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Perfumery As Artistry: Eau de Armpit, Anyone?

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I'll admit, I've never been a fan of perfume. I remember accompanying my mother to Sephora in New York as a little girl and running out after about five minutes, unable to withstand all the floral and musky odors. I also remember taking car trips and having to sit next to my grandma, whose perfume would seep every corner of the enclosed vehicle and make me nauseous.

I still have problems with perfume. While I now can spend over five minutes in Sephora, I always race through the perfume section to the back, where the makeup is generally kept (except in Pittsburgh – where I grew up – where the scents line the walls, so I just try to stay in the center as much as I can). The only cologne I own is one from Origins, which has the faintest hint of ginger, and even that I only wear for special – or dire – occasions.

But lately, I feel I have slighted the perfume industry and perhaps I should train my olfactory senses. Currently, I'm reading Axel Madsen's biography on iconic designer Coco Chanel, and Madsen goes into particular detail chronicling the inception of the equally iconic perfume Chanel No. 5. Since reading this chapter, I have stumbled upon articles about "odor artist" Sissel Tolaas and synthetic perfumes (both in the New York Times). Maybe my dislike for perfumes is more a lack of appreciation or understanding of perfumes.

With practically every celebrity – from Sarah Jessica Parker to Jennifer Lopez to Paris Hilton – starting her own perfume, it's easy to dismiss the industry. I mean, if Paris Hilton can do it, how hard can it be? But what these recent readings on scents have taught me is that perfumes, sometimes, aren't just about smelling nice, and some bottled up scents can even be revolutionary or thought-provoking.

For example, in the article "Synthetic No. 5," Chandler Burr contrasts natural sandalwood to a synthetic concoction used to simulate sandalwood, one of the advantages to the synthetic option being that it's eco-friendly: "The sandalwood forests of India are being destroyed at a terrible rate, and the price of natural sandalwood is skyrocketing" ($800 per pound). As Burr goes on, "One perfumer I know told me that because of this, he now refuses to use natural materials in his perfumes."

There are all sorts of fascinating nuggets of information in the article, from deconstructing common myths and misconceptions about perfumes (American scents are artificial, French are natural; artificial scents are cheap) to breaking down a perfume's essence by its molecules. Perfumes aren't just an amalgamation of flowers that smell pretty, but elaborate scientific experiments.

The birth of Chanel No. 5, weirdly, has been my favorite part of Chanel's biography. While reading about her affairs with composer Igor Stravinsky and polo player Boy Capel is all very fun, I know most of the gossip already. Reading about her working in the lab with perfumer Ernest Beaux is absolutely thrilling. It's funny, for an olfactory-challenged person such as myself, to read what individual scents appeal to others, or what ingredients make a good perfume.

For example, Chanel comments on a sample in the lab with, "That smells like leaf mold, of wet grass, something refreshing. It will help soften the scent of tuberose." Leaf mold? Well, that sounds pretty gross to me, but if the longevity of Chanel No. 5 is any indication, leaf mold is hot.

Chanel loathed the flowery perfumes popular in France at the time and wanted to create something musky and clean. To achieve this "natural" scent, Beaux and Chanel ended up choosing a concoction of 80 – 80! – different ingredients. This made Chanel No. 5 the most expensive perfume in the world at the time. And it still has this certain allure, a status-symbol quintessence about it. Chanel No. 5 means sophisticated elderly NY women with tweed suits lunching at Saks. Or the impossibly elegant Nicole Kidman, who did the ads for the perfume a couple years ago.

The most fascinating scent-related reading I've come across, however, is the other New York Times article on Sissel Tolaas by Susie Rushton. A sort of avant garde perfumer, Tolaas develops scents simulating armpit odor and the streets of Paris.

Her scents are like complex experiments. She has worn eau de armpit to a party (creating a juxtaposition with the scent by wearing a ballgown), simulated the scent of money to "find out if its hot, coppery perfume could improve performance in business," and displayed people's coats with labels of the smells detected on each one – one Prada coat had dog feces, soy sauce, codfish and Chanel No. 5 (natch), among other smells, detected. These experiments force us to consider how scent factors into, and affects, our everyday lives and also challenges us to think about preconceived notions about scent.

Despite the celebrity perfume craze, perfumery is hard work. And the best perfumers aspire to something that transcends lavender and roses. While I'm not entirely sure I would buy a vile of man's sweat to dab at my wrist, I certainly can appreciate the perfume-as-art these iconoclastic olfactory scientists are creating.

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About Raquel Laneri

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=diana+hartman diana hartman

    I am pleased to tell you this article is being featured in the Culture Focus today, August 30.

    Diana Hartman
    Culture Editor

  • Nancy

    Eeeeuuuwww…I don’t think I’d like to be in her vicinity if that’s what she wears for perfumes.

    I have a lot of trouble with most “modern” perfumes, especially stuff like “Giorgio”, which IMO has an incredibly harsh chemical stench to it. It isn’t just offensive, it actually causes severe allergic reactions to my eyes & lungs, while #5 does not. I wonder what’s in (or not in) Giorgio, Poisson, and all these other recent arrivals to do this. Whatever, I marvel that those who wear them don’t have the same reactions, and furthermore, why they seem to be oblivious to how STRONG the stuff is. They literally reek of it.

    I was always taught that when I bought a bottle of Chanel #5, it should be put away in a dark drawer someplace to “age” for 6 months or so before wearing. Do you do this?

  • http://spoofume.blogspot.com Jaelynn

    What’s “in” today? Well, there the celebrity tutti-frutti stuff on the mall display counters and the Old Standard Chanels, Guerlains, Carons, etc. – and then….

    There are things like Comme des Garcon’s Avignon or Zagorsk, two of their “Incense” series, that smell like Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies respectively. There’s Chene by Serge Lutens, that smells like a walk in a primeval forest. There’s Serendipitous which smells like a mug of hot cocoa. Again Comme des Garcons and a fragrance called Garage – which is the smell of a garage complete with gasoline. CB I Hate Perfume has “At the Beach 1966″ that smells like a Northeastern beach with a generous slather of Coppertone. Fragrance is pushing boundaries lately and while a lot of it is utter (and screamingly laughably overpriced) trash, there is a real trend in niche perfumery toward wearable “environments” and some interesting smells as a result.

    They are a stretch beyond Sephora and the polar opposites of Giorgio’s olifactive shoulder pads. You might be surprised, you might be disgusted, you might just start laughing at how silly some of it all really is among the coterie of perfume fanatics that dwell in certain small crevasses of the net.

  • Sandy

    A word about the Chandler Burr article you cite: many of his assumptions and declarations are incorrect. He has been filleted like a flounder on several perfume forums. It seems the Times did not have a fact checker at work on the opinion piece, thus making the first column by its “perfume critic” suspect at best.

  • stephanie reading

    The stench of perfume ummmm. What most people don’t realise perfume is like a designer outfit. Certain scents suit different people some scents may smell great on you but may “stench” on someone else.
    It also depends on how and when you whare it. You wouldn’t were an evening dress going to work on the bus or in the office so why were that expensive perfume to work and overpower every one.

    Then of course there is personal taste that makes us all like different things. One friend may love that beautiful “flower garden” smell while another may hate it and go for that “cologne” smell.
    So much to think about when choosing perfume shame some people don’t put more thought into it.