Perfume Trance: Secrets of a Frangrance Fanatic by Donna Hathaway

y immersion in the world of perfume appreciation started gradually, as most such obsessions do. When I was a child I would look at the magazine ads for a scent called Vent Vert featuring artistic renderings of women with windblown hair of vivid green and wish fervently that I could smell this apparently magical liquid. Once I was earning my own money, I discovered the wonders of fragrance and never looked back. My early experiments were hit or miss at first, but as it turned out, my instincts were true: one of my early favorites was the great Diorissimo from the house of Christian Dior, which is universally considered to be the finest rendition of lily-of-the-valley ever made. Its gorgeously floral yet simultaneously earthy aroma was like uncorking the very breath of spring. Even more impressive is the fact that it is a complete illusion—lily-of-the-valley’s aroma cannot be captured from nature, but instead must be reconstructed in a laboratory using the perfumer’s repertoire of what are called "aroma chemicals."

Diorissimo advertisement by Gruau from 1957It was with Diorissimo that I began to understand how perfume can affect emotions and bring back memories. The sense of smell is often dismissed as trivial in our culture, but its direct connection to the limbic nervous system means that the olfactory sense has its roots in our most primitive brain, and a single whiff of something connected to a past experience can bypass all logical thought and bring it all rushing back with dizzying immediacy. This can work against us, too—to this day I cannot wear one of my erstwhile favorite fragrances because it is too strongly associated with a time in my life many years ago when I suffered great personal losses, betrayals, and an unrequited love that haunted me for years. The claws of the past would reach out and drag me back there if I dared to even smell it. I know this because I have tried.

There is something else that great perfume can do that might be hard to understand for people who do not share this passion, and that is its ability to transport us to places we have never been before in an almost mystical way. We speak of being in a “perfume trance” when this happens, and it is a rare occurrence that mostly eludes us but which we are always seeking. Many classic fragrances have this effect on people. My first trance happened in a little perfume shop crammed with hundreds of bottles of the finest French fragrances: the scent was named Vacances, and was originally composed in 1936 for the fashion house of Jean Patou, then reintroduced around 1984 as part of a heritage collection. I was literally speechless with my first inhalation of this masterpiece as I was overwhelmed by the aromas of freshly cut grass still damp with dew, ethereal lilac and mimosa blossoms drifting on the breeze, and the chilly yet powerfully sensuous essence of spring hyacinths. In that moment, I was somewhere else, and the scent's heartrending beauty brought tears to my eyes. Another such epiphany occurred with a Russian perfume whose name I could not even pronounce. Its gift to me was an out-of-body experience, as I was taken deep into the greenest and most primeval woods imaginable, worthy of any fairytale, where I breathed in the scent of crushed ferns and great dark trees whose gnarled limbs let only the faintest glimmers of sunlight reach the forest floor. Balmain’s magnificent Jolie Madame, launched in 1953, has notes of greens, narcissus, jasmine, gardenia, leather, patchouli, and civet, but the sum of its parts is so much more than that. Smelling the original formula brings to mind a femme fatale so strongly that Barbara Stanwyck might just as well be standing in the room wearing a bias-cut satin dressing gown, holding a tiny, pearl-handled lady pistol, and talking you into committing a serious crime.

Among more modern compositions, the wonderful En Passant by perfumer Olivia Giacobetti for Editions de Parfum Fredèric Malle made me cry at first, and then I just started giggling with delight because it was so ridiculously good and original—lilacs again, this time white and pristine, plus the subtle freshness of cucumbers and a whiff of yeasty bread. The overall effect was either of holding a bouquet of lilacs while passing a bakery, or walking past a lilac bush while carrying a baguette— whichever scenario you prefer. On the opposite end of the olfactory spectrum is the marvel known as L’Air du Desert Marocain by the Swiss niche perfumer Andy Tauer. It took me by surprise, smelling for the first few moments like an ordinary masculine scent, and then just when I was ready to admit disappointment, I was stunned and amazed as it grabbed me and flung me across the world and into the Saharan sky with its masterful blend of incense, amber, dry spices, and vetiver root. Its development over time is the arc of a day in the desert from early morning until late in the evening, incorporating everything from the gradual warming of the sun upon the earth to the shimmering heat of high noon to the spices and smoke of cooking fires in the dusk to its final act of sweetly floral breezes from a cool oasis and the quickly cooling ground of late night. It is experiences like these that reinforce the notion that perfumery truly is an art form, and they are repeatable: whenever I wear one of these masterpieces I am just as entranced as I was the first time.

Collectors and hobbyists come in all stripes, including the ones whose obsession goes above and beyond what would be considered normal by most standards. For some, the camaraderie of being part of a special community is part of the charm—I have to think that this applies to model railroad hobbyists, and I know it is a big part of being a plant-obsessed gardener, since I am one of those, too. Yes, there are perfume fans that have the one-of-everything mentality or just do it to have something of prestige. Ironically, a rare vintage presentation in a priceless crystal bottle is most valuable if it is still sealed, much like a great wine that may never be tasted. “All of the above” factor into the perfume hobby, but there is something else, something intangible and indescribable that makes us more than a little different. For one thing, it’s a mesmerizing universe filled with arcane and archaic customs, Byzantine intrigue and flowery romance contrasted with hard science, precise chemistry, and global marketing strategies. The perfume world has the irresistible glamour of the fashion world, but you don’t have to be shaped like a hat rack to wear and enjoy its finest creations. You can spend as little or as much money as you like to indulge your preferences, since the price of a bottle of perfume does not always correlate to its quality—there is truly something for every taste. (My own collection varies wildly from precious to prosaic; I just collect what I like regardless of its cachet or trendiness.) Most of all, perfume obsession is fueled by the idea of being able to connect with something so beautiful on an intimate level. Perfumes only truly come alive on the body, where they gradually unfold and reveal their true natures to those who love them.

The Internet and modern pop culture have wrought enormous changes in the perfume universe in recent years. We are assailed with innumerable bad fragrances fronted by trashy “celebutantes,” relentless marketing campaigns telling us a perfume’s sole purpose is to attract sexual partners, and an unprecedented flow of online information about fragrances, designers, and perfumers-as-celebrities in their own right (and deservedly so). To top it all off, a new species of writer has emerged: the “perfume critic” who writes in online forums and blogs about every aspect of the industry—the good, the bad, and the ugly. New releases come along so quickly now that attempting to keep up is like drinking straight from a fire hose. Online stores allow unprecedented access to  a stupendous array of fragrance products while “niche” and all-natural perfume companies have proliferated like so many rabbits, giving buyers many choices beyond the mainstream. Yet among all this noise, the most important question for me is always how a perfume actually smells, and whether it’s worth smelling over and over again. After all, another transcendent perfume experience could be just a bottle away.

Donna Hathaway is one of those pesky perfume critics herself. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has a lifelong interest in all things fragrant, whether they grow in a garden or come in a bottle.