Is there anything more French than perfume?
Caron, Chanel, Dior, Cacharel…the list of famous French perfume houses goes on.
France did not invent perfume, which goes back to ancient Greek and Roman times, yet the fragrant town of Grasse in Provence north of Nice is the birthplace of modern perfumery. It began with the gathering of herbs and flowers like lavender and jasmine to offset the odours from the leather tanneries. Today most of the perfume industry is in Paris but Grasse is still its historic heart.
The perfume industry does not count me among its most loyal customers. Most fragrances give me a headache. At best, perfume makes me sneeze. Air fresheners will send me running for air. I’d rather smell stale cigarettes than Febreze, breathe in body odour than heavy deodorant.
When I first came to Paris, I discovered a fragrance that I could wear and enjoy without getting a funny head. And without feeling like it was wearing me. It is called Mûre et Musc, originally from a perfumer called Jean Laporte, and now the signature scent of L’Artisan Parfumeur. I’ve tried others over the years but while I may admire them from afar, mûre and musk is still my one and only.
When it comes to the natural floral essences that fill the air at this time of year, it’s another story. That heady mix of spring’s own perfume is at its most potent right now, and breathing it in as I walk outside is a joy. The names of most flowers and plants are foreign to me even in my native English, never mind in French. Other than my peonies, pivoines, which came rushing into bloom last week and were almost beheaded by the heavy rain this week. They are white and pink, like the ones shown here, and their perfume is delicate and seductive.
Do you like perfume? What’s your signature scent?
I do like perfume but am picky. I hated the overbearing smells of the ’80s (Opium, Poison, Obsession et al.), but I like single florals, like muguet, or lilac. When I was in Dubai, the hotel toiletries were “jasmine, bergamot, with a hint of cedarwood,” which was delightful; the entire hotel smelled like the toiletries.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but at some birthday my parents decided I was old enough to wear cologne. My dad presented me with a bottle of White Shoulders, and gave me a bottle for my birthday every year until that scent stopped being produced.
Smell, even more than taste (Proust), can regenerate memories vividly. I kept a bottle of my mom’s cologne and my dad’s aftershave, for sniffs when I need them.
Oh, I am with you on those strong 80s scents! Like you, the simple florals and herbals are best for me. Recently on a trip to Portugal I discovered an Irish brand of skincare that has the most amazing ginger-lime-seaweed body lotion. As for White Shoulders, that certainly was a classic. I never wore it but I’m sure many I knew did. Smell is indeed our most evocative sense for memory — sadly, my mother’s was always eau de cigarette. 😉
I am like you; perfume gives me headache. I always hate being in a confine space with people who wear very strong perfume. I do like the scent of flowers though some also gives me headache. It is fun though to see all of the spring flowers come to life; it provides more colours after the lack of it in winter. (Suzanne)
Yes, I can relate to how even something pleasant like flowers can be overpowering. I cannot sleep in a house that has melon rind in the garbage and sometimes I even throw I away scented candles that I thought I’d like! The colours are indeed lovely, and you of all people (as Québeckers) should appreciate that after winter! Thanks for sharing!
I still have a bottle containing the dregs of my grandmother’s honeysuckle perfume. She died in 1983. I sniff it and she is there – her soft cheek brushing mine, the voice bell-like, the laugh infectious. I used to wear perfume. My daughters still tell me that they always knew when I was going out because I smelled of ‘Poison’. My daytime favourite was Occitane’s ‘Tea Vert au Menthe’ but they haven’t made it for years (they do a different Green tea concoction every year and I keep hoping they will cycle it round again but so far no luck). Maybe it was reading Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’ that put me off, on reflection ….
Oh, what a lovely memory of your grandmother! My belle-mère always wore Aromatics Elixir from Clinique and it was so pervasive we always knew when she was around. 🙂 I must read that book….
You simply must … the film was good, the book better 🙂
Isn’t it fascinating what strong memories and reactions fragrances can evoke? (Many years ago I followed a man *for blocks* because his pipe smoke reminded me of my father.) But like you, I find most perfumes cloying and even nauseating. I do very much like lighter, citrus scents like lime and lemon verbena, however. I used to wear Ô de Lancôme in college but now am content with my drugstore lemon-scented body lotion. You have me very curious about Mûre et Musc, though. I’ll have to look for it next time I’m on your side of the pond!
Do check it out. It’s quite distinctive yet not overpowering… (I’d like to say like me but I fear it’s just the opposite! 😉) Thanks for sharing our sensory memories — I can just imagine you stalking that pipe-smoker.
There’s a wisteria by the river that out-smells and shines anything as I run past it in the evenings. I fill up my lungs as much as possible. I confess that I do like perfumes and I adore ‘Un jardin sur le toit’ by Hermes. Almost a masculine smell, it is very unusual – very green – and my daughter has also adopted it as her own scent
Interesting, wisteria is one plant name I’ve always heard but never paid attention to…googling it I realize that I learned it in French first: glycine. We don’t get so much of it around here but I will check it out next time I pass some. As for the Hermès, I don’t know the perfume (great name!) but I can imagine the ‘green’ smell you are referring to — sounds captivating!
The powerful 80’s perfumed always gave me a headache and even now I pull back instinctively when presented with an overwhelming scent.
I don’t think I have a signature anything, but I return always to Chanel # 5
Interesting — is there a more classic scent than No. 5? Yet I don’t know if I’ve ever really smelled it. Hmm, now I’m intrigued. Maybe I need a trip to the perfume counter. Can’t stand being enclosed with strong fragrance but somehow am always attracted by the wafts in the department stores.
There’s been quite a swing against artificial scents recently, probably because of the surfeit of scented candle shops and places like Lush pumping out sugary sweet smells into the high street. Some fabric conditioners turn my stomach. But I do like a good smell, as they say, and France does them best. I stock up on cheap things like Le Petit Marseillais pur savon handwash and the odd tilleul soap when I’m in France. Walking through the lavender-scented village of Valensole remains a potent memory. And I’m a sucker for Annick Goutal’s Eau du Sud…
Funny, my daughter gave me some products from Lush last year and they were exactly that — sugary sweet and far too fake for me. Those Marseille soaps are so basic yet so delightful. I’ve officially decided to only use bar soap now (except by the kitchen sink) as they are so much more ecological than all those liquids. Have not been to Valensole but will note it down, and Annick de Goutal keeps coming up as a must. You truly have a nose for ‘les bonnes adresses’!
Well, I have a nose… 🙂
I used to love ‘L’Air du Temps’ by Nina Ricci, but something happened in my 30s, no idea what, and now I can’t wear any perfume at all. Deodorant has to be kind of neutral as well. I do miss the Nina Ricci though. Ah well. 🙂
I can certainly relate. My sensitivity has also increased with time and while no big deal it always feels like a missed opportunity not to be able to enjoy more fragrances!
Yeah, I feel the same.
My trip to Paris is when I fell in love with Serge Lutens parfum at the Palais Royale and how wonderful it was try all of the different scents!