Recycled birch tar, boiled down into sap, was once used in the making of perfumes. What? Birch tar is now banned, designated as an allergen—as have been many other natural ingredients—much to the consternation of many perfume enthusiasts (or perfumanistas).
Nowadays, aromachemicals are prevalently used, but there are a few perfumers who have leaned back into the arms of nature, such as Olivia Giacobetti who travels the world looking, smelling, touching, and collecting.
Let’s start at the beginning. One lovely Friday afternoon, Hometown Pasadena slipped in with a group of perfume enthusiasts who had signed up for the continued event “Art and the Alchemy of Perfume” presented by Pasadena’s Inside the Story, the brainchild of sisters Wendy Moss and Susan Cherney. The featured speaker was mystery author Denise Hamilton who told us that she’s been fascinated by perfume since she was a wee lass, fondly remembering her mother’s perfume bottles…luring her, enticing her.
We had missed the first lecture the week prior that focused on the history of perfume, so as Denise began her talk in the light, airy, and aromatic Scent Bar on Beverly Boulevard, we were a bit behind the curve. But, with additional researching conducted to write this article, we think we’ve pieced it together properly (though we may have overdone it as you can see by the length of this piece— yes, it’s addicting!).
As Scent Bar’s Steve Gontarski and Yvettra Grantham responded to Denise’s cues, preparing smelling sticks of particular perfumes, Denise spoke about them and read not only informative but poetic and amusing excerpts from the tome, and one of her prized possessions, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide.
According to Denise, Sequoia by Comme de Garçons “smells like a walk through the forest,” as well as like “lumberjacks and redwoods.” We—admittedly lacking in olfactory expertise—thought it had a strong smell of cider cooking on the stove spiced with sticks of cinnamon. One woman thought she smelled olives.
We “cleared” our olfactory glands by thrusting our noses into a wooden cup filled with coffee beans, drawing several deep breaths. Okay, what’s next?
It seems that in the “old days,” the industry was dominated by French perfumes, which were highly floral, like Fraca by Robert Piguet—an old school scent so heavy it’s known to “clear a room,” Denise pointed out. The 1980s was the “last gasp” of heavy, traditional perfumes such as Dior’s Poison and Yves St. Laurent’s Opium. Hamilton concluded, “It was the era of big statements, shoulder pads and Reagan.” We blushed a little, recalling pictures of our 1980s big hair sitting atop what look like the shoulders of a linebacker.
The 1990s saw a retrenchment with perfumes like L’Eau d’Issey by Issey Miyake. The challenge? Create a perfume that smells like water. Not literally, but be creative, be fresh, not traditional. This led to a decade of “light” perfumes, “opening up the universe” for perfumers and the inception of l’artisan perfumes. In 1992, Issey Miyake perfumer Jacques Cavallier created L’Eau d’Issey. It is said to have “transparent notes of lotus, freesia, cyclamen, and juicy melon. The middle note of peony, lily, and carnation reveals the perfume’s character. The end note is a refined woody scent with the notes of cedar, sandal, musk, and amber” (fragrantica.com).
Traditionally, makers of perfumes were behind the scenes and invisible. Since the 90s, there’s been a rise of the auteur. “The noses” have not only becoming known, but have been touted and elevated, their names even plastered on bottles. Perfume lovers can now fall in love with a particular perfumer and follow him or her from one creation to the next—like groupies to rock stars.
As like any artist, wouldn’t it be wonderful if money were no object? Well so it was for Amouage, the official royal perfume house of the Sultanate of Oman. Perfumers were hired to create a “dream” perfume and their answer was Jubilation. It has cumin and tarragon (sounds like dinner), citrus (par for the course), oakmoss (now considered an allergen), and real frankincense. Lucky Scent describes it as a “lavish bazaar, packed to the brim with all the treasures of 1001 nights.” They go on to say it smells of “burnished woods, luscious fruits, and blood-warming spices…it teases the elusive rock rose and the ever-so-grand orchid and wraps itself around luxurious opoponax and amber.” To us, it smelled like the Pond’s cold cream our grandmother smeared on her face every night, but then we’re rank amateurs…and we did like it.
Hamilton described Nuit de Tubereuse by Bertrand Duchaufour as “lighter, more transparent, heady, suave, indolic, with a distilled floral essence.” His Timbuktu is light with no heavy base, the essential ingredients being tuberose and lily, which, Hamilton says, in their raw state—like many, many ingredients in perfumes—can have positive and negative aromas. The bad aromas can be salty ham (not so bad), wet cardboard (slight nose wrinkle), rotting meat (okay, yuck) and as bad as fecal matter (huh, what?). The challenge—and the art—is to create something beautiful from…well, from that.
Andy Tauer (“Swiss Mix“) is a Swiss chemist and uses fifty percent natural ingredients. His perfumes are high concept like L’Air du desert marocain, which smells “like the desert in Morocco—including the camel dung?—clearing the head of all the world’s nonsense,” Hamilton says. Peaceful, inspiring, poetic, and holy purifying. Themes run through his perfumes, as seen with Lys du Desert, created exclusively for Luckyscent after Tauer visited Joshua Tree. Lonestar Memories evokes images of a campfire, a Sunday afternoon barbecue, and leather saddles. This is a longer lasting perfume, Denise says, and she likes the smell of the “dry down,” as over time the BBQ smell dissipates, leaving a warm blanket of vanilla and leather.
Tauer became pen pals with Mandy Aftel (“The Queen of Indie Perfume“) as they negotiated their way into the perfume industry without the support of big money and with a desire to craft perfumes using natural ingredients. Hamilton said we were going to hold off to sample Mandy’s perfume, doing it last “because she’s a witch. She really is. She’s very, very gifted.”
How about a perfume aimed to “capture the qualities of hashish (without the police banging down your door”? Try Nasomatto’s Black Afgano. Supposedly, release of the product was postponed due to the securing (re: smuggling) of the raw ingredient, but according to Hamilton, that was probably just a marketing ploy. Other heavies have ingredients such as wormwood, absinthe, and a synthetic heroin. Who knew that perfume could be so hard core?
More hard core smells can be found in the oud perfumes. “Oud in an acquired taste, like single-malt scotch,” Hamilton writes in her article “Beast in a Bottle.” “Precious and rare, (oud is) a sticky resinous substance produced as a defense by Aquilaria trees in Southeast Asia against fungus.” Oud is—we were subsequently assured—softened and lightened with rose, saffron, cumin, and woods.
One example we smelled had the aptly name of Magnificent Secretions, or more authentically, Secretions Magnifiques. Of course, the name of it can color the way people smell it and some people turned their noses away in distaste. One comment was that “after a minute, it smells like a dead person.” We were reminded of celery and spice—maybe a Bloody Mary?
Perfumes nowadays, Hamilton says, elicit the reaction, “You smell amazing!” rather than previously when it was the perfume that received the attention. Traditionalists will argue that these new perfumes are not actual perfumes at all, as they don’t have top notes, hard notes and base notes. These traditionalistsh consider the lighter, more transparent perfumes to be “one note.” After this afternoon’s perfume immersion, we can say with a fair amount of confidence that this is not the case.
Another perfumer Hamilton spoke of is Olivia Giacobetti, who creates “ethereal perfumes” and is of the “watercolor school of perfumery.” Her Philosykos is one of the two fig perfumes ever created. We smelled cucumber and freshly cut grass; quite lovely.
Giacobetti travels to find her touchstones, collecting objects and scents, and then cataloging them. She’s come to define the places where she’s been by how they smell, Hamilton told us. To Giacobetti, Mali is quince bark; Mexico is driftwood and black corn; Istanbul is roses; Tokyo is—incredibly—grilled food, metal, and plastic.
“So much of creation is the thinking that precedes it,” says Hamilton who’s fascinated by the creative process. Initially, Giacobetti imagines a perfume—in her head and in her dreams—to learn its story, temperament, and texture, and only then does she begin creating the core and subsequent layers of a perfume—that may very well be adored by perfumanistas everywhere.
By the looks of the number of purchases being made after Hamilton wrapped up, we’re sure the current wave of perfumers have nothing to fear.
“Perfume without poetry and emotion loses all meaning.”
From the article “Found in Translation” by Denise Hamilton, 2011
Inside the Story‘s upcoming events (follow links for details):
Mutiple Dates: Einstein for Everyone with former Harvard Physics Professor Robert Piccioni
April 3rd: Drama & Devotion in Art: Then and Now with artist/scholar Zhenya Gershman at the Getty Center
April 5th: Explore American Craft, Decorative Arts & Design with curator/decorative arts historian Jo Lauria on a visit to the studio of ceramics to artist Anna Silver
April 10th: A Modern Masterpiece in Focus, at the Getty with Zhenya Gershman Mutiple Dates: The “Write of Spring”—the art of the short story with L.A. Times book critic David Ulin
Find Hamilton’s many mystery novels as well as numerous articles about the love, history, and evolution of perfume at DeniseHamilton.com