During my last visit to Europe I focused my writing on perfume shopping in Florence, Rome and Paris. This trip, I decided to focus less on shopping and write about some of the experiences I had, which inspired scent. I was here for two weeks during Paris fashion week and although I wasn’t directly involved in any of the shows it was fun to absorb the energy that surrounds the event, waif models in their tall stilettos who frequent all the right spots along Rue Saint Honore and the temporal white tents that appear and disappear around the city like mushrooms in the morning mist. Using Paris as a base, I spent my time moving up and down the country with a side venture to the charming coastal city of Venice.
My first week started on a warm Sunday afternoon. Arriving from London on the Eurostar I checked into my hotel near the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I needed to get a few supplies and headed to Sephora. Tempted by Givenchy who were offering a complimentary bottle initialing service with every perfume purchase, I managed to resist, keeping to my shopping list of basic skincare supplies. Although it is very touristy, I enjoy a walk down the Champs-Élysées. Crowds of people gather, faces from all over the world pass you by and bow tied waiters dodge the oncoming foot flow as they filter food from the cafe kitchen to the cane tables on the Avenue pavement. My hotel balcony offered a generous view of Paris as the sun set. It reminded me of how beautiful the city is in black and white, the zinc skyline inspiring Francis Kurkdjian’s monotone perfume bottles.
A few hours west of Paris by train, I spent the night in the quaint town of Fougeres near the border of Brittany and Normandy. Parts of the town date back to the 14th century and on an evening walk to visit the town’s castle I discovered the peaceful gardens du Val Nancon. These gardens were full of colour. Tones of green and earthy browns were eclipsed in golden light as the sun set over the town’s medieval skyline. Even though much of the garden was unscented, I was easily inspired to think of perfume notes that could capture the feeling of being in this beautiful setting.
In the south of France I visited the Rhone Valley winery of Maison M. Chapoutier. Although I appreciate wine, perhaps a little too much! My ability was tested as we were blindfolded and asked to confirm grape varieties, vintages and origin of the wines based on taste. We were given a series of perfumes. Each numbered bottle was a mystery perfume note that my group had to first identify and then match to a corresponding wine we felt contained the note. This was interesting as I have little understanding of flavours aside from knowing that perfumery and flavour are very closely linked. It was challenging to link what I smelled to the flavours I was being asked to detect within the wine.
The following day, an hour’s drive from the winery I visited one of France’s premier tanneries. A creator of supple leathers used by the world’s most prestigious brands such as Hermes and Ferragamo, I took a fascinating journey through the tannery that began producing leather at the start of the 19th century. The words of Patrick Suskind came back to me as I imagined his character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille deciphering the scents of the tannery. The wet tannery in particular holds some difficult smells. The scent of decaying flesh and ‘wet’ permeates the air, a smell I am told the workers become accustomed to and to some degree enjoy. As I progressed through the tannery to see the hides tanned, drummed and begin to resemble what I have come to recognize as leather, I am completely astounded by these men’s ability to transform something representing of death and decay, into a symbol of modern luxury, leathers used for a woman’s handbag. In the colour lab, the tannery experts work tirelessly to create new colours, new textures and new expressions in leather.
Developing this knowledge of leather continued in Venice where I learnt about the history of Venetian shoe making. The women’s stiletto has its roots in Venice when the aristocrats began wearing the Chopin, a dangerously tall, stilt-like shoe that protected long garments from the city’s dirty streets. It is also said that the height of the shoe determined social status in Venetian culture. The streets of Venice bare marks of this tradition of shoe making. Saint Marco’s Square and buildings once inhabited by shoemakers bare crests and emblems glorifying the highly respected artisans. Walking the island’s historic streets I was intent on finding an interesting perfume bottle in one of the city’s many Murano glass stores. For centuries the Venetian island of Murano has been reputed for their expertise and quality of glasswork. Even with an abundance of Murano stores, my search turned up empty. I did however find a perfumery. I Muschieri is located at Frezzeria, San Marco and carries a fantastic range of niche perfume lines from around the world. My most interesting discovery was German line Biehl Parfumkunstwerke. Thorsten Biehl’s collection serves as a platform for a small selection of perfumers to orchestrate a creation free from commercial pressures. Each fragrance is simply named with the perfumer’s initials and a number. Six perfumers have contributed to the project including esteemed noses, Mark Buxton and Geza Schoen.
Earlier in the week I attended a workshop on colour in Paris. Surrounded by paints and books on colour theory we discussed colour in all its combinations, saturations, temperatures and harmonies. Many perfume theorists compare the perfumer’s wheel to the colour wheel used by visual artists. Discussing colour in these terms I began to imagine how to define scent with the same terminology. The colour seminar culminated at the Musée d’Orsay exhibition, Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde. The exhibition explores the British ‘aesthetic movement’, a movement that thrived in the second half of the 19th century. The post-Victorian style desired to move away from the ugliness and materialism of the time in search for a new expression of beauty. Oscar Wilde’s writings are also said to inspire the latest creation by Serge Lutens, De Profundis. The September release is rumoured to be Lutens last perfume (with this being said he is set to present a second Eau to the press in the coming week). If the scent itself does not entice you, the rich purple hue of this melancholy perfume certainly will. When I see this rich shade of purple I am reminded of my childhood priest who responded to my question, why the clergy wear purple? He told me, in his thick Irish accent, purple in Catholicism signifies a difficult task. It represents the difficulties faced by those who choose the spiritual path in life. Since then, I always associate this colour with spirituality and in some ways, a sense of solitude. Lutens’ chrysanthemum accord is a light floral, a subtle fragrance that feels passive and surrendered. I see fleeting moments of last year’s L’Eau, which is different from the spicy gourmands and syrupy florals of his previous work.
I spent my Saturday wandering the streets of Paris in search of new scents. I had resolved myself to visit Christian Dior to collect a bottle of Vetiver, which I had resisted during my last visit to Europe. Francoise who looked after me also offered a sample of the new Patchouli Imperial. The scent of patchouli is not one you would automatically class as sophisticated. Dior has elevated this bohemian plant with Russian coriander, cedar wood from New Caledonia and sandalwood. I sense the use of an amber accord with vanilla and musk. It has become popular amongst the luxury brands to display a basic perfumer’s organ near their collection to help the sales staff discuss the individual notes. Dior’s organ contains a bottle of Ambergris from New Zealand, the country of my origin. Curious, I ask if I can dip a smelling strip in the tincture, as I have never smelt the raw material as a single note. Francoise allows my request and the scent is divine. I am not convinced it was a pure extract, but had the scent been available as a commercial perfume, I would certainly have been interested in investing. There is a small company in New Zealand that sells beach-found ambergris and I have added to my ‘to-do-list’ a visit to them when I am in New Zealand in 2012.
On Rue Saint Honore, the store windows were perfectly manicured. Well-groomed ladies and gents lounged on street corners, perhaps in an attempt to be photographed by the number of bloggers and photographers who had descended on the city to do their trend report for the season. Getting a drink at Hotel Costes proved impossible so I settled for a bottle of perfume from their street facing perfumery instead. Further on I made a visit to Institut Lancome and discovered Balafre. The 1967 fougere is produced in small quantities and can be purchased from the Institut, at 29 Rue du Faubourg St Honore. It is a must for all fougere purists.
With Paris fashion week comes a tense supply of hotel rooms. Because of a late booking I had to change hotels and finish my week in Saint Germain des Pres. I didn’t mind in the least, as it is one of my favourite areas of Paris. A short stroll to my work meetings every morning, I began the day with coffee at La Palette. The left bank café was frequented by artists such as Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and later, Jim Morrison. The charm of St Germain and the brasseries that line the area’s narrow streets is undeniable. I take a moment to consider Miller Harris’ Feuilles de Tabac, a scent that is inspired by these very brasseries. I take on a ritual of espresso and croissant in the morning and crepes and cider in the evening. As the sun goes down, St Germain’s charm keeps shining. Tungsten street lamps highlight the crooked buildings that have begun tilting with time. Near Notre Dame, L’Ile de Saint Louis is another nocturnal discovery after dinner one evening. I am told the best gelato in Paris can be found there and serendipitously I discover a number of antique stores, one that specializes in antique crystal, including perfume bottles.
Before leaving for Australia I return to Guerlain’s Champs-Elysees Maison, a highlight of my last visit to Paris. I go there by foot, taking photos of interesting window displays along the way. Maison Guerlain are celebrating the latest of their city fragrances, this time, a scent dedicated to London. During my appointment I discuss their customization service. For clients who cannot wait to have a perfume created from inception, a private collection exists that is ready for sale. If a client decides on a private fragrance, it is immediately removed from the collection to ensure only one client will have the scent. Another unique scent will be developed to replace it. Only a small number of these fragrances are available at any given time. Expressing my interest I am able to sample Bora Bora, a unique perfume that has since been removed from the series. I am told that if a client had chosen the fragrance for himself or herself, it would be renamed for them. Bora Bora, for me seems fitting as it is a fragrance with tropical notes.
At Printemps’ Beaute Maison I follow my ear to the sound of the congo drum. L’Artisan Parfumeur are campaigning for their newly launched Batucada. The scent, in some ways shares much in common with Maitre’s Bahiana. Batucada has more of a sunkissed feel, like coconut tanning oil shimmering on bronzed Rio skin. After some long hours of walking it is time for a break. Up on the department store’s top floor Brasserie I find a moment of rest with a glass of wine and a salted caramel dessert, the stained glass dome reflecting back at me from the mirrored table top.
This is my last hour in Paris. With a desire to return to Australia, to home and regain some hours of sleep, but some sadness that I am unsure of when I will be able to come back to Paris, I head to Charles De Gaulle Airport to board my plane. At a bookstore I purchase a copy of Jean Claude Ellena’s journal in French. A motivational tool for me to improve my French so that next time I visit France I can better communicate with the French and enrich my understanding of le parfum!