Thursday, 13 August 2009

On perfume. (It’s not Tuesday, I know, but I was busy.)

The word inspiration also means breathing in...

When I was a kid, women had one bottle of perfume and wore it on special occasions. You put it on after your best clothes and your earrings. You dabbed it on occasionally until it had turned into something that looked lovely but smelled a bit like vinegar. (We didn't know in those days that scent deteriorated in daylight so our mums would take it out of the packaging and stand it on their dressing tables to impress visitors.)

My mother had one bottle of Chanel No.5 that my French pen-friend's family had given me to bring back to Geordieland for her. It was massive. There is stood on the modernist dressing table, decomposing nicely until it smelled foul, but as we didn't know what Chanel No. 5 was supposed to smell like, she wore it anyway.

For an ordinary Sunday tea with friends or coffee at a smart cafe, you'd wear Avon or Lentheric that someone had got you for your birthday.

When I was 16 I bought my first bottle of proper scent. We were in Dundee, at a department store; we were holiday nearby. I'd just sat my exams and was about to go into sixth form, sufficiently grown up, I'd decided, to wear a beautiful fragrance. I'd saved up; I had cash. Looking back, I appreciate that the saleswoman was very kind to me. (Since then, I've met some apallingly snooty scent sellers.) She enjoyed my excitement and treated me like an adult with opinions of my own. She let me try several scents, gradually finding out what it was that appealed to me and finally took out her Diorella tester.
"I think you'll like this," she said, "It smells to me of overripe peaches." She was right, super-right, more right than I'd imagined possible. She had found me the most overwhelmingly gorgeous scent. It was simply the most beautiful smell that had ever wound its way to my olfactory nerve endings. I wanted to jump into its fragrant cloud and inhale forever. I was totally faithful to it for four years.

After that I was seduced by Chanel Cristalle, Yves Saint Laurent's Champagne (which was surpressed by France's Champagne producers then reappeared years later as Ivresse). Guerlain's Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat distracted me for a while then I dabbled in sundry citruses.
Decades after I found my partner perfume, I went searching for another. I have many fragrant friends, including the one and only bottle of Lynx Sarah McCartney - really - but I found the liquid love of my adult life in Paris, on another quest, at a small shop that my husband found for me. He tells me he doesn't regret it.

Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle is an interesting place. The chap himself invited the world's top perfumers to create any scent they wanted to, with no restriction on cost. Natural materials vary between £5 and £2000 a kilo. Synthetics are cheaper and that's what you get in most of the 21st Century scents you'll be attacked with as you cross the threshhold of a department store perfumery.

There we were in the small, dark, intensely modern shop. To smell the scents, you sniff a column of pure, fresh air perfumed only with the fragrance of your choice. You smell the effect you will have as you waft by. Once you've sniffed, the chamber is whooshed clear, ready for you to smell the next one. Just like my first time, the assistant asked me to describe the scents I usually like and I told her that I wanted one that reminded me of red berries. She filled the tube with Lipstick Rose and I fell for it instantly. Now, I carry it with me everywhere in a small, black metal tube and sometimes I allow other people a bit of a squirt if they ask very nicely. Their Dans tes Bras perfume reminds me of the way I used to smell at the end of a day at the beach: sea water, suntan lotion, skin, damp sand, sunsets, happiness. I'm very fond of that one too.

I still dabble, notably at B Never Too Busy to be Beautiful, where the stunning scents (also made with no limit on materials costs) are the best value for money that you will find in the world of fine perfumery. I love Superword Unknown and Two Hearts Beating as One. L'Artisan Parfumeur has several that I love, including Bois Farine ("Biscuits!" said my goddaughter, Bella) and Vanilia.

The thing about scent is that is it evocative, hard-hitting in an intensely emotional way. The nerve endings for our sense of smell are unprotected from the big wide world, unlike touch where skin is a barrier between the stimulus and the brain, so it deadens the feeling. The place we first detect a smell is close to the emotional centre of our brains so we are vulnerable to the effect of a stray smell that takes us inawares.

Find a scent that makes you smile, lifts you up and takes you to a pleasant place and you'll have yourself an emotional time-travel machine, an instantly intoxicating, inspiring tool. Dab, inhale, wait, create. I think I'll just have myself a quick helping of Lipstick Rose as I settle down to write. That should last me the morning.

Footnote: the film
Seek out a copy of Jasminum, a Polish film about perfume, love and other things. Ignore the badly translated subtitles and use them as a means to indicate what the characters really meant to say. I'm waiting for someone to watch it and bring out a Bird Cherry fragrance.

Footnote 2: the shops
Buying scent is not everyone's idea of fun. If you'd like me to help you, email and I shall. Really. First stop is Liberty, London W1 and head for the Frederic Malle collection on the ground floor. Say hello to Peggy and Albertino and tell them I scent you. Liberty's perfume collection is marvellous, but the service is unpredictable and you do need help. You might find a helpful, knowledgeable chap, but you might not. Ormonde Jayne in the orange Georgian arcade off Bond Street is just lovely too. Department stores are difficult. People are there to sell their particular brand not help you in your quest. The Arabian perfume shop opposite Selfridges on Oxford Street is an experience, and their scents are beautiful too. When you're in Paris, go to Detaille, Rue St. Lazarre. In New York, you want Bond No. 9.

Footnote 3: I mean it about helping you out. When you find the scent you were born to wear there will always be a beautiful place you can go to cheer yourself up, rain or shine. Now that I've found mine, my quest is to help the rest of the world find theirs.

PS By the way, I recently rediscovered Diorella. Although it's slightly different from decades ago (they reformulate now and again) it's still marvellous and makes me feel as though I've just passed all my O levels and my life is just beginning.


  1. I can relate 100% to this story. I found my fragrance of Neroli and back alleys in Rome when I visited there in January of this year. What an experience, half an hour it took me to get the right one, the salesman was so patient and considerate of my budget. I found Cologne by Claudie Pierlot...among the orange groves on Palatine hill

  2. Dammit, another one I shall have to try.