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February 06, 2007

The Art of Seducing Yourself : How to Select Perfume

Coco_gabrielle_chanel_1

“What fragrance drives men/women crazy?” This is one of the most frequent email inquiries I receive. Given that fragrance preferences are very subjective and personal, a search for a single magic potion that will work on everyone for every event is meaningless. In fact, I would go further to say that it is pointless to search for a perfume to seduce your lover. Perfume is an extension and reflection of your personality; it should be worn to seduce oneself. Everything else will follow. “The best color in the whole world is the one that looks good on you,” said Coco Chanel whose Chanel No 5 is still a best-seller almost a century later. The same philosophy applies to fragrance. The most seductive perfume is the one that smells great on you….

The subject of perfume is often steeped in a myriad of myths. For instance, one is advised that rubbing wrists together “crushes molecules.” If that were the case, the job of chemists would be much easier. Or that fresh floral fragrances are only for the summer. In fact, they can work beautifully in the winter by reminding you of spring. Or that you should reserve the richest concentrations, parfums, for the evening and wear the lightest, eau de toilettes, during the day. However, many parfums stay rather close to the skin and therefore make superb and subtle daytime fragrances. Or that you should smell of fruit and lollipops if you are 20. This depends only on your preferences. A few decades ago, we had been told to find a signature fragrance and develop loyalty to one perfume. Now, the marketing of perfume is all about change and novelty. In the same vein, statements like “all men like __; all women like __ (insert the latest fad in the blank)” should be disregarded. Since every man or woman has his or her own preferences, finding a crowd pleaser will only lead you to something bland and characterless. We are constantly bombarded with messages designed to influence our likes and dislikes; however, wearing and living with scent is a very intimate activity. Forcing yourself to love a particular perfume is just as unnatural as forcing love in relationships. Therefore, take marketing pronouncements with a grain of skepticism and be guided by your instincts. Below, I give a few pointers on how to seduce yourself with fragrance. In a way, they are my suggestions on how to start a passionate love affair with perfume in general.

Before you venture to the fragrance counter, decide what scents you like. Our vision centric culture leaves us with few experiences that develop our vocabulary for scent. Try to describe your favorite scents in words: with what are they associated; why do you like them? Jot down your favorite fragrances on a piece of paper as well as your favorite smells. Twelve years ago, mine would have read like this:

Favorite perfumes:
Christian Dior Diorissimo (lily of the valley, airy, elegant, poised, my mother's favourite perfume)
Christian Dior Poison (smells like dark red fruit, mysterious, mulled wine, sexy, black lace and red lipstick type of fragrance)
Christian Poison Tendre (leaves crushed with flowers, reminds me of silk, bright, crisp)
Lancôme Trésor (a warm hug, rose, apricot jam)
Yves Rocher Pivoine (soapy bubbles, peonies, lush but delicate)

Favorite smells:
Jasmine (grew profusely around the house of my childhood)
Lily of the valley (picking them was our favorite pastime in the spring)
Tulips (evoke memories of my grandmother’s garden)
Mimosa (associated with a holiday celebrated in Ukraine, the International Women’s Day March 8th)
Apricot blossoms (favorite spring scent, dark trees covered with the froth of white blossoms)
Sandalwood beads (from my beloved aunt’s necklace)
Unbaked bread dough (reminiscent of my grandmother’s holiday preparations)
Diesel fuel (associated with my grandfather who spent hours repairing his Volga)

I always gravitated towards floral scents, reminiscent of the spring flowers I loved very much. All of my early favorites have a strong floral theme running through them. The easiest thing would be to take the list to a knowledgeable perfume sales associate and allow him/her to identify the commonalities and guide you in selection. Unfortunately, with the exception of Nordstrom and specific fragrance companies that staff their counters with highly trained representatives, most department stores employ temporary personnel having very basic training (i.e. they know next to nothing). You have to rely on your own research skills to find a fragrance to love.

Read up on your favorite fragrances: what notes do they feature, and to which family of fragrances do they belong. The Fragrance Foundation Directory and Osmoz are excellent resources for tracking down this information. Sephora Fragrance Finder is a recommended website for learning about fragrance families and using them to look for similar scents. My index of Fragrances by Notes as well essays on perfume materials might be useful as well.

While neither notes nor family are foolproof ways to find a fragrance that you’ll love, they are good starting places. For instance, my favourites from the list above, Christian Dior Diorissimo and Lancôme Trésor, fall into the Floral and Floral Oriental families respectively. While Trésor is dominated by rose, it has lily of the valley in its top notes, which lends it some freshness. Diorissimo is a lily of the valley composition. I might have checked online resources and written down a list of fragrances with lily of the valley or in the Floral Oriental family to help me start a search. One of the first Guerlain fragrances I fell in love with, Après l'Ondée, was a very logical choice. It is a Floral Oriental, possessing the freshness that I liked based on lily of the valley fragrances as well as the warm, powdery core that makes Trésor such a voluptuous blend.

Next, you should sample as much as possible based on your selections while trying to focus on the scent, rather than packaging, designer name or brand. If you are in a large city, finding fragrance counters, from department stores to niche boutiques, should not be a problem. Avoid making decisions on the spot. Sometimes the top notes will be less interesting than the drydown, and vice versa. Sephora, Nordstrom, Aedes de Venustas in New York and Scent Bar in Los Angeles freely give fragrance samples of your choice, thus allowing you to live with a perfume for a few days. If you do not have an opportunity to visit the counters and stores, then you could purchase samples from the boutiques directly (such as Aedes, B-Glowing, First-in-Fragrance, Lacremebeauty, and Luckyscent). Boutiques des Aromes, Fragrant Fripperies and Dragonfly Scent Me are respectable Ebay sellers who offer sample packages. Makeupalley, Basenotes andPerfume of Life have swapping forums, which provide another way to try a wide range of fragrances.

Finally, challenge yourself and pick something from a group of fragrances you would never have thought of wearing. For instance, for someone like me who used to enjoy solely Florals and Floral Orientals, Chypre (also called Mossy Woods) would have been challenging. Yet, Guerlain Parure and Rochas Femme (classical chypres) quickly entered into my fragrance wardrobe. Now, I wear fragrances from every fragrance family; however, it has taken me a few years to expand my horizons sufficiently to appreciate them all. Sample with an open mind and you will discover gems where you least expect them. Moreover, be prepared to sample dozens of fragrnaces and to allow yourself to experience the thrill of discovery. The more fragrances you try, the more your fragrance judgment develops and the more you would be able to understand your own preferences.

Although these bits of advice are just the tip of the iceberg, I would like to conclude by offering one of my favourite poems by Baudelaire which beautifully expresses the magic of scent.

When with closed eyes in autumn's eves of gold
I breathe the burning odours of your breast,
Before my eyes the hills of happy rest
Bathed in the sun's monotonous fires, unfold.
Islands of Lethe where exotic boughs
Bend with their burden of strange fruit bowed down,
Where men are upright, maids have never grown
Unkind, but bear a light upon their brows.
Led by that perfume to these lands of ease,
I see a port where many ships have flown
With sails outwearied of the wandering seas;
While the faint odours from green tamarisks blown,
Float to my soul and in my senses throng,
And mingle vaguely with the sailor's song.

Exotic Perfume by Charles Baudelaire is reprinted from The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire. Ed. James Huneker. New York: Brentano's, 1919.

Photo of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel from Museu del Perfum.

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