Three perfumes that conjure up the colour red

Our perfume blogger tests her synaesthetic skills on Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red

From left: Coco by Chanel, £57 for 35ml EDP. Serge Lutens Santal Majuscule, £110 for 50ml EDP. Tom Ford Plum Japonais, £164 for 50ml EDP
From left: Coco by Chanel, £57 for 35ml EDP. Serge Lutens Santal Majuscule, £110 for 50ml EDP. Tom Ford Plum Japonais, £164 for 50ml EDP

“I’m so fortunate to be red! I’m fiery. I’m strong. I know men take notice of me and that I cannot be resisted… Wherever I’m spread, I see eyes shine, passions increase, eyebrows rise and heartbeats quicken. Behold how wonderful it is to live!” This passage from Orhan Pamuk’s 1998 novel My Name is Red has stayed with me ever since I first read it. While studying perfumery we matched scents to colours, and I sought out a fragrance that evoked the colour red with the intensity of Pamuk’s description. 

The obvious suspects like roses and raspberries were cast aside. I wanted more drama. It was while leafing through an album of Indian miniature paintings that I had an epiphany: sandalwood smells red, conjuring up all the bright hues of India. I tested my hypothesis by wearing Serge Lutens’ Santal Majuscule (£110 for 50ml EDP). Based on the scent of Indian sandalwood, the perfume is sumptuous and rich. Its caraway- and pepper-tinged opening has an ochre undertone, but as the fragrance develops and its woody accord unfolds, it reveals layers of crimson and scarlet. 

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Next my quest brought me to Tom Ford’s Plum Japonais (£164 for 50ml EDP, from John Lewis). Its combination of saffron, cinnamon and plum is decadent, and while the colour it evokes ranges from burgundy to dark violet, it has an unmistakable red cast. The drydown of woods and vanilla reminded me of red lacquered tableware. To hone my synaesthetic skills, I conjured up different visions as I breathed in Plum Japonais – red velvet, cinnabar carvings, pomegranate juice.  

Yet the most dramatic red perfume of all turned out to be a classic: Chanel’s Coco (£57 for 35ml EDP). The house describes the composition as baroque, juxtaposing the freshness of mandarins with the opulence of flowers. It smells to me of yellow citrus and magenta jasmine, and just as these two colours combine to make red, in my mind Coco assumed a ruby hue. The eau de parfum is brighter, dappled with orange, but the extrait de parfum (£160 for 15ml) is pure vermilion. “I do not conceal myself: for me, delicacy manifests itself neither in weakness nor in subtlety, but through determination and will,” wrote Pamuk. He could have been describing Coco.

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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.

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