I’ll admit; the title of this post may sound portentious once you hear what inspired it. I was idly flicking through the September issue of Marie Claire when I chanced upon a page full of new perfume launches. “Oh, goody!”, I thought, “let’s see if I agree with the official blurbs even a little bit.” As my eyes darted around the beautifully arranged photograph of golden bottles, a horrible realisation dawned on me: I hadn’t smelled a single one of the 10 featured scents. Not one. This has never happened to me before. As a self-confessed nosenerd (a term I coined which hasn’t caught on at all, unlike the brilliant “fragonerd”, which I believe was coined by Carrie Meredith), this was unheard of.
My first instinct was to arrange a trip to London, post haste, to sniff my way through all the perfume launches I’ve missed out on in the last couple of years. Then I realised that it would be a joyless excercise and a chore. I’d rather find the fragances through serendipitous circumstances, recommendations or via perfume events. I have lost my fear of Missing Out. But something else has happened, too – there are simply too many fragrance launches to keep up with.
There is too much of everything to keep up with. Remember when there were only three good TV shows you felt you ought to watch? Me neither. Somehow, with perfume, I’d avoided getting overwhelmed until fairly recently. That’s because I’ve spent a large chunk of my life either selling or marketing perfume. Something happened when I became a perfumer, though. I was no longer able to wear perfume to work (unscented deo, unscented lip products and certainly no perfume on lab days). My collection of around 70 or so perfume bottles languished in the drawer. I drove home, reeking of the very special brew of the Lush fragrance lab – and even my car was impregnated with it after a while. Many times I’d have dipped a scent strip into something I was working on and was evaluating it on the way home and hours into the evening (what’s that offnote? Damn it, I didn’t mean for prunes, damnit, damnit, damnit – another revision tomorrow).
On days off, I’d return to my neglected perfume collection like a guilty spouse after working away for the week. I’m so sorry, I’ve got two days. How can I make this up to you? I’d end up going for tried and tested favourites, all the while worrying that they might be subconsciously influencing my work. I certainly didn’t want to sniff my way through dozens of samples or spend my free time going around perfumeries. I hadn’t stopped loving perfumes – quite the opposite – but in thinking of them in more abstract and technical ways; turning smells around in my imagination and finding bridges or trying to figure out how to solve a problem led to such a degree of absorption that the world around me, in which hundreds of perfumes were being launched, sold and worn just faded into white noise. I now understand how experienced perfumers may still need a quick executive summary of current trends and perfume launches, as seems to be the custom at the BSP.
My first job back in Finland was clearing tables and making sandwiches at a hypermarket cafe. I was 13 and used to walk there after school a couple of nights a week. I worked most Saturdays and most school holidays. I became quite good at buttering bread. As soon as the opportunity to do something more glamorous presented itself, I moved over to the cosmetic department where one could buy such luxuries as Lancome, Chanel, Dior, YSL and Carita Paris. By the time I was 16, I had moved over to another branch of the store chain and had a bigger department to look after. I travelled to Paris with some colleagues and the whole city smelled of LouLou. My signature scent was Paris by YSL but I had already developed a habit of switching perfumes around to suit my mood. Having a lavish collection of several perfumes became even easier when I moved to an independent perfumery-chemist at the prime retail location of Helsinki railway station (I’m not being sarcastic here; the underground shopping area there was, at the time, a prime retail location). I was studying for my equivalent of A-levels and spending my spare time working with perfumes, cosmetics and toiletries. We had training days and were given goodiebags. It was a perfect part-time job for a young woman. I became familiar with every perfume launch and could, with just a few questions, guide a customer towards a scent, based on what they had worn before. I would recognise every perfume wafting past on the street.
The landscape today is dramatically different. You’d get 50-150 scent launches in the mid to late eighties. The blockbuster hits would be everywhere. Poison, Giorgio Beverly Hills and Coco (the latter of which became my signature at the age of 20) stood out like towering monoliths among the scent landscape. Now? Maybe 450-1000+ launches a year, depending how you calculate niche brands, re-launches, flankers and international markets.
My first perfume jobs smelled like this:
Givenchy III by Givenchy, 1970
Eau De Rochas by Rochas, 1970
No. 19 by Chanel, 1971
Rive Gauche by Yves Saint Laurent, 1971
Diorella by Christian Dior, 1972
Paco Rabanne Pour Homme by Paco Rabanne, 1973
Cristalle Eau De Toilette by Chanel, 1974Chloé (original) by Chloé, 1975
Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, 1977
Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, 1977
Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel, 1978
Métal by Paco Rabanne, 1979
Kouros by Yves Saint Laurent, 1981
Giorgio by Giorgio Beverly Hills, 1981
Vanderbilt by Gloria Vanderbilt, 1982
Drakkar Noir by Guy Laroche, 1982
Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, 1983
Jardins De Bagatelle by Guerlain, 1983
Salvador Dali by Salvador Dali, 1983
Balahé by Léonard, 1983
Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, 1983
Coco by Chanel, 1984
Ysatis by Givenchy, 1984
Paloma Picasso / Mon Parfum by Paloma Picasso, 1984
Fendi (original) by Fendi, 1985
Obsession by Calvin Klein, 1985
Poison by Christian Dior, 1985
Boss Number One by Hugo Boss, 1985
Gucci No. 3 by Gucci, 1985
Xeryus by Givenchy, 1986
LouLou by Cacharel, 1987
Byzance by Rochas, 1987
Eternity by Calvin Klein. 1988
Fahrenheit by Christian Dior, 1988
Jazz by Yves Saint Laurent, 1988
Cool Water by Davidoff, 1988
Roma by Laura Biagiotti, 1988
Kenzo by Kenzo (later named to Ca Sent Beau), 1989
Samsara by Guerlain, 1989
Joop! Homme by Joop!, 1989
Madame Rochas (new) by Rochas, 1989
Égoïste / L’Égoïste by Chanel, 1990
Cabotine by Grès, 1990
… and by the time I came to London in 1992 and found my way to another perfumery (this time, at Morley’s of Brixton), the scent landscape included:
1881 by Cerruti, 1990
Safari by Ralph Lauren, 1990
Trésor (new) by Lancôme, 1990
New West For Her by Aramis, 1990
C’est La Vie by Christian Lacroix, 1990
Escada (original) by Escada, 1990
Dune by Christian Dior, 1991
Casmir by Chopard, 1991
Amarige by Givenchy, 1991
White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor, 1991
Escape by Calvin Klein, 1991
Laguna by Salvador Dali, 1991
Féminité Du Bois by Serge Lutens Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido, 1992
Dolce & Gabbana by Dolce & Gabbana, 1992
Angel by Thierry Mugler, 1992
L’Eau D’Issey by Issey Miyake, 1992
Donna Karan by Donna Karan, 1992
Chloé Narcisse by Chloé, 1992
Giò by Giorgio Armani, 1992
Lalique (original) by Lalique, 1992
Tuscany Per Donna by Estee Lauder, 1992
… and by the time I was at London College of Fashion studying theatre make-up and working part-time in the perfumeries of central London, there were:
Yvresse / Champagne by Yves Saint Laurent, 1993
XS Pour Homme by Paco Rabanne, 1993
Jean Paul Gaultier Classique by Jean Paul Gaultier, 1993
Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden, 1993
Polo Sport by Ralph Lauren, 1993
Il Bacio by Borghese, 1993
Van Cleef by Van Cleef & Arpels, 1993
Havana by Aramis, 1994
L’Eau D’Issey Pour Homme by Issey Miyake, 1994
Tocade by Rochas, 1994
CK One by Calvin Klein, 1994
Tommy by Tommy Hilfiger, 1994
Bulgari Pour Femme by Bulgari, 1994
Sun Moon Stars by Lagerfeld, 1994
Cashmere Mist by Donna Karan, 1994
Tendre Poison by Christian Dior, 1994
Deci Delà by Nina Ricci, 1994
Eden by Cacharel, 1994
24, Faubourg by Hermès, 1995
Le Mâle by Jean Paul Gaultier, 1995
Opium Pour Homme by Yves Saint Laurent, 1995
Dolce Vita by Christian Dior, 1995
Burberry For Men by Burberry, 1995
Burberry For Women by Burberry, 1995
Poême by Lancôme, 1995
Pleasures by Estée Lauder, 1995
1881 Pour Femme by Cerruti, 1995
Acqua Di Giò by Giorgio Armani, 1995
… and around the early nineties, the two-headed hydra of the flanker and the celebrity perfume was rearing its head, but I was still able to recognise and recommend almost any scent one could find in a department store. As a student right in central London (the LCF is slap bang at Oxford Circus) and as a part-time beauty consultant and make-up artist, I ended up working in every single department store in London at some point.
These days fragrances are purchased in a myriad of ways; not just from department stores, chemists and duty frees. Niche perfumeries (curated collections as well as indie brands); online stores, eBay, special events, haute couture fashion boutiques… the perfume market is saturated but it has also diversified. It is simply impossible to keep up with all of it.
Are you a collector or a hedonist?
If you are compelled to catalogue scents; if you enjoy reviewing everything you get your nose on and are satisfied only if you can produce, if challenged, your top 10 list of iris scents, you’re a collector. Perfume-spotting is now a legitimate hobby. One does not necessarily need to possess all of the scents one observes, but noting down the details and making a series of informed observations is a pleasure in its own right. You’re the person people turn to when they need to find a green-tinged tuberose for their niece’s wedding.
If you have days when only a particular perfume will do; if, upon smelling a new perfume you sometimes clap your hands like a child; if your perfume collection includes a myriad of scents but you are a little hazy on the perfumer or the launch date, you are a hedonist. You might like to read other people’s impressions on perfumes. You enjoy the social aspect of nose-nerdery and don’t mind occasionally getting caught not recognising a brand or a name. If you review scents, you are primarily interested in self-expression or entertainment.
Most people whom I’ve met through mutual scent-obsession have a bit of both in them. My epiphany is that I started out as the former and have become the latter. I want to connect to people for whom our sense of smell gives pleasure and I wish to inspire the same pleasure in others. I accept I don’t have the time or inclination to perfume-spot my way through the new launches any more and will let myself be swept upon the tides of scented serendipity.
Should I encounter new scents; great. Should I stumble upon an underrated indie perfume or a surprise find from the celebucent avalanche, I will treat them with the same curiosity and status. If I must find out about current trends or analyse what is going on with a particular brand, I know where to look and who to ask.
Speaking of which, here are some great resources for both collectors and hedonists:
Fragrances of the World catalogues the majority of scent launches in a given year and it’s a tool I wish I’d had when I was selling fragrances. An online search function is available by subscription.
Basenotes is where all kinds of perfumistas go to meet and catch up on industry news. Its fragrance directory is satisfyingly comprehensive (it even includes a familiar name under the “perfumer” search section, ahem, had to get that in there. One day I’ll tell you how I ended up in the Internet Movie Database).
The Perfume Intelligence database lists perfumers, launch dates, houses and bottle designers. It’s a great research tool.
Not to be sniffed at (sorry), Fragrantica’s fragrance directory offers a different user experience and if you enjoy the social and visual side, it could be the scent search for you. (Of course proper collectors cross-reference all the directories).
Odette Toilette runs all kinds of fragrance events these days, having first started the Scratch & Sniff to celebrate our sense of smell and bring fellow hedonists together for entertaining evenings out in London.
Perfume Lovers London started around the time I was busy working in the lab myself and therefore never seemed to have the time to attend. Many of my friends have been, though, and report good experiences all around. I will make it to one of these soon, I swear.
If you’re in the States, you might have a chance to go to a Sniffapalooza event (or travel with them on one of their European whirlwind tours). The pace used to be quite gruelling and focused on quantity, exclusivity and shopping. Attend if you have money and stamina.
I’ve gathered some other perfumista recommendations on this page – the blogs I visit most often; some indie perfumers I recommend and even a bit of info on perfume training. I am working on a fairly comprehensive guide to perfume training in the UK and Europe so look out for that in the coming weeks. (EDIT: which is now done; follow the link above!).
EDIT: This post inspired me to make a poll at Basenotes
Photo credits: Perfumes by narumi k and collection by paperpariah