Sunday, 6 February 2011

Perfume: Chemistry & Magic

Joy by Jean Patou, advert from the 1940s, but still one of the most expensive perfumes around.
Perfume is an intensely personal thing. Some people spend a lifetime searching for a scent that they feel best suits them. Open the pages of any of last December's glossy fashion magazines and you very likely saw some kind of article about the trials and tribulations of buying it, both for yourself and also as a gift. And therein lies the problem; we wear perfume on our bodies. The scent seeps into our skin, permeates our clothes and hair. It is a deeply personal purchase that even the closest to you may get wrong.

My own experiences with perfume were began as a child at my mother's dressing table. Trying to find her own "signature scent", she accumulated fascinating bottles which I would line up in a row, removing the lids and stoppers to breathe in their essences. As a young child I found them to be mostly too heavy and too strong. I screwed my nose up at YSL's Opium in its iconic brown bottle; likewise Paris (also a YSL creation), Givenchy's Amarige, Dior's Poison and even Chanel No. 5. I couldn't understand how my Mum could wear something that was altogether too much for my young nose. 

Yet the allure of the jewel-like perfume bottles remained. On a family summer holiday to the south of France we visited the mountain town of Grasse. Considered to be the perfume making capital of the world, the town has been at the forefront of the industry since the eighteenth century due to the success of its flower growing, harvesting and distilling. 

And so a burgeoning interest in perfume grew stronger still as we toured the parfumeries, learning about the elements that go into creating a successful, wearable scent. It was here that I learned about top, middle and base notes, and the intricacies of the chemistry of perfume. Even the most basic of perfume descriptions reads like the write-up on the back of a wine bottle. Fresh and juicy hints of this coupled with heady notes of that...vanilla, spices, fruit, flowers; the creators of our favourite perfumes (known in the industry simply as noses) cast intangible spells through scientific means. Put in simple terms, the top note is what we initially smell when a perfume is sprayed, the middle note is what we can smell when the perfume has worn in for a good few minutes, and the base note is what we are left with after a few hours. As we wandered around Grasse, I drank the information in and stored it for later use.

The very first perfume I ever owned was Les Belles de Ricci, by Nina Ricci. It was a fruity, bubblegum-burst of a scent in a lime green bottle. The corridors of my high school smelled strongly of CK One at break times. It was the cool perfume to wear, and boys and girls alike doused themselves in it, but I disliked the deliberately ambiguous way it smelled. I wanted something girly, and the cloying sweetness of Les Belles de Ricci was the answer. A few years on, I find that even a quick spritz of it on a cardboard swatch in Boots brings about a wave of nausea. How I didn't walk around with a permanent headache, I will never know, but at the time it was my first real exploration into the minefield of perfume and I thought it was brilliant.

Fast forward a few years and a few bottles of perfume at least. While I still can't take to some of the stronger scents that my Mum favours (I'm unsure if I'll ever be able to comfortably wear Chanel No.5), amongst my attempts at finding a perfume that sits easily on my skin and perfectly with my nostrils, I have tried Nina by Nina Ricci (too sweet), Dolly Girl by Anna Sui (too cloying, not to mention sneeze inducing), Lovely by Sarah Jessica Parker (my only celebrity scent purchase...and also my last) and CK In2U (not bad if you can forgive the silly text-speak name, but not memorable enough by half). I wore Lancome's Miracle for a couple of years, and was happy for a while, but still...

Have I found my one, true signature scent? I honestly couldn't answer that, but it is the perfume my boyfriend immediately associates with me - I was wearing Rose by Paul Smith the very first time we met and that makes it very special indeed. It isn't a pure rose scent, nor does it smell like synthetic rose scented soaps and talcum powders favoured by elderly ladies, but it has that magic something that seems to work happily with me. Perfume creation is a heady, interesting mix of chemistry, but with a healthy dose of untraceable magic.

Do you have a signature scent, or are you still searching? I'd love to know!

Image courtesy of Vintage Ad Browser.


  1. Yes, it really does take so long and I'm still so often tempted by all the different perfumes out there. I have a nearly full bottle of Dior's Mademoiselle sitting on my dressing table because actually it smells less Mademoiselle and more Granny... The two scents I always seem to go back to (and have for years and years) are J'adore by Dior and Sun by Jil Sander in summer...I do like No5 too though... Have I found my signature scent? I don't know. Have a great week, Love from London xo

  2. Laura,
    Your posts are like poetry. You really have a beautiful way of presenting facts. I've never really given that much thought to perfume.
    My favourite perfume is 24 Faubourg by Hermes but I keep getting gifts of perfume and feel compelled to use them up. For a long time, I only wore Jil Sander and right now I'm wearing Balenciaga which it suits me fine. But as soon as I'm finished it, I'll be back to Hermes!

  3. Wonderful post! I loved reading about your choices. Your Mom and I have similar tastes - I loved Opium and still have a bottle of YSL Paris, although I never wore it much. My signature scent is Coco by Chanel. Not Coco Mademoiselle, which came much later and is a lighter fragrance. I like heavy, incense-y perfumes. I must have been one of the Wise Woman (tee hee) in another life...I always loved the incense at high mass on holidays.
    You're the only person I know who's been to Grasse. I would be fascinated, too.

  4. Carole - I feel that exact way about Mademoiselle. A friend at uni used to wear it, but I could never get used to the scent. Just not for me (or you!) I guess. Happy perfume hunting!

    Ingrid - Thank you so much. I get these ideas in my head and then just run with them, haha! Great to read about your perfume choices. I find it so interesting to know what grabs other people.

    Catherine - Thanks to you, too! I think I can appreciate the heavier, incense type scents now much more than I used to. Maybe your nose matures like your palette?! I always love that incense smell, too, so maybe I'll be steering aways from floral in the future. Grasse really was wonderful. It was a lovely holiday! x

  5. Hi Laura. How are you? I don't wear any scent at all (although perhaps I should!) because I've never found anything that quite matches what I want in my head, and I tend to dislike how perfumes lose their top notes so quickly and end up just smelling of the usual base note scents. I liked this post a lot - makes me want to go out and find the perfect perfume now.

    Perhaps you might find this American perfumer (you can find them in London) interesting. I certainly would love to go and see what these smell like. I've heard that they are uncannily like their descriptions:


  6. Hi Karen, I'm good are you?

    See, I actually prefer the base notes as they always tend to be more earthy than the strong top notes. I hope you go out and begin a perfume search because I'm sure the perfect one is waiting for you!

    I'm heading for that link you sent right now, thanks! x