Scents and sensibility: The art of the perfumer

Denyse Beaulieu. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown

Denyse Beaulieu. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown

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Learn the profound mysteries of the perfumers’ art at a course designed for those dedicated to all things olfactory

When we were kids, my little brother went through a prolonged phase of smelling, well, everything. Whatever he encountered – a toy, his lunch – in a flash he had it under his nostrils, inhaling deeply. Relentless teasing cured him of a habit that embarrassed the rest of the family no end.

All these decades later, the urge to smell the world has become my bad habit, and I owe that kid an apology. My obsession with perfume inspires me to sniff everything I can, the better to bring accuracy, and dare I hope, poetry, to my descriptions of scent.

I am an inconstant visitor to a number of perfume blogs, one of which, Grain de Musc, I keep returning to, finding it consistently informative and amusing. Its Paris-based author, Denyse Beaulieu, is a devoted perfume lover of many years’ standing, who brings intelligence and enthusiasm to her writing.

Scrolling through the blog’s sidebars one day last year, I noticed that Beaulieu taught three and four-day perfume courses at the London College of Fashion, and that there was one coming up in December. Hmm, I thought, I have some holiday time to take...

The course was designed for people who not only love perfume to distraction, but yearn to write about it with intelligence and flair. She structured the days into Vocabulary, Grammar, The Templates, and The Trailblazers, and brought with her a thick stack of scent strips and dozens of vials of scent. Some of the vials contained solutions of single molecules, others contained bases from which perfumes are built, others distinctive elements, such as individual flowers. Still other vials contained perfumes themselves.

With great generosity, Beaulieu allowed us to enjoy samples from her collection of rare vintage scents – scents that are no longer manufactured, or those whose current incarnations smell nothing like the originals, because they’re made to new formulations that comply with strict EU rules about allergens.

We were an international bunch, from all walks of life, and the class size of ten meant that discussions were lively and intimate. My inner science geek vibrated with excitement as every day held new revelations. I learned that bigger molecules last longer, and that certain flowers cannot be extracted (carnation, for example), therefore perfumers have to recreate them by building up combinations of molecules. Beaulieu also destroyed the myth that classic perfumes are built from the top down – it’s just the opposite.

Early on, we were instructed to close our eyes and smell a variety of unidentified items, and then describe them by citing associations. It was a fascinating exercise, not least because my classmates came from around the world, so what one person described as smelling like “tapenade”, another called “the smell of decay”.

Beaulieu led us through the perfume classifications: Floral, fruity, woody, herbaceous, spicy, soft, animalic, marine, and mineral, and at every juncture, offered new olfactory experiences. I learned that spicy and tropical flowers share molecules in common with cloves, and that ylang-ylang absolute, aka “the poor man’s jasmine”, accounts for that library paste smell I associate with certain classic Guerlain fragrances.

I also discovered I’m very fond of the aroma of indole, the molecule born of decay that’s found in some corpses and, oh dear, in excrement. Indole is also one of the two molecules common to all white flowers (the other being methyl anthranilate), those divas of the perfume world, beloved for their volume and for the way they interact with human skin.

By the end of the second day we moved on from absolutes, and began testing actual fragrances, which Beaulieu gave us both as their constituents, and then fully formulated. When you smell the ingredients individually it’s almost impossible – at least for this layman – to conceptualise the final product. That, of course, is proof of the perfumer’s art.

We explored the way scent can tell a story, capture the sense of a place, or create a mood. For a delightful hour we investigated how one note – say, tuberose – could be tweaked to create vastly different effects. Along the way, Beaulieu divulged a wealth of insights about the famous perfume houses and legendary perfumers and artistic directors – people you won’t hear about in department stores – responsible for what Luca Turin, author of Perfumes: The Guide, calls “the most portable form of intelligence”.

It was fascinating finding out how, and why, certain fragrances were born. Beaulieu sketched out the history of the perfume industry in France, pointing out how perfume trends come and go. For instance, the early French courts favoured animal scents such as civet, amber and musk, but as hygiene improved and rooms shrunk, a fashion arose for fresher, more vegetal blends.

I filled page after page with notes and test strips. Some of the most exciting moments for me occurred when Beaulieu uncorked rare vintage samples. These are scents I never dreamed I’d get a chance to smell, including Elsa Schiaparelli’s Shocking, Guerlain’s Mitsouko, and Robert Piguet’s Bandit.

The four days passed all too soon – and they were bliss. The best thing about going back to school at my age was being able to study something I’m passionate about – and for that reason, I can’t remember when lessons were this absorbing.

Who is Beaulieu, and why does she know so much about perfume? She was born in Manitoba and raised in the suburbs of Montreal, the daughter of a pharmacologist (her dad) and a nurse (her mum). “When I was a kid I wanted to be either an astronaut, a fashion designer, an archaeologist or a rock star. I wanted to be everything, so I figured out that the best way of entering all those worlds was to be a journalist.”

She moved to Paris in pursuit of a PhD in French Literature, originally. “But when I became a journalist, that was so much more fun.” She’d had an early taste of the life as a teenager, writing about the punk scene. “I had my byline in a music magazine at 16, because none of the old hippies running it knew about punk rock. I knew because I was reading all the fanzines, and Lester Bangs. But at that age I couldn’t even legally go into the venues where punks were playing.”

Ironically, perfume wasn’t an integral part of her childhood. Beaulieu’s father forbade his womenfolk from using perfume because it gave him headaches. “It was forbidden – on a par with red lipstick and sex! I don’t have a lot of childhood memories of my mother wearing scent, but department stores smelled very strongly of the Estée Lauder scents on sale at the time, so I have a lot of memories of that.

“My grandmother was too poor to ever afford perfume, because she left my grandfather in Catholic Quebec in the 1930s, with her four daughters under her arm. My mother could only afford it after she started working as a nurse and by that time she was married to my father. She was a maternity nurse, and one of the husbands gave her Chanel No. 5. My father frowned, said it gave him a headache, and the bottle went straight back out of the house.”

When she left home Beaulieu began making up for lost time. “The very first perfume I bought was probably Tigress by Faberge. I think I liked the tigerskin packaging. I don’t think I ever wore it. The first French perfume I ever smelled was Rive Gauche, because my neighbour dabbed a little bit on me. When I came to Paris I bought Chloe, and the first Azzaro. I took it from there: Shalimar talcum, the Coty Wild Earth compact. But it wasn’t an active, focused interest because there was no perfume culture. There were books and there were articles, however. When I look at Vogues from the 1970s, they had quite substantial articles about perfume.”

The house of Caron initially piqued her interest, and then – she goes dreamy-eyed just mentioning the name of this perfumer – “Serge Lutens came into my life – though I started cheating on him with Frederic Malle, and then all hell broke loose.” She’s referring to wearing the scents, of course, not describing actual affairs...

Lutens, originally a hairdresser, worked for Vogue in the 1960s and then became art director at Shisedo. When he became a perfumer his formulations drew inspiration from his home in Morocco, from couture, and from literature. Malle is the grandson of the founder of Christian Dior perfume, so fragrance runs in his blood. He considers himself an editor with a roster of authors, hence Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, which invites top perfumers to create the fragrances of their dreams, free of the constraints that are inevitable when scent needs to be commercial – and affordable.

It’s not surprising that a literature student and writer would fall in love with Luca Turin’s extraordinary descriptions of perfume, and after his first guide to perfume came out in French, she began hunting down some of the older fragrances he described. Around the same time, an international perfume culture began emerging. “In France there is a natural, real perfume culture, especially among people of my generation, who grew up with the brand tradition. So you can actually have an intelligent conversation. The development of the online perfume culture – I’m bad on dates, but it’s less than ten years old.”

At first she merely left comments on other people’s blogs, slowly forming virtual friendships with fellow perfumistas, including Octavian Coifan (www.1000fragrances.blogspot.com), who was generous with his knowledge, and introduced her to raw materials and vintage perfumes. Then her own blog was born. Over the years she has interviewed most of the top perfumers in the business, and learned more than a few secrets about the industry, and about fragrance itself. She is, in short, an expert in her own right.

Beaulieu has now written a book – part memoir, part history of the industry – aptly entitled The Perfume Lover, which is due out in March. She started Grain de Musc to establish her credibility, for she knew she wanted to reach out to the perfumers themselves. Though there’s not a huge blog culture in France, she deliberately writes in both French and English. “I didn’t want to cut myself off from the international perfume community, but at the same time there were relatively few French-language blogs at the time. I knew that if I were to write in French, I would be more easily read by the industry and more specifically by perfumers. I wanted to establish myself in order to learn more. I’ve become a monomaniac, and am actually quite a perfume bore. My idea is to construct a critical discourse on perfume, making it a more intellectual blog.”

Just out of curiosity, what non-perfume smells turn her on? “Horses. I do like the smell of hot tar in the summer after the rain. Church incense moves me very deeply. And old books. I am not adverse to lab smells, because going to visit my father was very glamorous to me. I saw scientists in white lab coats as heroes.”

These days, it’s safe to say, those heroes of hers in their white coats are more likely to be concocting perfume than medications. Speaking as someone who shares Beaulieu’s addiction, I say three cheers for that.

• Courses at the London College of Fashion cost between £135 and £3,500, visit www.fashion.arts.ac.uk/shortcourses

To read Denyse Beaulieu’s blog, visit graindemusc.blogspot.com; her book, The Perfume Lover, is due out from Harper Collins in March 2012.

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