A perfume pilgrimage to Paris
CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau () - December 17, 2008 - 12:00am

Other people collect “it” bags, designer fashions or jewelry. I collect perfume. I can’t explain my fixation on smell — maybe it started when I realized how closely scents were tied to memories. Who doesn’t love the smell of coffee brewing or bread baking in the morning?

In my case a certain scent can send me straight back to a particular happy time in my life. Through fragrance, I can now bask in such times. I like carrying them close to me.

Fragrance also plays an important role in attraction. Guys who aren’t that great-looking seem more good-looking wearing the right cologne. A woman trailing a drop-dead fragrance past you can imprint herself on your memory forever. Conversely, a gorgeous guy who exudes the musk of someone who doesn’t bathe regularly is repulsion personified. The same goes for women. No wonder perfumes are a billion-dollar industry.

So when this perfumista got a chance to go to Paris, she jumped on it. Those who worship at the altar of scent know that France is Mecca. The French may not have invented perfume (the ancient Egyptians did), but they elevated it to a high art, just as they did couture and cuisine. Grasse is the perfume capital of the world, while Paris is where you can buy all of that aromatic Grasse product — in the luxury boutiques of France’s venerable fragrance and fashion houses.

I knew there were five stops I had to make in Paris to score the kind of contraband I had been longing for, and I managed to squeeze them all in, turning my Paris sightseeing into something altogether more fragrant:

1) Les Salons Du Palais Royal Shiseido

25 Rue Valois, tel. +33-1-49-27-09-09, Metro stop: Palais Royal

We all know Shiseido for their state-of-the-art Japanese cosmetics, but only fragrance diehards bandy around the name Serge Lutens, the wizard behind their now legendary Parfums-Beauté. Lutens was the art director /photographer behind Shiseido’s stunning ad campaigns, forever intertwining in the brand’s image the Japanese qualities of starkness, minimalism and precision with his own French take on beauty.

Impressed with Lutens’ visionary sensibilities, Shiseido asked him to create a fragrance in 1982 and the result is Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido, a fantastical purple boudoir located under the shadowy arches of Paris’s Royal Palace. Lutens has an export line of fragrances available in posh department stores all over the world, but collectors are more interested in his Paris-only non-export line — rare, exquisite fragrances housed in not-very-portable bell jars.

I headed straight for these bottles and the row of pre-dipped paper blotters beside them. Great, I could sniff my way through the entire line in a few minutes without too much interference from the sales staff. Ignoring the “only four fragrances before your nose gets tired” rule, I started with the most hyped fragrance among Lutens fans, Bois de Violette. Too watercolor-pale and woody for my taste. Next, new release El Attarine, which smelled like almost pure Arabian oud. Trés animalique, I told the saleslady, who smiled widely in response. I then went through Lutens’ entire Bois line, in which he mixes woods with musk, fruits and flowers, before settling on Rahat Loukoum, an unabashed gourmand based on a recipe for Turkish Delight. The saleslady spread a drop of it on my wrist with a blotter, then suggested I take a walk in the park outside while the fragrance developed on my skin. Twenty minutes later, having taken loads of snaps of flowers, art installations and Parisians sunning themselves on park benches, Rahat had evolved into quite a compelling mix of almond and cherry notes on my wrist. As a tiny bell chimed my reentrance into the store, I knew I had found the Lutens exclusive for me.

2) La Maison Guerlain

68 Avenue Champs-Elysées, tel. +33-1-45-62-52-57, Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt

My very first bottle of perfume was Shalimar by Guerlain, a gift from my father who, like me, shares a taste for all things luxe. Years later I found I couldn’t have had a more auspicious introduction to the world of perfumery — in the hierarchy of great noses Jacques Guerlain is considered the reigning deity. 

His House of Guerlain, now sold by his descendants to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is still a temple to his far-reaching legacy. The frosty-looking saleslady thawed immediately when she saw my interest —she was soon happily spraying Guerlain classics like Mitsouko and Chamade on my arm. One thing about the classics, though: they’re heavy and can be hard for modern young women to pull off. Mindful of this, the house has reissued some of its all-time greats in more accessible formats: you can now find Shalimar Lite, the sparkling Aqua Allegoria line, and the quite nice Guerlain Homme (based on a mojito accord) at a department store near you.

After I drain a beloved fragrance to its last drop I usually find I have to move on to something else. This was the case with Shalimar, so I was on the hunt for something similar but different. I found it in L’Heure Bleue, a dreamy orange-flower concoction that smells vaguely edible yet still retains a sexy mystery.

3) Chanel

42 Avenue Montaigne, tel. +33-1-47-23-74-12, Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Not far from Guerlain, on an avenue off the tourist-ridden Champs-Elysées, is Chanel’s flagship store — so central to fashion goings-on that Karl Lagerfeld himself is frequently spotted there. I wasn’t there to buy a tweed jacket, however; I was there for Chanel’s Les Exclusifs, a serious collection of scents unknown to most of the Chanel No. 5-buying public. 

Displayed within what looked like an old-fashioned writing desk, except done up in pure white, were dismayingly large bottles of fragrance. My plan of attack was to choose between Bois des Iles, Chanel’s genius ode to sandalwood, or Coromandel, a newer patchouli juice named after Mademoiselle Coco’s beloved screens. I ended up picking neither. After wresting one of the staff away from the flocks of tourists long enough to ask about price, my jaw dropped when she quoted, “180 euros (or was it 118?).” No matter. Not only were both prices too rich for my blood, I’d never be able to use up a bottle that big in my lifetime anyway.

4) Parfums Caron

34 Avenue Montaigne, tel. +33-1-47-23-40-82, Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Right up the street from Chanel is the third point in the Champs-Elysées’ golden triangle of scent, Caron. Like Guerlain, Caron is one of France’s most venerable perfume houses at over a hundred years old, making its name with classics like Fleurs de Rocaille , Narcisse Noire and Tabac Blond. Also like Guerlain, Caron was bought about 10 years ago by a big French conglomerate — in this case Patrick Alès’s Phyto hair-care group. I had read that this change of hands resulted in a new perfumer altering most of Caron’s beloved old formulas with spotty results, but, never having sampled any of Caron’s oeuvre, I still wanted to try. I’d also read that the haute fragrances were still dispensed from Baccarat crystal fountains at the Caron boutique, so that was the dealmaker. I had to go.

If I thought the Guerlain sales associate was frosty, the Caron lady was a virtual ice queen. Roused from her spell of doing absolutely nothing at all, she reluctantly accompanied me to Caron’s fragrance wall and watched warily as I sniffed every bottle in sight. Nuit de Noel, a dark and spicy chypre, was made for cool December days like these. Tabac Blond was pleasant but not the edgy leather I was expecting, leading me to believe Caron’s mixed reviews. In the end I was most taken by the champagne-fizzy Royal Bain de Caron and heliotrope-tinged Farnesiana, even if they might be shadows of their former selves. The by-now-almost-friendly saleslady even drew a Farnesiana sample for me from one of the hallowed crystal flacons, making my experience complete.

5)   Editions De Parfums Frederic Malle

37 Rue Grenelle, tel. +33-1-42-22-76-40, Metro: Rue du Bac

Frederic Malle is possibly Paris’s most modern perfume house. Malle is not a perfumer himself but a fragrance impresario who allows the world’s greatest noses to create their dream fragrances with complete freedom … cost, corporate briefs and celebrity names be damned.

The boutique itself is impossibly sleek, with Star Trek-kie smelling chambers in which you poke your head after scent molecules are spritzed in, much like other boutiques pipe in muzak. Talk about a space-age way to sample scents!

Already a fan of previous Malles like Musc Ravageur and Carnal Flower, I wanted to try the house’s latest, Dans Tes Bras (In Your Arms) and French Lover, created by olfactory artists Maurice Roucel and Pierre Bourdon, respectively. Malle, who insists his perfumers sign their scents like authors do, says that no one fragrance can possibly please everybody, and he was proven right when I found both new scents too dark and earthy for me. Instead I fell in love with another Bourdon creation, Iris Poudre, an interpretation of the flower as soft and caressing as a cashmere sweater. I could hardly wait to snuggle into it on the flight home.

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