Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Joy of Scents

Or ‘Perfumes The A – Z Guide’

I feel like I managed to pull a fast one with this, but somehow I managed to get on the mailing list of someone exceptionally nice who was kind enough to send me a copy. There’s something about unexpectedly finding myself the recipient of a book I really want which makes me feel like I’ve pulled a fast one – even in the most legitimate of circumstances and Perfumes definitely gives me a getting away with it vibe.
Smell is probably the most under rated sense we possess, but how dull life would be without it. Food would be bland, wine would be tasteless, crisp autumn evenings and fresh spring mornings would lose half their savour and baths would be merely functional. I am slightly obsessive about scent (possibly because of a decade in the wine trade where you really have to think about smell; if you ever notice someone absentmindedly swirl and sniff a cup of tea or glass of water you can be fairly sure of what they do for a living) for two reasons. First because I can think of no more powerful memory trigger, and second because smells I like make me happy (and without any of the repercussions of say chocolate or gin or very expensive handbags).

One of the great unexpected pleasures of wine tasting is discovering wines with a giggle factor; something that smells so utterly delicious, magical and complex that it makes you smile then laugh out loud before you even drink it. Perfume has much, much, more of the same quality; a well chosen scent also has the power to enhance confidence and provide comfort, so like I say – only slightly obsessed.

When Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s ‘Perfumes The Guide’ appeared in hardback last year I think it’s fair to say that it was as successful as anyone could possibly have hoped, I couldn’t wait to get it then not least because of all the press buzz, and spent weeks of convalescence making lists of things to look for when I was out and about again. The new paperback edition is far better, 451 extra fragrances have been reviewed (bonus) and everything has been generally streamlined and improved, but what really makes the book indispensable – as with any great book- is the writing.

Neither Turin nor Sanchez feels the need to pull their punches and both are evangelical about their subject, Reviews range from a few words to several paragraphs from brutally honest to ecstatic; they are also funny. Estee Lauder’s Spellbound is treated thus “medicated treacle. Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse.” Clearly they are also personal and subjective (by which I mean they don’t care for my personal favourite ‘Tabac Blond’) yet all the history and romance of perfumery are also contained here.

For me this is a book of pure escapism, already I am making new lists of things to seek out, hopeful of finding one of those elusive scents which will make me smile on the dullest day, but for when I can’t find anything, can’t go out, or can’t afford it then I can always turn to the description of YSL’s Kouros. I won’t quote, but beg that anybody reading this take the trouble to look it up next time they’re in a book shop, if the sheer lovely over the top nonsense doesn’t make you want to find a man in Kouros to smell then I am sorry for it.


  1. You have totally opened Pandora's box for me on this one. I totally understand your fascination. I don't even know where to begin.

    You are so right about smell being a memory trigger. I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but whenever the weather is just right and I get a big whiff of bus exhaust it takes me right back to my first trip to London in 1989. It may be pollution, but it brings back good memories.

    For 3 years I worked at the headquarters of Aveda, where they make all kinds of beauty products and pretty much only use natural aroma. After working in that environment for a while one gets totally attuned to which scents are natural and which are synthetic. There would be days where we could tell there was a temporary employee on the floor because we could smell their synthetic (non-Aveda) beauty products across the office. Perfume, shampoo, deodorant, whatever it was they had used before coming to work, they might as well have been a skunk.

    And finally, in 2000 I was in London before going off to Naples for the first time and wanted to find a new scent that I could use for the first time in Naples. That way whenever I used it after that, it would always remind me of that trip. Well, by 2000 the world of scent was pretty international and I couldn't find anything in London that I didn't already know from the US (or an airport duty free). Until someone told me about Penhaligans. Long story short, I found the tiny little Penhaligan's shop and decided on Blenheim Bouquet. My first morning in Pozzuoli just outside of Naples I woke up, looked out on the blue sky and sunshine over a lemon grove and misted myself with Blenheim Bouquet. You can imagine what I thin of every time I use that scent. Sunshine, Italy, and lemons.

  2. Kindred spirits, What a fantastic way to remember a holiday. I love Penhaligons, especially the one in the burlington arcade, it's so perfectly old world.