One Thousand Scents

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Big World: 1981

Here is the difference between someone who loves--is consumed by--scent and someone who is not: upon smelling a fragrance, the obsessive thinks about it, analyzes it, fractionates it, compares it to others, fits it into an analytical scheme. The ordinary person simply thinks, "That smells nice," or, if they are just a little more advanced, "Oh, roses."


At some point in 1981 I bought Oscar de la Renta Pour Lui, the first scent I ever bought when it was still new. I was still not a proper obsessive at this point, and so all I knew was that it was tremendously interesting and attractive, and that I wanted to wear it, so I did. I wore too much of it, overwore it, wore out its welcome, and since it is so eighties big, it's a miracle my friends and family could put up with me.

I have a bottle of a somewhat more recent vintage, and although it has most assuredly been reformulated over the years, it bears at least a resemblance to what I used to wear. (If you bought a bottle today--it's still in production--I have no idea what it would smell like.) And since I am now a proper fragrance compulsive, here is what I smell:

Something that seems to be three completely different scents poured into the same bottle. They don't clash, exactly, although they seem to be arguing with one another from time to time. You get the sense that any of them could stand on its own as a scent, and nowadays they probably would, but Pour Lui was born in the eighties, when perfumery just kept adding more more more and upping the ante, and really, why would you put twenty elements in a scent when you could put eighty, or two hundred?

The top alludes to a spicy oriental: it has, in addition to a burst of aldehydes and citrus, the bite of cinnamon and cloves, maybe a handful of carnations, and it feels as if it will become denser and warmer. It doesn't, because it's not an oriental: it's actually a fougere. The oriental notes subside and the fougere becomes stronger as the scent matures on the skin: it takes on a very soapy barbershop quality with lots of lavender, and a small but a definite slug of oakmoss that suggests it is going to become a chypre at some point.

It does, too. The oakmoss thickens and deepens, with leather joining the fray, and it is a real honest-to-god leather chypre. There are still elements of the oriental and fougere families: the base is unexpectedly bright. But if you are a chypre lover, here ya go.

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In late 1981 I went on a tour of Europe, courtesy of my father, who, whatever his flaws, knew how to motivate me. The deal was that if I went to university for a solid year, three consecutive semesters including the summer session, and got all 'A's, he would foot the bill for a trip to Europe. A tour, mind you, which started and ended with me alone in London, but otherwise completely structured and shall we say chaperoned: he knew me too well to just set me loose on the continent on my own. Not that I would have gotten into trouble: I would have gotten lost.

I did, in fact, get lost on the way from Heathrow to the hotel.

Not lost-lost. I got off at the wrong subway stop, wandered around for a bit with my luggage, finally asked someone what to, and got back on the subway (for one stop, as I recall it).

My obsession with scent probably began its full flowering in Europe (although it took a few years to blossom completely). We went on a tour of a perfumery, Fragonard, in Grasse, pretty much the world hub of the perfume biz--it has its own museum--and I bought a strange and arresting scent, Vetyver, which had a distinct celery note that I didn't exactly love but couldn't dismiss. (I smelled Vetyver a few years ago, maybe ten, and it had changed completely. Or I had; one never really knows.)

In Paris, as I have said before, I fell in love with Jacomo de Jacomo: some little voice inside told me that I had to own it or else, and so I spent money I couldn't really afford--I might have gone without a meal or two--just so I could have it.

If I had known even a fraction then of what I know now, and if I had been armed with a credit card, I can hardly imagine what sort of turn my life would have taken. I would have figured out a way to not come back, that much is sure. But of course I had to return to Canada, to the little city in which I grew up, and my exposure to the wider world of fragrances was necessarily limited for a while, which means the next couple of years are not going to be that interesting, scent-wise. I'm just letting you know in advance.

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