The smell of flesh, life, and death: Perfume - The Coffret of the Senses
08th January, 2007
You really have to give credit to those fashion and beauty advertising executives. They really know how to grab our libidos. By placing well-positioned oversized fleshy magazine covers that have more skin than laminate, they are able to secure our interest and dollars. Once our body heat is raised a notch or two, they crank it up even higher by cleverly placing droplets of moisture in strategic places and sit back to watch the payoff sizzle. Sounds good on paper but imagine taking this 3D scenario into realtime. That sweaty body is now right next to you, live and in sniffing colour. How would you react? Would you now find this person's odour pleasing or distasteful?
Getting down to the nitty, gritty, 'dirty' of odoriferous olfactory diffusions, is a painful reality. Our natural body emissions seem to have a mind and timer of their own. Ah, consider the joys of sniffing funky underarm stench on a sweltering crowded bus in the middle of July. How about dreading the removal of your shoes at someone's home out of fear of sharing your stinky feet aromas. Have you been in close proximity to an unkempt, greasy longhaired person when a hit of dirty stale hair oil wafts through the air? Halitosis, unwashed bodies, rancid fragrances and poor hygiene above and below the waist can make anyone uncomfortable. These gaseous fumes are released at the most inopportune moments and are enough to make anyone cringe. Most are bacterial-based and reflect the negative side of odours. The personal care industries spend billions of dollars annually to comb at Mother Nature's little revenges.
Non-scent extremists wish for an odourless world without any scent, but what kind of world would that really be. The bottom line is that these cacophonies of odours, natural and synthesized, positive and negative literally make up our primal being. They announce our existence and lead to procreation, reveal disease, tempt our taste buds to feed our bodies for longevity, and for some, can be a sensual trigger for a total stranger without really knowing why. Our natural perfume, born of physiology, diet, and hormonal fluctuations can act as a natural attractant. Our body oils become a power magnet for partners who appreciate our bespoke (courtesy of our parents) perfume.
These cocktails of aromas escalate when the body heats up. They leave their trail between the sheets, on our clothes or in a loved one's memories. They define and reveal who we are through a single sniff. We are the perfume! The elixir of life.
With this theme of human odorous definitions, attractions and repulsions, author Patrick Süskind decided to encapsulate the very essence or lack thereof, of humanity. His book "Perfume – The Story of a Murderer" takes place in Eighteenth century France and reveals a man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille with no autobiographical essence (body odour). His greatest gift is the power to smell everything around him in minute detail, including the world of perfume. His longing to be accepted into a scented society is thwarted. His very lack of primal essence denies him public acceptance and love. His maniacal efforts to attain the perfect scent become an execution: one of lust and acceptance, the other, of carnage.
With the movie "Perfume, The Story of a Murderer" being released worldwide, it was only a matter of time before two creative perfumers developed atmospheric odours to replicate Grenouilles' existence in Paris in the early 1700's. A coffret, made up of 15 distinct odours and perfumes was created by Christophe Laudamiel and his partner, Christoph Hornetz (International Flavours & Fragrances) who started to experiment with oils about seven years ago as a cultural exploration in perfumery, atmospheres and interpreting Süskind's imaginings. What they didn't anticipate, was a meeting with legendary Vera Strübi of Thierry Mugler Parfums, and Peter Friedl, President of Distribution and Marketing for the movie that enabled the Coffret to smell the light of day.
This concept is a fascinating and familiar scent journey; I often work with actors using fragrance as a character prop. It has been over twenty years since I initially read Süskind's book. I recall very little of the original plot, other than having nightmares after my nightly readings. I deliberately avoided reading any press materials when I received the blotters for the coffret. Instead, I decided to jot down my initial impressions, I wanted this journey to unfold in my nose, my first impressions to be as virginal as the blotters before they are dipped. They are followed, in the text below, by the true perfumers' intent and then by the premise of the author:
Above: Thierry Mugler's Perfume coffret.
Marian Bendeth's Initial Impressions: One smells the freshness of a newborn's head, set against a backnote of regurgitated slightly sour breast milk. The moist dampness of a warmed urine cotton nappy and heat spiral through supple skin.
Perfumer's Intent: Various compositions of 25 different ingredients make up the scent of a sweet-sour milky odour comprising the aroma of heavy whipped cream, meringue, fine custard, brown sugar, caramel and butter. The perfumers worked with a female flavourist and were able to use dessert notes replicating crême fraîche along with headspace analysis of warm milk and the special note of 'Pyrazine', which replicates the warm smells of oven-baked goods and warm butter.
Premise of the author: A wet nurse describes in detail, all the different scent nuances that a baby smells of, likening the feet to a smooth warm stone or a pancake soaked in milk.'
MB: The nose encounters a filthy cobbled street of 1738. The fetid waters of the Seine reveal hints of urine and fecal matter floating on a distant watery putrescent note. Decaying animal corpses wash up against the banks. Human fecal and urine notes scatter the streets and rancid unwashed bodies and hair scurry around. Rotting food is strewn about. A cart of over-ripened fruits is wheeled through the olfactory procession. Bushels of damp hay lie off in the distance.
Intent: The use of blackcurrants in fruity blends have a slight urine odour but combined with the absolute of seaweed, reveals an odour of unwashed hair.
Premise: The Parisian side streets of 1738 were so densely cramped for space, they became a vacuum for odours of water and stone; ashes and leather, freshly baked bread and eggs pickled in vinegar. Soggy straw and fresh bales against a trace of invisible gruel and human odours pervaded the air.'
MB: One can almost hear the shop bell ringing as you enter an apothecary of yesteryear. Iodine, salves and unctions rise from pestles and dark medicine bottles. A door at the back leads to a dilapidated barn. Mounds of hay and horse manure, saddles and horse/cow odours slip in to mingle and linger with the potions.
Intent: We are taken to a tannery with the odours of horses, cows, animalic smoky which were replicated with the essences of mimosas, red fruity notes, a pumpkin potage reflecting the suppleness of finished raw leather.
Premise: Grenouille worked up to sixteen hours in the summer months. He scraped the meat from the stinking hides, rubbed them down with pickling dung, chopped and stripped birch and yew and then climbed into the caustic tanning pits. He would later dig up the mummified hide carcasses, now tanned leathers.'
VIRGIN NO. 1
MB: The smell of pubescence. A young girl perspires, revealing ovulating or menstrual notes with a dollop of cream through her young skin. Watery and warm, the odour spirals up in a circular way. I have smelled this note a thousand times rising through fragrances on young skins of my female customers who are usually between the ages of 11 and 16 years old.
Intent: The scent of innocence, born with scent molecules of fresh milk, white rice and yellow plum Schnapps.
Premise: A thirteen or fourteen year old girl is sitting at a table cleaning yellow plums. The sweat from her armpits smell as fresh as the sea breeze, the oils of her hair is a sweet as nut oil. Her skin like apricot blossoms; her private parts like a bouquet of water lilies. It was pure beauty.'
MB: A nosegay of rich violets and night-scented stocks. There is an innocence of first crush bordering on obsession. Flights of fantasy, it is the smell of painful infatuation, the kind that makes us sick with love.
Intent: Baldini's store (perfumery) provides a plethora of scents such as sweet liquor notes mixed with balsamic and beeswax, coffee, anis (liquorice) along with a strong violet water overtone. Vinegar and yellow daffodils have components that are reminiscent of pomades. Angelica seeds reproduce the mustiness of a house near the waters of the Seine.
Premise: The premises and residence of Giuseppe Baldini greet you with two silver herons spewing violet-scented toilet water. A cloud of frangipani stands against floral oils, tinctures, toilet vinegards, candles, fruit, brandies, cinnamon and rich food goods. Musk-sprinkled wallpaper combined with all the odours could make any woman faint.'
AMOR & PSYCHE
MB: Electric, almost shrill, there is a heightened sense of urgency that almost escalates with each sniff. Metallic and shiny, its very linear sharp vibration leads me to expect more, I long for resolution.
Intent: An extraordinary perfume with the exact luminosity of citrus essences with a profound natural quality that would be pure in that period.
Premise: Baldini tries to reproduce a popular scent that he assumes contains too much rosemary and not enough attar of roses. Orange blossom, lime, clove, musk and jasmine…'
MB: Dark and mysterious, definitely masculine. It is the smell of cunning. The thoughts of a masterplanner. There is a solid heart note set against a sour backnote that smells of decay, something sordid. Moody, calculating, his confidence is haughty. There is no doubt in this man's rationale that to conquer is the very definition of masculinity. He paces with a thousand thoughts.
Intent: Based on 'Amour & Psyche' the reproduction is rounder and luminescent with Gentian and ginger essences replacing the orange blossoms a bergamot overlaying fresh clementines from Italy. Rosemary, garden mint lends a spicy quality and floral aromas fill out the formula.
Premise: Jean-Baptiste offers to reformulate 'Amor & Psyche' for Baldini and does so, making the former scent pale in comparison.'
MB: Bursts of citrus rinds and juices rise like a hot sun over the Mediterranean. Droplets of orange, tangerine oils drip over marbled skins. The aura is initially cold – I am brought to the open face of a mountain facing the sea, yet one can smell a heat bubbling under the surface. Strong and resonant, it is the essence of joy.
Intent: The goal was to make a mineral fragrance – the kind that creates goosebumps of pleasure. It is the scent of Grenouille's temporary grave set against the scent of moss in a very dark, woody-green rain forest. Laboratory abstract molecules were blended with moss to replicate cold stones while mushroom and patchouli essences lend a subterranean feel.
Premise: Alone in his self-imposed isolation, Grenouille settles in as a recluse, hunched in, at the end of a narrow tunnel a hundred and fifty feet below the earth within a mountain.'
MB: I am taken to a brothel. Heavy wooden bannisters emit the mustiness of a used room. Faded wallpaper stained with the essences of aged beer, possibly old cigar smoke and sweat. Bustiers made of fading and tattered materials reveal ample flesh. She waits for the highest bidder. She is blasé, indifferent to her surroundings. She often forgets to bathe inbetween customers.
Intent: Grenouille dreams of a red salon where the Davana oil is used to replicate an after dinner wine such as Port. His imaginary castle smells of pervasive burning candles that include a molecule Karnanal (hot tar) and Aldron (body warmth) combined with Tuberose absolute.
Premise: Grenouille dreams of a purple castle with a thousand private rooms and underground chambers. Each room would shelve all the odours he collects.'
MB: There is a subtle sadness, almost a flat downward note in the top note whereupon one smells near defeat or malaise. I am struck with the pungent scent of earwax winding it's way through. The heart has a masculine undertow buoying the negativity with strength. The scent is waxy and waxes philosophical. It is a contradiction of odours of negative vs. positive.
Intent: A selection of natural malt absolute containing the sweatiness of cheese was set against notes of civet and cumin. They were then rounded off by 'Skatol', another synthesized fecal note which could replicate the animalic mustiness of essential oils. These notes can also be found in natural chocolate. They make the perfumes feel alive.
Premise: He wanted to acquire the odour of humanity. Human's smell of sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, aged cheese with a touch of rancid sardines mixed in with rotten eggs. If one recalls the odours of this time period, the lack of hygiene made the presence of negative odours highly acceptable and commonplace.'
MB: Narcotic, pure, the moment of twilight, heat. I imagine tales of far-away travels from men in a dark wooded Inn, over a glass of Beaujolais where stories are recounted of riches – the scent makes them tangible, exotic, infinite.
Intent: The notes of a true perfumer are melded of florals, fruits, animalic and green opulence. Perfumers currently work with 25 different jasmine nuances.
Vera Strübi of Thierry Mugler Parfums, wanted the noblest of florals, the Jasminum Grandiflora to denote the most fragile yet hardy of oils from Provence.
Premise: Jasmine season began at the end of July. As Grenouille interns at a Grasse perfumery, he witnesses how the jasmine harvest is cultivated through the method of Enfleurage . The flowers are strewn onto glass plates, cooled in oil-soaked clothes and after four days, wither and leave a residue to mingle with the oil.'
MB: Salt-water taffy of seaside funfairs married with dried out seaweed and voluminous seafoam. The aquatic notes of Calone smell of rich emerald green depths. The scent speaks more of the dense underground vegetation rather than aquatic surface odours.
Intent: With only nine ingredients, the fragrance must emulate that of an entire ocean. One of the key ingredients being seaweed along with a cocktail of Maritime aromas such as Calone along with notes of anise, melon, citrus and a new molecule inspired by cyclamen, whips the foamy sea-like aroma into a true marine note.
Premise: Next to the murder of young virgin, nothing pleases Grenouille more, than the scent of the sea. He adored those salty, fishy watery notes that made his imagination soar.'
MB: Filigree and floral motifs – the scent takes me to structured manicured botanical gardens where one purveys his riches. Trestles of rich floral notes are set against a carpet of green. The scent of authority. One can smell the decay of a dilapidated building in the background, neglected and rotting. There is an undercurrent of self-importance, a beautiful ego at play.
Intent: The scents of violet, heliotrope and iris root exuding powdery aromas gives the creation a sense of royalty.
Other notes include Atlas cedar, vanilla powder and special aldehydes replicate the wigs and hautiness of Rose de Mai (from Grasse), which can run €10,000 for one kilo of rose absolute, reflects the luxurious of notes.
Premise: On top of a disgusting base which smelled more like a cadaver than a human being, Grenouille spread a layer of peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus which he disguised with fine florals such as geranium, rose, orange blossom and jasmin with a splash of vinegar which masks any negativity of the former.'
MB: I am reminded of an unwashed, unshaven, greasy-haired troll who lies in wait. The initial smell of loneliness and then a frenetic quality of a rapid heartbeat, a need for satiation. Its sour qualities denote an evil pleasure, this scent is frightening.
Intent: Sensuality and voluptuousness with the note of natural chocolate leading the way through animalic musks with Javanol (a new sandalwood). The use of a new molecule, 'Excitol' replicates the odours of sweat or sperm thereby heightening the eroticism, against the scent of woods which represent the scaffold.
Premise: As Grenouille is presented to the hordes before his execution; his perfume whips the crowd into a forgiving frenzy of lascivious behaviour resulting in an orgy en-masse with sweaty, carnal odours rising into the air.'
MB: The mist that reveals the truth. This tranquility rises in purity and balance. Fragile and delicate, it is a gossamer mesh or cotton batten dipped in fresh Devon cream that floats on a warm breeze. It is nature's sweat that one spies through an open window on a warm spring morning before dawn. It is the climbing radiation of life.
Premise: Possessing almost supernatural powers, this scent was the inspiration of Vera Strübi, who asked the perfumers to make a perfume that literally radiates positivity for both sexes. Created as a refined elixir, the scent promotes a warm glow.
Encompassing over 84 ingredients, the scent is made to harmonize with all of the twelve of the main fragrance families and can be worn alone or as a glove or skin over one's favourites.'
A limited edition collectible presentation box containing 14 Perfumes in 0.25 oz. /7.5 ml and one Aura enhancer – 5-fl.oz/15 ml. A leaflet is included, explaining each scent.
Retail price $700.00 US (available only in US with US residence - European allowance is sold out) available at: http://www.perfume.thierrymugler.com/us
(Check back on Basenotes soon for an interview with the perfumers: Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz)
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