemps, as well as at Neiman Marcus.

Why the focus on niche, by the way?  If you don't know anything about perfume, doesn't it make more sense to start with Chanel? Or something else quite established?  I'm sure there's a case to make there, but since what first turned me on to fragrance was visiting these small shops that are really focused on the artistry of perfume,  the niche world seems the perfect place to begin my explorations.  Because to me, this isn't about smelling good.  It's about how the smells make you feel, and how different smells make different people feel differently, and about the people that work their perfuming magic to bring us something that takes us beyond the everyday.

But back to L'Artisan Parfumeur.  Their line includes over 40 perfumes, as well as lotions, candles, room sprays, etc.  In the shop, each perfume sits next to a labeled cup with a ball of cheesecloth inside.  The cheesecloth, of course, is scented with that perfume's scent.  It turns out that spraying perfume is not the ideal way to test perfumes.  The alcohol that comes out with the spray both affects what you smell, and also clouds your nose faster, so it becomes more difficult to continue smelling different scents.  Another plus for the cheesecloth is that it means that you don't just smell the top notes of the perfume.  Top notes are, logically, the first thing you smell when you apply a perfume.  Top notes wear off and are followed by middle, or heart, notes.  Those too fade and leave you with the base notes.  So you want to make sure that you like the perfume the whole way through because it will change.

I've now been to two L'Artisan Parfumeur locations in Paris - one by the Grand Boulevards on Rue Vignon and their flagship boutique just behind the Louvre on Rue de l'Amiral de Coligny.  Both were very positive experiences.  The girl working at the Rue Vignon location had a great story.  Trained as graphic designer, she was struggling to find work in the current economy.  She already loved perfume, but it frustrated her that she would go to a store and say, "I like florals" and always be pushed to the newest product, the most recent Dior, etc.  One day she got so fed up that she said to herself, "I must sell perfumes!" She's been at L'Artisan Parfumeur for over three years now.  At the Rue Vignon location, she told me the best seller is their iconic Mure et Musc.  This was one of the earliest L'Artisan creations, created in 1978.  But, she says, she's not sure if it sells well because people still truly love it, or simply because they feel they should buy the most famous scent.

I asked whether shoppers of different nationalities are partial to different perfumes.  She replied, "Oh, I could write a book on this!"  While French women lean towards Mure et Musc, American women often purchase the much more delicate La Chasse Aux Papillons.  Which totally does not do it for me at all, but you, on the other hand, may love it. Her current favorite is Nuit de Tubereuse.  She gave me a funny look at first for asking all of these questions, but after explaining that I was simply curious because I'm interested in perfume, she warmed up and invited me to stop by the store to try a new perfume anytime.

At the flagship store, the woman largely left me alone until I asked about one of their "discovery" boxes.  With small vials (but larger than a sample) of five different scents, these boxes were on sale for 20 euros.  Quite a steal for Paris.  Unfortunately, I really only liked one of the five scents - L'Eau D'Ambre Extreme.  I've read reviews that complain that scent is not particularly complex, and maybe that's true, but it is warm and luxurious.  It makes me feel like I should be curled up in a plush, oversized leather armchair with a cozy blanket. So I asked whether they sell the small size individually, to which, naturally, she said no. The point of the box, she explained, was to discover whether you might like the other scents.  I still wasn't sold but after purchasing two small gifts (lotion - on sale! - for my grandmother-in-law and aunt-in-law), she not only threw in a sample of the Ambre Extreme, but Nuit de Tubereuse and her personal favorite of the collection, Traversee du Bosphore.

The lesson here seems to be 1) ask questions. Even if you think you sound silly. And 2) if you are genuinely interested in perfume, and are at a shop where the employee is also genuinely interested in perfume (and the odds are high for that at a place like L'Artisan Parfumeur), you are likely to have a positive interaction.  Both of the L'Artisan employees were respectful, and neither tried to sell me anything.  I haven't smelled everything in the collection because even two visits just isn't enough for that.  I have definitely added to my list of perfumes that I might like to own: L'Eau d'Ambre Extreme, The pour un Ete, and Nuit de Tubereuse. The pour un Ete is something I think I would like better in the summer, even though I am finding that I enjoy bright, fresh scents to cheer me up in the dreary Paris winter.  But this scent is a little too delicate, and I think would probably get lost among all my many scarves and layers.  There are others that are intriguing and worth a second smell, even if I remain unconvinced that I would ever wear them.  These include Bois Farine, Safran Troublant, and Timbuktu.

L'Artisan Parfumeur's own website states that "living with a fragrance from L'Artisan Parfumeur is the olfactory equivalent of sharing your life with contemporary art; sometimes it can seem challenging, and at other times liberating and inspirational."  Now, that might be a bit much, even for someone swept up in the romance of perfume like myself.  On the other hand, maybe that's what draws me in the first place.

Perfume Rookie

I am a perfume rookie.  I am one of the last people you would think would become intoxicated by the world of fragrance. For one, I have a terrible sense of smell, impaired for much of my life by a deviated septum which even after surgery (and no, that is not code for "I had a nose job", thank you very much) doesn't seem to smell much better.  For two, the world of design, beauty, and fashion - which is very much intwined with perfume - has never been my thing.  High end for me means Banana Republic.  As opposed to Old Navy.

But then I moved to Paris.  I came to Paris for my husband's job, with my primary role in the city of lights being stay-at-home-mom.  My discovery of perfume happened one afternoon in October, a few months after our arrival, when I participated in a tour of niche perfume houses through an anglophone cultural organization here in Paris. I was hooked.    In the months since then, I have started reading more, smelling more, and even finally purchased my very first perfume.  That's right. I'm 32 years old and now own my first perfume.  Perfume rookie, I'm telling you.

I find myself intrigued by perfume, by the artistry and the emotional experience that comes along with scent.  This blog is not intended to be another set of perfume reviews, or discussions on industry trends.  My hope is to get to know the world of perfume, particularly the world of niche perfumes here in Paris, and to share what I find and learn.