Fall 2007 Vol 5.2
The Stone Rose
I’ve read this anecdote about Coco Chanel in so many different places it’s probably apocryphal: that perfume bottles littered her dressing table, that she regarded them—empty, half-full, opened once and never again—as love trophies, each linked to a man, a romance. She’d have pitied the bare bird’s-eye maple of my dresser. But she might have respected its solitary bottle of Bellodgia, might have understood my allegiance to a single fragrance from the same era as her own Chanel No. 5.
I went through my period of perfume bottle clutter. But not as love trophies. When I was in sixth grade, Gail, the neighbor’s daughter, cleaned out her room before she married and gave me a small bottle, about three-fourths full, of Faberge’s Straw Hat. I didn’t like it much either, but I desperately wanted to be a grown-up like Gail, with her auburn hair floating in the wake she created driving her peacock blue Karman Ghia convertible.
This was in the mid-1960s, at the beginning of a long perfume industry boom that relied on cheaper production methods and the increased use of synthetic smell molecules. Perfume was everywhere, and it was within my price range. I could shop, with my meager babysitting income, at the Post Exchange on the military base where my family lived. I often chose a fragrance by its packaging: the exotic pelt of Tigress, the dark-grained veneer cap of Woodhue, frosted glass globes named after romantic islands, Corfu and Skye. If I wasn’t drawn to a perfume by its bottle, it was because I smelled it on someone else. I didn’t know then that perfume reacts to an individual’s skin and temperature, that what smelled good on my best friend might not smell the same on me.
I also took a lot of quizzes in magazines in order to determine the “perfect” scent for me. Depending on which “me” I was that day—or that hour, because my identity fluctuated so often—the favorite food, color, activity or music I chose from a limited set of options resulted in a particular perfume or fragrance type suggestion. The dramatic, spicy-food-loving me got steered to intense, heavy orientals such as Emaraude or Shalimar. The introspective, listener-to-classical-music me got pointed toward woodsy chypres: Imprevu, Ma Griffe. Because I never chose spring as my favorite season or lacy pastels as my favorite clothes, I assumed that romantic florals like Joy or White Shoulders were not for me.
Oriental, chypre and floral are traditional industry terms for types or families of fragrances. Depending on who’s doing the classification, those traditional categories are now sometimes divided into green, crisp, fresh, soft, classical and rich. Orientals—usually a blend of spices, resins and woods anchored by animal notes—are now further classified as floral, soft, or woody. Chypres—historically a mix of resin, oakmoss, citrus and woods—can be mossy or dry. Water or marine scents date from the 1990s, and are often marketed as gender neutral. The classification system has expanded since the use of synthetic ingredients exploded, because the possibilities for odor combinations have exploded.
Marketing practices take advantage of new technology as well. I recently Googled “perfume quizzes,” chose the first of a long list of links, and took the Kids News quiz, thinking it might be like the ones I took in junior high while reading Ingenue or Seventeen. The vocabulary has changed, but not the intent to pigeonhole personality types and match key words to a specific product. Because I “tuned into … any cooking show on the Food Channel” instead of Entertainment Tonight, The O.C., and MTV’s Real World, and because “my peeps could find me on Friday night …chilling with pals at dinner” instead of “on a date with my man,” “the center of attention with friends,” or “grooving at a party,” my perfect fragrance is Taste by Jessica Simpson.
According to Jessica, “sexy girls have Taste…a deliciously decadent fragrance designed to make you Taste and smell scrumptious! You already have a charming and irresistible nature, so wearing Taste will make it even harder for peeps to resist you! Taste’s mission is to make you completely kissable and smoochable, which will be easy because it has yummy notes of white chocolate, coconut cream and honey.”
Good to know, if I ever want to smell like a candy bar. This diabetic nightmare of a perfume fits into the newest classification—gourmande—because of its edible, dessert-like qualities. I suppose it dovetails with the fad of dessert martinis. I’m not so sure about what it means, or says about adolescent girls, that clicking on the highlighted word “charming” brought up “The Wonderful World of Wicca” web page.
I was also pretty vulnerable, during my teens, to visual ads and TV commercials. I bought my dad British Sterling because I liked the low-cut velvet dress supermodel Jean Shrimpton wore as she sat atop a horse moving slowly through the streets of medieval London. The folksinger Donovan encouraged me to “wear your love like heaven,” so I bought Love, even though it was too sweet. I thought my sister Marilyn’s fragrance of choice, Tabu, was perfect for her because its name and iconic ad—a handsome violinist passionately kissing his beautiful piano accompanist—seemed to match her doomed high school romance with Rolando, a Cuban our dad disapproved of.
Sometimes, in spite of myself, I stumbled under the spell of some legitimately good perfumes. In high school, I cut through the Cachet- and Moondrops-fogged halls with Rochas’ Femme and the crisp citrus of Dior’s eau Savage. That both had been created twenty years apart by Edmond Roudnitska, one of the most respected “noses” of the 20th Century, was unknown to me at the time. It says a lot to me now. Maybe I should give my sense of smell more credit. Maybe all that sampling, even if influenced by bottle shapes and Madison Avenue marketing decisions, developed a sophisticated olfactory palate.
Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses, says that one’s olfactory area is dictated by genetics, that the darker the yellow of the fatty tissue at the end of the nasal passage, “the keener and more acute the sense of smell.” I’m sure I inherited mine from my mother. Wherever we lived or visited, as our family moved from one Marine Corps base to another, Momma paid attention to what grew there. She deadheaded marigolds and geraniums and weeded as opportunity presented itself, whether she had tools with her or not, so her fingers, often stained from pinching stems, smelled green and peppery. Visits to friends and relatives inevitably included inspecting—inhaling, fondling—the latest additions to their yards: roses, sweet peas, lantana, gazanias. Cuttings wrapped in wet paper towels or transplants in empty coffee cans came home with us. Our regular expeditions to the San Diego Zoo were as much for the botanical specimens as for the animals on display. Momma smelled everything, not just flowers. Her olfactory area must be as tawny as Dijon mustard.
Perhaps my teen years of perfume sampling—or perfume polygamy, as I like to think of it, with a harem of fragrances available for different moods, seasons or occasions—improved my olfactory palate and prepared me for more sophisticated, more subtle and nuanced perfumes. But I was still surprised when I fell in love—fell hard, fell fast, fell at first smell—with a classic romantic floral, Caron’s Bellodgia. I wasn’t supposed to be the floral type. I was the second-string keeper on the women’s club soccer team, for Pete’s sake!
My American childhood made me as susceptible to merchandising as the next person, but I like to think that I at least know when I’m being manipulated. That by the time I was in college I could see through the power of the image to the real message: sex. Perfume was supposed to work like one of the clouds in Pepé le Pew cartoons, hooking a man by the nose and reeling him in. Or making a woman feel sexier and therefore act sexier, and attract a man. I can’t remember one male ever volunteering that he enjoyed my perfume. Maybe none did. Only women noticed and commented on my fragrances. Socialized as we are to pay attention to others, and to engage in community-building activity (as in, “Oooh, you smell good! Is that a new perfume?”), women are the primary targets of the perfume industry, at every stage of the consumer cycle. We buy it, for ourselves and others. We wear it, for our own pleasure and for—we hope—others’. We notice it, talk about it (a form of advertising), and try new scents as a result. That’s as true today as it was in 1975, when I was a college sophomore.
I knew all that. Yet I succumbed. Consciously. While flipping through a roommate’s copy of Mademoiselle. The compelling ad hid in the back of the magazine. A half-column tall, a black and white photo of a woman wearing an ornate, elegant, long-sleeved, high-necked evening gown, eyes downcast, with the text “Lead him on.” I turned the page and in the same spot, the back of the model bared as the dress plunged below her waist. The text continued: “like a lady.” And below that, a photo of a bottle of Bellodgia.
I can still feel the jolt of recognition. The ad knew the me I wanted to be: modest—even prim—exterior, simmering sensual interior. I’d been a tomboy all my life, and still wore hand-me-ups from my younger brothers: Levi cords or 501 button fly jeans, t-shirts that advertised surfboards, hooded pullover sweatshirts. But those clothes covered shimmery lingerie. When I had to dress up, my Taste tended toward tailored classics. Whenever I gave in to an impulse for trendy ruffles, florals, or pastels, I felt like an imposter. I didn’t have much of a waistline, or hips, but enjoyed the power my cleavage exerted on males. Folded down flat, the back seat of my Datsun station wagon served as a truck bed perfect for carrying camping gear and my Golden Retriever. But the sheets on my bed were riots of Victorian flowers.
I was used to balancing these seemingly contradictory elements of myself. But when I tested Bellodgia on my wrists, I was shocked by how quickly the repressed romantic came out of her closet and claimed this scent, and no other, for her own. Bellodgia’s topnote is carnation—warm, spicy, deep. The sweetness of rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang and lily-of-the-valley lie beneath the initial carnation, and its base consists of more than 100 essences, notably sandalwood, musk and vanilla. Even though I’d always loved flowers, I was surprised to be in love with a floral instead of the chypres I’d been wearing. But its richness comforted and challenged me simultaneously, made me feel feminine and strong.
It’s been a long love affair. My first $30 bottle of eau de toilette required a strict regimen of saving any extra from my dormitory kitchen paycheck. No more late-night runs to Helen’s Bakery for a 49-cent apple fritter.
More boxes of generic macaroni and cheese instead of Rice-a-Roni. Free admission to the university’s classic film series instead of even a matinee of a recent release. As perfume prices climbed and my income inched upward, and then had to stretch further after I married and began a family, I broke one of the cardinal “rules” of perfumery. I hoarded it, wearing it for special occasions instead of daily. By the mid-1980s, when we’d settled in southern Minnesota, Bellodgia cost more and was harder to find, carried only by Dayton’s, that dowager department store in faraway Minneapolis. Even worse: I became self-conscious about wearing perfume because a co-worker wore too much, and I didn’t want to overpower like she did. I sometimes tested other brands when I walked by perfume counters, but nothing compelled me to switch. They smelled good—I could appreciate the accords, the blend of essences—but nothing ever caused the same burst of pleasure. I know it’s “merely” a physiological reaction to chemicals flooding my receptors, but that rush feels like an expansion in my brain. Of blood vessels? Of memories or associations stored there? Something leaps from one synapse to another, leaps as quickly as a metaphor in poetry causes one image to become another. I more than enjoy it. I take delight in it. Like slipping between clean, cool sheets on a summer night, it’s an entire body pleasure.
While the 1970s doused itself with Charlie, Anais-Anais, Halston, Cinnebar and Opium, I happily became a throwback, like women several generations ago who kept a signature scent throughout their lives. When the 1980s reeked of Obsession, Eternity, Poison and Giorgio, I graduated to Bellodgia’s more concentrated eau de parfum. My loyalty certainly made gift-buying easier for my husband, since he’s never known me to wear anything else. It was part of my package: love me, love my perfume. Should he ever make the mistake of giving me another fragrance I would be suspicious: where has he smelled that? Just who does he want me to smell like?
Three decades of perfume monogamy have turned me into, I must admit, a snob. Not only do I love Bellodgia, but I also love its exclusivity. I love that few—even clerks at perfume counters—have heard of it, despite its being made, since 1927, by one of the oldest perfume houses in Paris. I’m disgusted by full-page ads in magazines, knowing that one ad can cost more than a year’s tuition at a private college. I sneer at expensive TV commercials with famous spokes-faces acting in 30-second films, at pop stars like Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and Brittany Spears developing perfume lines. Those are products designed by committee to be popular and profitable as long as their namesakes’ celebrity lasts. Many fragrance companies, or fashion houses that also have a fragrance line, have become too concerned with the bottom line. They want the ingredient list of a fragrance to cost as little as possible—thus the reliance on cheap synthetics—so when they jack up the price to pay for luxurious packaging and global marketing, there’s still plenty of profit.
I may be a snob, but I know that I can’t be a purist. Even the grandest of the grand parfums contains synthetics to smooth, intensify or prolong the natural ingredients. If I wanted to be totally natural I’d rub mashed flowers, or leaves or spices, or—for the staying power of musk—animal sexual glands over myself. But the fragrance wouldn’t last very long—except for the musk—and I’d have stuff clinging to my skin. I’m proud in my snobby way that Caron has been devoted since 1903 to perfume as an art form, to developing perfumes in house instead of hiring out to companies in Europe and the U.S., the companies Chandler Burr calls, in The Emperor of Scent, “the Big Boys,” the companies that develop odor molecules for furniture polish and air freshener. I’m proud that Caron spends the bulk of its money on ingredients and process instead of million dollar publicity campaigns. It’s true, Caron’s boutiques in Paris and New York City are posh Louis XV confections of crystal, marble and gilt. But those are the appropriate, even expected, settings for luxury art forms that appeal to a small population willing to pay quite a bit of money for fragrances that become personal metaphors.
So I felt a little proud, as well as put out, when Dayton’s stopped carrying Bellodgia and I couldn’t find it at the Mall of America Nordstrom’s. After all, my personal metaphor didn’t really belong in that temple to retail. But when I couldn’t find even a tester at the Chicago Nordstrom’s and had to ask for it, and when a helpful Gina Mazza found a bottle in the stockroom, I started to worry. Mazza explained that perfume counters are a lot like grocery store shelves. Display space costs. Fragrance lines with huge marketing budgets get the biggest displays, get their products at eye level, get their testers at the front of the cluster of bottles. If the mindset of quantity over quality, of product over creation, of profit over artistry—of consumerism—prevails, how would companies like Caron continue to exist? Where would I get my Bellodgia? Who would I be without it?
I went to Paris to find out.
The instant I walked into the Caron boutique on the rue du Fauborg-Ste. Honoré, my Midwestern small town inferiority complex kicked into high gear. It wasn’t only that an unusual June heat wave had frizzed my hair or made me sweat during my Metro ride from the Latin Quarter, foiling my attempt at a sophisticated façade. It was the glass shelves and tabletops, the marble, the mirrors, the gilt, the Baccarat crystal urns filled with classic Caron fragrances. It was the hand-painted porcelain boxes, the embroidered and beaded purses and shawls, the silk ties, the swans’ down powder puffs, the hand-blown flacons. It was the hats that looked like spun sugar, the chandelier, the tall tone-on-tone arrangement of lime-green Canterbury Bells, hydrangea and a dramatic white lily. I was way out of my league.
It was a crazy idea, coming to Paris to talk about perfume with Richard Fraysee, Caron’s in-house perfumer, “the nose.” How long before he and press attaché Chantal Evrard realized my letter asking for a meeting hadn’t been written with false modesty? That I was just another unknown American writer? That the account of my pilgrimage of homage to Bellodgia, one of their oldest fragrances I’d worn for thirty years, had no guarantee of being published where it would do Caron any good? Before I could turn tail and run away, a young woman greeted me and graciously endured the lines I’d memorized—“Bonjour. Je m’appelle Candace Black. Jai pris renz-vous avec Chantal Evrard.”—then asked me, in English, to have a seat while she phoned upstairs to announce my arrival.
I waited, and watched via the wall-to-wall mirrors a thin blonde in another area of the boutique ask the cost of a beaded stole. When told 9,000 Euros her cultured British accent said, “Too much,” but she didn’t stop fingering the gray cashmere. I wish she had still been there ninety minutes later when I left the boutique perfumed, powdered and puffed, gift bag overflowing, getting the three-cheek kiss goodbye.
The office of Clair Mugnier-Pollet, the director of marketing, was Tastefully utilitarian and cluttered. Evrard had welcomed me effusively downstairs and now hustled off to get me a soft drink. She and Raphaële Quenin, the marketing coordinator, looked like the “free spirits” of the staff. Evrard wore a black pin-striped suit coat over black leggings and her hair in pigtails, in a shade of red my husband calls “not found in nature.” Quenin dressed like the college student she had recently been: a wispy pink blouse that kept slipping off a shoulder, a black tiered skirt so popular in Paris that summer, a brazenly faux pearl necklace and an assortment of bead and string bracelets. Mugnier-Pollet, relaxed and urbane in a linen skirt and sleeveless knit shell, assured me that Bellodgia would never be discontinued, despite its being more popular in the U.S. than in France and therefore not one of the fountain fragrances in the crystal urns downstairs.
Only Richard Fraysee seemed as bothered by the heat as I felt, a little rumpled and flushed, his pale blue shirtsleeves rolled up above his wrists. I’d expected a perfumer to be darkly Gallic, his face lean and sculpted. But Fraysee’s receding hairline and fair skin reminded me of the neighborhood fromagere. What he is, though, is a third-generation “nose.” His grandfather worked for Yardley at the turn of the century. His father developed Arpege for Lavin in 1927. I nearly genuflected when he told me that. A dark bottle of Arpege had presided over my mother’s velvet-lined jewelry boxes when I was a girl. One squirt provided the ultimate moment of alchemy needed to transform me, wearing one of Momma’s filmy nightgowns over my clothes, into Ginger Rogers when my sister and I danced to our parents’ records.
When Fraysee was a young boy his father began training him, making a game of identifying the contents of the hundreds of small dark bottles that composed his “organ,” the tiered shelves of his laboratory. A decades-long apprenticeship is necessary to learn how to create scent, how to combine essences and absolutes—molecules that have been distilled using steam and molecules that have been extracted with solvents—to create more than a mere sum of parts. Perfumery shares a vocabulary with science and the creative arts. A “nose” learns by experience how fragrance accords, like musical chords, work together. Learns which individual essence or absolute, or note, will dominate or will subtly hold up the blend to emerge after the others have faded away.
Fraysee’s creative process is much like any artist’s, a blend of intuition and craft. He follows the triggering impulse into new territory, open to possibilities that present themselves even at the risk of a complete change of direction. He trusts his senses and experience to come up with the right combinations of fragrance chords. He experiments, adding or subtracting ingredients or adjusting a proportion. He often takes a break when he’s stuck, then realizes a solution during a walk or in the dreamy moments of waking from a nap.
Fraysee brought with him three small bottles. Two dark green vials contained absolutes—one of Bellodgia’s top note, carnation, and the other of one of its middle notes, ylang-ylang, a tropical flower. Separately, they weren’t recognizable as Bellodgia. The carnation smelled earthily leafy with a spiciness that grew as I inhaled very deeply and the scent traveled down into my lungs. It wasn’t immediately the clove of dianthus. Ylang-ylang smelled sweeter, more flowery, but almost too strong, like grape Kool-aid. Even when I dabbed the two together on my wrist they didn’t resemble Bellodgia. A perfumer like Fraysee blends hundreds of scent molecules—synthetic and natural—to create an artistic composition that evolves, like a symphony’s movements, into a totality.
Before we parted, I gave him something I’d agonized over for months, knowing it would never match his artistry or the generosity of his time. Many Minnesotans give wild rice as thank-you gifts. Although I assumed Fraysee cared about food—he is French—who knew if he liked to cook, or if he liked rice, or the grassy flavor of wild rice? I wanted something from the southcentral part of the state where I live, from the Minnesota River valley. But not soybeans or corn.
We do harvest a lot of limestone: specifically, Oneota Dolomite limestone, a distinctive golden product of the Paleozoic Era 300 to 500 million years ago. It contains calcium carbonate, which makes it harder than other limestones, and most of the official buildings in my town glow like honey because of it. So I called a local quarry. As luck would have it, they’d been experimenting with a recent investment, a laser drill that turns 500 pounds per square inch of water into a precise cutting tool. It can carve a block of limestone into a three-dimensional name, not just carve a name into a block of limestone. And, ideal for my purposes, since roses are the central ingredient in so many Caron perfumes, it can cut limestone into a rosebud at the end of a curving, leafy stem.
Fraysee picked up his limestone rose and held it to his nose. Of course he didn’t expect it to smell flowery. His reaction was instinctive, his way of processing new information. I knew I’d made the right choice when he turned to me and said, “I’m wondering how to get the fragrance of stone into a perfume.”
That third vial Fraysee brought with him? It contained his current project, Caron’s next perfume. Smelling it—in the bottle, on the tip of a paper testing strip, on my skin the rest of the day—I knew I would wear it as soon as it became available. As quickly as my repressed romantic had fallen in love with Bellodgia decades ago, my perfume polygamist came back. With a vengeance. Six perfumes—all Caron—now reside on the top of my dresser. Two orientals, Poive and Tabac Blond. My beloved Bellodgia. Another floral, this one of sweet peas, Pois de Senteur. My summer blend of jasmine, water lily, orange blossom and basil, Miss Rocaille. Eau de Riglesse, with its surprising warmth of anise and ginger, fits right in.
For a good month or two after my pilgrimage to Paris, a song from “West Side Story” played as a soundtrack in my head. It would bubble to my lips and I’d start singing, mid-verse, “I feel pretty and witty and bright” as I patted my face with the fine powder that had been carefully matched to my skin tone in the boutique and then dusted off the excess with my black swans’ down powder puff. It wasn’t noticeably improving the way I looked. But the act of putting on powder—something I’d never, ever done in my life—felt like such a girly thing to do. It required a song. A spritz of Miss Rocaille made me feel “Fizzy and funny and fine” before I played tennis. This “femme” side of my personality, so long subordinate to the tomboy, to the practical mother of two sons, had surfaced in such a frothy way. I’d laugh at myself in the mirror, then sing, “Who can that attractive girl be?”
Amane Kaneko -- Woman