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December 20, 2006

Paris : Fragrance of the City


“To err is human. To loaf is Parisian,” said one of most illustrious writers of the 19th century Victor Hugo. I cannot say that loafing was a part of my Paris visit, although I tried to make time for it nevertheless. Loafing in Paris is synonymous for me with the walks down rue de Grenelle, one of my favourite streets in Paris for its quiet and gentle charm (and also for its numerous perfume and shoe boutiques.) The typically Parisian scent of black coffee and cigarettes felt intoxicating. The pale grey outlines of the buildings bathed in the sheer golden glow of the unusually warm winter sun attained a dreamlike character. Whatever fragrance I carried on the sleeve of my coat— Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist, Frédéric Malle L’Eau d’Hiver, Etat Libre d’Orange Jasmin et Cigarette—it was perfectly in sync with both my mood and the atmosphere in the city. It was just magical, and even now, this feeling combining serenity and excitement is almost palpable. …

I will certainly share more details on what transpired during my trip, especially since a short article will hardly do justice to all of the amazing encounters with the perfumers whose work I have always admired as well as the fragrant discoveries that took place over the past week. It is difficult to pick the main highlight of the trip; however, the visit to the Osmothèque was unforgettable. I went there with Michael Edwards, whose erudition and passion for fragrance enhanced the experience even more. The Osmothèque is a perfume conservatory, an Aladdin’s cave for anyone with interest in fragrance and perfume history. The jewels of the perfumery are at your fingertips, recreated based on the original formulas and compounded with the original materials. If you go to the Osmothèque and are at loss over what to smell—and I promise that this will happen, unless you are organized enough to make a list beforehand, simply ask for the Coty fragrances. I had a pleasure of being introduced to these gems by Jean Kerléo, the president of the Osmothèque and the former in-house perfumer for Jean Patou. His are the ravishing 1000 and Sublime. Although I have Coty Chypre in various versions, from the 1940s to the 1980s, nothing can compare to what I smelled at the Osmothèque. It combines the sensual sweetness of jasmine with the animalic breath of leather, folded into the mossy and green layers. It is at once tender and aggressive, a kiss and a slap wrapped into one.

My most exciting scented discovery turned to be Etat Libre d’Orange. I have tried a few fragrances about a month ago, and they struck me as unconventional and whimsical. In Paris, I paid a visit to the boutique and had a chance to explore the rest of the line. Although not all fragrances are equally wearable or memorable, most of the ideas are interesting. Jasmin et Cigarette, Putain des Palaces, and Vierges et Toreros captured my attention the most. Jasmin et Cigarette is quite a ravishing combination of jasmine’s banana jam sweetness accented with the honeyed, balsamic dryness of tobacco. It is a scent of smoked flowers and cured leaves. Putain des Palaces brilliantly evokes a candlelit room decorated with heavy red velvet. It combines the powdery warmth of rose and violet with the animalic undercurrent. Vierges et Toreros is a sheer tuberose wrapped into a rich veil of incense, woods and musk. The names and the packaging are quite provocative, but the fragrances are anything but gimmicky. The most interesting part is that many of fragrance concepts are introduced by the perfumers themselves, which happens quite infrequently in the industry dominated by marketing tests and consumer profiling.

As for the fragrances I smelled most often on women in Paris, I would have to name Prada and Chanel Coco Mademoiselle. The newly launched Dolce&Gabbana The One also seemed to be quite popular at the moment. Other than this, I remember noticing quite a variety of perfumes, from Christian Dior J’Adore to Chanel Cuir de Russie, Hermès Eau des Merveilles and L’Artisan Passage d’Enfer. This kaleidoscope of fragrances was an integral part of my Parisian experience. In the evening, returning from the explorations of the day, I would pass by a seafood stand and linger to watch the seller weight Belon oysters and large shrimp wrapped in seaweed. Their briny aromas would intertwine with the scents emanating from a bakery nearby, and this composition could rival many bottled essences.

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