They say that if you wanted, you could tell the entire story of your life through books. Or food. Or travel. Or fashion. That a whole narrative spanning years can be weaved through just one very specific and evocative medium.
That’s true I think.
My fascination with scent began when I was a tiny girl, my mothers dresser a magical and forbidden ghostly white in the corner of the bedroom, neatly arranged with all its pots, potions and – most special of all – perfume. All the earthly mysteries of what it meant to be a real grown up woman were contained in those glass bottles, I was sure. More than the face cream, even more than the lipstick and the nail varnish, it was the perfume I desperately wanted to touch.
She always wore perfume every day, and even now in my minds eye I can sketch out a hazy olfactory painting of my childhood with the warm, comforting smell memories of my mother.
For years it was musk, only ever musk. The mostly clean, polite smelling musks of the seventies and early eighties. Musk by Alyssa Ashley, Coty’s Wild musk, Impulse Hint of Musk body spray. And then a change. A pretty, feminine floral with a pink and white pastel bottle – Cacharel’s Anais Anais. To be followed by the strange, jarring, furniture polish like notes of Calvin Klein’s Obsession, which I never did learn to like.
I was bought my first bottle of Chanel No 5 as a young teenager. A prissy, aldehydic floral, far too old for me really, and which in truth I still do not love despite its classic status. But no matter, it was treasure. I displayed it on my own dresser with precocious pride.
And then my first real love. Samsara by Guerlain. Heady with ylang and jasmine, a ton of mysore sandalwood in the base, it was rich, opulent and vastly over the top. The perfect perfume for the confused, hyper sexualised teenager with intellectual ideas above her understanding and tastes beyond her means that I was. I bathed daily in my beloved Samsara without so much as a thought for anyone else. The counsellor I saw every week asked me what perfume I wore. Another woman who worked in a far off part of the building would like to know please.
Mysore sandalwood is now a protected resource and restrictions and regulations have meant reformulation for Samsara. Alas, it has lost its soul. Tinny synthetics now ensure that we smell it as though listening through a dodgy walkman, when what I remember is the real deal in full surround sound. If I were ever to find a bottle of real, vintage Samsara, I would surely weep tears of nostalgic joy.
I still adore perfume. Am fascinated by its different components, nuances, and mood altering qualities. Perfume as art. Forget most of the junk you find in your local department store. Beyond the classic Chanels, Guerlains, and Hermes, plus the odd random wild card, you’re unlikely to find much of great interest there. But if you are willing to explore a little you can discover a whole lost world of real perfumery – niche houses still using quality ingredients, and perfumers who still take the time necessary to produce something really original and special. You will find tiny little shops tucked out of the way, with knowledgeable staff who will give you samples to try of elixirs so breathtakingly lovely, you will wonder why you ever claimed not to like perfume.
Today I have a small but treasured collection of full bottles. (Ha! Try sharing that with a group of alcoholics. At least one of them will look at you like, ‘Whaaaa? You have a load of perfume and you manage not to drink it??’) My preference is for Orientals and Ambers in their various incarnations – gourmand, woody, smoky, resinous, sometimes imbued with incense and leather. I can enjoy floral notes of rose and jasmine, but generally the high pitched white floral as encapsulated by Robert Piguet’s Fracas is not for me. Aquatic notes be damned. No thank you.
So I thought I’d share here, (in my very subjective opinion) 5 of the best. You won’t find any of them in your local Debenhams, but if you get a chance to try them (see relevant links at the bottom) then do. They are all just stunning. And yes I know the photographs are crap. We can’t all be freaking David Bailey around here.
L’air Du Desert Marocain, Tauer Perfumes
My holy grail. My favourite out of all my favourites. I have spent my entire life waiting for this scent. Equally good on both men and women, spices combine with a hint of bitter orange in the top, followed by a heart of labdanum and jasmine, drying down to a base of cedar, vetiver and ambergris. Sublime.
Coromandel, Les Exclusifs de Chanel
From their niche line, Chanel’s Coromandel is a rich, creamy oriental with a subtly sweet, almost chocolately amber/ vanillic accord in the top, and an earthy, smoky patchouli that rounds out the base and really anchors the whole composition. Simply gorgeous.
Les Nombres d’Or Vanille, Mona di Orio
Do not be fooled by the name. This is not your average hand and body lotion, sickly sweet vanilla. Full of spices, the initial notes are orangey and boozy, very soon giving way to precious woods in the heart. The vanilla, there throughout, is dark, smoky and pure. It intensifies through the dry down to create a scent that, whilst gourmand, is still complex and sophisticated. Just… mmm.
My favourite for years, this original, vintage Omnia has now been discontinued. Completely different in character to any of those horrid flankers that are now to be found on the shelves, this one is unlike anything else. Delicate but spicy, it is full of ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. Slightly sweet with sandalwood, tonka, and white chocolate in the base, I live in hope that it will be re-issued in the future.
Ambre Precieux, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier
For those who like their amber straight up with no frills. A classic amber perfume of exceptional quality. Warm, delicious, and not overly sweet, with a small hint of herbal lavender in the top. Completely unisex and benchmark setting. This will be my next full bottle purchase when funds allow.
So what is your favourite perfume? I want to know! Bring on the scratch n sniff blogging!
Some ‘fume head links for you to enjoy…
Les Senteurs (For affordable samples and fantastic customer service)
Fragrantica (Perfume discussion and sample swapping forum)
Bois de Jasmine (Really great reviewer and blogger)
The Non Blonde (Another really great reviewer and blogger)
Katie Puckrick Smells (Remember Katie Puckrick? Hilarious video reviews from a famous ‘fume head)