Je suis parfumeuse!
Updated: Sep 3, 2018
Sort of. I did craft my own perfume this past Thursday evening, but as Emmanuel, co-owner of Candora Perfume Paris, would point out: I cheated. And not just a little.
I was fortunate enough to get a two-hour crash course on the history and art of perfume-making, but when it came to concocting my personal scent, I was mixing existing perfumes to make a new one. To start from scratch would require many years of training, not to mention a strong background in chemistry, and who has time for all that!?
Maison Candora is located in the bustling coeur of the Marais and the workshop was full, with ten of us around the table--four women and six men (this is the Marais, after all)--and we were all rapt as the handsome and charming Emmanuel regaled us with an overview of the history of perfume, reaching all the way back to the introduction of "Jicky" by Guerlain in 1889 during the same exposition for which the Eiffel Tower was built. Like the infamous Tower, Jicky is still around. It was 1925, the heady days of the Art Deco period, when Guerlain launched the legendary Shalimar. Emmanuel also touched upon Chanel No. 5 (introduced in 1921--almost 100 years old), of course, and we learned a lot of other things, but this is a blog and you don't have all day...
What was most fascinating was the science behind why we like the smells we do and how our brains process smell (the wonder of the olfactory bulb!). Like so much else in life, turns out it all goes back to childhood. It's quite Proustian, actually. Emmanuel explained that beginning in childhood and continuing throughout our life, we are assembling a library of smells that are associated with memories good and memories not-so-good. Needless to say, smells that you associate with good times will be favored and those linked to bad times will make you turn your nose away. He made particular mention of vanilla--quite common not only in perfumes, but in many of the scented things in our lives. Vanilla is one of the few universally preferred scents since the existence of mankind. Why? Because mother's milk has a taint of vanilla. Aha!
After that, it's all cultural. The idea, for instance, that perfumes for women should be floral whereas perfume for men is woodsy was decided long ago by a bunch of parfumeurs sitting around a table, the same parfumeurs who probably went home to the daughters who were only allowed to play with dolls and their sons who could only play with trains and toy hammers.
If it sounds like all this information--interesting as it was--was just being dumped on us, that wasn't the way at all. Emmanuel began the session by asking each of us what our favorite smell was. Around the table, we got wood-burning fireplace (me), fresh laundry, freshly mowed grass, vanilla, gasoline (!), and leather. The Aussie man who liked leather shared that when he was a boy, his mother had a car with leather seats, and the sun being what it is in Australia, the smell of leather would bloom powerfully in the heat. When he shared this quick story, you could see in his eyes that he was right back in that car.
After Emmanuel's entertaining history lesson, Cyrielle, his assistant (parfumeuse-in-training) trotted out the copper alembic, a beautiful yet anachronistic looking contraption that's used to distill good smells from nature using water and heat to create vapor. Basically, it separates floral water and essential oil. You get a much clearer understanding of why perfume can be so expensive when you discover that it takes one ton of rose petals to yield just a few kilos of essential oil. The alembic doesn't work for all plants, though. If you try to put jasmine flowers in the alembic, for instance, you get "bad juice." So a machine was invented in Austria that instead employs a maceration method and now an "absolute of jasmine" can be rendered.
Remarkably, there is at least one lovely scented flower that no one has figured out how to get the smell out of yet, and that is lily of the valley. The smell of lily, therefore, is replicated by combining other essential oils. Speaking of which, not all the essential oils out there are made from natural products. The rise of the perfume industry has the discovery of the synthetic molecule to thank, meaning you don't need a ton of rose petals or the actual musk of deer to make perfumes with those notes in them. As you can surely guess, the more natural products used, the more expensive the perfume, and when you consider that a classic perfume is comprised of 60 to 80 raw materials...! Oh, and in case you were wondering, as I was, the difference between eau de toilette and perfume, it's all about the percentage of perfume extract. Eau de toilette typically has 6-12% whereas perfume is stronger, in the 12-16% range. Stronger also mean longer-lasting.
And speaking of how long the scent lasts--I was wondering this, too. Why is the smell of a perfume sometimes gone so shortly after applying it? Without going into too much detail, perfumes are constructed of top notes, middle notes and base notes--notes de tete, notes de coeur, notes de fond (head, heart, bottom). The top notes fade quite quickly (starting immediately), the middles notes fade more slowly, but steadily over time, and the base notes hang on. The more top notes--think citrus, like orange, lemon, grapefruit--that your perfume has, the more quickly it will diminish. Which is why you should not judge the smell of a perfume the moment it gets dabbed on your wrist by those aggressive women in the department store--because you are only smelling the top notes. Better to walk around for half an hour and see what it smells like once those middle and base notes can push their way up and out.
One of the more provocative things Emmanuel had to say was this:
Flavor is a smell in your mouth.
Wow. But of course it makes perfect sense. Think about when you have a really bad cold and you're so congested you can't smell anything--you can't taste anything either. Taste buds can distinguish sweet, salty, bitter, acidic and the newcomer--umami. All the rest of taste is determined by smells that are processed in our brain by our handy dandy olfactory bulb. As Emmanuel pointed out, there's no such thing as the taste of a strawberry. It tastes sweet, yes, but all the rest--that's our nose talking to us. Remember I mentioned Proust earlier? Well, turns out he wasn't tasting that madeleine at all; rather, he was smelling it!
(As an aside... All of this got me thinking about Claude, my dog. Not just Claude, but all dogs. As you may know, a much larger percentage of a dog's brain is devoted to processing smell, and while a human has about 5 million scent receptors, depending on the breed, a dog can have anywhere from 125-300 million!)
Moving on, one of the really fun things about the workshop was trying to guess some of the scents--not surprisingly, I wasn't very good at this--and then we got to smell a whole host of scents so we could narrow it down to three we especially liked and wanted to combine for our own unique perfume. It wasn't easy. Among the 17 different scents, there was orange blossom and grapefruit; rose, iris and lily; cedar and vetiver and oud; marine and wild herbs; and many more. How to choose!?
We had quite a few strips in front of us from the scents we'd tried, and by now those top notes had faded and the true scents were asserting themselves, so I picked up strips of smells I'd particularly liked and put them together and sniffed. And sniffed, and sniffed. Yet I was quick in determining my preferred trio of marine, rose and seringa. I'd never heard of seringa before, but I learned from Cyrielle that it's a less overpowering jasmine commonly referred to as "jasmine des poetes." Well, how could I resist then?
The real difficulty is in understanding the proportions of the three scents--it's not as easy as blending 1/3 of each--but luckily for us, Cyrielle and Emmanuel guided us and also brought their noses to our rescue if it didn't seem quite right. When I first mixed mine, pouring the oils into the beaker, rather than smelling like the soft, powdery scent my three strips had given off, it had the in-your-face smell of Aquanet. Both Cyrielle and Emmanuel took a professional whiff and, as it turns out, gave me the right counsel.
I say, "as it turns out," because it was a matter of time, just as we'd learned. Even after we'd tweaked my concoction, the prevalent smell to me still struck me as fairly hairspray-like, but that evening when I went back to the apartment (after a long dinner, naturally), I sprayed some more on my wrists and soon after went to bed. I woke at some point in the middle of the night and smelled something--what was that? Hey, it was coming from my wrists and what a clean, soft, powdery and wonderful smell! This may be weird, and remember I was only half awake, but it made me feel pretty and peaceful. (If you know me, you know this is generally impossible.) I absolutely loved my perfume then and, as I went back to sleep, I tried to dream up a name for it.
If you run into me and wonder what that perfume is, I will tell you: le murmure de la muse! (the whisper of the muse)
I'm glad that Emmanuel stressed throughout the workshop that the parfumeur (or parfumeuse) who interprets and brings a perfume to life is an artist--a behind-the-scenes and incredibly overlooked one. It is this artist who tells a story through the inspired composition of dozens upon dozens of raw materials that, like any great painting or book or piece of music, can make people feel connected to something essential and maybe even universal. Aimé Guerlain famously said that you can't create a good perfume unless you're in love. The perfumes we choose, whether we know it or not, are not chosen simply because they will make us smell good, but because that very particular fragrance whispers a secret to our brain and our brain gives it a big thumbs up and we feel good from a place deep inside of ourselves. Who but the artist can manifest such miracles?