Time to get serious

02nd June, 2009

When the going gets tough in real life and especially when I am reminded of mortality, wearing fragrance may be thought to be trivial. Not for me. While it is definitely not the most important thing for me to focus on, the unavoidable reality of smell in itself it becomes more earnest, more serious and substantial along with everything else. At times like these, I am reminded of visceral, non-cerebral, bodily reality. I wish for the smell of reassuring natural things rather than that of ideas, echoes or shadows of nature. I crave the soft complexity that brings feelings of comfort and solidity rather than recognisable and impressive constructions of building bricks; all sharp edges, straight lines and uniform components. I avoid the superficial; trivial smells are for trivial times (or times so serious that triviality itself becomes a serious commodity, but fortunately I have not lived through war). With life in normal proportions, a perfume interacts with all aspects of life, fears, anxieties, stresses, the bad parts as well as the good.

The coming IFRA regulations threaten to separate me farther from these earthly realities.

Increasingly divorced from its roots, perfumery, like many other areas of human endeavour, has become more self-conscious and more deliberately constructed from abstractions and ideas. In turn, these refer to each other and so the results become ever more remote from their origins. In the twentieth century synthetics were adopted initially to replace natural ingredients (because they were cheaper and sometimes identical anyway). Later they were used for their own unique smell and combined with the naturals to takes things in interesting new directions. Finally came the beginning of a process of restriction of the level of naturals due to over exploitation, cost and regulation.

The “post modern” era completes this journey with the near complete eradication of natural substances in mainstream perfumery. Many synthetics retain some connection to naturals for now, as not too much time has passed since they were in common usage. They are built to simulate aspects of roses, sandalwood, spices or other natural substances. However, the story of musk shows the way this is likely to progress from here.

Musk began as an incredibly dense, intense animalic smell of the pod from a Deer. It had to be used in extreme dilution. Now musk seems to have come to mean almost any very heavy molecule. The huge variety of synthetic musks available now can smell vanillic, nutty, ambery, even floral. They make the washing powder smell clean. The idea of musk has been through several generations each more distant from the original, ever adapted like a whisper passed around a circle of children. This must surely happen to the naturals about to be banned or strictly regulated by IFRA, and the list of these is long. I hate to think what a lemon will smell like in fifteen years.

Adaption and copying is natural too and not always to be despised (though it clearly must be in its most cynical form). People are always looking for connections with others and things. We do it with our faces, our gait and our language. When people see a musician they whistle. Something subconscious happens and they want to share the music, be part of it. Walking down the road carrying a guitar can cause builders start to sing, men in suits to hum, mums to drum lightly on the back of their pushchairs. So the ideas buzz around, the conversation continues.

It is the same in every field. The farmer who plants his lavender first will inevitably find that the lady down the road will grow it too when she recognises that there is indeed a market, especially if she has more fertile land. It seems the world is often separated into innovators and executors.

Occasionally, however, somebody comes along with true depth of feeling and superb craft and stands tall above the game. For me one such is Dominique Dubrana (he trades through his website http://www.profumo.it/). He is surely not the first to mix Frankincense, Neroli, Sandalwood and Rose oils, but his Holy Water is truly sublime. It has genuinely lifted me out of disappointments and carried me up to achievements.

I have great respect for his integrity. For him perfume is not commodity, it has real spiritual significance and his conviction carries deep into his work. It is his life’s work in the true sense, for the human value, rather than an empty business. He works only with naturals, sources them himself and uses high quality, sometimes rare and difficult to find ingredients. These factors all add up to the fact that his perfumes genuinely move me. Not because they provide status or fashion appropriateness but because of the real conviction and attention with which they are made and the depth and complexity of materials and composition.

Trivialised by top heavy affluence, like so many things in the west, perfume is in danger of becoming only an item of decoration, a fashion accessory. It is sometimes these things, and sometimes so much more.

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About the author: Walker Minton

Walker Minton is a Jasmine award winning freelance writer and jazz musician with a lifelong interest in scent. He lives in North London with his partner and two sons.

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