When the French government graciously invited me on a second perfumery tour, I could scarcely contain my excitement. They most likely thought this scent journey would unfold in France, probably at the doorstep of some elegant French perfumery. They were mistaken. My journey would start on my home turf in Toronto, Canada.
As long as I can remember, each scent I have worn or have encountered holds a special poignancy for me. In fact, I can still track the constellation of aromas in my life, like a necklace of perfumed memories. I remember receiving my first bottle of scent as if it were yesterday.
The scene is London, England, and I am three years old. My Grandmother had just given me my first treasured elixir, Muelhens 4711 . Our house had no central heating, hence no generated heat to last the night. By midnight, my bedroom became a frozen landscape. My favourite goldfish, Barker and Dobson, were suspended in an arctic-like icy freeze the night before, poor things. Lying under the weight of my silk eiderdown, I had the notion that the precious liquid of my new fragrance might freeze as well. I naively hoped my body heat might help to avert the same fate. Obsessively, I carried and sniffed this scent with me morning, noon and night. I often wonder how my parents tolerated this obsessive behaviour? In any event, it jump-started a lifetime of curiousity and collection of fragrance blends.
When it comes to travel, I always enjoy the challenge of the odours leading up to and including my trip. This usually starts with a last minute sniff of packed clothes. Now, I know this may appear a tad eccentric, but I want to retain the scents of Toronto for comparison.
My smell journey to France begins with my taxi pulling up to the departure drop-off at Toronto Pearson International Airport; I open the car door to thick, sticky petrol and diesel fumes. Spirals of cigarette smoke hang in the air.
A young teenager is fiddling with her tartan Burberry luggage. Moving closer, I recognize she is also wearing the matching Burberry Weekend eau de toilette. Now that is what I call keeping it in the family. The couple ahead of me in line are returning home to France. Their clothes are casual-chic. A faint trail of classic Eau du Soir Sisley floats from the woman's neck, and while it sounds corny, she smells so... French!
I then have a flash memory of my last flight to Paris. I was stuck for eight hours seated next to a gentleman whose body smelled rank and his soiled clothes, stale. I discreetly begged to be moved but the plane was fully booked. I put it down as one of the longest flights of my life. Thank goodness, this flight brings better luck.
During the powerful takeoff an unmistakable odour of ozone and metallic notes mixed with burning rubber shoots through the plane, and the smell of diesel and new carpet fibers rush down the aisles. They give me a thrill, they smell electric.
After dinner, I decide to stretch my legs and freshen my hands. This particular airline soap has a slight lemony/ozonic residue. I am always fascinated with commercial soaps. They may smell of lemons, lavender or herbal notes that are supposed to represent cleanliness. I dread those public restroom soaps that smell of profuse mechanic's grease battling piney medicinal notes. Back at my seat, I notice the flight attendant taking duty-free orders. Curious to know which scents their French passengers order, her answer to me is swift and succinct, "Only those made in France."
Charles de Gaulle airport is my short stopover before flying on to the Riviera and I make a beeline for the duty free boutique. Essences of creamy musk, amber and vanilla choke the air. Frederic, a fragrance specialist who is extremely knowledgeable, sprays my wrist with the new Gaultier2. He then takes me over to a display of Guerlain's Vétiver Pour Elle . Spraying my other wrist, I notice this sister of Vetiver Pour Homme smells sunnier, with pumped up notes of clean orange blossom and crisp bergamot unfolding into the coyness of honeysuckle, vetiver and tonka bean. Frederic tells me this is exclusive to the duty-free market, so I decide to stock-up. Time is of the essence. Literally! The selection is overwhelming, I test, then buy, then sniff, and then buy some more. I soon notice the zipper on my hand luggage is dangerously gaping to near exhaustion with my fragrance purchases and my trip has yet to begin!
Finding my seat in the narrow plane headed to Nice, I notice the aisle is a scented catwalk for elegant passengers wearing perfectly knotted cashmere sweaters and just the right amount of Acqua di Parma with discretion.
An attractive gentleman walks by wearing the most intoxicating scent and I absolutely have to discover its name. Lui Rochas he informs me. Its sexy nuances of fresh cut grass, bitter neroli and twangy cedarwood could have flown me non-stop to Beijing.
Once in Cannes, a bracing salty sea breeze of the Mediterranean snakes its way through the narrow back streets of the Cote d'Azur guiding me to the boardwalk of the Croisette. Shutting my eyes on the promenade, I sniff and savour the scents of the Riviera - tendrils of hot café au lait, Gauloise cigarettes and faint traces of potent bougainvillea that trail down from elegant plexi-glass balconies. The briny scent of seaweed is never far behind.
I stroll happily until the sun sets and then find myself collapsing on my hotel bed out of sheer exhaustion and olfactory bliss.
The Tax Free World Exhibition in Cannes at the Palais des Festivals is a banquet for the nose. Global Duty Free Buyers traverse here to purchase the ultimate in luxury goods. Boutique fronts with familiar logos such as Dior , Scherrer, Prada and Chanel beckon on different levels within the Palais and on yachts that dot the harbour. I am like a kid in a candy store; I want to play pin the tail on the perfume bottle.
This scented treasure hunt through the exhibition leads me to the Nicole Farhi booth. Elusive, yet elegant notes of playful petigrain, labdanum, pink pepper and the slightest hint of dark chocolate, float around me. One minute after testing this fragrance on my wrist, I declare X marks the spot. Exiting an elevator door, the room before me is dazzling, larger than life. L'Oreal has taken over the whole floor with the launch of Lancôme's Hypnôse (above). Walking into the frenzy of buyers and scent, beautiful models trail notes of passionflower and warm vanilla around dozens of oversized bottles that are stacked like purple cut-glass champagne flutes.
With only one day to explore, I race through the vast colour-coded hallways that transmit aromas to stun my senses. I walk into a trace of invisible cigar smoke that commingles with velvety Belgian chocolate truffles. Trails of hot, roasted expresso beans waltz with warm buttery croissants. Smooth traces of sensuous Cognac encounter sophisticated notes of rustic patchouli and spicy incense. They swirl around my head like some sensory concerto. I am reminded of elegant private dining rooms in secluded stone manors.
Seated in the exclusive Clarins booth, I meet with a French Fragrance industry icon, Gérard Delcour, President of the Committee of French Perfumes. One of his many functions is to oversee their global export. He grins with pride when he informs me that there is not one American fragrance in France's top sellers! I am beginning to sense a pattern here...
Throughout my trip, I stop locals to find out which fragrances they wear and love. One taxi driver giggles with glee as he whips out from under his seat his half-used Gaultier's Le Male as he spritzes the air. Another night at McDonalds, I approach three teenaged girls seated on a bench. Before my question is through, they are adamant that each one has the right answer. " Amor Amor!" ( by Cacharel ), shouts the first; "Non! " shouts the second; "J'adore Angel! " (by Thierry Mugler). Incensed, the last girl screams out defiantly, "Escada, Escada!" . I am shocked. Wait! No Calvin Klein? No Ralph Lauren?
Now I am driven with curiosity, so with my last attempt back at my hotel, I ask the hotel concierge about his favourite scent. His look is deadpan. With sharp assuredness, he announces Hugo Boss - Classique! as if there were no other scent on the planet. The next morning at breakfast, I ask the same question of an elegant woman dining beside me. She says in hushed tones, "Mon cherie, one doesn't need parfum when you live amongst so many beautiful flowers."
Charabot is a long-established fragrance and flavour house situated high on an emerald green mountaintop in famous Grasse, the birthplace of perfumery. The incredibly steep and ever-winding drive to the offices is worth the giddiness. Dream-like emanations of crisp bergamot, powdery lavender and dark benzoin greet me at the over-sized antique door. I meet with dashing Jean-Marie Santantoni, master perfumer and the force behind many well-known perfumes.
We talk of the new breed of customer, the young and credit card-ready fragrance-a-holic who wants something new every five seconds. I want to know who creates the styles in blends. Santanoni explains the customer dictates the demand for trends. Currently, gourmand and fruity notes are predominant. "But what about us aging baby-boomers?" I plead. My personal preferences are a bit outdated now and I long for them to make a return. No dry and crisp floral aldehydes anymore? No warm floral woody chypres? He informs me that oakmoss and some other essential oils are either no longer being utilized, or have to be altered according to worldwide industry regulations. He reassures me perfumers are now experimenting with new blends, forging new inroads in techniques and classifications. I pout like a kid without her lollipop.
With the sun setting over the Cote d'Azur, I grab a coffee with famed perfumer, photographer, videographer, Michel Roudnitska. His presence is that of a classical artiste like Ravel or Gaughin. Roudnitska's modest esoteric side translates through his gentleness in speech and fragrance blends. From his black bag of lab samples, he produces one of his scents, DelRae Amoureuse . Roudnitska sprays a blotter revealing crisp juicy rinds of tangerine, which unfold with an undercurrent of luscious tuberose and the faintest nuances of subtle woods. The originality of its blend is extraordinary. The scent hangs in the air like a tropical fruit against a hyper persimmon sunset. His father, the late renowned master perfumer Edmond Roudnitska would have been proud and, I am sure, a tad envious too.
Leaving the scenic French Riviera is hard. The ever-present smells of exquisite flowers and fauna that cascade from the surrounding mountains climaxing with organic sea notes are utterly addictive. I wish I could bottle this exact aroma.
Arriving back at Orly airport, I wait on the curb. A light warm rain has started and a fine mist rises from the damp terminal road. Water-drenched earth from the runway fields erupt, smelling of a thousand freshly cracked Brazil nut casings. Rolling down my car window as we drive towards the City of Light, the breeze carries wafts of crunched damp leaves mingled with freshly exposed earth worms. One can almost smell the pulse of the city, exhaling clouds of exhaust emissions, speeding traces of sewer fumes and foliage.
Paris is lit up with a million fairy lights and I envision Audrey Hepburn skipping down a lone gaslit cobbled street on some misty night where L'Interdit and Monsieur Givenchy collide in a tight embrace. In an effort to emulate her, I dab Hermès 24 Faubourg Eau de Parfum and end up in an Indian restaurant for dinner. Two tables down from me, a couple is staring at me intently. The wife then says, in a very slow and deliberate manner in a North American accent, "My husband and I agree, you smell so French!" Turns out, they live 20 minutes from me in Toronto.
A Paris morning would not be complete without a hearty breakfast of warmed brioche, steaming roasted muddy espresso and a sip of freshly squeezed tart OJ. Afterwards, stepping out into the brisk morning air on the rue de Longchamp sets my blood pumping for the day ahead.
Tucked away at No. 31 rue Cambon, lie the headquarters and private apartments of Coco Chanel. Private tours of the apartments are restricted to media giants and special guests; I feel incredibly honoured. Upon entering the downstairs Beautè, black lacquered Chanel bottles sit in pristine showcases. I notice a very young couple from Tokyo seated in a corner. They are wearing Chanel logos on glasses, bags, oversized pearls to fringed pocketed-jackets. Chanel salespeople are scurrying to deposit purchased bags and boxes of all sizes and shapes at their feet.
Instinctively, I reach for a tester of the exquisite aldehydic floral No. 22 Eau de Parfum. For me, this sensuous blend emulates Grand Dame and not the expected No. 5 . The floralcy of Damask rose, tinged with heady narcotic jasmine, playful whiteness of lily of the valley flowers set against grassy notes of earthy vetiver, brings her closer to me in spirit.
Above: Marian at No.31 rue Cambon.
Sniffing the blotter, I conjure up Mlle. Coco standing before me. I envision her piercing black eyes under the brim of a straw hat. They stare right through me. One artistic hand is fingering her pearls, a long cigarette dangles between two fingers. The other bejewelled wrist sits on her jutted hip. Curls of cigarette smoke and No. 22 hang in the air. I imagine she is questioning my presence in her kingdom. I carry and sniff the scented blotter intermittently from room to room. I want to breathe her incarnation, smell out the source for her elegant tastes in furnishings and fragrances.
Odile Babin, Curator for Chanel, leads me up the famous spiralled mirrored staircase. She explains to me how Coco would sit on the steps and quietly view the reactions of journalists without being seen. We then enter Chanel's private domain encompassing four adjoining rooms. The aura is a culmination of masculine and feminine tastes. Much to my surprise and exhiliration, Babin invites me to sit on the famous quilted chocolate suede divan. This receiving room has witnessed laughter and serious conversations between Chanel and the likes of Picasso, Salvador Dali, Colette, Diagahlev, Greta Garbo, Catherine Deneuve and many famous and infamous personalities over a fifty-year time span.
Some of the walls are literally glued with exquisite hand-painted wooden Chinese Coromandel screens. Chanel collected thirty-two in all and surrounded herself with so many, one could become quite claustraphobic by the opulence and strong woody odours they emit. The heavily Baroque-style rooms spoke to Chanel perfumer Jacques Polge and became the inspiration for Coco with ambery and spice accords and is the link between Eastern and Western tastes.
My next appointment is at 68 avenue des Champs Elysées. A delicate white calligraphy sign announces the Guerlain flagship store. Golden hues from the massive interior chandelier, that cover two floors, radiate onto the street pulling me in to explore a secret world. Sylvaine Delacourte, Guerlain's elegant fragrance creation director greets me in the reception area. Her stylish clothes and lilting French accent reminds me of the quintessential stereotype of French beauty, classic and timeless.
Visitors can experience what Jean Cocteau or Empress Eugenie may have encountered. Be it a bespoke (custom-blended) scent, which would take place in a private anteroom, or a tour through the Grande salon upstairs, the rooms have a scented opulence. With hundreds of historical and current blends to smell and savour, one could virtually spend days here and never get bored.
Taking a sniff of the reworked aldehydic Vega , I feel like I am awakening from freshly perfumed starched sheets and white florals. A spritz of Derby , the equine masterpiece of exposed birch, smooth leather, tree trunk and carnation, makes my heart ache. Vintage yet still very modern, this is what perfume is all about!
With scented blotters in hand, I step out onto the boulevard. A gust of wind whirls powdery notes of Shalimar, Liu and sprightly LaVoilette Madame . They jump in the breeze like a perfumed Alice in Wonderland. I try to soak up the moment before my taxi speeds me off to my next appointment.
Frédéric Malle has the countenance of a seventeenth century king and the knowledge of a fragrance guru. I meet with Malle and noted perfumer Ralf Schwieger creator of Hermès, Eau des Merveilles , and Lipstick Rose in the luxurious foyer of the Hotel Costes. Over a delicate cup of steeped orange pekoe, the erudite Malle talks about the basis for his company, Editions de Frédéric Malle. He speaks of the volume of new launches in scent and how overwhelming the choices may appear to consumers. In-house perfumers once had total control over the style and blend of a new perfume. In today's fast-paced market there are only a handful left who have that luxury. This inspired Malle to work with famed perfumers who could express original works of art, with access to every kind of raw material their hearts' desired; cost was no object.
What is it that is the most refreshing about his fragrances? Perfumers are finally getting credit for their body of work. He adds as an afterthought, "My friends don't care to smell like their maids." I am envious! I secretly wish I too had a maid, a chauffeur and a penthouse on the Seine. Oh well, at least I can smell as if I do.
Strolling through a botanical courtyard, a gust of airborne dust lifts the aroma of sun-pierced spicy geranium petals. The scent follows me down a narrow passageway where I head for the doors of Serge Lutens Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido (above). I enter an aromatic mauve and gold domed room. It feels like a cross between a small Grecian astrological apothecary and a perfumer's private boudoir. Lutens' blends are mystical yet familiar. Freshly sprayed bottles cajole the senses with hints of rustic sandalwood, a harem's tent of Turkish roses, sumptuous jasmine and intimate musk. A locked off entrance to a spiral ornate iron staircase in the center of the room has me curious but unfortunately, my time here is short. Had I known then that the Salon is rumoured to have the most expensive restroom in France, I would have heeded nature's call!
Stopping for a quick luncheon in the Palais, I decide to order authentic onion soup au gratin. The waiter presents a bowl of dark broth with diced new onions, and a smattering of mozzarella. Its scent is mild at best. I prefer my own aromatic and calorific recipe, a succulent combination of rich Swiss, gooey mozzarella and pale Havarti covering aged sautéed glazed onions ladled with the warmth of Sherry and Port wine.
Moving on into the blue, (think Angel!) I meet Véra Strübi (above), President at Thierry Mugler Perfumes headquarters. As I sit in her private octagonal office, the Eiffel Tower lies directly behind her piercing blue eyes. She offers me the new purple Alien tester for me to experience. She explains the name has nothing to do with little green men from outer space. The name in fact, represents the merging of past and future.
She then walks over to a huge cupboard revealing thousands of bottles; lab samples that secretly call to me..."smell me...smell me". I ask if I can. She is polite but shuts it quick. I imagine some of them contain rejected samples and new oils that have yet to grace a perfumery counter. In another room, I watch a video presentation of the launch of Alien. The international media were flown into an Egyptian oasis. Viewing images of expansive sand dunes and mysterious candle-lit caves in the desert is exciting enough. When the room is permeated with mystical notes of warmed cherry pie (heliotrope), exotic cumin and lush satiny woody notes of Cashmeran, I actually feel like I have entered a coven in the darkness. Talk about "out of this world!"
At night while ogling magnificent store fronts, I decide to play a game. I want to sniff out what kind of store I am passing? The thin glass store fronts can't seem to hold back the odours of their wares. Ah, roses? Yes, sweet crimson velvety roses, haunting white lilies, perhaps a hint of elusive narcissus? Wait, a pungent hit of Gorgonzola! Now, it smells of aged cheddar. A few steps and then I can sniff fresh catch of the day, oh yes, the ocean floor. Slimy kelp and gnarled seaweed over crustation and shell. I am feeling cocky now with my sniffing accomplishments. I am thrown off-kilter when a gust of Canine urine odour swirls at me from the street curb. A few steps more and I am chased by a squirt of lemon out of nowhere. The experience is intoxicating and oh so challenging.
A scenic road trip outside the city limits deposits me at the doorstep of Creassence owned by Sylvie Jourdet. She is also the master perfumer, president (of French Perfumers' Society) and professor at ISIPCA Perfumery school in Versailles. Greeting me with an engaging smile, you can see the passion in her face as we walk into her laboratory. I am the only one not dressed in a pristine white lab coat. Looking around at the hundreds of beakers of essentiall oils, synthetics and works-in- progress, I want to smell as many as humanly possible. Jourdet shows me classification tabs and matching single oils . As we sniff everything from original Oriental blends of heady frankincense to the greenest of grassy notes, I am transported to settings, cities, feelings and moods.
Amongst her many clients are Histoires des Parfums , a fragrance house whose blends reflect certain dates in history. I spray 1804 with delicate notes of lilac and lily of the valley surrounded by the roundness of apricot and the depth of spices and musk. Created for the persona of George Sand and her romantic past, it must have been a challenge for Jourdet. Sand was not only the secret lover of Chopin, she also used the male pseudonym to create many romantic works of fiction. Creating niche brands for clients, Jourdet's laboratory fills me with the history of French parfum. Her unique approach and style of fragrances are created as a master craftsman. I imagine her blends waiting to become acquainted, join forces in some beautiful bottle and land on someone's skin to instill a lifetime of memories.
One cannot visit scented Paris without strolling around the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. You might pop over to the rue de Castiglione and visit the exquisite Jean Patou flagship store. Dipping your blotter of Joy or 1000 into an oversized Monclin Bordeaux glass, the notes are swirled and sniffed. My nose samples harvested delicate Mai de rose and jasmine from Grasse, cultivated for the integrity of the House. All around, elegant gilded perfumeries pull me in to sample vintage and new scents in eighteenth century ornate display cabinets. I almost expect a courtesan or Baroness to enter at any moment. My biggest challenges of all are to budget my time, wallet and waistline (the Millefeuille are sublime).
Standing on the curb on this affluent street, I am waiting for my taxi to take me to Elytis, a new perfumery chain located in a suburban mall outside of Paris. A trail of Rive Gauche passes behind me as its owner flicks her scarf sending more Yves Saint-Laurent shockwaves....
The shelves and floor displays of fragrances in Elytis are crammed to capacity. With so many scents to test, there is enough eye candy to give you diabetes. Scents are showcased according to consumer focus (age) and new launches. There is even a baby and toddler section for gift givers. Store director, Mmes Sylvie Corcos, informs me that imparted education with each recommendation is very important in France. In fact, all fragrance personnel require a diploma if they want to sell fragrance. I am impressed to say the least. Some North American promotional assistants I have encountered take the words Toilette Water quite literally!
Corcos tells me with new launches, students usually prefer the 40ml size. The only time I have seen that size is at duty-free stores. French tweens still rely on their parents' expertise and advice when selecting a new scent. Since the celebrity angle is BBQ hot in North America, I want to know if it is the same in France. Corcos says, "In general, the French fragrance consumer doesn't jump at the notion of celebrity scents. They hate"hype" When I mention the new launches from Coty Prestige like Beckham or Lovely, Sarah Jessica Parker , she seems interested and thinks they would do well. Well, soccer and sex are naturally French too, no? It appears the national treasure of fragrance is an inherited rite of passage.
Back in Paris, I find that my next appointment will be with Cinquieme Sens (above) which is situated off a quiet side street in the heart of the city. The magic of this perfumery studio is evident when I walk into an intimate classroom. Small groups of tables are laden with books, classification charts and perfume paraphernalia. Creative inspiration may come by way of rich textured fabrics, mixed works of art or a palette of colours. Perfume blotters stand at attention in clasped holders like toy soldiers on each table, ready to be sprayed and sniffed. It is here, that aspiring perfumers and marketing people can study and receive a diploma in the art of perfumery and classifications. There are multiple fragrance courses, some for a few days, others a few months, covering every aspect of perfumery. I wish I could stay for a longer time, say, a few years...
My fabulous stay in France is nearly over. Taking a much-needed break back at my hotel, I immediately open the French windows and poke my head out following a beam of silvery light. The Eiffel Tower is lit up with a million lights. The clock strikes on the hour and like a can can dancer, she shimmers up and down for me against a midnight blue sky.
Dinner awaits and I meet with fragrance author/expert Michael Edwards in the foyer. Edwards has recently taken up residence in Paris and guides me towards the Metro subway.
The odours that await us on the subway platform remind me of the London Underground. A sticky blast of hot air from the tunnel kicks up grit from the tracks, lifting with it fumes of acrid diesel and blackened axle grease. A faint odour of bleach and urine weaves it way through the smelly quagmire, as in any major city; it is humanity on the run.
We walk down the rue Mt. Thabor, a charming road to a quaint restaurant Le Soufflé. With room for just a handful of tables, it's an intimate setting and it's concentrated aromas tempting my nose are positively mouth-watering. Freshly spun eggs, whipped and baked to perfection arrive at our table in perfect chef-hat formation. Each course we eat has savoury and sweet ingredients that melt on my tongue like snowflakes on a hot pavement. The accompanying bouquet of French wines become the perfect escorts for our meal.
Back at the hotel, I sadly pack my luggage. Perfume samples, blotters and perfume magazines scatter the bedspread. A crack of thunder sounds and a streak of lightening lights up the sky, then a sudden downpour produces a wonderful damp nuttiness through my opened French door window. I face a four storey apartment block, all the windows are shut but one. A glorious crystal chandelier throws diamond hues onto its terrace. I make out a shadowed silouhette of the occupant leaning on the wrought iron balcony. We share noises of beeping horns, faint laughter and the humidity of the night air.
Enroute to the airport, I decide to ask the driver which scents he enjoys, and his list is impressive. He regales me about his youth, first kiss and Dior's Eau Sauvage. His bachelor days in his twenties included Armani Pour Homme; his more stable thirties, Eau d'Hermès; and now, as a married man with kids, he favours Boucheron Pour Homme . I wonder which scent will fill his golden years.
Once airborne, I shut my eyes and desperately try to recall the smells of France. I try to capture the essence of laboratory oils and the aura of original sensations. They float like disjointed musical chords in my nose.
I am back in Toronto-- still high, still there! At home, I bury my nose in my unpacked luggage. Ah! Definitely not the smells of Toronto! There are still traces of tested scents on my clothes, resonating like chic French women, perfectly knotted Hermès scarves, long silk belted coats, hand-sewn supple leather bags and stunning pointed kid-leather shoes.
I lift out these clothes with joy and fear. Once they are dry-cleaned, the essences of France are gone. I might wear these just a little longer than usual I think.