I like me some perfume. I think this confuses people who know me and know that I am neither a rich old lady nor a young, ultra-feminine one. I blame the internet, and the many good perfume sites out there, for feeding my interest in all things smelly. I have known about some of these sites for a while, but it hasn't been until recently that I started really scouring them for information, following links, going from one site where the writer raves about the candy-and-concrete flair of Thierry Mugler's Angel, to another site that describes Angel as "chocolate-covered vomit."
The godfather of all perfume critics is, of course, Chandler Burr, who writes a regular column for the New York Times Style section. I have yet to be convinced that Mr. Burr has better taste in perfume than, say, the women who write reviews for the Perfume Posse (theirs was the "chocolate-covered vomit" quote), but he is an enthusiastic critic and his writing style really pops off the page (er, monitor).
For example, reviewing Guerlain's Insolence, Mr. Burr writes that it "smells like fruit compote sprinkled with Splenda: aesthetically nondescript...spiritually flat...Inside the industry they speak of Insolence grimly, as of a suicide." His review of CK One: "It's the freshness of laundry washed in the artificial gravity of a space colony." His review of Calyx: "It's a green freshness that is viscerally alive...vivid as a young tree ripped in half by a storm...This is an HDTV perfume." And Yves Saint Laurents' Kouros is like the "hot, ripe smell of a French trucker's Jockey shorts after a muggy day on the A51...This perfume is fecal." Hard to top that.
Other than perfume websites, there was also this recent visit I had with the Guerlain counter at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. I was browsing - couldn't really afford to buy - and looking at some of the perfumes near the front of the display. The small French woman at the counter started spraying perfume on strips for me - I think she was picking scents that she thought I would like. They were nice - floral, pretty - but none of them really sparked. I spotted a bottle of Sous le Vent and asked for a strip. Her eyes narrowed. "'Ow you know Sous le Vent?" she asked, almost suspiciously. "Um, think I read something about it," I muttered. She sprayed a strip, I sniffed: It smelled like damp woods and the city. Flowers, too, but also other stuff. Spices, but it wasn't spicy. There were lots of things in there. "That one's interesting," I told my petite friend. She steered me towards some other perfumes, on the shelf behind the counter. "This one is Double Vanille, and this one is Rose Barbare," she told me, spraying two more strips. I sniffed the first one: a deep, rich vanilla - strong, but not overpowering. I was an instant fan. And then I sniffed the second strip. And my brain exploded, a little bit. I had liked Sous le Vent, but this one smelled almost unbelievably good. Like the most beautiful, dark rose, but also like earth, wood, deep water. I sniffed and sniffed. My nose was glued to the small piece of paper. My French friend smiled at me through her little German glasses. "Wow," I said.
And that's where I am starting from. I would like to find other perfumes that make the same impression on me as those ones from that visit with the Guerlain counter. And I would like to be able to use words other than "wow" to describe them. I want to develop an ability to smell the parts of a perfume - jasmine, iris, bergamot, chypre, civet - and I want to be able to write it all down on the page - er, monitor.
And I'm here to tell you that my working hypothesis is that sniffing perfume is neither a particularly girly, nor a particularly high-class pursuit. We all have noses, don't we? and we all know that what we like to smell is as particular as what we like to eat. We just talk about it less than we talk about food. But there are perfumes for all noses. Some people love the smell of microwave popcorn, others love the smell of a really green banana, others love tuberose. And others love the smell of leather mixed with a cat's dirty butt. (No, I did not make that one up; and yes, there really is a perfume that smells like that.) All of us, or most of us, love the smell of vanilla.
So this is my new web page about perfume, but what it is really about is how I am trying to learn how to use my nose, and then write about it. It's not a joke. It's for real. And it's harder than you might think. Also, it's really, really fun. I have named this new page after the classic Spinal Tap album.