Thursday, 7 July 2016
Perfumes....by Adèle Geras
The cutting I've photographed above highlights the ancient art of soap making, associated for many centuries with Marseille. You can't see what it says but basically SAVON DE MARSEILLE is fighting to have themselves protected as a special product in the way champagne and certain cheeses are. They've been making soap from olive oil and ash for ages and ages and now upstart organisations like L'Occitane want to add perfumes to the original recipe, arguing that savon de Marseille might be authentic but it's brown and hard and does not smell very nice. Reading it made me think of France and smells and above all, perfume.
The serial VERSAILLES, which is on our televisions right now is one I haven't watched. I'm too overburdened with Scandi noir dramas and box sets of one kind and another to take on the story of Louis XIV with added bonking and English spoken throughout. But because I've read a little about Versailles (The Sun King, by Nancy Mitford and Pure by Andrew Miller to be precise) I do know one fact. The place stank in ways we can't even begin to imagine. No loos, no sanitation to speak of, people relieving themselves all over the place, behind hangings, in corners....I'm not going to describe it. Just stop for a moment and consider what it must have been like. Perfumes must have been more than a luxury. It's hard to think of going through those mirrored halls without some fragrant something clutched to your assaulted and flinching nose. Galimard Perfumes in Grasse was founded in 1797, so long after Louis could have made use of them, but they were doubtless still very much needed even after the Revolution and the Terror.
Grasse is a pleasant town on the slopes of the Alpes Maritimes. I have just come back from a week's holiday there, and can attest that roses, jasmine, oleander and many other flowers grow freely. Lavender is native to the region. Geraniums abound. The natural ingredients for making perfume are there, right on the spot and it has been home to the perfume industry for centuries.
Here I have to make a confession. I am a perfume fan. I have put a photo at the bottom of this post showing what's in my drawer at the moment. Chanel, Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood, Frederick Malle, Jo Malone... I've had lots of other favourite smells in my (longish) perfume life: Calèche by Hermès, Ma Griffe by Carven, L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci, Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, Infusion d'Iris by Prada. A few Gucci fragrances. Must by Cartier. Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden, Quelques Fleurs by Houbigant and so forth.
My mother wore Arpège by Lanvin. Always. My daughter wears all sorts of things but I associate her with Shalimar by Guerlain. Perfume brings back memories, and reminds us of certain people. All this to emphasise that it's an important part of my life.
So when we discovered that it was possible to go to the Galimard perfume studio just outside town and create our own perfume, we couldn't wait to get there and it turned out to be a revelation and one of the best ways to spend two hours I've ever experienced. We all went: me, my daughter, my son-in-law, my granddaughter, my grandson and a friend who was holidaying with us. We each made a perfume, or an after shave. They were all wonderful. And the process was so fascinating that I have decided to link it to Versailles to give it a bit of historical context and write about it in my slot this month. To make this post even more historical, I will say that Hilary Mantel writes about perfume and if you Google her name and add 'perfume review' , you can read what she has to say. She's a brilliant perfume critic, which will come as no surprise to her fans.
We each sat in front of a kind of desk with lots and lots of bottles surrounding it. Our tutor, Maxim, explained that with fragrance, there are base notes, heart notes and top notes. The latter are the ones you smell first, when you open the bottle and have a sniff. The heart is what you get when the perfume you've put on has settled down a little. The base is the most important: what's left when all the other smells have gone. It's the one that attaches itself to your clothes, your scarves and so forth. It's what's left when everything else has faded.
Some quite big bottles were put in front of us from which we had to choose our four favourites. If we didn't like any of them, others were provided. These were our bases. We were told to write them down. Maxim then came round and wrote down on our 'recipe sheet' how much of each fragrance we had to drip into the long 100 ml container in front of us.
I noticed, by the way, that when you try on a Jo Malone fragrance, you get a little 'recipe' to tell you what you're actually wearing. This is her printed card for a perfume, and.....
... below is my recipe. Beside each fragrance, ( 4 base, 5 heart and 5 top notes) is the quantity of each that had to be added to the flask. Maxim, I daresay, would have pounced if he thought we'd chosen something that he knew would smell horrible but he seemed to like our choices.
We also had to choose a name for our perfume. Names are desperately important and we had huge fun the night before discussing our choices. We ended up with a good selection. Mine was LIERRE which is French for IVY and sounds good when you say it. The address of the house we were staying in was Chemin des Lierres, so that's the reason for my choice. My daughter called hers Dénouement, which is appropriate for a thriller writer. My granddaughter chose Floraison and my grandson Code. Our friend Chris chose Volte-face and my son-in-law, who's Welsh, chose Hiraeth which means 'longing for home.'
When you've mixed your own perfume, you choose the bottle. See above. Then they take away the recipe and put it on file. There's a number printed on the label which will enable you, if you feel like it, to reorder your personal fragrance when your bottle is finished. I reckon these below will be made redundant soon....I'm devoted to Lierre and am very happy to wear it for years and years. It was a memorable afternoon, and I loved every moment.