“What makes a perfume beautiful?” I ask Maurice Roucel. A perfumer with more than 40 years’ experience, Roucel has not only created exquisite fragrances such as Hermès 24 Faubourg, Donna Karan Be Delicious, Frédéric Malle Dans Tes Bras and Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist, but also worked to promote the notion of the perfumer as an artist, rather than a mere “nose”. “We use our imagination and our brains more than noses,” he explains.
The idea of perfume making as an art form, however, can be hard to champion. While scents are related to other kinds of intangible Unesco-listed cultural heritage such as cuisine, they don’t benefit from the same recognition or documentation (the Osmothèque, a scent archive based in Versailles, is the main institution studying and preserving historical fragrances), and are generally seen as too subjective to analyse or even describe, making definitions of artistic worth complicated.
As such, Roucel doesn’t supply a ready answer to my question about what makes a perfume beautiful, but rather he inspires me to come up with one myself. “A perfume has to have harmony and balance,” I begin, and he agrees. I think of one of my favourite fragrances, Chanel No 19 (£52 for 35ml EDP); it’s an elegant combination of iris, vetiver and moss, and its dramatic effect is achieved through a deliberate balance of accords. Roucel started his apprenticeship in the perfume industry under No 19’s creator Henri Robert, and a similar pursuit of harmony is evident in his own compositions.
At the same time, Roucel reminds me that a beautiful perfume needs a jolt at some point in its development, and in Frédéric Malle’s Musc Ravageur (€130 for 50ml EDP) he achieves it by adding a zesty note of citrus to the chocolate-like richness of musk. “A fragrance without character is a fragrance without soul,” used to say my mentor Sophia Grojsman, the creator of such vivid olfactory personalities as Yves Saint Laurent Paris and Calvin Klein Eternity. Roucel shares a similar philosophy.
“A perfume should provoke a reaction,” he continues. This aspect is important, because like all art, fragrance isn’t only about aesthetics. It should evoke memories, inspire dreams and stimulate emotions. Ingredients are important, as is technique, and they both contribute a great deal to making a perfume memorable and original, but it is something else – the perfumer’s own fingerprint, if you will – that lends the aura of beauty. These are stories told in aromatic molecules, and when we are able to read something in them, the experiences are especially moving.
With this conversation in mind, I reach for a bottle of Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle (€175 for 75ml EDP). It’s a paradoxical blend of white flowers and dark balsams that invites me on a whirlwind journey through an Indian flower market, incense temple offerings and Shalimar gardens. It takes me out of my routine and makes me fall into a reverie. It gives me a glimpse into another world. It embodies my personal definition of a beautiful perfume.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher. To read more of her columns, click here.