Scents and sensibility
Unmistakable scents of my youth include my mother's Pan Stick makeup, the stench of cabbage that permeated the hallways of my granny's apartment building and the one-two punch of an ex-boss's daily douse of Giorgio. Each invokes a Proustian tsunami of sense memory, and catching the merest, unexpected whiff makes lost worlds spring to life more vividly than any photograph.
It's not only me. Mention freshly mown grass, frying bacon, sun-drenched roses or the unmistakably sweet scent of a baby's head and notice the lopsided grins you inspire as pleasure centres are activated. For smell is the most powerful of our senses.
Therefore much rides on the smells we choose to surround ourselves with, and the manufacture of scent – for perfume, soap, and much more – is a multi- billion pound business. Two who understand this better than most are Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, the authors of Perfumes: The Guide. It's a funny, evocative exploration of the art of perfume-making, one which, thanks to more than 1,500 reviews, will prove indispensable the next time you buy scent.
"We came looking for beauty, surprise, new ideas, craft, proportion, finish, personality, integrity," says Sanchez. "We operated from the principle that perfume should give pleasure and should not be a bore."
They don't suffer foolish fragrances gladly, and some of their one-to-five-star reviews (initialled so you'll know who's writing), are scathing. But it's the lengthy love notes to five-star masterpieces that inspire the most curiosity. The New Yorker's Dwight Garner summed it up perfectly: "The joy of Turin and Sanchez's book is their ability to write about smell in a way that manages to combine the science of the subject with the vocabulary of scent in witty, vivid descriptions of what these smells are like. Their work is . . . ravishingly entertaining."
Such is their cheekiness that they originally hoped to call their book The Song of Pongs. And when I ask Turin if the maxim about wearing scent where one wants to be kissed is good advice, he snorts, "If that were true I'd wear it on my ass."
Turin, a biophysicist and fragrance expert, was the subject of Chandler Burr's riveting book, The Emperor of Scent, and BBC documentary The Code in the Nose. He was born in Lebanon in 1953 of Italian parents, and grew up in France, Switzerland and Italy. While still in short trousers he became obsessed with smells and began collecting perfume. As a young scientist working for the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, in Villefranche – not far from Grasse, once the perfume capital of the world – he spent his spare time on "perfume reconnaissances", hunting down elusive scents.
The biological mechanics of smell fascinated him, too. Turin discovered that there were two schools of thought. Most scientists believe that scent works because nasal receptors recognise molecular shapes, which are unique and distinct. A much smaller group is equally certain that the nose works like a flesh spectroscope, identifying atoms by their vibrations.
The two are basically at war, and Turin entered the fray with guns blazing, offering scientific proof that vibration is the only possible right answer. The rows are unholy, and he's endured cancelled contracts, a prolonged battle with the editors of the journal Nature, and bitchy backstabbing from fellow scientists.
But he's that rare thing, someone who can both dish it out and take it. Asked if he's a troublemaker, he shrugs. "I guess I'm a pain in the ass. I never thought I was but the evidence is beginning to pile up."
Turin met Sanchez via a now defunct perfume blog. Some years his junior, the petite glamourpuss was slowly going out of her mind editing financial books in Manhattan while building her own scent collection. She'd read Burr's book and found herself intrigued. After she posted a number of insightful comments to his blog, Turin asked if she'd take a professional look at the manuscript for his first book in English, The Secret of Scent.
A thank-you lunch date in New York followed, and eventually he asked her to collaborate on this book. Well, the truth of it is, he eventually asked her to collaborate in life, and the pair were married last November.
And what a double act! Neither is the straight man and both have a lot to say. Turin is tall and imposing, flirtatious and quick to laugh. Sanchez talks faster than the speed of light and while she does, he gazes on adoringly, admiring her urgent fluency. Perfume is an art, not a science, they maintain. "Perfumes have ideas: there are surprising textures, moods, tensions, harmonies, juxtapositions," Sanchez writes. Above all, "some are better than others."
What does Turin mean when he says fragrance is the most portable form of intelligence? "If you consider art forms as manifestations of human intelligence, the ones you can carry with you are a book, music in a Walkman, jewellery – but a dab of fragrance is a lot of IQ and it weighs nothing. It displays the intelligence of the creator."
Doesn't it also say something about the person wearing it? Turin smiles. "We always use other people's words to look smarter ourselves."
OK, but if some fragrances – Opium, for example – are so damn smart, how come they beg readers not to wear them out in public?
"Ravel's Bolero. OK?" is Turin's rapid response. "That's it. I rest my case. It's a piece of music that clearly works, in the sense that if someone plays four bars of that dreadful thing near you, you go singing it for the rest of the day. It's a gigantic success which is richly deserved because it has a kind of earworm quality to it, but you don't want to own it."
Sanchez chimes in. "There are fragrances that when you spray them you think whoa! That says something that never needs to be said again. But the problem with some of these masterpieces, especially those with tremendous force, is that when they show up, you want to turn it off after a while, because you can't think of anything else. When there's a masterpiece of art going on in the room, full blast, you can't concentrate."
Turin continues: "People forget that the rejection of Opium or Poison is in exact proportion to the love we had for them. When I first smelt Opium it was an incredible, amazing thing. But you get worn out. Some of my favourite music I never listen to because every note is somewhere in here," he says, tapping his head. "I think I know every note of Janacek's quartets, but I haven't listened to them for months. The same applies to perfume."
They're great advocates of wearing fragrance unexpectedly, and often recommend crossing perceived gender lines. So, for instance, they feel women should wear Davidoff's Cool Water. And they don't see the point in a so-called signature fragrance, a practice Turin dismisses as "very 1950s".
Sanchez adds: "If that makes you happy there's no reason why you shouldn't have one signature scent, but given that perfume is such a cheap, happy thing to do, it seems silly. It's puritanical to say I can't have two scents, because then people won't recognise me. Maybe they all have blind grannies or something. It's fine to change fragrance. If you don't change you stop smelling it after a while."
Turin rolls his eyes. "The extreme version of this is the bespoke fragrance. It's nonsense on different levels. It's like asking a novelist to write you a book."
"And it's nonsense in the sense that, have you ever had clothes made for you? You usually go for something you recognise," says Sanchez. "It's very rare that you go in saying, invent something. When people sit down to do a bespoke fragrance they usually spend a lot of time and money to get something that's very much like stuff already out there. Unless you have a very specific thing you're dying for, like Chanel Number 5 with plum, or something crazy that you've been dreaming of for years. But go in with no clear idea and you'll end up with a perfume exactly like something on the market."
"Plus," says Turin, "if you were a perfumer would you give your best idea to that kind of folderol?"
"You'll be talking for a while and they'll think: she wants a Shalimar, she just doesn't know she wants a Shalimar. I'll charge her the money and . . . done!" says Sanchez.
"That happens all the time in the fragrance industry," continues Turin, with evident distaste. "They listen to your whole story about your childhood and everything, and as soon as the client leaves the room they call the lab and say, 'Get C187 – the one we tried to flog to Procter & Gamble last week'."
The best and worst things about the fragrance industry are identical, he says. "It doesn't take itself seriously enough. One of the wonderful things is that there's no academic industry about it, it's frivolous. I find that touching. All these great perfumers consider themselves to be craftsmen instead of artists. That's nice and unpretentious. But the bad news is, because they have this low self-esteem they wreck things. They change formulations; they lie to people; they don't maintain the old things or take good care of their products. I don't think the industry is convinced they're doing something useful and artistically important. In fact I think they're convinced they're doing something worthless. "
Yet in many ways this is the best of times for us scent lovers, thanks to the burgeoning online community filled with fans gathered to enthuse about their obsession (and by that I don't mean Calvin Klein). That's how Sanchez became involved. "I had the idea of the perfect scent in my head and felt one day I'd find it, like Prince Charming. The internet allows us to bypass that hideous Great Wall of China, the sales counter and the sales associate who wants to tell you what to think and what to wear and what's in it.
"That's all lies. They want to sell you the latest thing. With the internet you can get a conversation going. Things you thought you were loving privately or things you thought stink, all of a sudden you've got a culture."
Perfume manufacturers mistakenly perceive this as a threat, rather than a boon. They're all about image control via expensive advertising campaigns and ludicrously worded press releases which the pair toss straight into the bin. Sanchez points out that the internet forums promote, rather than hinder sales. "People who read more movie reviews see more movies. People who talk about records buy more music. Talking about it, criticising it, having arguments, this encourages people to buy more perfume."
Their reviews are little works of art in and of themselves and care is lavished on every word. "There should be no sentence that does not have an idea in it," says Sanchez, who admires her partner's ability to write "without any extra fat".
Turin says: "The pleasure is nailing it to my own satisfaction, to feel I've done it justice. I get the greatest degree of satisfaction from explaining why something is wonderful. Saying that something sucks, although fun, has less intrinsic depth – if it had depth it wouldn't suck."
Some have called Turin's nose an instrument of astonishing power, as if he had magic abilities. Both scoff at this notion. "No one ever asks a painter if he has good eyesight," says Turin. But while it may be true that we all possess the ability to sniff out individual molecules, as he can, few have the vocabulary – and I mean more than words here – to express just what we're smelling.
His "magic", then, is the breadth of his scent repertoire and overall knowledge. As he told Burr: "Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful.
"There is no such thing as disconnected facts . . . My chaotic accrual of information simply gave me better metaphors than anyone else." sm
• Perfumes: The Guide is published by Profile books, priced 20.
• Lee Randall will be talking to Turin and Sanchez at 3pm on Saturday 27 September at the Wigtown Book Festival. For information visit www.wigtownbookfestival.com or tel: 01988 403222. To sign up for Turin and Sanchez's monthly newsletter, visit www.perfumestheguide.com
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