Common Scents

New York

Left: Christophe Laudamiel. Right: The audience at “Le Parfum: The Power of Fragrance.” (All photos: Junenoire Mitchell)

“BE INSPIRED. BE TRANSPORTED.” Boxes of pungent resins and distilled extracts––benzoin siam, amyl salicylate, oakmoss, coumarin, styrax, and musk ketone––passed under our noses as Christophe Laudamiel, an “osmocurator” from the Osmothèque in Versailles, wound down to his presentation’s departing words. It was the first in a series of three twilight events in November at the French Institute Alliance Française dwelling on “Le Parfum: The Power of Fragrance.” It was the curator-perfumer-scientist-entrepreneur’s debut lecture in New York. It was a packed house.

“What an aberration New York has no fragrance museum,” exhaled the woman behind me while the man to my right, an astrologer, muttered something about perfuming as the highest art. “But scents are just so difficult to describe. Kant once wrote that it is impossible to find a word devoted exclusively to smell. He called it ‘taste at a distance.’ ”

Laudamiel had just regaled us for an hour with stories behind some of the original formulas promulgating around the room that night, all from the venerable Osmothèque, where a few thousand historic fragrances are kept under lock and key in argon gas–filled vaults, most at 54 degrees Fahrenheit. (“It’s the Met of perfumery,” said a woman in the elevator to her friend. Which fragrance would be the Temple of Dendur?)

We sniffed our way through blotters dipped in Eau de la Reine de Hongrie (1347), Eau de Lubin (1798), Jicky (1889), Ambre Antique (1905), and, of course, Chanel No. 5 (1921). And we washed it all down with a sip of the 130 herbs in the Carthusian monk–produced Chartreuse (1605). “Those monks have never shared their secret recipe––religions, perfumes, and secrets have always gone hand in hand,” Laudamiel assured us.

Before he relinquished his podium, the energetic curator imparted one final piece of advice. Rapidly tapping his studded leather bracelet against the lectern to add rhythm to his words, he announced our subject’s three enemies: “Oxygen! Light! Temperature!” Amid the crowd of coiffed art and fashion students, writers, designers, and a few bored husbands, a blonde shot up her hand. “How long does it take before a perfume goes bad?” she pondered. “Oh no,” sighed Laudamiel. “The juice NEVER goes bad.”

Do we?

Left: Arnaud Montet, Fabrice Penot, Olivia Bransbourg, Dr. Stuart Firestein, and Jane Larkworthy. Right: Scent of Burning Man.

“Fragrances are the same on everyone, even if people think they aren’t,” Laudamiel revealed during a panel discussion one week later. This time, though, he wasn’t a presenter but spoke from the audience after being prompted by Dr. Stuart Firestein, chair of Columbia University’s department of biological sciences.

“Olfaction is essentially a New York real estate story,” the prestigious doctor proclaimed, as he described to the rapt audience how our sense of smell has always been a mystery. We can identify roughly ten thousand scents, an impressive fact that has something to do with (very) intricate interactions between odor molecules, retronasal pathways, brain signals, and “a shitload of receptors.”

But to illustrate his points more directly, Firestein asked us to chew on a jellybean while holding our nose. “No smell, right?” he prodded after a few minutes. Indeed, some of our companions had lost track of their senses altogether. “Now breathe in!” Ooooh, went the relieved crowd. It wasn’t a fancy experiment, but it did the trick.

The panel’s moderator, beauty editor Jane Larkworthy (of W), asked why she couldn’t smell her favorite perfume on her own skin after so many years of wearing it. The audience prepared themselves for the panel’s judicious response, pencils ready. “You have to become less faithful!” snapped Olivia Bransbourg of the Paris publishing house ICONOfly. The two additional French panelists, Fabrice Penot, cofounder of niche perfumery Le Labo, and Arnaud Montet, the global director of consumer science at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), nodded in agreement.

An interpretation (or gross generalization) of all the events could go like this: Americans always need/want to know hard details and facts about our perfumes, while the French experts urge us always to be “transported” or “taken on a journey,” as it were.

“Speed Smelling,” the third and final event last Wednesday, gathered a team of nine IFF perfumers to present their latest and greatest. New Yorkers didn’t seem so pleased with being whisked away to “Burning Man” and “2011: A Patchouli Odyssey,” even though they smelled totally great.

Rotating to a different table every seven minutes, the IFF geniuses one by one told small groups of four their stories, the narratives behind their perfumes often competing with our sense of smell. “Imagine yourself in the sacred bath chamber of the Goddess Isis . . . ” began Bruno Jovanovic’s presentation on The Secret of Isis.

Those at my table were surprised by the “petallike,” “dewy,” “wet,” “moody,” “creamy,” “organic” (and so forth) top and middle notes. And as for the “dry down,” that is, when the anchoring base notes really come out: “smoky,” “sensual,” “earthy,” “medicinal,” like “tea, hay, honey.” And finally: “It smells like a mixed drink to me––heavy on the whiskey.”

Such discerning tastes on the Upper East Side.

Now, go take your perfumes out of your bathroom and off your windowsill and put them in the fridge.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler