Intermission: Two perfume houses: the Goddess and the Lady
Though I wore Chanel no. 19 in the seventies and stole powdered puffs of Chanel no. 5 dusting powder from my mother’s dressing table as a child, my particular interest in perfume began in earnest about six years ago, after a high school chum invited me to join her on a five day trip to Paris. This trip was fragrance free, in that we did not visit any of the iconic perfume houses like Caron, Guerlain or Chanel. We stayed in the Marais district, strolled along the Seine, lit candles at Notre Dame and visited Museums to our hearts’ content. The background of scent was strictly derived from the streets of the city of lights and overlapped with all of ones’ senses: cafe au lait accompanying the simple yet sublime taste of cheese omelette, the aroma of bread as we passed a bakery, moist rain effervescing off cobblestone, wafting smoke from the blond tobacco of a Gauloises cigarette, the bouquet of a bottle of Bourdeaux, aromatic incense thickly rising amidst the glittering candles at Notre Dame.
Upon my return to the states, I was desperately homesick, ruined for American cuisine and seeking solace. My search for satisfaction led me to the realm of perfume. Why? I think I was looking for a time machine in a bottle, something that would instantly transport me back to Paris. Then the history of the various houses intrigued me, the lives of the perfumeurs and the stories created by the scents themselves. I learned new words like topnote, heart note, basenote and drydown. Not to mention sillage, longevity, chypre, fougere and soliflore. I’d been called an oriental before, now the word immediately brings to mind Opium, Coco and Shalimar. Having meandered through various perfumes house, two of them have become my favorites: Guerlain and Chanel.
The greats from the house of Guerlain include the mouthwatering vanillic Shalimar, the nose wrinkling, delightfully skanky Jicky (made for men, loved by women) the temperamental peach and incense chypre of Mitsouko, dashing Habit Rouge, dandy Mouchoir de Monsieur and my wedding fragrance, the tender and utterly feminine Attrape – Couer. I find these creations to be wildly interesting, often erotic, always stimulating and breathtakingly beautiful. Guerlain creations are barefoot and elemental, provocative and deeply emotional scents. Guerlain brazenly marries a note that is clearly gourmand, like vanilla, with a note that is indolic and to some, offensive, like civet, and manages to birth masterpieces you want to wear with a ballgown.
From Chanel comes the iconic No. 5, a perfume intended to smell like a woman, not a flower, considered by some to be a milestone in abstraction and a departure from literal interpretation of scent. This bent towards abstraction is expressed even in some of the names of Chanel creations: No. 5, No. 19, No. 22, No. 18. Of course we have Coco, Coco Mademoiselle, Chance and Allure, but I probably like the numbered Chanels best. No.19 has a sharp bitter opening of green, that smooths down into vetiver after passing through a garden of roses and coming to rest with surprising sweetness on the drydown. No. 22 is like champagne and sweet whipped cream, sparkly, bubbly, aldehydic and completely dressed up. No. 18 mixes a shock of cumin with a delicate whiff of wildflowers that refreshes the soul. Nonetheless, where the house of Guerlain is potent Mother Earth with the wind blowing in her hair, unleashing the power of her raw beauty, Chanel is utterly civilized, fully dressed, wearing polished heels and a strand of pearls. She leaves you breathless all the same.
Chanel and Guerlain. Guerlain and Chanel. I love and need you both. Your beauty feeds the souls and helps to get me through the ups and downs of life.
What is your favorite Chanel or Guerlain perfume? Or any other perfume, for that matter?
p.s anything I know about perfumes I learned from the company of my fine and fragrant friends at www.basenotes.net
Image: bottle of 1967 vintage Shalimar extrait, my favorite formulation to date.