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January 09, 2012

Why Do We Love Perfume

The other day my mother shared a story of me as a seven year old trying to make a lilac perfume. I collected lilac flowers, covered them with water and kept the jar by my bedside to observe the transformation. Within days the jar started smelling rank and its contents looked rotten, but I refused to give up. Words cannot describe how disconsolate I felt when I came back from school and found that my jar was thrown away. Fast forward a few decades, and I am still engaged in much the same thing—blending raw materials and occasionally coming up with a mixture that smells more putrid than pretty. That I have been exploring scents consistently for this long comes as much as a surprise to me as to anyone else, but as time goes on, I find more and more reasons to fall deeper into the rabbit hole.

The simplest answer to “why I love perfume,” of course, is that perfume, like all beautiful things, makes me happy. The more longwinded answer is that perfume is such a complex topic that one can spend years studying it. It is not just about the commercial beauty product, but about the chemistry, fashion, and social trends. I love uncovering the intricacies of fragrance creations, the complexities of aroma-material interactions, and the technical issues of coming up with a harmonious accord.

However, there is an aspect of perfume that goes beyond the smell itself. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, once said about great literature that the ideas are beside the point; it is the story that matters. I more and more believe that the same can be applied to perfume—the stories the great fragrances tell enchant me more than their technical perfection. When I smell Robert Piguet Fracas with its devastatingly lush tuberose heart, I see a whole spectrum of images: Billie Holiday with a gardenia in her curls, the exuberance of the post-WWII years, a woman in a black silk dress reaching towards the mirror to paint her lips a vibrant red. The voluptuous beauty of Rochas Femme seems even more poignant when I realize that perfumer Edmond Roudnitska created it in war-torn Paris.

Besides its own inherent history, a perfume can be a ticket to creating your own fantasy. If I want, I can live out a film noir fantasy by dabbing a few drops of Chanel Cuir de Russie on my skin and feel its leather and iris darkness conjure up visions of smoky bars and femmes fatale. Or I can travel to the Moroccan souk by smelling Serge Lutens Féminité du Bois. If I want to step back into the Kiev of my childhood with its blooming chestnut trees and wet lilacs, I only need to reach for Frédéric Malle En Passant. A spritz of this green lilac scent, and I am transported where no airplane could ever take me.

The stories and fantasies that we share through perfume are also responsible for a wonderful connection with other perfume lovers I meet along the way. These stories, often exchanged via the internet, create a tangible link even though many of us are separated by long distances. This makes my fragrance quest very enjoyable, and is one of the main reasons why I’ve continued blogging all these years.

Moreover, I believe that the more one is attuned to smells in one's surroundings, the more one can appreciate simple pleasures. In most of our mass media, simple pleasures get a short shrift. The pages of fashion magazines are filled with fantasies of shiny cars, Caribbean vacations and diamond rings. Even most perfume ads are created along the same contrived lines of sex and money. However, being aware of scents does not mean buying as much perfume as possible. One can be happy with only a couple of bottles of fragrances and still find life to be enormously enriched by the pleasure of discovering aromas: smelling the caramel in ripe tomatoes, noticing the sharp verdancy of a freshly mown lawn, recognizing some familiar perfume on a stranger in the street, or being surprised by the aroma emanating from the nearby bakery. Suddenly a grey winter day seems brighter and warmer, even though nothing concrete has changed. You are still you, with all of your worries and errands, and yet, you feel happier. If this alone is not worth relying more on one’s nose, I do not know what is!

Now, it is your turn—why do you love perfume?

 Photography by VeraKL.



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