For Perfumers There is No Bad Smell

Emperor of Scent“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.

This entry was posted in Bad Smells, Cologne, Perfumers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to For Perfumers There is No Bad Smell

  1. laniersmith says:

    I am in fact reading the book now! And so enjoying it. The funny thing is, each time I turn a page I get a whiff of “clean”!

  2. Sasha says:

    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.

    And there is the opposite too: fragrance where the dirtiness is celebrated rather than concealed, and the “normal” notes are the discreet ones. I am thinking specifically of Cèdre by Serge Lutens, which smells like the most outrageous debauched party ever. Not when you’re there and having fun, but the mess that greets the unfortunate person whose job it is to clean it up. 😦

    Love your site

    • Thanks! I’m curious about Cèdre now! I’m a big fan of the polarizing Kouros, which some have compared to a not-so-clean bathroom. My wife can’t stand the dirtiness of it, but I think it’s fantastic. Oh well.

  3. Sasha says:

    You really need to OWN Kouros. It’ll wear you otherwise. I personally don’t care for it but maybe I’ve just never met anyone who carries it off properly.

    Which brings to mind some fragrances that are defined by excess. Back when I was a young thing, it was habitual for men to absolutely soak themselves in Drakkar Noir if they were on the prowl. I can’t smell the fragrance of Drakkar Noir without thinking of WAY WAY TOO MUCH Drakkar Noir. I think it was the same for women of that era and Eternity. Blecch.

    • See, I think Kouros begs for subtlety in application. Because it’s such a monster, you can’t broadcast it or you’ll scare small children, cats will follow you around yowling and dogs will bark. I was on a plane once where a flight attendant wore it. I mean, he REALLY wore it, and it was an assault on all the passengers. Made me kind of sick to my stomach every time he went down the aisle. Kouros, with its dirtiness, should be worn close to the skin. It’s an intimate fragrance, so I think it should be worn that way. I know not everyone will agree.

      I can’t smell Drakkar Noir anymore without gagging either! I doused myself with it in high school because I was encouraged to by friends male and female — we all loved it. But like when you binge on, say, tequila, I can NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. Colognes that smell remotely like it have the same effect.

      • Sasha says:

        Oh for certain! Some colognes and perfumes are very dose-dependent. I can’t believe a flight attendant inflicted Kouros on a planeload of people, you poor fellow. That’s like your waiter wearing it, or your doctor. Simply not appropriate.

        The much-maligned Giorgio Beverly Hills was orders of magnitude stronger than any fragrance that came before it. Women didn’t get that, sprayed themselves liberally, and proceeded to asphyxiate anyone in a two-mile radius. They didn’t realize that one spray worth of Giorgio was actually too much! When applied judiciously and with restraint, it is actually a gorgeous fragance (giving up my perfumista cred here). But nobody in the history of Giorgio ever applied it with restraint, hence the bad reputation.

        I had a mini bottle of Hermès Ambre Narguile whose sprayer mechanism jammed while it was in my handbag. It drenched all my belongings and scented everything I owned for ages, including the handbag. It was once one of my favorites and now I can’t wear it anymore. 😦

  4. Pingback: Quote Du Jour | Uncouth Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s