“As one who writes about cologne, you owe it to yourself to read the book,” a new friend told me recently. He was talking about Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, and he was surprised I hadn’t read it. The truth was I bought a copy at least four years ago and I’d never got further than about 30 pages into it. Funny enough, I bought my wife Burr’s other perfume book, The Perfect Scent, and then read it myself (she still hasn’t).
The book is about Luca Turin, the co-author of Perfumes: The A to Z Guide and a very interesting person. There’s a long quote from Turin in the first dozen pages of The Emperor of Scent that I’ll reproduce here in its entirety because it’s an astute comment on how we (the general public) view scent and how differently perfumers use it:
“It makes everyone nervous, smelling, because smell is such a strong sense. People will say, ‘But isn’t smell totally subjective?’ And I’ll say ‘What the hell does that mean?’ It’s not more subjective than color or sound. Real men and scientists feel slightly ridiculous smelling something. I’ll say ‘Let me show you some smells,’ and I start passing out vials and everyone titters, like I’ve asked them to take off their clothes or something. It’s at the heart of the research problem, because experts on the biology of smell will put vanillin under ‘herbal.’ God. When I wrote the perfume guide, most of my readers were gay men, and most of my acquaintances assumed I was gay, which I’m not, not that I give a damn. Real men don’t smell things. It’s a female thing.
“For a perfumer, there is no no bad smell. All the great French perfumes, every last one, has some ingredient in it that is repulsive, like civet, this hideous and ferociously powerful extract from the butthole of a Chinese tomcat. Beaver pelt oil. Something. Americans dedicate their lives to the notion that shit shouldn’t stink. American perfumery is really, well…Americans have an obsessional neurosis about being clean. What do you call that?”
I like those paragraphs because they’re a good introduction to Turin’s irreverence, and his brilliance.
It also makes me stop a moment and think about our American ideas of clean. Toothpaste has to be minty, but why? Other countries has salty or anise-flavored toothpaste, even clove. And the smell of clean laundry is a very specific thing for Americans, something that isn’t universal. It’s all about musks, which is a counter-intuitve term for many of us, because the very word conjures of images of dirty animals. Musks and orange blossom are the backbone of laundry detergent scents today, as one of the bloggers at Now Smell This pointed out in an excellent post last fall.
Burr touches on the musk/laundry topic in his other book, The Perfect Scent. Here, he’s quoting the legendary perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena:
“The first scented detergents arrived in France from the U.S.,” said Ellena, “where they existed since before the war.” He listed them: Colgate, Procter, Unilever. “They created these molecules in a lab and smelled them, and they smelled strong, and they were quite stable. They were also cheap to manufacture. They weren’t water soluble. And these molecules smelled ‘good’ in quote marks, which is to say people like them, which is certainly one definition of good. So how to use them? They found out that when they put them in detergent they stuck very well to fabric during the wash-again, water insoluble — so they put lots of them in cleaning products and put these products on the market. What happened? People associated this smell in their detergent with the idea of ‘clean.’ The molecules rubbed off from their clothes to their skin, and then people become used to having these molecules on their skin, so they came to associate wearing these synthetic molecules with smelling of fresh laundry, and so today when people smell these synthetics they say, ‘Clean’ and they say, ‘Skin’ and they say, ‘It smells of me,’” he added with a smile, “All of this unconsciously, of course.”
Which explains why we think clean laundry smells clean, and why we think musky fragrances smell clean and, as Ellena says, like skin.
But what’s really interesting is the idea that perfumes we think of as beautiful all have a dirty note hidden away, one that actually enhances that beauty.