Sunday, 4 December 2011


I used to be a big fan of French perfume, before they messed with the formulas. Now I know there is good reason not to use the old animal derivatives, such as musk and civet and ambergris, but the chemical substitutes they make in the lab just don't do it for me any more.

Some companies have produced lighter versions of their old scents to appeal to a younger market. They can be very pleasant, but I don't think they stir the senses like the original versions. The best of them had the power to transport you with one sniff into an exotic and sensual sphere, subtle and sophisticated, mood-changing and sex-enhancing.

Unlike the bland, sweet-smelling scents of today they had real personality. Take Guerlain's Shalimar - the mysterious Orient in a bottle. The packaging and marketing reinforced the image and when you breathed in that rich, sensuous, spicy aroma your imagination caught fire.

The Dior range somehow managed to make me feel like a witty, urbane Parisienne. Chanel had glamour and Rochas' Femme was one of the few fruity scents (peachy) that was to my taste, and it expressed the essence of femininity.

But my all-time favourite is, alas, totally unobtainable now. It was created in 1917, and started a whole new genre of perfume: Coty's Chypre. The name means 'Cyprus' and that Mediterranean isle was famous in ancient times for its spicy-scented flora. I managed to get a couple of bottles of this famous perfume on Ebay and every so often I lift the stopper and take a sniff. Of course some of the notes have faded, but there is just enough left of the original blend to remind me of its former glory. For a time I found Guerlain's Mitsouko a substitute, but not any more.

There are a few perfumes I still use, mostly light colognes. O de LancĂ´me is still refreshingly citrusy and, for some reason, I liked Elizabeth Arden's Sunflowers even though I don't usually go for such sweet, warm fruitiness. There must be some secret ingredient that appeals to me.

And that's the wonder of scent - it's so utterly subjective, so fleeting and hard to describe. Also, your taste changes as you age. Perfumes that I used to adore - such as Je Reviens and Ma Griffe - no longer appeal. But one will wonder in vain why yesterday's olfactory passion is today's total turn-off. Sometimes I recall the ghost of a past perfume, such as Revlon's Intimate which I used to wear. So many have fallen by the wayside, yet their essence can sometimes be fleetingly revived by another combination of scents.

Even the products you could buy in Woolworths are evocative of a bygone era: Soir de Paris, or Californian Poppy. As a student I once worked in a factory that packaged bath products for Bourjois. To my amazement I found that while on the ground floor they were packing Soir de Paris, upstairs they were packing goods for upmarket Chanel No. 5!

To misquote Noel Coward: 'Strange how potent cheap perfume is.'

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Egyptian Goddess of Perfume was Bast, the cat, who presided over the scented ointment jars in the tombs of the wealthy. Like a cat, perfume will travel silently and its moods will be subtle and unpredictable, taking you to unexpected, and often beautiful, places.

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