Despite a persistent belief that perfumers aim to imitate nature, fragrance is really about a fantasy. So looking for the exact smell of a rose in a bottle is like reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to relive a vacation in St Petersburg, even if said sojourn involved all things dark and sordid. Like literature, music and sculpture, perfumery is a meditation on reality, rather than its photographic reflection. The best of compositions give us a glimpse into someone else’s world and their olfactory idea of a rose – or a cup of black tea, their lover’s skin, a melancholy evening in Paris.
Each one of us might interpret the aromatic message in different ways. For instance, when I smell Balmain’s Vent Vert (£61 for 75ml EDT), I feel the same exhilaration as I do on the first days of March when the air smells intensely green and fresh. My friend, on the other hand, finds it disconcerting and aggressive, a storm of sharp, raspy notes that leaves her lightheaded. Considering that Vent Vert’s creator, Germaine Cellier, minced neither words nor accords, it may be that my friend’s impression is closer to the original intention of the perfumer.
The same applies to other arts, and no two people looking at Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon experience identical sensations. More important is whether a fragrance evokes a response. It can be an intense adventure as with Bulgari Black (now out of production, but you can still find it online), a perfume that smells of rubber and smoky jazz bars, or a tender reverie as with Annick Goutal Quel Amour! (£80 for 50ml EDP), a vignette of rose petals and pink champagne.
Today, when many fragrances are designed to be likeable rather than memorable, the perfumer’s original idea can be obscured. It doesn’t mean that fragrances are devoid of a message, but it becomes simplified – “I’m cute and sweet,” “I’m on the prowl,” “I believe that real men wear only aftershave”. In some cases, it works better than in others. The gardenia-embellished Marc Jacobs for Her (from £61 for 50ml EDP) doesn’t talk much, but it laughs easily.
Nevertheless, simplicity and charm need not be trite or superficial. One of the legendary perfumes of the 20th century is a study of one flower, Dior’s Diorissimo (from £55 for 50ml EDT). When Edmond Roudnitska created it in 1956, he wanted to demonstrate that perfumers not only can capture nature – in this case the aroma of lily of the valley – but also convey textures, colours and emotions. Diorissimo smells like a branch of tiny white blossoms, but it also evokes the dark tang of wet soil, the teasing warmth of May sunshine and the elation of spring.