Thursday 7 July 2016 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.

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. 


Anonymous said...

A delightful post, I am very fond of perfumes. Some of those you mention have long been in my collection especially Calèche, Arpège and L'Air du Temps. My mother, when she was able to afford it, wore Soir de Paris - way back in the 40s when money was tight.

What a lovely way to learn about the make up of perfumes, I think you all enjoyed your time in Grasse.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Being me, I didn't get beyond the fact that there were no toilets in Versailles... REALLY?! Such a beautiful place and no loos? Which of those two books dishes the dirt the most? I want it!

One of the things that annoys me about the TV series Versailles is the Clean Factor. The actors are all too clean, too beautiful, too pearly-toothed, too glossy-haired and too unblemished. No acne scars, smallpox pits, conjunctivitis or dandruff. That's one reason I adored Deadwood and Game of Thrones: the grime! Bring it on, historical writers!

Unknown said...

Like Caroline, I paused at the no-toilets-in-Versailles thought for a big shudder. But the thought of perfume-making was too attractive not to go on. Lucky you - what an amazing thing to do! Thank you for a lovely post.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

How interesting Adele! I confess that I collect perfumes too. There are several sites online where you can discuss perfumes with fellow addicts and write reviews and organise your collection. Fragrantica for example.
Mitsouko by Guerlain is my particular favourite and Tweed as it once was, not as it is now. I have a couple of vintage bottles. Have you read Turin and Sancha's A-Z of Perfumes. I love that book! It's also worth following Stephan Matthews on Twitter - perfume expert who runs a great blog.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Recommended: The Life Of Pee by Sally Magnusson. It describes a number of options when you were a lady who couldn't or didn't want to break off an activity and go to the loo in 17 th century France, such as chamber pots, brought by your maid and hidden by your voluminous skirts. There is a bizarre description of Louis XIV's silver chamber pots being processed through Versailles and people having to bow to them!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Life of Pee sounds fab, Sue! Thanks!

adele said...

thanks for all your comments! Glad there are other perfume buffs around. And yes, I will follow the person you suggest, Elizabeth. Love the chamber pots stuff, Sue...