Monday, March 24, 2008

Literature for Sniffers -- March 24

Smell may be the sense most difficult to write about descriptively. Part of the reason is that we give linguistic short shrift to our sense of smell. We have an enormous vocabulary for our visual sense, the sense we're most tied to and dependent upon. We've all heard the old saw that the Inuit have a raft of words for the substance we English speakers simply call "snow." I don't know if that's true or not, but it certainly illustrates the idea that we spend language on what is most important to us. We have very specific words for color (blue, magenta, ochre) and shape & line (triangle, spherical, zigzag).


(Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie)

It's possible to paint a very accurate portrait of the way something looks using words -- witness the amazing work that police sketch artists do.

Smell is also the sense that most people probably pay the least attention to. If you've ever played the "What Sense Would You Give Up?" game, you know most people choose smell, because they think it would be the easiest to live without.

Lastly, smell may be the most subjective of our senses, because it is so very person-specific. With the exception of the very most isolated or "primitive" people, in this day and age all humans have a shared vocabulary of images and sound, from movies and television, popular music, books and magazines, museums, education. We all pretty much recognize Mickey Mouse at this point in history, and we all know Elvis Presley when we see or hear him.


(Or not, as the case may be.)

Smell, on the other hand, cannot be transmitted except via an actual object. No one is broadcasting smells around the world. And so everyone's smell history, if you will, is completely different. Depending on factors like where you live, your ethnic background, your age, your occupation, and a squillion more, your smell history is specific only to you. Imagine the differences in the smell experiences between a person who grew up in Omaha compared to someone from Mumbai. Or Khartoum. Or Paris. Since no one can go everywhere and do everything, there are just some things you're never going to smell. I was in my 30's before I ever encountered the smell of kimchi and to this day my best description of its odor (besides "yech") is "Ummm, it smells like kimchi."
(Again I say, yech.)

And the whole thing is even further complicated by the issue of taste, of like & dislike. It's not hard to give a visual description of something without passing a value judgment, but the first thing most people say when describing a smell is whether they think it good or bad -- and there is a wide range of opinion on what smells nice or nasty. Take my above example of kimchi. I find that odor positively evil, but there's a good chance that if you're from a Korean family that smell has the same effect on you that the smell of freshly-made pasta does on me: it reminds you of comfort, family, your grandmother -- general goodness.

What all this boils down to is that it can be the very devil to describe the way something smells without referencing something it smells
like, and even that is only useful if the audience is familiar with Reference B. (It's not really helpful for me to tell you that L'Air du Desert Marocain reminds me a lot of Ambre Sultan if you've never smelled either one of them.)

So smell is tough to write about.

Unless, apparently, you're Tania Sanchez or Luca Turin. Their new book Perfumes: The Guide is a book about perfumes even a non-Perfumista can love because they write in clear, evocative, not-terribly-jargony English about one of life's most elusive and delightful pleasures -- the sense of smell.
The bulk of the book is made up of reviews, complete with star ratings and two-word genre classifications. If you're like me, the first thing you'll do when you get your hands on it is go straight to the entries for your most-loved fragrances to find out what they have to say about them. However, the first 50 pages are devoted to essays by Sanchez and Turin on perfume criticism and history, as well as thoughts on masculine vs. feminine scents and, especially if you are not a hard-core Frag Junkie like me, you should read these first, because they lay important groundwork for the reviews. Sanchez makes a wonderfully lucid argument for the importance of perfume criticism to the continued existence and growth of perfume itself: criticism of art -- discussion of art -- leads to greater familiarity with the art. "Would we go so often to the movies," Sanchez asks, "If we couldn't talk about them, if we had no clue whether a film might be good or not?" And the more we know about it, the higher will be our standards. "The perfume business will certainly fare better in a world of genuine public love than it would in a world in which everyone dismisses its product as nonsense."

Sanchez & Turin lead you gently through the history and chemistry of perfume, outline the main genres of the field, and impart some important practical information that will make embarking upon the Perfumed Path easier and more fun. And the reviews... oh, the reviews! Take this, from Turin's review of Chanel's 31 rue Cambon (5 stars, "floral ambery"), a perfume I adore:

I cannot remember the last time, if ever, a perfume gave me such an instantaneous impression of ravishing beauty at first sniff. There is an affecting softness, a gentle grace to 31 that beggars belief.


(It's expensive. But I'm going to have to have some. Beyond lovely.)

I had exactly that same reaction when I sniffed it (and still do, every time). And here is Sanchez talking about Ormonde Jayne's great Ormonde Woman (5 stars, "forest chypre"):

It has the haunting, outdoors witchiness of tall pines leaning into the night -- a bitter oakmoss inkiness, a dry cedar crackle, and a low, delicious, pleading sweet amber, like the call of a faraway candy house. Lulling and unsettling in equal measure, and truly great.


(You have to go to London to get it. Totally worth it.)

See? You want to smell that now, don't you? (Following the perfume-name links will make that possible.)

It's not all hearts and flowers, of course. Sometimes it's biting and often it's hilarious. I defy you to find me a book about perfume that will make you laugh out loud with such reliable frequency. Both the authors can deliver a killing blow with considerable dispatch. Take this from Turin about Iceberg Homme (1 star, classified as "sad shampoo"):

That's him all right. Now put him back in the freezer.

And perhaps my very favorite, from Sanchez, on cK IN2U Her (1 star, "fruity amber"):

OMG PU. Insanely strong fruit meets insanely strong woody amber. KTHXBYE.

Followed immediately by her take on cK IN2U His (also 1 star, this one "7UP amber"):


I laughed hard enough after that to be asked what I was reading. You can imagine the questioner's dubious look when I replied, "A book about perfume."

Of course, part of the fun of reading expert reviews is to have your own (superior) tastes confirmed, and so I was delighted to find that Turin loves Piguet's Baghari (4 stars, "orange chypre") as much as I do. Fascinatingly, though, Turin finds it a dark fragrance, whereas when I wear Baghari I feel enveloped in a nimbus of white light. See? Subjective. And, of course, sometimes there will be areas of disagreement. I do not find Hermes' Rose Ikebana (3 stars, "polite floral") "dull and effete." I find it zingy and energetic. So there you go.

It's a wonderful book. It shouldn't be missed. Regardless of how much you already know about perfumes and fragrance, if you're even remotely interested in smelling good this book is a valuable resource. And don't worry, the authors are not fragrance snobs in any way -- several of the most positive reviews in the book are of scents one can find in any department store -- some you can even find in discount stores. Turin and Sanchez can find you a good smell at any price point, and offer proof that perfume is our most affordable luxury. I don't see how anyone could read this book and not want to drop everything to immediately go out sniffing -- the authors' passionate enjoyment of good perfume is contagious, and by the time I'd gotten to the "D's" in the reviews I'd cast aside the notepad whereon I was writing a list of things I wanted to sniff or re-sniff and was simply marking entries with a highlighter. One new bottle had joined my collection within 24 hours of the book's arrival -- after reading Turin's paean to Bulgari's Black (5 stars, "hot rubber"), I marched myself up to Neiman Marcus and found myself bewitched.

(Seriously, go -- with an open mind -- and sniff this stuff. Wow.)

I am ashamed to say that I probably would never have tried this fragrance without this little nudge, so as far as I'm concerned, The Guide has already earned its keep.

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez have not only written a delightful entertainment, they've performed a service that those of us who love perfume must be grateful for. Anyone who reads this book will be better-informed and more discerning. The bottles of dreck will stay on the store shelves. The perfume companies will have to bring their A-games if they want to compete. The world, hallelujah, will smell better.

Perfumes: The Guide will be released on April 10, but can be pre-ordered here.


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Anita said...

This sounds just great, thanks for posting about it. Both the authors are featured in the April issue of Allure mag, too. I'm glad you found love in BB, that's a scent that I've tried hard to love but just doesn't love me back. Another controversial perfume that I do love is Kenzo Jungle l'Elephant; I'll be interested in Turin/Sanchezs' opinion!

StyleSpy said...

A -- the Allure article is pretty much a straight lift from the book, so now you've had a sneak peek! And btw -- l'Elephant gets 4 stars.

Anita said...


Sian said...

I gave a friend Bulgari Black for his birthday a couple of years ago. It smelled great on him, although he didn't wear it much. It never quite smelled right on me though. I love the rubber smell of it, but it just didn't quite fit me. Can't wait until the book comes out.

La Belette Rouge said...

It would be so great if there was a scratch and sniff component to this book.

I know very little about perfume as I feel in love with L'Artisan fig and I quit the search for perfumes. I fear getting this book as it would only fuel a dormant desire for magic in a bottle. Yet, it sounds amazing. Or, should I say that it smells amazing. Hmm?

Deja Pseu said...

Sounds intruiging; I've added that book to my reading list.

Are any stores carrying the 31 Cambon? It sounds like something I'd like, but I always try before I buy.

StyleSpy said...

Ms. Weasel: I take that as a personal challenge to urn you into a 'fume junkie. Beware!

S-- my guess is that some folks would have trouble with the rubber note, but I wanted moremoremore of it. Inexplicable.

Deja -- 31 rue Cambon is one of the Exclusifs Chanel released in 2007. It can only be found in Chanel boutiques and Bergdorf Goodman in NYC. Turin calls 3rC a floral amber, but Chanel calls it a chypre, which I think is closer to the mark. If you have a Chanel boutique nearby, you might be able to score a sample from them, otherwise your best bet is to follow the link & get one from The Perfumed Court. And you definitely should try before you buy -- the stuff's going for about $200 a bottle now.

daruma said...

heh - I would have laid money on you loving Black.