Well, that would be pretty much what happened to this very fortunate fragrant reporter. Thanks to the scheduling conflicts of two real journalists, this slightly nutty substitute was able to get a seat at a “speed smelling” event with nine perfumers who work at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). Three energetic, young, rising stars. Three very honed senior perfumers. And three widely recognized perfumers who have reached the pinnacle status of Vice President Perfumer. All of them having such impressive portfolios, including so many well-known perfumes, that my eyebrows have now been raised into some kind of inverse Botox state.
For a lowly Midwestern American perfumista such as moi, this was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. There was no way I could pass this up.
I'm a little too old and a little too married for speed dating, but speed smelling?
To reduce it to a Twitterism – O. M. G. I'm SO there.
I could have shortened this into nine little blurbs. Nine short paragraphs of clinical expeditiousness. I could have included those oppressive little lists of a perfumer's “greatest hits”, or my usual journalistic witticisms. But no. Not only would that be manifestly unfair to nine brilliant people who laid their hearts on the line in perfume – it would be unfair to you, my fellow perfume lovers, who were there with me in spirit.
I want you to tour along with me, from table to table, in the exact order that I met these wonderful perfumers and smelled their most personal creations. I want you to feel alternately thrilled, star-struck, deep in thought, jovial, romantic, and thoroughly buzzed – just like I felt. I want you to understand why – as my plane took off from New York that evening – I may have had to wipe the corners of my eyes just a little bit as the plane rose into the sky.
Clément Gavarry – Burning Man
When I learned that Clément's special personal creation was named Burning Man, I simply had to smile. To be honest, I wanted to pump my fist, slap my leg, point at his picture of the Burning Man bonfire, and let out an impassioned “DUDE!” Looking back at the moment now, I wish I had done it.
Clément is clearly the real deal. Not only is he planning to attend Burning Man in September – he just got back from surfing in Panama a week before we meet. He has never attended Burning Man, and I can sense his excitement. I know the feeling – the anticipation which people who enjoy the “extreme” experiences in life tend to have, waiting for the next big thing – whatever that is. It makes me feel young again to hear Clément talking about the Burning Man gathering.
You may be asking yourself what the hell Burning Man is. Frankly, I had only heard of it, and the conservative, older side of me never really wanted to know any more. It's hard to explain, and may only be truly understood by people who have been there. It's a bit radical, even for me and my old-school climbing “extremists”. When I excitedly told my college-age son about meeting Clément, I asked him rhetorically – “How do you describe Burning Man with a fragrance?” My son responded with a shake of his head - “How do you even describe Burning Man?”
I had always imagined that Burning Man was something like Woodstock. But after researching it further, I realize it is more. Perhaps if you mixed together Woodstock, desert survival training, gallery night, a graduation bonfire, and a religious cult that forbids money, you might get close. Even then, I think this must be something you simply have to attend to understand. Rock climbers experience this only partially and in the microcosm, when they camp together with other climbers and share the rope, trusting complete strangers with their very lives. That is a good feeling that makes me believe in the world. If Burning Man is anything like that, then I want to go, too.
Burning Man, the fragrance, tells this story. It is a complete surprise to me. I thought that it might be something simple – something very smoky, spicy, or something like fire – something more obvious. It's not. Instead, it's truer to what Burning Man really is. It's warm, and sweet. The stars of the show are benzoin, sandalwood, and labdanum. They form a warm base that really grabs your attention. Floating over the new-school, ambery warmth is a bit of coolness and freshness with a tiny sparkle, but it's light and ephemeral, like the chilly air that comes suddenly in the desert, or the stars in the sky. I realize that Clément has represented the desert perfectly. There is an interesting pine accord, which is sweet and resinous. Is it wood warmed by the desert sun? Whatever it is, it's delicious. There are also small notes like incense – just enough to give it a countercultural vibe, but again without obviousness. The drydown of the fragrance is a wonderful light, dry, woody aroma.
My wife loved this fragrance, even though it is somewhat atypical for her, but I can see it. Despite being so outdoorsy and natural, Burning Man has a classy aspect that you simply can't shake. It is peace, love, and high art in the middle of the desert.
In the way that all art does, Clément's fragrance changes me. I am wondering now if my climbing buddies would like to go with me to Burning Man. You might say that I'm the only one of us who has ever been there.
Carlos Benaïm – Grapefruit Flower
Carlos began his long, fragrant journey to the top of the field during his youth in Morocco. He began with orange blossom. Now, coming almost full circle 40 years later, he explained to us the inspiration behind the fragrance he had chosen to create, based on the analogous flower of the grapefruit.
Together with Carlos and a lovely reporter from Shape magazine, I tasted some grapefruit marmalade from North Africa. It is both bitter and sugary. Carlos watches us with hawk eyes as we taste it. You can feel Benaïm's curiosity – quietly reaching out into everything around him. I'm wondering what fragrant calculations are going on in his head, but I give up, knowing that they are likely beyond my understanding.
Next, we smell some of the real McCoy – a solution of the extract of the grapefruit flower. Benaïm prepares our minds by mentioning the series of lemon, orange, and grapefruit. He dips three papers into the floral extract, and we sniff together. The scent is fascinating and beautiful. It reminds me of the scent of orange blossom, yet it is completely different, and new to me. It has both floral and citrus aspects, but in a unique way that grapefruit does. I am drawn to both the citric grapefruit aspects, which remind me of my grapefruit colognes and eaux de toilette, and the delicate floral aspects, which make it seem more special, like my beloved Neroli Sauvage. I see that this falls in something of a series – that just as the fruits themselves form a series, they are paralleled by their blossom aromas. I announce this to Carlos like it's some great revelation, and he happily agrees. Only later do I realize that he has simply gotten a fool onto square one, so that I can even begin to understand what comes next.
What comes next is more fascinating – and clearly the magic of the most accomplished professional perfumer. I cannot tell you how he did it – I can only tell you what he did. He took the scent of the grapefruit flower and created an abstraction which translates the citric/floral je ne sais quoi of the actual grapefruit flower, and turned it into a modern feminine that prolongs and intensifies the knife-edge beauty. Yet, cunningly, it does so in the language of women who want fashion and modernity. Grapefruit Flower takes natural botanical beauty, passes it through modern art like a lens, and creates an image in the world of marketable fragrance. There is just enough sweetness to appeal to modern tastes, yet there is a balance of old-fashioned citric freshness that persists. The bitterness of grapefruit is there – enough to be recognizable – and yet it never seems – well – bitter. The wonderful smell is persistent without ever seeming artificial. The balance of the grapefruit flower remains. The sweet secret of the marmalade, taming the bitterness of the fruit, in imitation of nature's flower, has made it all the way to perfume. On skin, I find this scent extremely attractive. It gives me the image of a young, successful, stylish woman's neck and shoulders.
Immediately, my sniffing partner and I had the exact same reaction, to what was obviously an extremely marketable fragrance. Would we be able to buy anything like it? When? I pressed the question to Benaïm a bit more delicately. Could we expect something like this to show up on store shelves?
Carlos grinned. He might have said something quietly, but I wasn't listening at that point.
The grin was all I needed.
Bruno Jovanovic – The Secret of Isis
Bruno's answer is almost genius in its absurdity – go back so far in time that nobody remembers. Better still; go back to what was already legendary in legendary times.
Bruno is quiet and gentle, and I find myself cupping my ears to hear him. Yet he is very excited about his creation. As well he should be.
Bruno gave us a quick rundown on the background of his fragrance as we unpacked our reporter things at his table, recovering somewhat from being blown away by Carlos Benaïm. By the time he gave us testers to smell, I remembered very little of what was said. Probably a good thing. As soon as I smelled this fragrance, I was reduced to a state of repeating myself anyway.
Bruno was inspired by the question of how to scent the bath of a goddess. How do you make a goddess beautiful? How do you please her? A rather challenging question, I have to admit. Bruno strikes me as one of those exuberant young guys who doesn't know what problems you're not supposed to tackle, and thereby succeeds.
The Secret of Isis is truly otherworldly. It is most obviously an oriental, but it has an arrestingly different quality. There is something like a chypre ghost note that rings in my ears, but the color image that I get – very unusual for an oriental – is blue. It has some of the usual warmth that you expect, but there is a spine-tingling chill that runs through it – that permeates it – not merely layered into it. The image of bath water, of a goddess – it's all there. It has the property of being feminine, but scary beautiful. And oddly – because it is so modern – it seems like something a younger woman could easily pull off. Yowza. This is swooping-back dress, break out the pearls and heels, knock ‘em dead as you walk by stuff. Evening, defined.
Later, when I wore The Secret of Isis at work, I was caught off-guard by my own sillage. I thought someone around me was wearing an extraordinary new rendition of Chanel no.5 – something that I had never smelled before – something with the best parts of the original and Eau Première – and with the cool iris of Sel de Vétiver thrown in for good measure. I was stunned to realize that this was just another facet of The Secret of Isis, which I had not noticed before.
Don't think that a guy can't wear this. Like the greatest orientals, this one is not just wearable by men – it's arrestingly good on them. A male friend of mine – every bit the ladies' man – is already asking for it after wearing just one spray out on the town. He was actually taken aback by the very idea that it would end up on the women's counter.
My sniffing partner and I were both ecstatic by the end of our seven minutes. I think we realized that these IFF perfumers were operating at maximum inspiration and under very little constraint. Both of us were adamant that somehow people need to smell this. Moments in perfumery such as this should not be wasted. Personally, I've been very happy that hip-hop queens such as Latifah and Beyoncé have been bringing a bit of grandeur back to the more popular fragrances. A killer oriental like this might actually have a chance. Surely some designer or diva out there would be wise enough to pick a fragrance fit for a goddess.
Oh yes. One last thing. Bruno told us what the secret of his fragrance actually is. My eyebrows were raised, but my lips are sealed. Although you never know what sorts of secrets might be told among Basenotes Plus members.
Jean-Marc Chaillan – A Patchouli Odyssey
When he talks about his creation, he puts it in context, and the beginning of that context is himself. His grandfather had fields of lavender in southern France. His father, also a perfumer, is legendary in the business. Jean-Marc may have started out studying mathematics, but he was born to use that mathematical mind to create fragrance. If he had not found perfumery, perfumery would have found him.
But there is a price to pay for this kind of mind. I can tell that he is used to people not quite getting it – even on the simple stuff. When Jean-Marc uses the word “chypre” in rapidly getting us reacquainted with the traditional roles of patchouli, my American ears don't quite understand, expecting one of the more common American mispronunciations like “SHY-per” or “sheep-RUH”, instead of “sheep(r)”, where you barely hear the “r” at the end. It's like chemical nomenclature. I always find myself repeating things. It's frustrating when people don't get it. Jean-Marc had to repeat “chypre” three times before I understood. Frankly, I was embarrassed. But Jean-Marc is patient. Like a good teacher, he keeps at it until we get it. And he knows that once we smell the juice, his creation will speak for itself.
His name for it, Patchouli Odyssey, makes beautiful sense after you reflect on it. It is patchouli out of the future. Still, I will always remember it as Weightless Patchouli. What he did, essentially, was to make patchouli into a pure, shimmering note that floats above the composition. Something like a topnote - like a long-lasting citrus. If you smell patchouli from the dried leaves, as we did with Jean-Marc, then you understand his point - that patchouli can fly despite its normal nature - just like men. The light beauty of patchouli sniffed from the leaves is wonderful. Why not make it happen in a fragrance? Gravity is beautiful, but so is struggling against it and escaping. Thus, overcoming the material aspects of patchouli, which drag it down into an opaque, overwhelming, and massive heart or base note – that is where the mind of man gives him wings.
The fact that Patchouli Odyssey has truly achieved escape velocity is apparent by just sniffing the spray-head of the bottle, days after having last sprayed it. Most fragrances reveal their essential nature by doing this. Given enough time, they burn out their thrusters of dynamic relative evaporation, and reach a static velocity in perfume space. All dynamic tricks are over. What you are left with is the perfume's final answer. In the case of most patchouli fragrances, it is that heavy, familiar scent that overpowers the fragrance toward the end. But not Patchouli Odyssey. It smells exactly like my memory of crushed, dried, patchouli leaves – and it never stops. It is light, happy, and like a walk in a garden on another planet. Forever.
Patchouli has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I actually have a small decant of a patchouli scent in my wardrobe, which is unlike anything else. It has the ephemeral lightness of my favorite light tobacco and herbal aromatic scents – but it's patchouli. Can I ever go back to old-fashioned, heavy-metal “patchoulium”? It almost makes me happy and sad at the same time. I feel privileged like an astronaut, yet I know that the mission will end when this small bottle of space-age patchouli scent runs out. But then I tell myself that, in the same way that Skype and Face-to-Face realize the vision of futuristic telecommunication in 2001: A Space Odyssey, maybe patchouli sport colognes will become everyday fragrances one day. Maybe when fresh aquatics are only a memory, future Basenoters will complain about the redundancy of fresh, airy patchouli scents.
Sometimes I worry for the future of fragrance, but Jean-Marc's work restores my confidence in the inventiveness of perfumers. It shows me that perfumers have not given up the fight. They are tackling the toughest problems, and coming up with real answers.
Could it be that the next frontier of fragrance is the morphing of components into what would normally be regarded as almost impossible roles? To change their fundamental olfactory characters, as if by transmutation? Something that would open up not just avenues, but entire fields for future perfumery?
Yes. I will admit it. I want to believe.
Celine Barel – Graffiti
Her background in hâute couture is an important influence, and cannot fail to impress, with names like Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton. Yet, very profoundly, it seems to only make her more sensitive to the tastes of those who would never own anything from such houses. She understands fashion as something that exists even in the blue jeans of teen girls who rub cigarette ashes into them. Celine knows that fashion is everywhere. She understands that the real business of fragrance involves creating things to be worn by those who will never wear expensive designer clothes.
Celine is extremely inquisitive. Not only does she pepper me with questions about Basenotes and the Internet fragrance community in general – there is no answer that I can give her which does not lead to more questions. As a scientist, I welcome this sort of thing. And now, having seen how it affects her style of perfumery, I welcome it as a lover of fragrance.
Celine was intrigued by the artistic qualities visible in the ornate graffiti of Rio de Janeiro. The complexity and ebullient quality of the graffiti there are, admittedly, astounding. But Celine sees something more. She sees a deeper pattern which is also core to perfumery itself – the taking of lesser, or even ugly things, and combining them to create a greater beauty. In graffiti, this is taken to an extreme – the taking of crude, base, and even unwelcome materials, and creating something of undeniable beauty, which, as she so rightly puts it, “invites itself into the museum”.
Or into an art book, like the one she showed us. Celine's camera was stolen when she was gathering inspiration in Rio, and that may be, in a way, the most authentic photo she took. Still, she was able to recover a few pictures of graffiti from other people's cameras, as well as using her memory of what she had seen.
But how to tell the story of graffiti in perfume? Celine's idea was to really push the pattern – to take some of the worst actors in fragrance – “bad boys”, as she calls them – and then use them like spray paint on a more civilized wall – for which she used some classic/classy base components.
Her white wall was made of sandalwood and musk. On it, she wanted to use garish strawberry and raspberry like paint – but to shape them into art. The graffiti in her fragrance are described as fluorescent pink, and that's exactly the way it smells. Many of us have laughed along with the saying that “perfume should not be pink”, but this fragrance is clearly young, happy, confident, and flipping us the bird.
Two of the uglier components she even showed to us and let us sniff. Oxane – perhaps in dilution this is something attractive, but in concentration it is distinctly unappealing. Similarly, we sniffed some “bad girls” – fruity stuff that was hardly something you would want to be wearing. Celine even had a bottle of dimethyl sulfide. This is a bad boy that I'm familiar with. One of my labmates in school earned permanent scorn for having let the stuff loose in our laboratory, creating a foul stench which lasted for weeks. I almost can't imagine using it in a fragrance.
So - taken together, what is it all like?
WOW. It is the fragrance of a young woman – undeniably. There is a bold, unapologetic berry. But all ugliness is gone. The vivid red fruit notes remind me of two scents I love - CH Men and Original Santal. There is some candy, but this scent is no kiddie show. Overall, it reminds me of beautiful, carefree, youthful indiscretion. Although the bad girls of my youth wore patchouli and herbal concoctions, if we were committing our teenage crimes and indiscretions in today's world, the girls would definitely be wearing this.
Graffiti is undeniably a mass-market fragrance – and that's part of Celine's whole message. She sees the renewal of mass-market brands today as something analogous to graffiti itself, where popular art asserts itself without invitation. I think I get the message now.
Springing from chaos, or even ugliness, where you least expect it, beauty will find a way. You can't stop it.
I continue to think about this fragrance, fascinated by the patterns that echo through it. Perhaps the very idea of graffiti invites itself into the science museum as well.
I doubt that I'm up to the task of figuring it out. However, I smile at the idle thought of a gypsy named Celine teaching Richard Feynman something profound and mysterious – on a bar-room napkin.
Yves Cassar – Narcisse en Folie
Yves is obsessed with understanding flowers. He may actually understand them - from birth in the ground to beautiful death on a woman's skin – better than anybody in the world. This is a guy who headspaces the flowers in his own garden. I suspect that it is not just for fun, nor for the job. I suspect that he does it because he just has to know. I don't think there is ever a moment when he's not thinking about flowers at least in the back of his mind. It was truly a privilege to be able to spend seven minutes with such a person, and to let him school me in a flower about which I did not have a clue.
Admittedly, you can't learn much in seven minutes, but you can get the gist of things. The gist is that it takes a TON of work to create the luxury gift of perfume that you give to your spouse. If we were talking about diamonds, I would describe Yves as a combination of a geologist, a miner, a gemologist, a designer, a diamond trader, and a diamond cutter. Somebody who knows the business - the art and the science - from one end to the other. He knows it all, so that he can do the best possible job when he drops the hammer on the million-dollar rock. Yves does that to flowers. As a byproduct, he is able to answer any question about any part of the process.
He shows us pictures of the narcissus flower. Fields and fields of the things, growing together in an almost shocking extravaganza of floral beauty. That is problem number one. These things are all blooming at the same time. It's not like mining, where you have the luxury of turning off the machines and taking a break. You have three weeks, maximum, to get the flowers while the getting is good. So at the end of May, it's 24/7 harvesting until you get them all. He shows us the wheeled combs that are pulled through the fields, grabbing up bushels of the flowers as gently but as efficiently as possible. They look very old-school, but I suspect that there are more modern ones, too.
Next, he shows us pictures of the alembics used for solvent extraction of the flowers. The alembics are basically big round vats in the floor with openings at the top. The flowers are dumped into the vats, the vats are closed, and the flowers are processed. A relatively low-boiling solvent is used to extract the good stuff out of the flowers. The solution of good stuff is drained from the flowers, leaving behind spent flowers, which are used as mulch for the fields. The solvent is evaporated from the extract, yielding a waxy product.
Now, clearly, a wax contains junk you don't want. So the wax is then extracted with alcohol, which dissolves the good flower oils and leaves behind the junk. Finally, the alcohol is removed from the extracts, and you are left with narcissus oil absolute. But you are not left with much. Typically, you get 90 kilos of absolute, after starting with 250 tons of flowers. That ain't much. But the precious absolute ends the picture story, and begins our live demo with Yves.
We get to smell the absolute – or, more precisely, as very fine dilution of it, since the absolute if overwhelmingly powerful. Here is where Yves' legendary understanding of naturals starts showing itself.
The absolute smells like a flowering plant – not a flower. He points out the green, violet, and other aspects - which are interesting, but not narcissus. This is clearly a mixture of things. It's good, but it's a diamond in the rough. This juice that I am smelling, worn as is, would never even begin to fetch a price that would pay for all the trouble.
This is where the diamond-cutter's magic comes into play. Yves chisels the rough absolute down to a gemstone of fragrance. He lops off the bad stuff and creates new facets by perfumer sleight-of-hand. Or, if you want to look at it another way, he is like a florist who trims off bits and pieces, props up and shows off compelling features, and arranges things for maximum beauty.
In this composition, Yves is trying to return the absolute to the wild beauty of the actual narcissus flower. He is going to lop off some of the greenery – but not all. He's going to reduce the earthy notes, and enhance the floral notes. But this is like saying “he's going to cut the diamond”. It says nothing. Imagine the complexity that goes into turning raw electricity into a cell phone video conversation, or a round, dirty clear rock into a sparkling gem. This is what Yves does.
When you smell his creation, Narcisse en Folie (Narcissus in Bloom), after smelling the absolute, you can see how the gemstone fits into the space of the dirty rock. You can sense the parts he removed. But it seems like magic. It is as if he somehow managed to get the scent back to what you smell when you smell flowers in the garden – that clean, ethereal aroma that smells nothing like a plant juice.
At a higher level, it is art. Yves describes his scent. “Narcisse en Folie is a bright floral bouquet with dewy green accents. The narcotic scent of the narcissus flower is tamed by the wet honeysuckle, fluffy mimosa, and sheer neroli. The intoxicating jasmine and spicy ylang ylang enhance its mysterious and sensual side, while the pink peony and white freesia add playfulness and youth to this otherwise sophisticated composition. The fragrance embodies an aura of exhilarating joie de vivre.”
Yves has a great metaphor for how this scent smells.
“Imagine dancing to a symphony of flowers among the freshly gathered petals. Losing yourself in their whiteness and tantalizing aroma. This is Narcisse en Folie.”
It's true. With his delicate, ethereal fragrance on the back of my hand, and the spring air coming through my window, I am suddenly in France, in the narcissus fields of Lozère. I am standing there with Yves, holding handfuls of narcissus blooms to my face.
I smile at the crazy thought that – despite all the effort and skill that went into making it, perhaps Narcisse en Folie did not transport me there by human intention. Perhaps I was only a happy hitchhiker. Perhaps the mystery and spiritual beauty of the flowers simply returned, through my mind, to where it was always meant to be.
Laurent le Guernec – Marakesh
Laurent has created a huge number of great scents, including 18 of the scents in Bond's stable. That would include Brooklyn, one of my personal favorites. He also created my son's first fragrance, Hugo Boss Pure. But he doesn't just please Laurice Rahm or my family. He pleases everybody. He already has eight FiFi's, with six of them at IFF. I can sense that the IFF team values him as a hot property.
Laurent's style is keeping it simple. When people think of minimalist style, they often think of Jean-Claude Ellena. Critics of the style love to proclaim that it will pass before Ellena can pass the torch. I will argue that the torch is not just passing but multiplying, and is doing quite well, thank you. In fact, the school of simplicity and clarity may have found its brightest stars in the next generation. And there I was, sitting with one of them.
Laurent is excited about his new creation – he can hardly wait for us to sniff it. Apparently, he's always like this. If I didn't seem as excited as him, it was only because I was in rather awe of what I realized was happening. I was going to smell something equivalent to a new Bond. And possibly unique among those, because this one has personal meaning.
Laurent wanted to remember his trip to Morocco. As he spoke about what he saw there, he showed us pictures. The pictures and the odors he described were one – it was almost as if his vision was merely a form of long-range, anticipatory olfaction. He remembered the fine cedar of the doors – and you know that when nobody was looking, or maybe even when they were, he was sniffing them. He smiled as he remembered those cedar doors.
Then, in a moment that I, myself, will always remember, he let us sniff the very best Atlas cedar in the world. I kid you not. This was stuff that ordinary mortals do not get their hands on. I have sniffed Atlas cedar oil of varying grades. You get the sense that you get what you pay for, and that you can get lucky, but that most of the time you don't get either. Impurities wait to disappoint at every turn.
Not here. This cedar was so sublime, it might as well have been the old Mysore sandalwood. You have not truly smelled cedar until you smell creamy cedar. There was not a single off note. Not even a blip. It was smooth as glass, and crystal clear. I have never smelled anything like it.
Laurent knew he had us going. He got even more excited. As we kept sniffing the cedar – unable to stop - he started telling us about the souks – the markets – filled with the rich smells of perfumes and spices. He told us about the food and drink, including orange blossom water and mint tea. And though we didn't want to set our testers of the cedar down, he gave us some new testers of orange blossom absolute to sniff. Wow. Not as delicate as the grapefruit flower extract, but every bit as beautiful.
And what happens when Laurent brings it all together? Marakesh. The scent by which he remembers that city. Something that – if it ever hits the market – will be one of the prize treasures in my little lumberyard of precious woods. As it is, my little decant is already providing a lot of enjoyment, careful as I am not to use too much.
Marakesh keeps it simple, but balances everything perfectly. It's like bicycle riding. It's so simple, it's right and wrong at the same time. You cheer it on, but it shouldn't be happening. I think that's what gives it the je ne sais quoi of Terre d'Hermès. The wood never quits, but never shouts – just persisting until its quiet solo at the very, very end. The beautiful citrus just stays with it, going on forever, eerily, without ever turning synthetic or fake. The spices stay in for the whole game, too, and form a trio with the wood and citrus. Neither old-fashioned nor modern, it simply is. I'm afraid to call it an oriental, or middle-eastern, because even if algebra came to us by that route, it belongs to everybody, and so does this. I would describe Marakesh as having the simplicity of an equilateral triangle, yet that's too sterile. This is more joyous, more innocent. It's like three kids laughing and dancing in a circle in a sunny street in Morocco. It's that simple, and that beautiful.
As the next set of sniffers chased us out of our seats at the seven-minute mark, I thought to myself, happily, that I had just smelled Bond no.9's best woody scent ever.
And I still had two more perfumers to go.
Loc Dong – The Scent of Absence
Perfumer? Not in the house.
The scent of absence.
Let me back up by giving you the conclusions first. If anybody ever tells me that industry perfumers are sell-outs who cannot possibly be total art radicals, I'm going to chase them around the room with a bottle of this stuff and yell REPENT! REPENT!
This also had to be my most fascinating date – whoops – I mean perfumer interview.
Much as I love to pull out my own iPad, for this scent, all the action was on two iPads lying on the table. Loc Dong couldn't be with us, so instead, he whipped up an iPad presentation, AND a scent created for the occasion. He even had a twitter account set up - @ScentofAbsence. And the scent?
Let me back up a little more.
Loc Dong is already something of an enigma. Trying to figure him out by the fact that he is probably the first Asian perfumer in the international fine fragrance industry – sorry, not sufficient. The fact that he grew up dodging death and misfortune in a war zone – the fact that he escaped for his life – alone – on a boat – still not enough. How he got where he did, and why he's the way he is – he may very well be the only person who can truly understand it. Perhaps the best explanation of his art is his denial of it.
“I don't consider myself an artist. I am a survivor.”
I recall the words of a Vietnamese friend of mine, fluent in French, who emphasized to me the essential nature of the French word “lancer” with a spear-throwing motion. The word is roughly “to launch” in English, but it is used for all kinds of things. I get the impression that the way a flower is launched from the chaos of the ground, or a rocket is launched from the mayhem of flames and smoke, Loc was launched from the power of history. If he is not an artist, then maybe he is just a wonderful aspect of creation itself, emergent from destruction, and proof that destruction never truly achieves its goal.
Before I even got started on his presentation, I smelled Loc's scent. There was a huge lingering odor around the empty table. It wasn't good or bad – it was just…
What the hell?
We were offered scented testers. I had no clue what on earth I was smelling. My sniffing partner eventually detected ink, which was a good call. I got that once she pointed it out. But that's not what was freaking me out.
What I was smelling was a powerful ghost note – a huge, whistling, shrieking void. It was so big, you could drive a truck through it and end up on Stargate Perfume Planet. There were no details to it. Nothing I could hang anything on. I could see the ink if I looked for it, but if I let my nose lose component focus and try to visualize the scent object as a whole, it was totally mysterious.
You know how Luca Turin described the chypre as a three-dimensional effect, creating rooms where you can hang paintings? This thing was more like a black hole in perfume space. It was so creative. I was floored. I'm not sure if I dropped the F-bomb, but if I did, I make no apologies.
If I deconstruct the scent without thinking about what I now know is actually used in its creation, it seems somewhat industrial. There is a petroleum-like quality to it, but not petroleum. There is a smokiness that borders on burning rubber, too. But there are other aspects that are… well… good. The more I concentrate on it, the more I get out of it. If you took Bulgari Black, made it less conservative, way more chypre or oudy, and then let Comme des Garçons get drunk and finish the job, you might get close. In fact, CdG could get an entire series out of this scent alone.
You want a challenging wear? What Lonestar Memories does for leather, this does for ink. Take your Encre Noire and concede defeat, you author types looking for a gimmicky signature scent. This is the William S. Burroughs of ink fragrances.
Loc says it best. “What is the smell of absence? Charismatic, substantial, deep, controversial, lingering….”
And then he says what is actually used to create it.
“Baconwood and ink.”
I had absolutely no clue on the baconwood. Once I read Loc's admission of what was in it, though, it was totally apparent. I tested it on my wife, without telling her. She smelled it immediately, and was horrified. “Barbeque!” Then, later, she fixates on something else. Creosote. That was key – because I love the smell of creosote. Now I understood why I'm both attracted and repelled by the odor. It's like delayed gratification – like absence. You both love it and hate it.
Loc describes The Scent of Absence as “unforgettable”. I totally agree. However, it's not the first of his scents, which I found truly unforgettable. That honor is reserved for Acqua di Gioia, which I smelled in Macy's. A scent, which proves undeniably, that Loc's range is pretty much wherever he wants to go. Anywhere between CdG and Armani.
I will always remember walking around the mall and sniffing Acqua di Gioia – marveling at both the mass market genius and the creative freshness that it brought to the sweet and aquatic genres simultaneously. Even though I felt that I could pull it off, it was one of those scents that made me wish I could just be a woman for a day, and truly wear the fragrance as the perfumer had imagined.
Unforgettable? Yeah. You might say that.
Pascal Gaurin – Breads ‘n' Roses
Pascal's easy smile and good looks make you wonder why he isn't in movies. Once you talk to him, you realize that he is. His real-life role as world-class perfumer has turned him into a jet setter, taking him all over the world. He has worked out of every major IFF office - Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Rio, and Shanghai. But it's not just for fun that he does it. Pascal has an intense need to feel the market that he is composing for. To him, it is unthinkable not to fully understand who is on the other end of his fragrant message, and he can only get this by immersing himself in the actual culture.
Pascal thinks deeply about this fragrant communication, even when talking about fragrance itself. He seeks a common language that truly conveys fragrance. He notes that, while he can tell you something smells like his grandmother's kitchen, it tells you nothing. But if he tells you that something smells like crushed leaves, you know exactly what he is talking about. To him, this is powerful. And when we talk about his personal fragrance, created just for this event, he uses images that have this kind of power.
“Rose has been done in almost every possible way. It has been combined with nearly everything imaginable. For the most part, it has been done as sweet – chocolate, etc. How do you do it differently?” Pascal wanted to try using something that provided contrast with rose, but was new. He chose bread. The contrast is subtle – yet extremely powerful in the creation of great fragrance. This is not a contrast of scents that don't belong together – not at all. It's a contrast of source – like a marriage of rich and poor. Ah, but such a marriage can be romantic. It can be storybook. It's the story that everybody wants to hear, over and over.
Rose is expensive – at least if you use the really good stuff. And the stuff in Breads ‘n' Roses is very, very good. It may be the best natural rose in the world. This is Turkish rose that has passed through Laboratoire Monique Rémy in southern France, otherwise known as LMR. When any of the IFF perfumers talk about LMR, their admiration shows in hushed tones and excited eyes. I sense that it must be something of an honor to be able to use a component from this place. You don't have to be a math whiz to understand that 35 tons of rose petals into 1 kilo of LMR rose oil took a whole bunch of people a whole lot of time and effort. A component this good is going to be treated much in the same way as a diamond with its own proper name.
In contrast, bread is terribly common. It goes out on the table to keep you happy while the chef does what you really want. But Pascal savors this common, familiar smell. While Americans remember their childhood bread with peanut butter and jelly, Pascal remembers what every European does – Nutella. The nutty odors of Nutella - the cereal odors of bread – these are the commonalities that he sought to contrast with the most exquisite rose in the world. But don't think that Pascal doesn't love the bread just as much as the toney rose oil. When he holds up his hands in front of his face, pretending to smell handfuls of grain, he seems even more transported than when he speaks of the rose. To Pascal, the cereal is earthy, but not dirty. He buries his face in his hands over and over, smelling the imaginary cereal as if it were right there.
And the combination? Astounding. The bread is omnipresent, yet it vanishes. It is almost magical. Pascal insists that this is not a gourmand, and he speaks truly. I wish that I could somehow magnify this thought, even at the risk of stripping “Breads” from the name. Unlike the recent Serge Lutens entry, Jeau de peux, which bonks you over the head with a toasted loaf of French bread, the husband of the rose bride in Breads ‘n' Roses is a gentleman, and lets the lady get all the attention. It is truly a marriage made in heaven. The yeasty, alcoholic aspect of the bread and the clear, transparent facet of the rose are like the sum of zero and zero, giving the fragrance a certain unified clarity, which cannot fail to make one love it. The earthiness of the bread is fascinating as well. It's right there if you want to smell it, but it never overshadows the rose. It is a very clean earthiness – something that has grown out of the ground, but not the ground itself. The cleanliness is like a more natural version of soapiness. It provides an antiqued white background on which the beautiful red rose shows off its timeless beauty.
The overall effect – what is perhaps the most universally wearable rose scent I have ever encountered. Yet – and I have to stress this – it gives up nothing on masculinity or femininity. I want to say that this is Égoïste for today's man, but how can I say this without scaring off the ladies? The scent is unmistakably feminine, to the point of being romantic.
If I could send it back in time, my wife and I would wear it at our wedding. But failing that, I certainly hope that this scent, or something very much like it, shows up on the market somewhere. Every day on Basenotes, when I see men asking for a great rose scent for men, I have to bite my tongue. The answer – particularly for young guys who think Égoïste is too old-school - is Breads ‘n' Roses. Unfortunately, there is only one Basenoter who has any, and his 10-mL bottle is not for sale at any price.
It's not because he doesn't want you to smell it. It's because he wants you to raise a ruckus and clamor for its release!
Veronique Ferval – Creative Center
Although Veronique does not tell me this, she's so good that she doesn't really have to say it directly. What is apparent is that the only people I have ever met who are more passionate about fragrance than us fanboys and fangrls, are the perfumers we admire. And, thanks to Veronique – who may be the ultimate fragrance fangrl - IFF has created an environment in which these highly emotional and motivated people can operate.
I knew I had seen Veronique's name before, but I couldn't place it. It turns out that Chandler Burr mentions bumping into her rather casually in Paris in “The Perfect Scent”. I'm glad I didn't realize this until my plane was long gone from New York. Had I known, I would have surely been intimidated, and then I would have missed her warm and engaging personality. Her joie de vivre is palpable, and fills the room around her, but yet it has the perfect intensity of a properly worn perfume when she is close by. She reminds me of my Latin American lady friends. Suddenly I remember that – despite being so much a cultural crossroads that we tend to forget it, France is, indeed, a Latin country.
I am truly thankful to Veronique - not just for the opportunity to meet these nine brilliant perfumers – but for helping them to be the amazing people that they are.
What if I could leave you with only one thing that I learned from my wonderful short time spent with the IFF perfumers?
It would be this.
There is a reason that people can do the things these perfumers showed me. They are passionate. Hugely, unabashedly, passionate.
Their passions blossom in different ways. From the quiet, sublime passion of Carlos Benaïm, to the quiet yet ecstatic passion of Bruno Jovanovic. The youthful, “extreme” passions of Clément Gavarry and Celine Barel. The almost antithetically daring passion of Loc Dong, and the careful, precise passion of Laurent le Guernec. The intense passion of Jean-Marc Chaillan, both simple and difficult in its abstraction. The happily obsessive passion of Yves Cassar, who has literally devoted his life to a worship of flowers. And the romantic passion of Pascal Gaurin, who would write a poem to love itself, in young love's days of bread and roses.
Yet despite these differences in the passions of the perfumers, and their differences in perspective on fragrance, I sense that they are a team. They are a family. It is one of the most attractive things about them.
Like a family, I would imagine that some of them have bad days as well as good. I read somewhere that Annick Menardo is good because she's angry, and I would not be surprised if a few of these passionate perfumers can be gruff and testy between moments of perfumery bliss. So be it. I guess that's the reality of passionate individuals.
Still, somebody has to keep the family together – to make sure that their artistic temperaments don't get them into too much trouble. And more than that – to make sure that their passions bloom in productive and memorable ways. I suspect that Veronique Ferval is at the top of the list of those people. It's probably a tough job, but I'm sure that it's richly rewarding to work day in and day out with these amazing people. I know that spending just a few hours with them certainly was.
I hope there are more of these events, and that we, the consumers, will learn from them. I hope they will change us. I hope that my fellow perfumistas will become more passionate, more tolerant, and more inquisitive in their appreciation of perfume, so that perfumers like the ones I have just met will be allowed to become more exploratory, more diverse, and more expressive - to create commercial perfumes like the personal fragrance creations I have just smelled.
I hope that this is the beginning of something good. I hope that IFF has made as many new discoveries through this event as I have. I hope that there is learning and growth for both perfumer and perfumista.
Most of all, I hope that the next time there is a speed smelling event, it's not me who gets to go. I hope it's somebody else.
For although I would love more than anything to spend more time with these amazing perfumers, they have taught me one of the most important things I have ever learned about perfume.
Our passion must be shared.
About the author
Neil is a fragrance fan from the American heartland. He is a regular contributor to the Basenotes forums and the il Mondo di Odore and Ca Fleure Bon blogs. You can follow him on twitter at @cologniac.