Making scents: The weird world of perfume
Published 17/08/2010 | 05:00
When we think of perfume we think of floral sweetness, muskiness or zesty freshness; we don't think of pubic hair, sweat or -- brace yourself, reader -- faeces.
There was a distinct lowering of one's cutlery over lunch last week as haute perfumer Roja Dove explained the nature of 'indoles' and why we humans can't get enough of them.
Indoles occur naturally in the aforementioned things (it was for this reason that Victorians thought removing a woman's pubic hair would remove her sexual desire too) but also in white flowers of the variety used in many perfumes, such as Jasmine and Gardenia.
In a 2005, a New Yorker article by Jean-Claude Ellena, the nose of the fashion house Hèrmes, revealed: "Faeces are rich with indoles... and so are decomposing bodies. It's feminine, the smell of death." A bestseller in the making, surely?
It may be unappealing, but it's a simple fact of nature. Before we could see, smell was what we used to find food -- and a mate.
Smell is inextricably bound with emotion. We process smell with the same part of our brains that processes emotion and the olfactory nerve is processed directly by the brain, instead of going through the central nervous system first. "Think of when you sleep with a lover for the first time," says Dove. "You smell them on your skin the next day. It creates an imprint."
Dove began his working life with Guerlain in Paris and opened the Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie in Harrods in 2004. In October, he will curate an exhibition looking at the history of perfume over the past century in a socio-economic setting. Just over 100 years ago, perfumes were simple floral structures. It wasn't until the discovery of synthetic materials with the industrial revolution that fragrance became as we know it today.
One of the earliest trendsetters was Guerlain's Jicky (1889), which shocked women as it included extract of vanillin, a psychogenic aphrodisiac, which made fragrance sexual for the very first time.
Over the next three decades came the First World War and emancipation for women, which redefined the idea of femininity. Coty's Le Chypré (1917) reflected this with its masculine notes.
But neither came close to the impact of 1921's Chanel No. 5. Coco Chanel enlisted Ernest Beaux, perfumer to the Russian court, to create a perfume for her with the brief "a woman must smell like a woman, and not like a rose". The result was nothing short of revolutionary.
The 1930s and 1940s were marred by the economic depression and Second World War, and dire shortages of ingredients took its toll on the fragrance industry. Afterwards, fragrance houses focused on a fresh start.
Nina Ricci's elegant L'Air Du Temps (1948) had two doves of peace perched on its lid, while Robert Piguet's Fracas (1948) was the perfect balance of creamy femininity and conservative functionality marked by its simple black bottle.
With the 1950s came blue jeans, Elvis Presley and youth culture, and, of course, Marilyn Monroe, while the 1960s brought the Kennedys, civil rights, the atomic bomb and Vietnam, the contraceptive pill and the moon landing.
Perfume houses were suddenly struggling to create a perfume to match the times. Charlie (1973) by Charles Revlon was the first mass-marketed perfume to capture the zeitgeist. It was cheap enough for women to be able to buy it for themselves. With the 1980s came big, brash perfumes and two classics, Giorgio by Giorgio Beverly Hills (1981) and Christian Dior's Poison (1985). Poison was a dark and dangerous sensation, from its name to its unprecedented scent. The bottle had ridges on it, just like real bottles of poison once did.
With the 1990s came social conscience. In a post-Aids world, says Dove, people didn't want their perfume to remind them of anything sexual. This led to the birth of the 'oceanic' note, personified by Calvin Klein's Escape and CK One.
The new millennium brought great change. It was also the era of the celebrity and the introduction of celebrity fragrances.
Not many of these mass-marketed fragrances contain the levels of indoles that make some of the more artisan perfumes so irresistible. The jasmine from Grasse that Dove uses contains the highest concentration of indoles of all jasmines and costs nearly twice the price of gold bullion (approximately £28,000 per kilogram).
On the day I met Dove, he brought along a unique scent which was bursting with indoles. I applied it liberally. Later that night, I walked into the living room and said hello to my boyfriend. He nodded hello and as I went to leave the room, he looked up and said, "you smell nice".
I guess there's something in those indoles after all.